Kill Your Darlings, Then Cry A River

Bruegel’s “Death”

We’re all well acquainted with the saying “Kill your darlings,” the mantra to never be precious about what we write. What does it mean when taken literally? What does it mean for those of us who are unlikely to ever take another human life in our every day existence, to kill on a page (and not just the expendables or the baddies). How does it affect us to be both creators and destroyers of the characters central to our narratives?

Killing In the Name Of

I’ve killed characters before. I don’t know my career body count; I think there is possibly something a little psychotic about knowing how many people you have killed (though it’s a fun tally to keep during NaNoWriMo, especially if Paul Anderson happens to be one of your writing partners!). I’ve never been especially enamoured with death, but it does have a habit of popping up in my stories (I think it’s a given when you write dark fiction): a teenage boy dead from an overdose in “Cocaine, My Sweet Heart”, a reclusive monk with his throat sliced open in an episode of Captain Juan, a woman dying after she contracted death from her best friend’s boyfriend in “I Saw Him Standing There” and the entire world in “Scarecrow Man”.

A bit like birth, death is sacred. As such I never use it to satisfy my impotent rage at the outside world. I also never use death as a means to propel a stale plot forward (one of the charges levelled against writers who kill characters on a regular basis). I never use death as an easy way out, though perhaps I use it as an easy way into a story.

But what if you really care about the character in the cross hairs? It is one thing to kill a character you find reprehensible, and another to kill a character who has a good heart, someone you are attached to, care deeply about.

Another One Bites the Dust

The novella I just finished pretty much ends with all the major characters dead, or with their life hanging in the balance, along with an entire township’s female population decimated by a weidergänger. It didn’t bother me as much as it should have. It creeped me out, especially writing certain scenes long after the rest of my household had gone to sleep, but it didn’t make me cry. I thought it would. My theory: the emotional investment was token at best because of the short time I spent with the characters in the lead up to the submission deadline.

That wasn’t the case in 2009 when I started the second half of a science fantasy novel with the knowledge the eon’s old sage Baji would die. It was a pivotal plot point. He felt his time coming to pass, but I struggled to be as zen about it? I knew (unlike the deaths in my novella) it would be a peaceful, but I my fingers refused to type his passing.

I wrote like he wasn’t going to die (good for a NaNo word count, crap for a story arc, pacing, tension). It was my denial (if you want to map it against Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory on grief). Then I got angry, and when I did Baji beat the crap out of his apprentice and almost killed him, in turn almost killing the story. I sent Baji to bargain with the Melissae for his life (which of course did no good, and was pointless because Baji was resolved to his death – it was just me who wasn’t!), and finally I fell in a big deep hole of not wanting to write (what Kübler-Ross would define as the depression phase).

In the end Baji died because I scheduled it on the calendar: Baji dies. I shit you not. That what I wrote in my diary. With tears in my eye, I assembled the Melissae and the apprentice and let Baji go. I’d never felt so tapped out, so drained, so utterly full of remorse. As soon as he was gone, I wanted him back. I felt gutted. Like the worst human ever.

Live or Let Die

On the 6th of next month I will have been writing Ella-Louise for eight months. This is the first time I have spent so much time in the headspace of a character. Her words, actions, feeling and thoughts (along with Jude’s) have an impact on me (and the songs my iPod appears to select on random play). They also have a massive impact on the small but dedicated group of readers who follow the serial.

Adam and I plan nothing ahead (other than what we individually stew and then sit on and later see what fits with the organic arc of the narrative). It is a collaboration where no actual collaboration exists – rather a shared space to meet in with our characters with a strict no spoilers policy. At some point though, it will end… the letters will stop being written, and a death of sorts will occur.

The idea of letting Ella-Louise go makes me nauseous, even though I know it will happen, probably around January next year. I think that, in tandem with the intense emotional atmosphere the project has created, has spurred me to wonder about her ending: what if it was less about writing the final chapter in a book and more about allocating a cemetery plot?

Could I actually do it–could I kill Ella-Louise or Jude or both of them? Could I let Adam do it? Would Adam let me? What would be the emotional fall out of it–it’s one thing to kill off your own characters, but what about characters two authors have invested in? And what would our readers do to us if we did?

Last Good-Bye

Matthew Reilly suffered a barrage of borderline hate mail and was accosted by unhappy fans at book signings when he killed off a favourite character in the fourth book of the Scarecrow series. Alan Baxter killed off a central character in MageSign and said the response wasn’t exactly positive either. It makes me wonder, are readers more forgiving of authors such as Audrey Niffenegger (the Time Traveller’s Wife) and Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) who foreshadow the deaths of the characters readers are poised to become emotionally invested in?

It takes a certain kind of guts to kill off a character you’ve breathed life into, especially if they are central to your story, and makes me wonder if in side stepping death, we’re sparing the reader the pain and anguish, or ourselves?

