Guest contributor: Jim Lang

Bad Advice Wednesday: Birthing Your Bastards

categories: Cocktail Hour

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Literature's Most Famous Bastard?

Literature’s Most Famous Bastard?

This week I finally began to tackle the chapter of my current book project that I have been dreading more than all of the others put together. It’s the largest and most complex topic of the book, but also the most important, so I’ve been feeling this enormous pressure to get it right. And since every other chapter of the book begins with a brief narrative example of some kind, I’ve been trying for weeks and even months now to keep my eye out for the perfect anecdote that would illustrate the main idea of the chapter.


A tiny little flash of an idea came to me last weekend, and so I ran with it. It was a small story but I worked it hard, kneading every detail until eventually I could foresee how it might stretch into three full paragraphs and maybe another two paragraphs of exposition. About midway through getting it all down, as the story was burgeoning into life, a thought popped into my head as suddenly and clearly as if someone had spoken it into my ear: “None of this is going to make it into the final manuscript.”

I stopped, took my hands from the keyboard, and stared off into space. I was sitting in the coffee shop where I normally write in the mornings, my office-away-from home during my sabbatical. When I have to stare off into space, as I often do while writing, the coffee shop provides a landscape more varied than the walls of my actual offices at home or school. I looked down at my laptop screen, scrolled back to the beginning of what I had written, and then read it all back. The voice was correct. None of this was going to make it into the final manuscript. I was taking a minor character, the misshapen bastard child of the king, and trying to set him up on the throne. He didn’t belong there, and we both knew it.

Unfortunately, this smart realization was not accompanied by a parallel eureka moment in which a perfect substitute story appeared to me. I knew the story I was writing was not going to work, and yet I had no better option. But what choice did I really have? I still had to produce my thousand words for the day. My green tea was warm in the cup; the coffee shop was filled with faces; the smells of food and drink were in the air; classical guitar music was playing in my headphones. I heaved a sigh and kept writing the bastard paragraphs that I knew would never make it into the final manuscript.

The chapter is complete now, and I’m happy with it. It would make for a neat ending to this essay if I could tell you that eventually I figured out how to make that original story and its exposition—five full paragraphs when I finally finished them—work for the chapter. But that’s not what happened. By the time I completed the fifth paragraph I remembered a much better story, one that fit the chapter opening perfectly. Before I left the coffee shop I wrote the first few sentences of it, just to help get me started on it the next day.

Those original five paragraphs are still sitting in what I call the “Runoff” folder in my computer. They won’t make it into the final manuscript. The little voice in my ear was correct about them. They weren’t very good, and they didn’t belong there. But I still had to bring them to life. The right story only arrived after I had written my way through the wrong one.

So you’ve heard the (good) advice that sometimes writers have to kill their darlings. Well, I’m here with the (bad) advice from the other side of the divide: sometimes, if you want to make those darlings come alive in the first place, you have to birth your bastards.

James M. Lang is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard UP, 2013). Visit his website at or follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.

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