Craig Faustus Buck is a Macavity Award winner and an Anthony Award nominee for his short fiction. In the issue of EQMM currently on sale (November/December), with the story “Race to Judgment,” he makes his EQMM debut. In 2015, he became a published novelist when Brash Books brought out Go Down Hard, described by Booklist as “. . . a crime-novel dream. . . . There’s suspense and violence here . . . as well as good writing, and . . . the many asides are often both delightful and quirky.” The California author is also a screenwriter, having written and/or produced network series, pilots, movies, and miniseries. All of this puts him in an especially good position to reflect on a hazard every writer faces.—Janet Hutchings
I recently found myself lying in a recovery room, exhausted after extensive surgery. Even worse, my body was wracked by hiccups, the uncontrollable sort that turn the simple task of breathing into Sisyphean torture. These disabling hiccups lasted for (get this) three weeks! Naturally, my thoughts turned to appropriating this interminable misery for my writing.
What’s the point of suffering if you can’t put it to use? Isn’t writing about transforming pain, pleasure, fear, love, hate, dreams, defeat, ecstasy, tragedy, doom and so on into a story? And so I took a deep dive into hiccups. The medical term for these involuntary spasms of the diaphragm is singultus, from the Latin word for “gasp” or “sob.” I considered this etymology ad infinitum—gasp-sob after gasp-sob after gasp-sob—as my hiccups waged a brutal, bitter attack on my equilibrium. I called them my diatribes of the diaphragm and became obsessed with translating them into a meaningful metaphor for this blog.
My first thought was to compare hiccups to plot holes. Hiccups, like plot holes, become increasingly problematic as their frequency grows. But then what? Cure plot holes by breathing into a paper bag or guzzling a glass of water? The plot holes analogy seemed to be leading me down a cul de sac. I tried “cliches” on for size. One can be forgivable, even amusing. Two or three (assuming they’re not clustered) become annoying. More than three are deadly. As with plot holes, cliches didn’t seem to offer much substance beyond the initial concept, like a one-joke comedy sketch. I tried adverbs, grammatical errors, and typos. All for naught. As Jack London once wrote, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” I was flailing for that club.
Upon reflection, it became clear that I’d fallen victim to a rookie mistake: the lure of a shiny object. In this case, it was a metaphor that didn’t deliver on its promise. The hiccups were a square peg that I was determined to pound into a round hole. I had fallen in love with a flawed idea and was trying to stretch and manipulate it to succeed where it was destined to fail. After forty years of writing, you’d think I’d know better. But this happens to me all the time. I never get the message until I’ve wasted inordinate chunks of time. It’s embarrassingly common for me to come up with what seems to be an original, clever, and apt metaphor, simile or analogy, and I spend hours trying out dozens of sentence variations in a vain attempt to make it work. In my defense, I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t suffer the same curse.
This all cycles back to the old saw: “murder your darlings” or “kill your babies.” This sage advice has been attributed to a variety of esteemed authors over the decades, most notably William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, and Anton Chekov. Stephen King wrote a memorable variation on the theme: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” The irony is, in this case, “darlings” is a metaphor that works.
The true origin of the phrase, as is so often the case, comes from a lesser-known writer. The first-known adaptation of the metaphor arose from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a Cornish writer at the beginning of the twentieth century who wrote under the pseudonym “Q.” In 1913-1914 he delivered a series of lectures at Cambridge entitled “On the Art of Writing.” In one of these lectures—“On Style”—he ranted about “extraneous ornament.” In his words, “If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
The fact that this phrase, or some variation thereof, has survived for more than a century and been attributed to so many great writers, bespeaks its wisdom and insight. And so, I took it to heart. It was with great sadness, and not a little regret, that I consigned my respiratory agony to my compost heap of misguided ideas. Those three weeks may have loomed large in my medical history, but in my literary journey, they turned out to be little more than a minor hiccup.