By Barlow Adams
Everyone has heard about killing their darlings, but few writers talk about sacrificing their scribbles—at least not directly. We address it in a roundabout way when it comes to drafting, but even then we tend to put a positive spin on it. We are improving. We are refining. Transferring written lead into literary gold.
This feels so much easier and better than admitting what it is we are frequently doing: taking out the trash. Giving up the ghost. Salvaging the shiny bits and slashing the rest.
Writing is hard. Failure and discouragement are bred into the process. It takes a sort of stubbornness to write, an open-eyed never-tell-me-the-odds attitude to make it past the naysayers, of which there will be many. People will tell you to quit, that you’re not good enough. Pushing through this is more important to the success of a writer than any grammatical lesson.
Writers must be resilient, perhaps even a bit delusional. We must persevere. Believe, believe, believe!
Which makes us terribly vulnerable to sunken cost fallacy—which is, simply put, the idea that one must continue to do something because one has invested too much to quit now. You must get a return on all this writing.
This might be the single most damaging habit facing most writers I know.
We’ve all been there, all had a story or a novel we’ve put time and tears into, sometimes what feels like bits of our very soul, AND IT JUST WON’T SING.
Let me give you what may sound like sacrilegious advice: choke from that piece its best notes. Get it to squawk out six good sentences. That’s it. Six. Sentences.
Take those six sentences and form them into something else. String them together, separate them, doesn’t matter. Murder that story and take from it six luminous lines and run with them, light up some other part of your brain. Stop spending days in that dark corner you’ve been in, mining away for gold you can’t find.
I don’t care if you’ve put in months. If the story you’re robbing is 100k words. Steal those six sentences and write something else.
But Barlow, what if my previous work can’t stand without those sentences? Then that work didn’t have the legs it needed, or if they’re really that special, they will incubate something else. Six sentences is enough to conceive a story; it’s not enough to bring it into the world. No matter how good those sentences are.
Ideas, for the most part, are cheap. Everyone has them. It’s why when you tell someone you’re a writer they say, “I’ve been thinking about being a writer,” because they have an idea and they think that’s what a book is. A book is cohesion, a book is a dance of words and characters and concepts.
No one is saying you can’t come back. Maybe you’ll find the right rhythm for the story you put so much work into, but I promise you if you can kill it by taking out six sentences—even six magnificent sentences—it wasn’t worth the effort.
Give. Up. This is me giving you permission. Let it go. Accumulated words don’t have inherent value, not if they are barring your way from something special, from the joy of writing, from that crackling feeling of creating something new and exciting.
To paraphrase the expression that is sometimes said to parents at weddings, “Don’t think of it like you’re losing a story. Think of it like you’re gaining six really good sentences.”
Barlow Adams is a chronically ill writer in the Northern Kentucky area. He has survived kidney failure, lymphoma, and a saccular aneurysm. He occasionally wins writing awards and international competitions. He is overly fond of pie and smush-faced dogs.