Giving Up the Ghost: How to Bury Dead Writing

Way back in 2008, author Mary Patrick Kavanaugh came to a horrible realization. Her novel, which she had loved dearly and nourished through good times and bad, was dead. Whether it passed away quietly in its sleep or went Thelma and Louise style over a cliff, I’m not sure. But what happened next is of particular interest. Instead of fighting nature, Kavanaugh accepted what happened as a necessary part of life and held a lovely funeral service. She even invited the publishers who rejected the manuscript to be pallbearers, although none of them accepted. Surrounded by family and friends, she mourned the passage of her novel and literally closed a coffin lid on it.     

Checking the Pulse

Giving up on a piece of writing seems counterintuitive. We’re told from an early age that if we just keep trying, one day we’ll inevitably succeed. Defeat is made out to be so anathema, many of us cling to unhealthy expectations far longer than is productive rather than acquiesce to any sort of deficiency. But sometimes effort alone isn’t enough to scale the distance. There’s nothing wrong with admitting not every project is worth repeatedly dipping into your limited time and resources. Maybe a pitch you’ve written isn’t getting any bites after months of querying editors, or a short story you finished last June is still rotting in a desktop folder. It’s a disheartening fact that many manuscripts never see publication.    

If you can’t muster any joy for a piece of work, it’s unlikely that readers will. In the end, the author is the only one capable of deciding when to put a piece of writing out to pasture.

Are there any telltale warning signs that a piece of work is headed for a shallow grave? There may be a few, but it’s not necessarily a multitude of rejections, nor negative feedback from editors or writing peers. While that kind of outside advice can be valuable, it is also highly variable. The only thing many editors have in common is that they’re completely different. However, if there’s one thing that kills good literature faster than a speeding bullet, it’s boredom. One way of taking your manuscript’s metaphorical pulse is to gauge your own enthusiasm when you sit down at the keyboard. Are you excited by what you’re creating, or does the thought of dragging it out another hundred pages seem like an overwhelming chore? If you can’t muster any joy for a piece of work, it’s unlikely that readers will. In the end, the author is the only one capable of deciding when to put a piece of writing out to pasture.

Curse of the Frankenstein Manuscript

Ideas evolve over time. Maybe what seems like an early demise is actually just your mind’s way of clearing out space for new thoughts to grow and develop. The global marketplace of ideas can be a cutthroat place, but it helps to remember that you are not your book, nor your characters. You are not a writer. You are a human being who happens to write, which means that not even the most vicious criticism can actually draw blood. Failure is only a dirty word because of the cultural connotations we attach to it; the truth is that it’s a vital but unenviable part of creating anything worthwhile. Of course, the intent of this article is not to detract from true life tragedies (failing to land a book deal is hardly the worst thing in the world, even for a writer). But when something you care about bites the dust, it’s still a loss. Embrace it, even if you can’t afford to buy a $2,000 casket. You could always use a shoebox.

You might be wondering why anyone would want to make a distinction between a “dead” piece of writing and a project that is merely dormant. Again, it’s a decision that only the writer holds, but there are a few reasons. “Burying” a piece of writing is a way to firmly disconnect from it. There is no ambiguity left nagging at the back of your mind, causing you to question, “What if I edited that fourth chapter? The beginning wasn’t so bad.” No one wants to throw their time and effort away, which makes it very tempting to trim a few paragraphs here, or stitch together some scenes there. The result is a Frankenstein manuscript, clipped together from a combination of earlier and more current work. The problem with this practice is that writers usually evolve along with their ideas. Don’t sabotage new and promising work out of laziness by adding together piecemeal fragments of an older story. There's no point in killing your darlings if they're already dead.

Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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Marša's picture
Marša from Wrocław (Poland) August 6, 2015 - 12:51am

I have to admit that I have little graveyard for such stories. Its small folder hidden among many on my PC (and only PC, because synchronizing it with Dropbox would mean it's not graveyard at all) where I store stories that I consider dead but I can't simply delate them, let them go and be eaten by time. Nope. It's because I'm deluded that maybe I will reuse some ideas I've put there - so I may need them to check what was there. Or I'm like: I've spent so much time on it... delete... delete, nope, nope, nope! Clearly I have a problem with letting go.
I visit this folder once or twice per year, usually when I'm doing some big backup of my hard drive. I sigh; I think 'hey, it was nice idea... ten years ago but...' I open it and meh, maybe next time because I have some projects open now and this one has been waiting so long, so it could wait more - it's exactly how you have stated it in last sentences of your article. :) I totally agree.