What has been your experience of death, dying and killing on your page?

This article first appeared on the Write Anything site 16th August 2012

When Does the Stupid Crazy Busy End?

Last weekend was my first weekend off in two weeks, so you could say I was well and truly ready for a long one. On top of working 13 days straight, I’d been putting in between 10 and 14 hours a day getting Deck the Halls, Best of Friday Flash 2 and Tiny Dancer ready to send to the printer and doing the Rabbit Hole.

As I lay in bed Monday, enjoying a day of peace and respite it occurred to me: when does the stupid crazy busy end?

Every week I’ve said this will be the last one. And then there is another one. If I’m honest each week could be stupid, crazy busy if I wanted it to be. There’s always something and I have a penchant for busyness.

But that’s not what I want.

I’m yearning for the quiet of writing and the pleasure and pain of simply losing myself to the page. Of not stressing about deadlines bearing down on me, or wrangling 60+ writers to make the deadline. Don’t get me wrong, the writers I work with are amazing, but it’s a lot of administration and paperwork, and it’s extra work I’d prefer to skip at the end of a project.

So when does the stupid crazy busy end?

Yesterday I said THIS is where, because at some point I have to establish new boundaries… and well yesterday was my line in the sand.

From now on, the morning is given over to writing.

At 1pm I’ll flip hats and get back to what I need to do: work to complete until all my current projects are finished or what I need to learn to further the reach of what eP when the projects are done and dusted.

Yesterday I spent the morning catching up on non-fiction writing and I went to bed rather than stay up and force my way to the end of a deadline. As it turned out, it was the sensible thing to do because several pieces of information I was waiting on, arrived while I slept.

Deck the Halls is almost done; my millstone will be released sooner rather than later now. The other projects are in varying stages of finalisation and will fit with this shift of focus. The energy required on my novel has ramped up and I start scriptwriting bootcamp today. Transition has begun.

It’s scary and it’s exciting and I’m glad I’m easing out, rather than rushing in.

Telegraph Road: a Treatise on Being Broken

“I’ve run every red light on memory lane
I’ve seen desperation explode into flames
And I don’t want to see it again…”
Mark Knoffler – Telegraph Road

It’s Tuesday and that means a new correspondence over at Post Marked: Piper’s Reach. We’re back to Ella-Louise this week and the darkness which has been scratching and whining, finally bolts through the crack between the door and jamb.

When Ella-Louise arrived on my doorstep in January with bulging suitcases of emotional baggage I had an inkling she was troubled (I’m quick, aren’t I?). I saw glimpses of her past in the early weeks; people she’d lost, the jobs she’d worked and what she’d done out of duty which almost killed her. But it took writing the 22nd February letter to see Ella-Louise wasn’t troubled–she was broken, and the extent of the damage.

My descent into the dark with her started when I tried to work out why Ella-Louise hated Grace Wyatt so much: more than a teenage tiff and much more than competition over Jude. Ella-Louise’s seething hatred is the kind which doesn’t mellow with time. What on earth could have happened to make her feel like that?

What came out surprised me, but no spoilers, other than to say when you read the letter you’ll understand Grace’s part in Ella-Louise’s departure from Pipers Reach in 1992.

Adam always said there was beauty in the brokenness of Ella-Louise… with distance I can see it. Even if I still feel the razor blades of Ella-Louise’s past flowing through me, down my fingers and into the ink staining the page. Where Ella-Louise took me for three weeks–I haven’t been to such a desolate place before with a character. Felt such raw depth of grief, confusion and regret all underpinned with hopelessness. A kind of warped destiny: once soiled, always soiled.

I see now how Ella-Louise’s darkness mirrors my own last year.  I shouldn’t find it surprising that in January she found her way to me. She didn’t come with promises of adventure or escapism. In fact it was a case of what you see, is what you get. No bells, whistles and certainly no satin bows let along the ability to exchange or get my money back.

Together we’ve traveled the road back to wellness. Found our place in the world again. In May 2012, we’re both in a better place. I’m not sure if it is art imitating life, or life imitating art here. Either way, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. For once it’s all about the destination and not the journey.

But in the world of Pipers Reach it is still February. Summer. Ella-Louise’s first crashing steps out of the safety of the tentative, newly-forged connection with Jude. The 22nd February missive is the start of Ella-Louise’s descent. Like Inna into the Underworld Ella-Louise will be stripped of everything, she will be forced to face up to a past she’s been running from and will be left naked, hanging on hooks of her own fashioning to decay and die. And you’ll be there to bear witness to it across the next three weeks.

One Month Down, Twelve To Go

So we come to the end of another month. For those who are running off to check their calendars, I’m talking about the lunar month. This morning the moon clicked over into a new lunar month–the month of watery, dreamy Pisces.

