Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Literary Scrapyard

This week I had the unexpected thrill of finding an old story that was far stronger than I'd originally given it credit for. I gave the tale a couple of minor tweaks and have actually sent it out to an interested editor. We'll see how it fares.

This little exercise led me to ponder how stories often shed their skins, again and again, until their essence is finally conveyed in the best possible narrative. That stories going through two or two-hundred drafts before they finally reach the reading public is pretty common knowledge, but for me that process of refinement stretches far beyond one story. It applies to a large body of my unfinished, fledgling writings.

My writing room is a veritable scrapyard of my fiction. Hard-drives and towers of old paper hold scenes, notes, title lists, half-realized tales, and (in the case of the above story) fully completed works. Once in a while I will go rummaging through these word fields. Often I'll pluck a random page, cringe with embarrassment at what I discover written there, and then mercifully return said work to its resting place (if it's REALLY awful, I may throw it out completely). But there are occasions when I spot the embryo of what later became a wholly different and far better story. I've discovered great phrases or titles that I've cannibalized for a piece I was working on at the time. Many of my stories that seem fluid are in fact patchwork creatures; Frankenstein's monsters wrought from bits of many other works.

This is different from the practice of sending out "trunk stories", whereby an author simply digs into the trunk and sending out a story to an editor, a story that may have suffered multiple rejections or is simply lacking. Sometimes these stories are in the trunk with good reason, but some are genuine diamonds in the rough. It takes work to refine them, but those stories are usually evidence of a period when a writer's imagination was a few paces ahead of their skills at that time. Going back and facing that story objectively, you not only see how poorly you said something, you will also understand what it was that you were attempting to say.

Right now I'm chipping away at a tale that I've been working on, in various incarnations, for nearly a decade. These past attempts won't simply be re-written, for they were merely the cocoon from which the true story is struggling to emerge. When I look back at these first attempts (which have taken the form of two novels, several comic scripts, and a dozen or so short and long stories) I can see where they fell short and why. I know a little more about what this story is about and how I might be able to tell it.

This most recent attempt may wind up being tossed into the scrapyard, but that's fine with me. I'll no doubt get what I need from it in one of my future scavenger hunts.