I never killed anyone I really loved until the long, cold winter I spent writing my second novel.
I had killed before, of course. In Night School I killed one person. A girl. A minor character. Someone who wasn’t terribly nice to my main character. Or terribly interesting.
It was upsetting as crimes always are but, let’s be honest. No one missed Ruth. I’ve never received one message from a reader asking why I killed her.
In Night School Legacy, though, things were different. It was like I had a taste for murder and now I couldn’t stop.
Okay, not really. Although that sounds super dramatic and I kind of wish it was true. In reality, I never meant to kill again.
Thou shalt not kill
In this second book I’d always planned to end with one major character, beloved by all, being attacked and nearly killed. Big drama and suspense. But he/she would survive and our hearts would be warmed by this knowledge at the very end. And that was how I wrote it.
My husband read the first draft and scrawled one note on the page: Character X, it said, “has to die.”
[Note: To avoid spoilers, I’m not naming the deceased.]
I usually listen to his advice but this time I shrugged it off. I had no intention of going forward with my series without this character who I loved like a sister/brother.
Then my editor read the draft. Her note was carefully composed in the margins of the manuscript, highlighted in yellow.
It read: “You have to kill” Character X.
Normally I’m not one to ignore a consensus but, in this case, I argued. I loved this character, I explained. He/she was critical to my main character’s future happiness. It wasn’t fair to any of them to do this.
“Just try it,” my editor said. “See what you think then.”
Conspiracy to murder
In order not to appear to be a ‘difficult’ writer, I did as she suggested. I re-wrote the same scene, only this time, beloved character didn’t make it through.
I hated to do it. I actually wept while writing it. I vowed I’d put the life back – keep him/her alive.
The only problem was… It worked.
The book was more exciting now. More exhilarating. The stakes were much higher. The losses were greater. The pain, deeper.
And so, to my sorrow, the character stayed dead.
When the book came out, my email inbox and Twitterfeed were barraged with wounded messages from fans asking how I could do this to the character we all loved. How could I be so cruel?
I was asked one question over and over again: “Why?”
It was impossible to give a satisfying answer. Fiction is unfair, just like life.
Why do things ever go horribly wrong? Why does anyone have to die?
My reply was always, “I didn’t want him/her to die either.”
But that didn’t make anyone feel any better.
If it’s any comfort, the dead character exacted revenge.
Writing the third book in the series without him/her was much harder. I really struggled. It turned out that now-silenced voice had been critical to the pace of the series. It had enlivened slow scenes. Made the books come alive.
Without it, I had to look elsewhere for levity and brightness, and that wasn’t easy to do.
I found it in the end, but it took months of sweat and blood.
Every crime has a price. No murder should go unpunished.
So kill your darlings, yes. But beware the consequences.
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CJ Daugherty is the author of the Night School series of romantic thrillers set in an exclusive boarding school where no one is ever who they seem to be. She is represented by Madeleine Milburn. Her latest book, Night School: Fracture was published this summer by Atom/Little Brown. The series is being translated into 21 languages.
Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series, and the co-author of The Secret Fire. The first book in that series is out now in the UK and the US.