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Not Always Killing Your Darlings

So there’s this lengthy scene in my current manuscript (which just came back for edits) involving a goldfish.

It is awesome. I say this in all modesty. It is the Hero’s Journey with a goldfish. I had a lot of fun writing it.

One of the edits is that there’s too much going on at the end and a couple of threads that don’t resolve and it occurred to me that if I just hacked out the bit with the goldfish, it would fix some of these concerns and cut a few thousand words.

Common writing wisdom has it that I should ruthlessly slice this out, throw it to the winds, kill my darlings. Sure, it’s painful! That’s how you know it’s working! PAIN IS EDITS LEAVING THE MANUSCRIPT!

I offered to slice out the goldfish.

My agent, my editor, AND my beta reader all came back and said “NOT THE GOLDFISH!” It was like I had the goldfish in front of the firing squad and everybody threw themselves over the bowl yelling “Take me instead!”

I guess the goldfish stays.


So, y’know, the moral is that sometimes, just occasionally, it’s painful because you shouldn’t be messing with it.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


This almost feels like it should be a page on TVTropes or something: the "Not The Goldfish!!!" moment.

I'm Sparticus, and so's my goldfish!

To be honest I think it's one of those 'advice to writers' things that gets thrown around overly gleefully, like 'Don't get all pleased with yourself'. Or maybe too indiscriminately. I've heard it used in a 'if you're pleased with that bit...' sort of way. It applies in places where you might have overdone it on the fancy prose... Character moments though? I very rarely have those, the kind where I feel I've really hit my stride, that wouldn't leave the story poorer without them.

Edited at 2013-09-13 04:06 pm (UTC)

Hahaha, well put. And must be rather fulfilling to write it... think... well, maybe that would solve it even if it hurts, and have everyone else tell you NOOOOO!

I briefly misread that as your betta reader. Am I the only one who does that sort of thing?

Can't wait to read this story!

Oh, sure, of course the betta reader would tell you to not cut the part about the fish......

I agree: not the goldfish.

I want to read about the goldfish!!

You can't cut the goldfish! It's your signature. That'd be like cutting off your own hand.

This, yes. I mean, not every one of your stories or paintings has a goldfish, but the goldfish is clearly important when it appears.

Thank you for this! I'm beginning edits to my 800+ page Questionable Life Decision and it's useful to hear a reminder that they're more guidelines than rules.

(Deleted comment)
Kill your darlings can be good advice in context. I once in revisions tried desperately to bend over backwards to keep a scene that was a long-time personal favourite even though the revision made it a poor fit for the story to that point. When I finally cut it and rewrote the replacement, it turned out the new version was better. I've also seen, mostly in drafts but sometimes in published works, scenes that seemed pretty obviously warped into a certain shape by force just so a certain bon mot could be kept. That's what the advice is for.

It's that it's applied without that context, and ESPECIALLY when it's treated like "Remove every piece of prose you're fond of regardless of situation or context." (And I have heard of people who seem to think that's how it's applied) that turns it into bad advice. Every piece of writing advice is contextual, but this one even more so.

And I would vote *for Ursula* to keep the goldfish without knowing another thing about it. For Ursula Vernon is a writer whose work clearly needs goldfish scenes.

I think that's exactly it. It's often worth -considering- killing your darlings when you notice them. But sometimes the answer is that they're darlings because they're supposed to be there (or even the heart and soul of the piece).

I am now imagining the editor throwing herself in front of the goldfish bowl in slow motion... "Nnnnoooooooooo....."

Is the goldfish in the wrong place? Does it deserve it own bowl? Obviously, it is gold in the metaphorical as well as literal sense, a reversal of the usual trope, but does this story need a goldfish here? Or have you invented a new genre of piscine fiction? Is there a herring story, a shark tale, a minnow's memoir, a stonefish saga to accompany it?

Is it a Chekovian goldfish? In which case by all means it should stay. I have a tendency to run words together but only because my keyboard is getting a bit old and the space bar is a tad arthritic, or should that be erratic, either applies!

If there's a goldfish on the mantel in the first act...