The Composting Theory :: A new way to think about ‘kill your darlings’

Visiting a school a few years ago, I met Sean, one of the most inspiring young writers ever. Sean wrote rapidly on his Braille computer, and when he read back his story, I was speechless. It was so sophisticated – rich in characterisation with an exceptionally strong voice … particularly for an eleven year old.

But Sean had a problem. He’d been working on a novel and had recently lost 10,000 words. No reason. They just upped and escaped. Sean was shattered.

I told Sean about my composting theory. Sean’s expressive face collapsed in relief. He liked the composting theory. The composting theory meant that 10,000 words could run away from you, and you were OK. In fact, you were happy!

Here’s my composting theory. You might find it relates to your own creative process …

Find a seed

Stories are ideas that grow from seeds. Well, they have to grow from something. A story is rarely a complete thing that appears in your head, and all you have to do is write it down.

So, you get this story seed. And you are looking at it wondering: What next? What do I do with this thing? Of course, there’s no point wandering around with it in your pocket. You need to plant it.

But don’t just take that precious seed, and stick it in any old soil. That sounds a bit like how I garden, and I am telling you – it’s not a good way to garden. You end up with a tonne of dead plants on your hands on a regular basis. Don’t do it.

What you should do is prepare the soil.

Prepare the soil

Your story soil needs to be fertile and lush if it’s going to grow a good story. You need to feed your story soil with lots of yummy ingredients like:

  • Writing practice
  • Regular free writing
  • Reading a lot
  • Studying how to write
  • Keeping one bit of you attuned to your creative life … even when you are doing the dishes.

And then your story soil is ready. You can plant now. Go on.

Plant the seed

If you’re anything like me, your story seed will do its own thing and you will marvel as it grows outside, beyond and without your expectation. Your story tree has a life of its own. And it’s interesting and curious and magnificent.

If your little tree hasn’t withered and died with neglect, it will keep growing.

You will admire it, for the organic beast it has become. Through the colder months, your tree may be dormant. Then it will fruit again.

But at some point, your tree needs to be tidied up. Pruned, to make it stronger, and healthier.

Prune your tree

Chopping away 20,000 words, and a hundred darlings feels brutal. You have laboured over each word and phrase, carefully turning it over, examining it for perfection. But if it doesn’t add to the story, it has to go.

To be honest, the brutal lop has never upset me …

because of the composting theory!

The thing is, when you prune your tree or your story or whatever we are talking about, the debris falls to the ground, and yes, you guessed it, it composts. The lost words add to the rich and fertile soil of your writing’s future. Your next story will benefit from the words you have pruned from this story.

No words are ever wasted.

So Sean was happy, and I hope this made you feel better too, if ever you have lost a bunch of words. I often write whole manuscripts, which never ever see the light of day. And I don’t mind at all, because every word I write is practice. My craft is refining. I read over stories I wrote a couple of years ago, and I shudder. How could I have written this stuff? asks present self. And future self is laughing, because it knows that this is a continuous experience.

‘Kill your darlings’ is a well-known and favoured term in the writing world. But to be honest, it’s not my favourite term. ‘Kill’ is so final. It implies the darlings are dead. But in fact, the darlings are still very much alive, and helping the next lot of stories grow into existence.

Have you ever had to kill a few thousand words? How did it feel?

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