Thursday, May 14, 2009

Longyear on Sunk Costs

At the 2008 Odyssey Writing Workshop, SF author Barry Longyear discusses an idea well known to economists, but less familiar to writers, namely that of sunk costs. Excerpts:

The most I ever had to throw out at one hunk was ninety-thousand words.

One of the problems a lot of new writers and old writers have is [thinking] I put all this work in on this, so this has got to sell. This has got to figure in somehow. I discovered a very important truth from poker playing … There are a lot of people, if they put a lot of money into the pot and they’ve got crap for cards, but they think that because they’ve put all this money into the pot, they have an obligation to hang in there. A man explained to me, once the money goes into the pot, it is no longer yours. This is not a market investment. If your cards suck, fold!
Download excerpts from the lecture. Longyear goes on to discuss the importance of revision and of telling your own story, but this matter of discarding one’s work deserves some more thought. Yes, abandoning a project feels like dumping your toddler on the edge of the Interstate. Those sentences and paragraphs we’ve labored over for so long are precious to us. But there’s logic in such advice. We should expect to create subpar narratives in our learning years, and leaving them behind as we advance in our craft is no more a betrayal than an artist moving on from fingerpaints or a chef from ramen. I’ve seen several folks flame out trying to salvage broken shorts that they ought to have chalked up to experience. Our writing needn’t sink even if our costs have.

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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