I once read somewhere that you should save all your old writings and go back over them occasionally to see what you’ve learned since. I’m not sure where I read it. If I knew, I’d give credit where it’s due. It’s sort of a moot point, though, because others have said it, too (and, naturally, I can’t remember who any of the other sources are, either).
Anyway, thanks to this piece of advice, my documents folder has more aborted mss than I’d care to count. I’m a great starter, but not as good a finisher. John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, recently posted that he always reaches a point in whatever novel he’s writing where he knows just how it’s going to end and he gets impatient to finish it and move on to the next project—so much so that it’s difficult to complete the current work.
Well, for me, I’d get story idea, think about it a day or two (maybe), and then sit down and write. When you write seat-of-the-pants as I do, most times you need to sit down and write something when you get an idea or it’ll escape from you, never to be seen again. And for a long time, that meant I sat down and started writing the story idea down. I’m very good (usually) at getting beginnings, followed by endings. It’s the middles that usually bogged me down and tended to end all forward momentum.
A lot of these truncated mss have become more rare as I’ve learned to just jot down the idea as a sort of mini synopsis that I can refer to later. That way the idea’s not preying on my imagination—the initial idea, I mean—and my mind’s free to wander on and see if it can develop further ideas to support the beginning. I’ve also learned that just because I have an idea doesn’t mean I’ve got a book—and since I’m kinda terrible at doing short stories, I generally need to give it time to develop and see if it plays out.
I carry a small notebook around with me at all times and jot ideas down if I get them, then transfer them to a document on my computer next time I get a chance. I scoffed for years at the idea of carrying around a notebook when an author recommended it. I actually have to credit my lady love Carolann with encouraging me to carry a notebook—she bought me my first one, though it was so I could remember everyday things I needed to keep in mind. I’m the kind of person who needs to make out a list when I get ready to do things much of the time, or I’ll forget. I need shopping lists, a list of things to look up online when I make it to the library, a list of books I want to read—heck, it’s a wonder I don’t need a list of my lists.
At any rate, I don’t seem to have as many false starts these days, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I switched genres. I still get the occasional idea for a fantasy or sf story, but I rarely jot them down—though maybe I should. And since I started writing crime fiction, the ideas haven’t seemed to come as fast and furious as they once did. I actually consider that a blessing, as it allows me to focus on one or two things at a time.
I think maybe another reason it doesn’t happen is that I’ve learned the difference—thanks to a book by Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit—between an idea and a plot line. See, an idea is good for a short story—you don’t need a fully developed plot for a short, just an idea to explore. A plot, however, is what you need to sustain a novel—a fully developed idea that has more detail than a short story does.
The confusing part can be that they often sound the same. For instance, my Pipeline story started as an idea, but it continued to extend itself as I wrote. Same with Spree. The more I wrote, the more of it was revealed to me. Very much as Stephen King says: it’s like you’re a sort of paleontologist, carefully uncovering the story bit by bit. The more you see, the more of the overall structure makes itself known to you. For me, it seems to do it exponentially, too.
But either way, there’s still all that old stuff I’ve got in my documents file on my computer—not to mention a few old spiral-bound notebooks with handwritten mss in them. A lot of those old handwritten mss have been typed up, though, and reside in my computer.
What to do with them?
The idea behind keeping all your old work, as I’ve stated, is to enable you to look back and see how you’ve improved. I can understand that. Thing is, though, I almost never go back and look at my old stuff, so what good is it doing me? Sure, I can scroll through these old works, some of which are so unfamiliar I have to open the documents to see what the heck they are—and maybe revisit ideas, maybe even entertain the idea of trying my hand at them again.
Of course, there is another aspect to keeping all these false starts: maybe you can take them and make them a section of something you’re working on now. But since I’ve switched genres, I’m not sure how much of my old sf/f stuff I can use. Yeah, we’re all writing the same stuff, it’s just the costumes and sets that differ, but still…when your idea is about the meeting of a vampire and a mage (one of the last things I ever did in the sf/f field, and I finished it, as well), how do you transpose that to a crime novel?
Still, even though I can’t see much use for these things, I’m a packrat by nature and can’t quite bring myself to delete them. Like I said, sometimes I like to look through them and revisit old memories. And you never know what’ll happen when you do. You might see something that’ll work in a different way if you just tweak it a little bit.
What about you? Do you believe in keeping your old writing? Has it done you any good? Or is it just taking up space on your hard drive (or maybe an old filing cabinet)? Is it worth keeping this stuff, or should we empty out our (virtual) closets? Drop me a line, let me know what you think.