Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield
Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.
There are writers that never waste a word they’ve written. Once they start a project, sooner or later, they will see it finished and published. These people exist, we all know who they are, and if you happen to be one of them…
I’m not sure where you got the outsized self-confidence it takes to believe everything you cook up is worth eating… but I’m not here to yuck your yum, I just don’t think I’m talking to you.
For the rest of us, once you’ve been at this a while, you will have generated a large body of discarded work colloquially referred to as trunk stories. You know the ones I’m talking about. Stuff we started and didn’t finish. Stuff we finished but couldn’t sell. Some of it is plain shit. Some had perhaps more-than-shit potential but blew up on the launch pad. Some of it was desperately trying not to be shit, but the harder it tried the shittier it got. Whatever the reason, the trunk is where they go to die. Except that’s not exactly what happens.
We think of a lot of the junk in our trunk as potential. We reserve the right to pull these stories out one day, blow the dust off, rework, and maybe get them published. You could say these stories are neither dead nor alive, or more accurately they are both dead and alive. They exist in a state of quantum superposition until you lift the lid and observe them.
So, the question becomes: is it worth a possible Raider’s style face meltening to break the seal on that ark and see what all is going on inside your personal writing hell?
Consider the following case study.
Lola Silkysocks has got it in her dotty little head that she wants to pull one of these dreadful novel remnants out of mothballs and have another go at it. As always, she turns to her accomplice Noggy Splitfoot for feedback.
Lola: Did you read the first chapter?
Noggy: Um, yeah…when did you say you wrote this?
Lola: That bad?
Noggy: You’ve definitely grown as a writer.
Lola: Is it salvageable?
Noggy: Wait, you’re serious about this? I thought we were just sharing shitty old drafts.
Lola: You’re such a bastard—are those sirens? Where are you?
Noggy: *engine roar* No time, Silkysocks. Meet me at the rendezvous point in half an hour. Bring a shovel.
Lola remains unsure. There’s a lot to like, even love, about that novel. The premise, the characters, even the writing in certain places is good. Like really good. But there’s a lot that’s fucked too. Jumped up dialogue, info dumps, thready world building, leaning too heavily on tropes. But that’s not the bit that’s really broken. In fact nothing is broken. It’s doing exactly what a first draft is supposed to do: sucking with the cyclonic force of a Dyson upright. Those flaws are all fixable. And if it were that simple, we’d all be the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Nothing would be unsalvageable
Where is that dividing line between set aside and trunked? Hard to say, and probably different for everyone. For me it’s when the writing feels like a shed skin. The writer I was back then is not just grown, but kind of gone. I can see where I’m trying so damn hard to be clever, I can read a passage and know what book I was reading at the time that inspired it. I can see these things and even see how to fix them, but it would always feel like trying to slide back into that old skin.
Sometimes it isn’t like that. Sometimes a story just wasn’t ready to be written at the time you started it. The idea too fragile and complex to be rushed. Your skills not developed enough to execute properly. Sometimes years go by before that story pokes its way out of the trunk and opens itself up. Sometimes that story is a skin you needed time to grow into.
There’s a lot of metaphors flying around this essay, it’s confusing, and I don’t care. There’s something about potential. The allure of imagining all possibilities, all at once. Until you open that lid, your stories are everything they never were. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to re-evaluate old work. But what do you have to gain by collapsing that wave function?
If we’re being honest, probably not a lot. I mean, there’s a reason you trunked that story in the first place. Schrodinger’s cat was most likely dead before he dumped it in the box and lifting the lid is only going to let out the smell.
But the curiosity is killing me…