Gather around the fire. Let’s tell a ghost story.
I have a middle grade novel that releases next year. The series follows characters that train for their potential stories by attending Protagonist Preparatory. In the book, my main character stumbles upon the Sepulcher. But instead of hosting dead people, the school’s catacombs are full of dead books.
All those books you started but never finished in high school? First chapters that never quite took off? Each one appears in the Sepulcher with a poorly designed cover and hundreds of blank pages. Naturally, there is no more haunting fate than to be one of the unfinished characters who wanders the world of imagination forever…
… pretty spooky, right? Bringing it back to the real world, don’t we treat our unfinished and unpublished work the same way? Like ghosts? We do our best to forget them, but oftentimes they exist as haunting reminders of moments when we failed. It’s time to have an honest conversation about how we can make our unpublished and unfinished work a strength in our writing arsenal. Here are a few strategies:
- Using unfinished projects as fuel.
As I wrote this article, I read back through a lot of old writing. It helped me realize one very important thing about myself as a writer: I’m a brilliant thief.
Some of the characters in those early efforts appear in my first published book. Under different names, sure, but their overall personalities are virtually identical. Several concepts echo through my work as well. Stealing from yourself is a valuable, necessary skill. Sometimes it’s just a matter of recycling concepts instinctually. Other times, though, I find it’s incredibly valuable to purposefully walk back through my own writing to see what I can find.
Does the 4th grade book you wrote about your bulldog deserve a look (like my first book pictured above)? Probably not. But you should still grab your thieving kit and see if there are a few valuables in the dusty vaults of more recent writing that might just shine if you set them in a new project.
- Positive growth checks.
Self-care is an important thing in our industry. It is notoriously difficult to stay in the right mental space to continue working—and succeeding—at our craft. Looking back at old work can really build motivation.
One of my unfinished projects from college actually has the following sentence: His eyes combed the gargantuan columns and voluminous archways. Ouch. A part of me wishes I had burned those words a long time ago. But it exists as a reminder to me: I have grown by leaps and bounds. I am getting better. So are you. We can use old work as a growth check for just how far we’ve come.
- Zombie stories… Also known as: stockpiling resources.
Let me tell you another ghost story. Back in 2014, I was writing my second novel. I had already taken one novel through the querying process without finding a home. I was much more confident in the book I was working on at the time. So I started queries with a lot of confidence.
… and collected fifty straight rejections. Zero interest from agents. It was haunting. I still remember combing back through chapters of that book, shaking my head in confusion. This was a really fun book. Why didn’t anyone want it?
It helps to remember that some books are zombies. I have always believed that no work is wasted. Not just because of the importance of practice, but sometimes because you can literally revive old resources to continue building your career. A few years later, my agent asked me if I had anything besides young adult books. I pitched her that project and she loved it. We went through a few revisions and submitted that story to my editor. She bought it in a pre-empt.
Publishing is funny like that.
With each of these strategies, I’m hoping to make a point: publishing is a long con. The gatekeepers will change. Literary tastes will transform. You can get fifty rejections for a project that goes on to sell for thousands of dollars. It happens every, single day.
So if nothing else, I hope this acts as a good mental push toward changing the way you view those unpublished and unfinished stories. Too often we treat them like tangible reminders of our shame. Reminders that we were not good enough, when in reality they’re often just road signs pointing to our eventual success. Take some time this week to dig back through some old work, look at how you have grown, and sharpen your tool box.
I can’t wait to read what you come up with next.