Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tossing the Old

We rarely hear of people throwing away their stories. They keep drafts, save copies, cut and paste scenes in separate folders. Nothing gets trashed.

I like to toss what I don't need. None of this "one day I might need that." Maybe the occasional scene in a novel I'm working on, but otherwise, out she goes. When I tell people this habit in my critique groups, they tend to pause, maybe suck in a breath, and say, "aren't you afraid you'll need it one day?" It's as if the time we spent writing that unsellable material was not wasted as long as we hoard the sentences in a folder somewhere.

Old material can be baggage. If you don't know this by now, you haven't written long . . . you write better the more you write. So why reach back to your kindergarten days to tap stories to use once you're at a college level? You've grown past that stage, so why dilute your fresh, more mature material with your childish phrases you stumbled through on your way up?

Throwing away the old frees you, actually forces you to have to create anew. That's where the magic comes from . . . that raw openness that comes from a blank screen. Like people who live in the past and fear the future, a writer who constantly tries to fall back on old work drags down his potential for success.

For instance, why keep five versions of your novel once it's published? Why keep feature articles from five years ago when they've been rejected ten times? Unless you want to remember how bad you were when you started, or have a sentimental attachment to a piece, why keep all your trials and prompts and practice pieces?

You are a writer, which means you can always come up with something new. Spinning words comes naturally. Don't be afraid to release old ways and out-dated work. Instead, look forward to deleting pieces that didn't come through for you. The trial and error stuff that makes you cringe when you read it again has no place in your files.

Stay edgy, sassy and sharp, always open-minded to original ideas. Old knives cut dull, if they cut at all. A keen new blade slices clean, making the job easier and the results prettier to behold. 


BECKY said...

Great advice, Hope! I honestly don't have that much old stuff, but I know getting rid of it would indeed be freeing. I think I'll work on that today! :)

Unknown said...

I love this advice. I hang onto deleted scenes or paragraphs as I'm editing a piece, in case I need the information to work in somewhere else. Once a final manuscript is drafted, though, hanging onto the snippings is like keeping eggshells after the cake is baked.

Decluttering is good for the psyche. Starting fresh feels great.



Jessica McCann said...

Great post, Hope. I'll admit I'm somewhat guilty of this, at least when it comes to my nonfiction. Yet, every few years I cull through my old files, tossing and recycling papers like a maniac. And it feels great, just like Elizabeth noted in her comment. I especially love your line, "Like people who live in the past and fear the future, a writer who constantly tries to fall back on old work drags down his potential for success." Wise words indeed. Thanks!

D.G. Hudson said...

Recycling of all that paper is a good thing. We also have to clean out the digital files, another place where clutter can build.

Good advice. When I downsized a few years ago, I had no choice but to throw out lots of old files and story information.

Michelle Mach said...

Such good advice, but so hard to do!

Have you seen what this artist did with her unpublished manuscript? She basically made it into an art piece. Seemed very brave to me--not sure I could have done it!


Kelly Robinson said...

Stephen King literally threw Carrie into the trash. If his wife hadn't found it, read it, and encouraged it, his writing career might never have been launched!

Anonymous said...

I must concur with you, Hope. My motto has always been "If in doubt, throw it out." I confess that I have taken that too far with appliances...don't ask about the three times I have repurchased a dehydrator. :)

Janet Hartman said...

I save old stories, but I usually rework them before sending them out. When I look at some really old stuff, I wonder how I ever thought they were ready to submit.

I don't save old versions of the same story unless the story has been published. I've started saving published versions when the same story or narrative is published more than once.