When I was writing my poem about Audhumla for my series on Norse mythology, I had to come up with a whole backstory for her. She is a cow in Norse mythology, and she’s known for two things: she creates the first god, and she feeds Ymir, the first giant, with her milk. But, in spite of her seeming significance to the mythology, she only receives two lines of story in The Poetic Edda—not much to go on.

One of my ideas was to turn her into a constellation at the end of the poem. I was thinking about the possible connections: our galaxy is called the Milky Way and then there’s Taurus, “The Great Bull of Heaven.” I thought it was clever, and I tried really hard to fit it in.

In the end, I scrapped it. It was a difficult choice, because I liked the idea so much.

There’s a bit of creative writing advice I learned in university. You may have heard it, as it seems to be ubiquitous in the writing world:

Kill your darlings.

The idea behind this advice is that you have to be able to get rid of the pieces of writing you love if they no longer serve the work as a whole. Darlings can be characters, plot points, scenes, sections of dialogue, article arguments (in non-fiction writing), turns of phrase, and ideas.

When to Kill Your Darling

It’s hard to let go of something you love. Let’s say you’ve written a scene that you’ve been thinking about since you first started your book. Or you love the way one of your sentences sounds. Maybe you’re really attached to one of your characters.

How do you know it’s time to let go? Look at how that particular darling interacts with the work as a whole. If it doesn’t serve a broader purpose in the narrative, you need to take it out.

  • If it’s a character, ask: would it affect the story if I replaced this character with an inanimate object? If not, then that character isn’t serving your story.
  • If it’s a scene, take a look at its original purpose vs. how it works now. How has that scene changed over the time you’ve taken to write your story? Does it fulfill its original purpose?
  • If it’s phrasing, read your sentence out loud. If you stumble over any of the words, there’s a good chance your readers will as well.

My constellation idea didn’t make sense the more I honed in on the central idea of my Audhumla poem, and I realized that I needed to take it out.

What to do Instead

After you’ve taken your darling out of your work, you may be wondering what to do with it. No one likes to simply get rid of something they’ve worked hard on. In this case, there are a couple things you could do with a discarded darling:

  • Re-invent the character. Try saving this character for another story; he or she might work better in another setting. Or, find a new angle for this character to serve in your existing narrative. Look for gaps in your character types (like, sidekick, antagonist, mentor, etc.) that this particular character could fill.
  • Re-work the scene. Try moving your scene earlier or later in the story, and examine how it works in different parts of the story. Maybe moving it earlier brings something new to light later on. If you can’t seem to find a good spot for it anywhere, you may just want to save it for a future project.

An Example from My Own Work

Here’s my my first draft of “Audhumla”:

Every day she goes back
to the salt block, savouring
the bite of salt
on her tongue, before
swallowing and licking again.

She’s just one of two beings
in the Yawning Void,
one of two
who were formed from the ice
dripping rime. The other—
Ymir the first-giant—
she feeds with her milk.

Little by little, a body emerges
from the salt block: tufts of hair,
the shell of an ear, the ridge
of eyebrow. And then—a face,
a torso, arms, hands,
fingers.

One day, one final lick,
and all that remains
is the figure of a man: a statue
of salt, blank eyes staring
straight ahead, but seeing nothing.

She touches her mouth
to his and exhales,
filling his lungs
with breath,
his mouth with speech,
his mind with thought.

He awakes: Búri, the first-god,
who will be grandfather of Odin.

She moos a hello and he laughs,
scratches her muzzle, trails
his fingers over her rust-coloured coat
and her horns curving out
and up.

This is enough, she decides.

And the rest—

the gods
and the frost giants,
the Nine Worlds and the Rainbow Bridge
(Ymir’s body broken
for Midgard: his bones
for mountains and his blood
for rivers)

—she’ll watch comes into being
from her place

among the stars.

It’s not a strong ending. It begs the question, why is she okay to step back? Why doesn’t she want to be more involved with the formation of the world? It’s also not very colourful. I didn’t use any images to describe her becoming a constellation. All around, it was a good idea, but it didn’t work for this poem.

Here’s my final version:

First Mother

Every day Audhumla goes back
to the salt block, savouring
the bite of salt
on her tongue, before
swallowing and licking again.

Little by little, a body emerges
from the salt block: tufts of hair,
the shell of an ear, the ridge
of eyebrow.
A face, a torso, arms,
hands, fingers.

One day, one final lick,
and there’s the figure of a man,
blank eyes staring
straight ahead, but seeing nothing.

She touches her mouth
to his and exhales,
filling his lungs
with breath,
his mouth with speech,
his mind with thought.

He awakes: Búri, the first-god,
who will be grandfather of Odin.

She moos a hello and he laughs,
scratches her muzzle, trails
his fingers over her rust-coloured coat
and her horns curving out
and up.

Búri takes his first steps
on shaking legs, his hand
resting on her back,
until she nudges his hip
with her nose.

She watches him walk away,
a proud mother,
the first of creation,
resplendent in the heavens.

This version is much more polished. After I took out the constellation idea, I also realized that I needed to take out the Ymir references as well. I was trying too hard to include everything about Audhumla’s origins. But once I got rid of Ymir, I found the central focus to this poem: Audhumla as a mother. Getting rid of the constellation darling helped me to find another trouble spot as well.

Killing your darlings can be difficult, but it’s a necessary skill to have. When you take out the things that don’t serve a purpose in your work—even if you love them—you’ll be left with something stronger.