How to Kill Your Darlings
This August, Simon Woodward published his fifth book, Dead Weapons. During the writing process, Simon faced a struggle familiar to many writers: should he follow his creative instincts or tailor his novel to enhance its marketability? In this article, Simon talks about the act Faulkner’s coined “killing your darlings,” and discerning the difference between making clever marketing decisions and self-censorship.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Most writers have been on the receiving end of this question; the go-to question from friends and family when discussing their writing career. I admit I've never been able to answer this because, well... I don't know.
The idea for my novel
My new novel, Dead Weapons, emerged from a soup of ideas and influences that had bubbled away in the back of my brain for a year. One of the main influences was Blur's song, “Kids With Guns,” and its haunting chorus: “They're turning us into monsters.” In my mind, it evokes the frightening statistics around the rise in teenage knife and gun crime in London — quoted, adjusted and recalculated in the media, then used by some right-wing commentators to create a public image of a feral generation. Both of these contributed to the idea for a dystopian novel based around an aging society that has collapsed into a terminal suspicion of the youth, leading to a permanent child curfew. Finally, the book’s original title had been on my mind from the get-go: And This Boy Loved His Gun. This title was the piton I used to hammer into the rock face, and to haul myself up that 80,000-word edifice.
As soon as I had this title, I knew I wanted to write a story for this 'feral generation' of teenage boys. I wanted it to be a dark, contemporary adventure, powered by a cinematic narrative (accompanied by an imaginary thumping bass), and I wanted it to be from their viewpoint. I wanted to return society's suspicious and fearful gaze from the teenagers’ perspective.
Writing for a challenging demographic
From the outset, I felt I was taking on a challenging project: the presence of the words boy and gun in a YA book title was likely to elicit knee-jerk reactions from some, and although I wanted to write this story for the teen demographic, there was no guarantee they'd want to read it.
Highlighting the second issue was a 2016 Neilson Book Research investigation that reported a decline in teenagers who regularly read for pleasure — in particular amongst boys. The report identified the battle for attention with social media, YouTube, the gaming industry and even good old-fashioned television. When interviewed, boys of all ages named video game/app integrated books as the key thing that would encourage them to read more.
I don't own the rights to any video games or killer apps, and so I resolved to give them the closest thing I could. Dead Weapons’ hero is Ciaran Richards, a sixteen-year-old boy framed for murder. On the run from the police, a powerful gangster, and a secret government department, Ciaran has a malfunctioning, intelligent revolver stuck to his hand — making him the literary version of a first-person shooter from computer games. However, the last he wants to do is use the gun. He wants to let it go so he can go back to his life, but he can’t.
Determining the marketability of my book
When my agent approached publishers with the book, several editorial directors were keen to take it on, but in each case marketing departments squashed its chances at the acquisitions stage. I suspect that this had something to do with the subject matter and those two words sitting close together in the title.
I wasn't going to give up on the book, so I resolved to publish it independently. Before commissioning a cover, I decided it would be prudent to road test the original title, And This Boy Loved His Gun, and an alternative, Dead Weapons, on my trusted readers group. I sent them a survey containing a synopsis of the story — placing the gun, and the boy’s emotional and literal attachment to it, in context — and asked which of the two titles they preferred, and why.
The result was an overwhelming victory for Dead Weapons, or more accurately, a defeat for And This Boy Loved His Gun. Many of the reasons put forward centred around an ill-defined unease elicited by the original title. Even though the readers understood that the book was anti-violence, and the boy's love was focused on the intelligence trapped inside the weapon, they found the title too provocative. There was a fear that the title would be misunderstood or misrepresented.
Kill your darlings
While I admit to being disappointed with the outcome, there’s no point embarking on market research if you then ignore the results just because they don't show you want you wanted them to. I made a decision: from that point, the book became Dead Weapons to me. While I was disappointed to lose the original title, a subsequent conversation with a reader convinced me that I’d made the right choice. They argued that if I wanted to appeal to an audience as difficult as teenage boys, a punchy, two-word title redolent of a computer game title would make for juicier click bait than the more literary original.
And yet, even though I can see the commercial sense in this, I can't help but wonder if I’ve subjected myself to an act of censorship fueled by these angry and febrile political times. I find myself returning to that original question — where do you get your ideas from? — and hoping that wherever ideas are made, they are safe from censorship, whether external or self-imposed.
It's early days for Dead Weapons (it was only released on August 26th) but there are signs that my self-censorship is working. The Facebook ads I’m running to publicize the launch, featuring the cover and the 'cast,' are seeing their best response rates from young males in terms of engagement and sales.
Perhaps it wasn't self-censorship after all, but a classic case of a writer refusing to cut or change something that didn't serve the story. Maybe I'd forgotten an essential piece of writing advice. As Stephen King said in On Writing (paraphrasing William Faulkner): “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.”
Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Simon Woodward in the comments below!