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Honoring Your Graveyard of Stories

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Spooky season is here — and what could be more horrifying or haunting to a writer than the projects that have met tragic ends? 

Whether big or small, we all have a graveyard of failed work. The novels we got 10K words into, and then just lost steam on. The essay that never quite came together. The manuscript that garnered a decent number of requests from agents, yet couldn’t land an offer. The seeds of ideas that simply never managed to grow into anything more.

Some of these deaths hurt more than others. My personal cemetery includes all of them and more. 

Because I am a slow writer, the most common cause of death for my writing projects is running out of momentum, interest, or relevance. Similar to tombstones marked with the years of birth and death, my hard drive is littered with files labeled “Road Trip Novel (2016 version),” then “Road Trip Novel (2018 version),” then “Road Trip Novel (2021 version),” and such, until finally I realize it is futile. No matter how many times I try to revive it, the window for this story has already closed. Maybe the headline that inspired it has become old news. Or the internal struggle I was having, and that I built a whole story around, has resolved itself. (More likely, it has been replaced by some new and more pressing anxiety, haha.) Whatever the reason, the fuel for this work has been exhausted, and my energy would be better spent moving on to the next thing. To be fair, this seems like a relatively natural and peaceful way for a story to die.

On the other hand, I’ve had to “murder” a project once or twice, after realizing that I simply wasn’t the best writer to tell it. (Jeanne Kisacky recently opened a good discussion about this right here at Writer Unboxed: “Who Are You Reading Now?”) For example, many years ago, I started a story about a bisexual Black teenager who was being bullied by a former best friend, so her mother sent her to live temporarily with a friend in Barcelona. Certain elements were drawn from my own experiences, and the heart of the story — about a girl who heals herself with the help of found family in a foreign place — still calls to me. But other aspects felt like too much of a stretch for me to write well, and were simply too important to risk getting wrong. For a while, I resisted what had to be done, but eventually I came to see it as a mercy killing, on several levels.

By far the most painful addition to my graveyard came from the manuscript that snagged me two offers of representation from top-notch agents, only to die a drawn-out, back-and-forth death on submission. I spent 3 years writing and revising that book, 3 months querying, 6 months on submission, and finally, at least 9 months in mourning for the future that it (and I) would not get to have. Does it haunt me? Absolutely. In the time since then, I have racked my brain with doubts and second guessing. Was it bad luck, bad timing, bad writing? Should I have just sucked it up and done the revise & resubmit that didn’t feel quite right? Should we have sent it to more editors? There are countless what-ifs, and I’ve done my best to make peace with each of them. But I also remind myself that if this story really did die too soon, then at least in the writing world, reincarnation is possible.

And that brings me to the secret hopeful message hidden inside this ghoulish fortune cookie of a topic: your graveyard of stories is actually a good thing.

Many people tend to view death as scary and sad — and of course, the loss of something once cherished can definitely include those feelings. But death is a natural and inevitable part of life. In fact, death fuels life. Think of a tree falling in the forest. First, that trunk can hide and shelter creatures on the ground. Then, as it decomposes, it will enrich the soil with nutrients, allowing nearby plants to grow even more healthy and vibrant. Similarly, the work that we do is never wasted, for it can always beget something new, and probably better. Don’t be afraid to “grave rob” from yourself. Dig up the best parts of those failed stories and Frankenstein them into a beautiful monster.

Also, your graveyard of stories shows that you have more than one idea in you. Whether it houses a lone tombstone or dozens, your cemetery is proof that you are writing. That you can continue to work, to imagine, to feel inspired, in spite of hardships and sorrow. So the graveyard is not something to fear. It’s something to honor. 

This Halloween, please tell me a “ghost story.” What is one idea in your writer’s graveyard, and how did it get there? What do you think you can gain from it?


About Kristan Hoffman

Originally from Houston, TX, Kristan Hoffman studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and later attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Now she lives with her family in Cincinnati, OH, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction with a focus on feminist, multicultural stories. Her words have appeared in the New York Times, Switchback, and the Citron Review, among others. She is currently at work on a Young Adult novel, and is represented by Tina Dubois of ICM. For more, please visit her website.

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