The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Fifth Commandment of Writing

Thou shalt kill thy children.

You will create scenes, characters, story arcs, chapters &sometimes whole stories that simply don t work, don t advance the tale or deepen the thematic structure.

And regardless of how much they sparkle and prance, even if they contain some of your very best one-liners or snatches of observation, you have to cut them out.

(Remember the sculptor s secret?   Chip away everything that doesn t look like an elephant.  This must be your credo as well. And you must be absolutely ruthless. In the writing of my latest novel GREAT SKY WOMAN (available at, I experimented with tense�s, with  book-ending  an ancient story with modern scenes, with point of view, and other things. All of this was to attempt to properly show a shift in mental capacity between ancient and modern humanity. None of the approaches worked, and I had the frustration and agony of stripping all of this material out, re-writing it, or relocating some of it to other projects.

It was grueling, and set my book back at least eight months. But lord, if I hadn t done it, WOMAN would have been a disaster, rather than my proudest work.

Don t be afraid to throw away ideas: you have an unlimited supply of them, if you only learn to listen. Don t be afraid to �cut out characters if they don t work: you can always use them elsewhere.

Perhaps the most important philosophy I can offer in this regard is that NO story, screenplay, or novel is important in an of itself. They represents steps along a lifetime path. Obsessing about words on paper is a denial of your creative source. TRUST YOURSELF. Cut away everything that doesn t work to the greater good: the creation of a sustainable and emotionally rewarding career.

Unleash the elephant within.

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