Hello again readers! Today’s Being a Better Writer post is going to (hopefully) be a bit shorter, because I’m on the last pages of the epilogue for Starforge and I want to finish it! This draft is so close to being done I can taste the freedom!
All right, enough about Starforge. And enough italics. Yes, it’s all I’m thinking about these days, and all I’m writing about, but you guys either want to see it done, or see other content. So let’s dive into today’s BaBW post. This week, another reader request! We’re going to talk about killing your babies.
Okay, this sounds worse than it actually is. If you don’t recognize this term, we’re not actually talking about human babies. Or living ones. But they may feel very alive. Because to a writer, what story isn’t their baby?
And sometimes … that baby’s time has come.
Okay, this is sounding amazingly grim. But the term exists for a reason. Writers love what they create. The act of writing, of creating characters and worlds, is in itself an act of love for many. And so when things don’t work, or things start to go wrong … it can be really hard for writers to let that go.
But we have to.
Ugh, I said I’d tone down the italics. And I fear I’m still getting too far ahead of myself, so let’s hop back to the beginning. Let’s talk about a writer’s “first big project.”
Most of you probably remember this one. It was the first time you really sat down and got sucked up in creating and building your story. You wrote on it in your free time. You couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the setting.
And then … one of two things happened. The more common one is that something went wrong. What, you couldn’t say, but the writing slowed, then maybe even stopped. Frustration mounted. Maybe the characters weren’t working like you wanted. Or maybe there was a massive plot hole you couldn’t work around. But something stopped clicking, and going right.
Or maybe you had the second issue, the less common one. You finish it! But then you start showing it to people, wanting to get it cleaned up but really “knowing” that it’s “pretty much perfect” only … it isn’t. People start delivering criticism—And that’s fine! Really! But maybe they didn’t enjoy one part of the plot that you really loved, and if you cut it then this other bit probably won’t make sense, and you just want to scream because everyone’s saying “No hey do this” but you spent so much time and effort on it …
Yeah, this is “your baby.” And now that a part of it needs to die … well, you’re having trouble letting it happen.
It’s understandable. We love the things we create. They can feel like a part of us. In fact, this is sometimes why a creator “killing their baby” can be so difficult. They’ve invested so much time and work into it that “killing it” feels like killing a part of their own self. It’s the writer’s baby. How dare anyone suggest that it’s flawed or try to change it?
But … here’s the thing. If we extend this analogy, with a baby being your creation that you love, then what is the point of a baby?
Well, the point of a baby is to grow. To become a child, and then an adult, and have its own life. And along that path, there’s going to be stumbling. Experimentation.
Now, if I point out that some “babies” never make it past being a “baby” this starts to get pretty dark, so let’s dump the analogy extension before we reach that point. But the fact of the matter is, babies exist not to remain babies, but to grow and leave the nest. To experience hardship, pain, and joy. And if they don’t experience those things, the good with the bad, they’ll never grow.
Coming back to our babies, then, we have to be willing to take the good with the bad, or they’ll never “grow.” If we don’t let our baby experience those cuts, those changes, or that criticism … then it’ll forever remain a baby.
So then … how do we go about this? How can we set aside the pain of watching out “baby” be cut up, edited, rewritten, etc? Well … it’s going to hurt. It always will. For example, I cut a bunch of stuff from the draft of Starforge before it was even done. I lost at least two-three weeks worth of work at one point.
That hurt. There’s no way around it. It was painful. But … it was painful in the way that pulling off a bandaid is painful. Yes, there was agony there. But there was, afterward a sense of relief. Because what wasn’t working with what I’d done could now be changed to function and work. Things could move forward. I’d “killed a baby,” but only so that the story itself, the larger, truer “child,” could grow.
The truth is, killing your baby will always, no matter what, hurt. The Phoenix never got published. It wasn’t good enough. Did that hurt? Yes. But at the same time, it was the smarter decision. I had to kill that baby (and someday, I hope to revisit it and rewriter it up to the point where it can release) and work on better projects.
Honestly? There’s no good answer to how we can go about killing our babies without feeling any pain because we always will. The difference with those that do kill their babies is that they understand that the pain is part of the growing process, while those that don’t shy away from that pain and never grow as a result.
So yes, it’s always going to hurt. That’s life. Looking at something we worked so hard on and understanding that it’s flawed? That takes self-realization. Both acknowledging it and working to fix it hurt.
But … there are a few things we can do to dull the pain.
