Butterflies and brocolli and not always killing your darlings

Posted: August 7, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , ,

Writers often talk about killing your darlings, letting go of those pieces of prose that you’re deeply attached to but that do nothing for the story. It’s a hard thing to do, and necessary advice. But maybe, just occasionally, you need to go the other way.

Warning: gardening metaphor ahead

I love broccoli. It’s crunchy and tasty and full of iron, and it looks weird enough that it could come from another planet. It’s healthy sci-fi food. And this summer I decided to grow some. I prepared the ground, planted seeds, thinned it out, and after a while I had rows of big green leaves, with those weird bobbly heads starting to poke up in the middle.

Look at that green, knobbly mass and tell me it's not an extra-terrestrial

Look at that green, knobbly mass and tell me it’s not an extra-terrestrial

Then came the caterpillars, munching through those leaves, tearing holes in my beautiful broccoli. I tried moving them to the compost heap, but they kept crawling back, and my poor broccoli plants were starting to look like Skeletor’s garden. For all my fond memories of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I was on the verge of squishing those all-devouring grubs.

My poor blighted broccoli

My poor blighted broccoli

But then they started to turn into butterflies. My garden was full of the flutter of delicate white wings, and I was willing to sacrifice all the broccoli in the world to let the rest of the caterpillars grow into such beauty.

Now I’m not growing broccoli. Now I’m growing butterflies.

The butterflies wouldn't sit still for a photo, so instead here's some roses

The butterflies wouldn’t sit still for a photo, so instead here’s some roses

And my point is…

To be an effective gardener, I needed to get rid of those caterpillars, lose the butterflies in favour of the broccoli. Maybe that’s what I’ll do next year. But the butterflies helped lift my mood when I needed it.

In the same way, killing your darlings is almost always the best advice for the story that you’re on. To effectively finish whatever you’re already writing, that’s what you need to do. But sometimes sticking with those darlings will help you in other ways. It might doom the story you thought you were working on, but restore your joy in writing. It might help you realise that you’re in the wrong genre, that instead of the broccoli-space-vegetables of sci-fi you should be writing the fluttering butterflies of romance novels.

It might give you an excuse to fill your blog with a messy extended metaphor.

For the sake of your stories, keep killing your darlings. But for the sake of your sanity, just occasionally, give one a reprieve.

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