Looking back, I remember the trepidation I felt waiting for the new year to start a month ago. I was afraid for so many reasons, the biggest one by far: would I fall apart again? I did a hell of a lot of soul searching, deconstructing what was left of myself before the year began, thus  started with a better understand of how the wheels fell off last year and knew what to avoid at all costs. Walk the middle path between imbalance and depression.

Unconsciously I made a commitment to be gentler with myself–to stop forcing demanding deadlines on myself. In light of this, I organised with Paul to have a part-time re-entry to work. And while the first week was pretty messy and hectic, with the imminent roll out of two new writing initiative at Write Anything, and I did work stupid hours, including well into the night, once February clocked in, I took it slower.

The Writing Round Up

In the last month I’ve written more than I have since November of any year in the last five:

  • completing a vignette entitled Intersected and submitted to Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Fingers crossed my first sub for the year is a successful one.
  • completing two brand new short stories for the Form and Genre Challenge: the crime short What I Left to Forget and a contemporary romance Thirty-Eight Degrees South. Thanks again to Laura Meyer and Stacey Larner, as well as Adam Byatt who bought the virtual pom poms.
  • writing two articles for Write Anything–The Secret Project/BirthPunk Mashie which details the two writing projects I am working on in the first six months of the year and Get Me to the Page on Time which is my search to find the best time to write, and how a routine can actually free you.
  • adding two new installments to #thesecretproject with Adam Byatt. This project is pushing all kinds of boundaries with me. I don’t think I have ever been this up close and personal with a character. The nature of the project means I can’t stand back and observe from a far–it is intense and has an immediacy which isn’t apparent (or expected) because of the structural framework, which includes delayed gratification between each installment. I’m so grateful to Adam for saying yes and believing in the project. At this point we have five installments and still have a tentative launch date for Easter.
  • re-wroting my author page and giving the blog the first of several make overs –the most important of which is a new name, 1000 Pieces of Sky, reflecting where I am in life now.
  • completing the first six days (of 30) for the First Draft in 30 Days book. Writing shorts took over and distracted me from the research I’d set myself up to do.
  • writing at least one haiku every day since the start of February for the haiku challenge with Tiggy.
  • completing the first article in a multi-part series on beta reading. The articles  will form the basis of an online course at some point in the not too distant future.

Many thanks to Chris Chartrand, Laura Meyer, Adam Byatt and Tiggy Johnson who have all beta read for me (some multiple times) in the past month. And a special thank you to Stacey Larner who did the final line edit and proof read for me on Intersected and Thirty-Eight Degrees South.

The Reading Round Up

My reading list was a short, just two books (and a half-read Poe novella).

  • Jessica Bell’s beautiful and brutal debut novel The String Bridge (which I devoured over a week in the shelter of a dodgy tent awning as it poured rain) and it’s equally haunting soundtrack.
  • M.J Hyland’s This is How which moved and disturbed me in equal measures.

The Movie Round Up

My watched list is a healthy one for the first time in a very long while:

  • District 9
  • Oceans 11
  • Abduction
  • Ghost Writer
  • Hanna
  • The English Patient
  • Crazy, Stupid Love
  • The Good German
  • The Descendent
  • The Texas Killing Fields

Devin Watson  publicly launched Literary Mix Tapes: The Movie Project today so it’s go. There will be movies from LMT/eMergent and a bunch of emerging filmmakers this year. Very exciting.


In addition to that, we bid good-bye to [fiction] Friday and launched my two babies, The Form and Genre Challenge (2012) and PROPMTed at Write Anything. The Form and Genre Challenge is helping to rebuild the community of writers which once existed  via [fiction] Friday and has driven a lot of the old writing crowd out of their  funk and back into their stride, including myself. Chris Chartrand’s help administering the first week of the Form and Genre Challenge Judging helped to put it all into administrative order and meant I got to hang out with him twice in a week on skype.

Sadly, my workshop for the QWC didn’t reach minimum enrollments and I received word lunchtime Monday that it was cancelled. I’d lie if I said it wasn’t a blow but the timing was spot on. My energy bottomed out yesterday and with the stress of the pending workshop removed, I took a slower and gentler approach to this week.

New Writing Partnerships

Teaming up with new writing partners Laura Meyer and Adam Byatt is doing wonders to kick start my story writing again. I feel utterly at home in their creative confidence and not surprisingly, it’s having a flow on to my own confidence. Laura penned the heart-tugger Son Esprit Noir for the 3rd Person Challenge and Adam The Photographer’s Concerto, a prequel to my What I Left to Forget.

A Return to Editing

Last week I completed my first week of editing since last October and managed to edit and write with little problem. The only real trouble was dragging myself away from writing to concentrate on editing Deck the Halls. One story is day is a very doable amount. The hard work in releasing my old thought processes and welcoming new ones in, has wrorked wonders. I’m still on track to have all the editing done in time for Easter, at a pace which accommodates all aspects of life.

