Sunday, June 20, 2010

Murder Your Darlings

Last week’s assignment: I submitted one of my short stories to Glimmer Train, and seriously rethought, Catch a Falling Star. And I cleaned my apartment. BOY did I clean it. It looks good, but I’m walking like a cowboy who rode one bull too many. More now on writing ...

I promise the blood flowed this past week, but it flowed from the past. How many people do we learn from over the course of a life? I have to say thousands. And each contributes in his or her own way.

Every writer has heard from every other writer, “You have to kill your babies,” or some variation on a theme. I traced the saying to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his book “On the Art of Writing,” published in 1915. There, he states that, as a writer, you must, “murder your darlings.”

THAT was the toughest lesson I’ve had to learn so far (apart from overwriting). I didn’t want to get my characters into serious trouble. Plain and simple. Like a parent wants to protect his or her child, so, too did I want to protect may main characters.

I wrote the first novel manuscript I will admit to in 1994. It was loosely based on my experience working as a driver on a television show and was – take a guess – about a driver on a television show securing a deal to direct a movie by the end of the first season. Besides being a tad long at a tad over 384,000 words, the worst thing that happened to my lead character ... not the worst thing he observed ... the worst thing that happened to him was that the director of a particular episode yelled at him. I was right there with him. I FELT the humiliation my character experienced, too.

I knew in my soul that this novel was worthy of Dickens and, closer to what I was going for, Thackeray. After all, ol’ Bill Thackeray wrote huge books where not a whole bunch happened, just magnificent characters relating to each other in humorous ways. Gotta love Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Had to love Cary Clark in Transpo (my tome). That’s right. Hatley and Thackeray in the same breath. Can you dig it?

Well, William Makepeace Thackeray died in 1863, just shy of ninety-four years before I was born, and can anyone name a friend, colleague, or anyone outside of academia who has even heard of Vanity Fair or William Makepeace Thackeray?

I didn’t think so.

I have gotten better about putting my characters in peril, but not good enough yet. So draft thirteen of Catch a Falling Star is where I get good at sadism. Because that’s what Quiller-Couch was saying in a way. The actual quote referred to taking out brilliant writing that doesn’t fit the story. I can do that. That’s not a problem. But I’ve been letting Jerry and Gina and Chris and Shirley off the hook emotionally for twelve drafts. I’m going to put them through absolute hell this next draft, because that will keep the reader turning the pages. Only that will get a publisher. Only that will secure an agent.

So I become the sadist. At least until the climax. And I start at the beginning, when Jerry meets Gina.

Over the next few weeks, I want to take a little bit and acknowledge some people who have opened my eyes to my creative potential. I’m going to start by referring back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. No, I didn’t study with him. Q, as he was known, died in 1944 at the age of 80. But this person did study with him, albeit briefly. He is best known as an actor from the Old Vic in England who appeared with Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness, Vivien Leigh and so many others. He also appeared in a number of Hammer Films in the 50’s. His name is Richard Wordsworth and yes, he was the great-great grandson of the poet William Wordsworth.

The first class I took from him was “Shakespeare,” and he was the first teacher from whom I got it. Who brought me underneath Shakespeare and let me grab a few handfuls. Even still, he told me, “Rocky, if you really want to truly understand Shakespeare, you have to be part of a production. I’m directing The Merchant of Venice. Come audition for me. I’ll give you a part.”

He did. He cast me as Tubal. The only scene I had in the play was a rather lengthy one with Shylock, played by Richard. Wow! He did that, I’m sure, because this was my first appearance on stage ... ever. I held my own, even covered for him one night when he forgot his lines. After all these years, nearly thirty, I can say that I appeared on stage with an actor who appeared onstage with Olivier and Gielgud, Guinness and Vivien Leigh.

I spent more time with him in the summer of 1981 in Grasmere, England at the Conference on Romantic Poets. There, he told me I was a good actor.

Wow! Me!

And it was through this connection that I met my longtime friends Chris and Bruce.

Richard died in 1993. I’ve attached his picture.

Next week’s assignment: I will begin a detailed outline of Catch a Falling Star paying particular attention to getting my leads into real trouble.


  1. Awesome post, Rocky with some great advice. I think for the first time I actually "get" that phrase. Can't wait to read this next draft of Catch a Falling Star. xo

  2. Glad you're starting to take risks. I think it may just help you become a better writer, and hopefully, lead to publication. Good luck!