For starters, we can look ahead and not back. Like pulling off a bandaid, understanding that what we’re doing, painful as it is, is for a better baby, can help dull the pain of the cuts, changes, and edits we’re about to make. Additionally, we can hold in our minds that by recognizing the problem we’re about to fix, our change will be better and improve the story (as a root cause of shying away is a mistaken belief that the “fix” won’t be as good or will have the same problems).
It’s like exercise or losing weight. When you start out from square one, it sucks. You’re out of breath. You hurt. You’re tired. You skin is pallid and you feel like you might die.
But you keep at it. You keep hiking, walking, weightlifting, whatever. And bit by bit, you do improve. The pain stops existing. You stop hurting. You’re sore, maybe, but you feel good afterward. And maybe you don’t look so pallid anymore.
Killing our babies is like that. It hurts, but if we look forward to what we want the result to be, that pain doesn’t tug at us so badly. We’re looking past it.
So do this. Don’t focus on how much it’s going to suck to “lose” a scene with all its work. Focus on how much better the story can be for having cleaned that bit out. How much smoother it’ll flow for the reader. How the pacing might be tighter. The context clearer.
Don’t focus on the past, and what work went into the scene. Figure out what you’re going to gain from it being cut, rewritten, changed, etc. Yes, I cut a lot from the draft of Starforge. But I knew that I had to because what I was replacing those bits with was better. And that helped distract me from the pain.
But you know, there’s another thing we can do: Learn to trust the judgement of ourselves. Part of the reason “kill your baby” trips up so many young authors, and why it weighs on them so heavily, is because a lot of them know what they need to do, but also love their baby. Two parts of their mind end up in conflict, and they let them have equal weight. “I need to improve this” does battle with the ego of “this is my baby, no I don’t.” Or unequal weight in favor of the latter, rather than the former.
And this creates an internal block where by the author’s own choice, they’ve created both an unstoppable force and and immovable object, then let them slam against one another. It’s not healthy.
Trust yourself. Learn to listen to the part of your mind that says ‘No, I can do better.” Because it’s right. Learn to trust your instincts (or editors), however grudgingly, and let that immovable object become a moveable one. Realize that the recognition that there is an issue means you’re already halfway to producing the better solution. Then act on it. Even if you still stumble, knowing you’re having trouble and working to improve is better than believing there is no flaw.
Last but not least … cheat.
Okay, I need to be more clear on that. I apologize. But here’s the thing. Do you know what I do when I kill a baby and delete a whole bunch of work?
I don’t actually delete it. No, I have in almost every book folder in my documents, a file called “Cut content” or something similar. Because yes, deleting 50,000 words hurts.
So I ease the pain. I don’t delete it. It gets to go live on a farm somewhere. In another “state.”
But it doesn’t cease to exist. It’s not gone. It’s just … no longer canon to the story.
This works. Try it! Part of the harshness of “killing a baby” is that blow from “Well, there goes all that work.” Simply cutting and pasting it elsewhere does a lot to sooth that pain. Sure, you might never look at it again. But it’s still there. It’s not lost. You just moved it elsewhere so that something better could grow in its place.
Okay, let’s wrap this up and recap. Killing one’s babies is simply a part of writing, and it will always hurt. I think that’s an important takeaway here. More than a few times I’ve mentioned cuts made in an editing process and had someone in an audience say something to the effect of “Oh wow, I don’t think I could do that” as if I possess some sort of inhuman cruelty or lack of feeling.
No, I’m a living being like everyone else. So that deletion hurts. It always will. The difference is that there’s experiences that have taught about the need for that pain, and an understanding that keeps it from feeling quite so bad. Sort of like how if you tell a child a painkiller will cause unbearable agony they’ll scream despite it being, you know, a painkiller (yes, I did this to my siblings), if you look at the pain of killing a baby and say “You know, this’ll hurt, but not that bad” it’ll be more bearable.
But there are other “tricks” to use as well. Looking ahead. Having a trust of one’s self that what replaces our baby will be better. And not actually just wiping it, but setting it aside in its own place.
I mean, who knows. Maybe you’ll go back and revisit those someday in a new context. The cut ‘ghost’ subplot from Dead Silver came back in Unusual Events as A Minor Haunting and that worked.
But it wouldn’t have worked in Dead Silver. It was a small baby, but I had to kill it. Wow is this post full of really horrible sounding out-of-context quotes.
But learnt to kill your babies. Or, to build off what we said earlier, let them experience that “pain” so that they can grow and step out into the wider world.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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