When Is It Time to Let Your Old Work Go?

What do you do with your unpublished/unsold work? Where is your juvenilia? Do you treasure it, or let it go?

I’m a let-it-go person. My first two unpublished, and probably unpublishable novels are around here…somewhere. Well, the second one might be in a box in the mudroom. At least I think it made it onto the moving truck eleven years ago. I kind of hope it’s not, because I really don’t want anyone finding it and reading it when I die. (Let alone trying to publish it–that never works out well for the dead writer. I’m put in mind of some of Shirley Jackson’s early story drafts that were published posthumously. And isn’t there 3/4 of a Hemingway novel out there somewhere?) There are probably also drafts of that second novel on 3.5″ floppy disks in my office closet.

My very first unpublished novel may not even have made it onto a 3.5″ disk. I think I finished it in 1998. Before I wrote it, I read a Somerset Maugham autobiography that suggested that all writers should finish their first novel and then immediately put it away in a drawer. It’s only just this minute that I realized he said, “a drawer,” and not, “the trash.” So perhaps I shouldn’t have completely lost track of it.

I have a 17-year-old son who is embarrassed by everything he’s done in the past–the past being fifteen minutes ago, or longer. I’m not that bad, but I don’t feel the desire to go too far back and look at the writer I was. It took years and years and years for me to get that (third) first novel published. To get it good enough. While I’m very comfortable with reflecting on my own work, or poking fun at my old habits–the first 3 short stories and first 2 novels I wrote all had old-fashioned silver-handled vanity hand-mirror and brush sets in them!–in workshops or, well, here, I don’t necessarily care to see them on paper.

It’s a lot like travel. If I am not overburdened with luggage, I’ll take my SLR camera with me because I love, love, love to frame the world through the camera’s lens. But if I can’t take it, I don’t stress about it. The things I see and do live in my memories. There are times when I’ve consciously said, “I will remember how this looks and how it feels.” And I do. That’s enough.

I remember how it felt to write those books and stories. They are landmarks on my journey through the writing life, and I don’t need physical evidence of them. Bits and pieces of them survive in other work. Creativity is never, ever wasted. The words and ideas make their way through my fingers and travel out into the world. I guess I could go full-on dork and say I set them free and they take on their own lives. Or not. And I get to make new ones. Always new ones.

What’s your relationship with work from your past?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

16 thoughts on “When Is It Time to Let Your Old Work Go?

  1. I like to see the hint of the writer I am now or going to become. I hate seeing the dumb grammar and punctuation mistakes.

    I like that it can take me back and remember how excited I was to write that story.

    It cracks me up when I find something I totally forgot about, but I hear my voice in the piece.

    • You’re a brave writer-guy, Warren. That is an interesting thought about returning to listen for the voice, and it’s great how you can look back and see your original excitement. That’s significant.

  2. I never read my books after they’re out. I’m always afraid I’ll see several things I wish I’d done differently. Also, the difference between new Jim and now Jim is vast. He’s learned a a couple of things over the years, I do believe.

    • Well said, JSB. When I do readings from my published work, I always have to stop myself from editing as I read. While I should be concentrating on delivering a good performance, I’m thinking, “What was I thinking?!”

  3. I never bring out the trunk novels. In fact, I’ve left strict instructions that in the event of my death, they are NEVER to be made public. Like you, I’ve worked too hard to relive my earlier mistakes.

  4. A wise writer once told me, “The first novel is like the first waffle. Throw it away.” Doughy and unevenly browned is a pretty accurate description, all right.

    Five or six of my old novels are on 5 1/4″ floppy disks, with several more on 3.5 inchers. I just uncovered our old Kaypro 10 computer in deep storage. But am I tempted to fire it up and insert a dusty disk? Nah. In hindsight, I realize how clunky they were and why I accumulated hundreds of rejections. But as I studied the craft, each successive book improved.

    I do keep portfolios of my old articles in three-ring binders, artifacts from the days when freelancers sent snail mail queries to magazine editors along with published clips. When I re-read those, they’re not bad.

    I’m helping a bunch of new writers start a critique group, so I pulled out an article I’d gotten published in 1993 with tips about keeping critique groups productive. I was pleasantly surprised that the advice remained relevant, despite quaint references to “word processors” and “typewriters.”

    Embarrassment about old work is an indication of how much we’ve learned and progressed over time. And that’s a good thing. It would be awful to look back at old stories and think, “Gee, I USED to be pretty good.”

    • Rejections for those old novels are badges of honor, Debbie. The novels served you well.

      It would be an AWFUL experience to discover I was a better writer then. Now I really don’t want to look back!

      Also, depending on its condition, I bet you could get a sweet price for the Kaypro on eBay.

  5. I have one novel that hasn’t been pubbed that I still have hope for. After they’ve read excerpts, people keep asking when I’ll have it published.

    Unlike the original version, my 2nd attempt to get it pubbed, I actually plotted out the new story and rewrote the front half, but I stopped when other baubles glittered and distracted me. I haven’t gone back to it, but I might. That’s the only one I might attempt.

    The only other MS I haven’t sold will stay gone forever. Totally unredeemable. I think we all need to have those to remember where we came from. Like Jim said, about the new Jim and the now Jim (love that), I believe my best work is the next project.

    • Rewrites are always a possibility. I like JCO’s description of revising as a re-visioning, or a re-seeing of the story. Distance can help so much with that. Do write about it if you go back. You always have such original stories!

  6. They say we need to write a million words before we can become a good writer. (Various people have said this in the past, with the number of words sometimes fluctuating.) Basically, we learn to write by writing. That means our first attempts won’t be good, but they should get better as time goes on.

    The books I started to write in my teens (I never finished any of them – I fell into the ‘plotting’ hole, and once I knew what was happening, I didn’t feel the need to write them anymore) will never be finished or published. The two I wrote in my 20s will also never be published – one isn’t good, and the other is now irrelevant. The second was the first full novel I wrote in my current series, but it occurred later in the series than the one I’m querying now. And once I’d fleshed out the characters better, I realized that the original novel would never happen. It would go against the characters that had developed.

    I, too, have stories I can’t really access anymore. Either they were written on paper and are lost in the depths of my garage or basement, or they’re on 5 1/4- or 3.5-inch disks. I still have my old computers – I could probably read them again, although the ones written on the Commodore 64 may be harder to access. I’m not sure I still have a copy of that writing program I used way back then. I managed to move a few of these into Word when I still had a computer with disk slots, but I couldn’t get all of them moved over. I printed some out, but these printouts are now also buried somewhere in my garage or basement.

    But going back over the stories I wrote in my 30s and onward, I can see the improvement there. They’re deeper, more nuanced, and just plain better written.

    To answer the original question: No. I never throw anything out (intentionally). They may never be published, but they were still a lot of work. I like having them still in existence – even if unavailable right now – just because they show how far I’ve come. And some ideas might be salvageable, someday.

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