Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that for every idea that carries itself to fruition, there are dozens if not hundreds of half-formed, uncompleted manuscripts sitting in cabinets, in drawers, and on hard drives. I know that for me, the ratio is probably close to 100 unfinished manuscripts for every one that works out. But here’s the thing; I keep them. No matter how hopeless they seem, no matter how horrid the idea is, no matter how little progress I make on it before giving up and moving on, I keep it.
Why, you ask? It’s simple. It might come in handy some day. In SMILING JACK, there’s a fun little scene between TJ, the main character, and a librarian that started its life out as part of a completely different story. It felt wrong in that story, and it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but the character in that story (named Brad) was actually TJ.
That’s not to say I simply cut and paste the scene; only the barest resemblance exists between that scene and the one that ended up in SMILING JACK. But the essence is there. I’d written the perfect scene for SMILING JACK; I’d just written it six years before I started the rest of the novel.
My second novel, SISTERS, actually started its life several years ago; it sat untouched in my files for years before I came back to it, and found the voice for Marla I was looking for. Apparently it just needed to cook for awhile before it was ready to serve.
When I’m ready to start a new project, one of my first stops is the file of incompletes on my computer, which I’ve nicknamed “the morgue”. I’ll open a few files, read the first few pages, and see if it sparks my interest. Often, even if I don’t find one ready to run with, it’ll germinate the seed of something else I didn’t even know I had planted. At the very least, it gives me a chance to see where I was when I wrote them, which always seems to help me find out just where the heck I am now.
But, and this is a very important “but,” I will NEVER ignore a new idea for something from the morgue. I’ll always run with the new stuff first, even if it turns out to be a stinker.
Recently I completed the first draft of a novel, and then immediately proceeded to bang out a 27,000 word novella that seems more like to grow into another novel after it sits in the cooler and marinates for a bit. (Sorry about all the cooking metaphors; I was a chef for a long time.) Today I sat down for my daily session (I write every day, no exceptions, minimum 3000 words a day unless I’m outlining and making notes, character sketches, etc.) and was feeling a little lost. I wanted to do something different than the last two pieces.
Since nothing was jumping up and down and yelling for my attention, I took a stroll through the morgue and found a beauty of a partial I’d completely forgotten about. I spent my writing time today going over the partial, finding myself lost in the story of a young girl with a talent she never knew she had, and her mother wished she didn’t. It’s sitting at about 38,000 words and change right now, and I think it has the legs to go to 80,000 with a little work. What’s more, I’m excited to get into it, and wondering what made me consign it to the morgue in the first place.
Do you have a morgue? It could be a drawer in your desk, a folder on your computer, or a box on the top shelf of your closet. But if you’re serious about writing, you need to start keeping EVERYTHING. The stuff that works, and even more importantly, the stuff that doesn’t.
Never throw away any of your writing. Even if it won’t ever be finished. Even if you hate it. Even if it sucks so badly it hurts, don’t throw it out. It might just need to cook a little while longer.