In Summation

All in all, the month fleshed out better than I could have hoped; the pieces slowly, but surely, finding a good fit and life in turn, continues to develops a resonating rhythm. I’m looking forward to being able to say the same (or better) this time next month.

A Note from the Newly Arrived

With spring budding I feel as though I’m emerging from my cave/rabbit hole/terrible place/beneath the unforgiving yoke of darkness. For the first time all year I feel I’m moving with the good orderly direction of energy and only amazing things can come of this. I’m only just coming to terms with how long my depression really lasted and the relief of putting it behind me.

Thank you to everyone who carried me through the dark times. You know who you are. I’m ready to set my feet back on the path and walk again.


Time is on my Side

It would be easily to fall into the mind-think of the ‘world is against me’, ‘it’s all uphill’,  ‘it’s all too hard’, ‘there’s just no time’. This year has been marked by more hard work than I think I have ever done and the feeling that I’m never free from the toil and slog. Luckily I’m a glass half full kind of girl and I try to avoid falling down rabbit holes (though sometimes you just can’t avoid them).

This week I was faced with another round of deadline reshuffles and a few more set backs. It makes me wonder why I ever bother to try and have a deadline at all, given that I’ve made one this year – Valentines Day – and well, I guess it made it because it was one of those intractable dates.

The thing is though, I don’t consider it a mark against me. I’m a believer in everything happening in its own good time.

Last year, January if I’m pegging a month, I got the clearest sign from the Universe to trust in the right motion of things. The daily scopes from Mystic Medusa said to keep an eye out for an omen. I’m usually pretty crap at pulling the wisdom of the universe when its set up to be found. And as the day went on, I just about gave up on my little morsel of Universal wisdom.

My partner had been away doing field work five hours west of Brisbane (he’d been gone two weeks) and omen day, was his day to return home. Mr D was five and desperate for his Dad to get home. Dave rang from the outskirts of the city to say he wasn’t far away. To help Mr D cope with what seemed like the longest wait, I set the timer on my phone. Dave should only have been half an hour away, but I set it to forty-five minutes just to be sure. The half hour clicked over, and then forty minutes. Next thing the alarm was going off and I trudged to the bedroom to turn it off, wondering how I was going to smooth it over with Mr D.

When I turned the alarm off I heard Mr D’s squeals of delight as Dave’s rental ute pulled up in the drive way.

My lesson was things always happen perfectly – even when they don’t look like they are. Running behind schedule isn’t running behind, its running on time, in the way the Universal has delegated.

This doesn’t mean you let go and never worry about putting up boundaries, setting deadlines and such. It just means sometimes you need to push the boundaries out a little further to accomodate life as it happens.

The first deadline for 100 Stories for Queensland coincided with the Christchurch Earthquake. The second deadline coincided with the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami. When it was finally released in May… it was far enough away from both these disasters to be allowed its own space to shine.

Now I’m trusting all over again. LMT’s Eighty Nine is two months ‘late’, but I realise now, to run to schedule I would have missed out on several stories, which have come in late and are perfect in their own way. LMT’s Tiny Dancer will be put back a month due to staffing changes and an incessant need in me to get all my other projects cleaned up and sent to the printers before I start editing another anthology.

And in all of this… I’m surrounded by a group of like minded individuals who aren’t expected to send emails of support – but do, who aren’t expected to step up to offer help with editing, proof reading, admin – but do. Rather than feel like a total feeb who can get nothing right, I’m given the chance to feel like I’m someone doing the best I can – from one day to the next. Knowing the timing is always right.

Pure Morning

My body betrayed me. First morning at home, and by default first day back at work, I was awake at 4.00am, mind kicking into gear soon after. There were two options, try and go back to sleep or surrender and get up. Despite the high value I put on sleep (which may be hard for anyone to believe given the start I’ve had to 2011) I got up.

It was dark. It was pre-kookaburras (who go off just before sunrise) The house was quiet. I indulged in a long shower first, then pulled my blank journal from my bag and set up my desk for writing while the kettle boiled. I wrote the first page; my hand protested and jasmine infused the air from the small steaming cup.

I got my fingers covered in ink – the pages as well. I revelled in the jasmine tea. I got lost in the slip and stroke of the fountain pen running across the page.  All was well in the world – a place to pause and just be, between the chaos and fun of holiday and the resposibility and familiarity of home and work.

The smudge of dawn appeared, the kookaburras began to laugh; I decanted the second half of the tea and the words poured forth, the insights bleed out through my pen. The chaos settled and my focus on the world began to twist back into clarity. All was good, all was right in the world.

It doesn’t feel like a morning lost, but one gained. And maybe, just maybe, I might do it again tomorrow.

Image (c) Jodi Cleghorn, 2011