Almost anyone who is even tangentially involved with writing has likely heard the phrase, “Murder your darlings.” This advice is oft-repeated for a reason: because it is true. You should be hyper-critical of your most beloved works precisely because you love them. Much like the parent who honestly believes their child can become a sports star, your love is a bias that can blind you to very real failings.
However, it’s not very often that we think of redirecting this figurative murder toward the darlings that we haven’t written: the books, shows, and movies that we adore, and can’t bring ourselves to criticize. We’re much more cavalier about criticizing our own works than we are the ones that we adore, and we will defend the adored works with far more ferocity than we would the ones we made ourselves.
This is a curious phenomenon – and, for a writer, a dangerous one.
The critical mindset
Despite all the negativity floating around, we live in a supremely uncritical world these days. By “critical” I don’t mean “saying bad things about something” – I mean stepping back, taking as close to an objective position as you can, and asking, “Is this working? Does this work?”
This is a difficult thing to do, let alone do well. The human brain is loaded with all kinds of heuristics – mental shortcuts – that tilt your entire thought process toward bias when it comes to almost any subject.
These biases are even more pronounced when you’re dealing with abstractions like stories. To hear someone steadfastly refuse to consider criticizing or analyzing their favorite works is a little like hearing:
Engineer: I really like this bridge.
Civilian: Can it bear a lot of weight?
Engineer: Well, I don’t know. But I really like this bridge.
Civilian: Wait – shouldn’t you test that? Or do some math or something?
Engineer: I don’t think you understand how cool-looking this bridge is. Look at it! Look at how cool the bridge looks!
Civilian: Maybe just drive one heavy load across it, and see how the joints respond, and from that you can extrapola-
Engineer: DON’T TOUCH MY GODDAMN BRIDGE
The difference is that bridges are physical objects, and thus can be tested and measured, and stories generally cannot. But rather than saying, “Oh, well, you can’t measure or test them at all, let’s just give up,” the critical response is to realize stories will be even harder to measure and analyze.
I don’t think my English degree gave me a lot of (or even any) marketable skills, but one thing they drilled into me was that, when reading critically, you did not read for plot (“Ooh, what’s going to happen next?”) or for character (“This guy is a badass, sick”) but rather you tried to discern the invisible mechanisms that power a story, and then analyze them to see if they’re actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Some people say that this is impossible. These people are wrong and, if I were an editor, I would be extremely reluctant to consider their material. Others will say this takes the fun out of stories. This is like telling a car-lover that learning about engines takes the fun out of cars. (“Don’t you just want to see them go vroom and jump over shit??”)
The hardest part is identifying what the story is aiming to do. Not all stories are out to be entertaining in the same way, or move in the same way, or to feature the same people. For example, it’s become something of a trend to dunk on Ready Player One – but though you might not like what this story does, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do that thing well.
We don’t think like this when we consider treasured stories. We don’t think about what they’re trying to do – our reaction is instinctive, instantaneous: the thing that they do is inspire our passionate love, of course. We all think that we are unbiased, objective people – this is a bias in and of itself. But you will notice when you hit this bias when it comes to a much-adored work.
Mine was The Lord of the Rings. I was taking a medieval literature class, and they strayed into the subject of the books, and several of the students lodged complaints – namely that the books feature almost no female characters, and also that the idea of a “perfect race” of peoples (in this instance, the elves) is something of a cheap trick in storytelling.
I was gravely offended. Much more offended than I would have been if someone told me a story I wrote was terrible.
Then I went back and re-read the books, and I started counting how many pages went by without a female character on the page. I started formulating a response about how Eowyn is very active, so that torpedoes that problem! But then I realized that one female character out of, say, thirty characters is basically a 3% participation rate – 50% of the population participating 3% of the time.
You would not want this participation rate in an economy. It would be very bad. So – why would you want it in a story?
I didn’t realize it, but I was murdering my darling. This darling was not one that I had written. It was worse – it was one that I’d grown up with.
Why always with the problems
Already probably some readers are quailing at the idea. “Why do we have to find problems with everything?” they might ask. “Why can’t we just leave stuff alone?” The simple answer is, well, there are problems with everything. You want to get better? Then you have to be honest about that.
Especially when it comes to the stories you love the most – because when it comes to writing, you are what you eat. The stories that make up the literary tentpoles in the circus of your brain should be closely examined for faults – because if you aren’t aware of them, you’ll duplicate them over and over again, without ever being aware that you’re doing it.
How are you going to get better as a writer if you can’t criticize the stuff you love? How are you going to take an unbiased eye to your stories – the shit that the world will read, that may make up your name, your career, your paycheck – if you can’t do the same to a book you liked in high school?
This is the same logic that you see in the Me Too movement, which is just as critical of its allies as it is the most grave offenders, if not more so: you cannot build a sustainable movement if the people who are supposed to power it forward are undermining it.
In this regard, while it’s hard to criticize our darlings, it’s often even harder to criticize the stories that are saying the things we want to be said. These are stories that propound an ideology we fervently believe, a worldview we support. It’s far more difficult to analyze these because it can feel like we’re criticizing the ideology rather than the story.
But a good writer is usually a pretty good critic. And a critic is different from a fan or a devotee.
There is an instinctive revulsion to the idea of tinkering with the nuts and bolts of a beloved, admired story. But it is something you will need to learn to do if you want to get better as a writer. If you simply can’t begin to take the knife to your most-admired darlings, then I suspect you will have a hard time improving as a writer. (You DEFINITELY find it difficult, if not impossible, to improve as an editor.)
This doesn’t mean you’ll be a bad writer – maybe you have a lot of talent, and you can start off good right out of the gate. In which case, wow, good for you!
But most people are bad writers. Since all writers are (usually) people, this would mean that most writers are also bad writers.
Which is something a critic knows.