In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
“The next night, when I came home from school, Tabby had the pages. She’d spied them while emptying the wastebasket”
It may be the most famous Stephen King story of them all. He got the idea for Carrie, started writing the story, and immediately struggled. He struggled hard. He didn’t know anything about high school girls. He didn’t identify with the protagonist. The writing got hard, and he got frustrated, and one day he grabbed the pages he’d typed so far of Carrie and threw them in the trash.
Later on, he came home to find the pages retrieved from the wastebasket, by his wife Tabitha. She had read what he’d written so far, and not only liked it, but was extremely interested to see where the story went next. “You have something here,” she said to Stephen.
Isn’t it weird to think what might have happened if Tabitha King didn’t save the pages from the trash can, if Stephen didn’t ever finish Carrie? I think it’s pretty safe to say he would have been a publishing sensation at some point, maybe not with Carrie but with ‘Salem’s Lot or something else. But maybe he wouldn’t have. No Carrie might have set him back a few extra years, might have not allowed for interest in his other novels. You just never know. The universe aligned with Stephen King that day when Tabitha just happened to peer inside the waste basket and retrieve the pages of Carrie. The book went on to be published, become a hit, be turned into a blockbuster horror film. And it made Stephen King a boatload of cash.
The moral of this story may be simple, may be obvious, but it’s essential: Don’t. Throw. Any. Of. Your. Writing. Away.
Even your oldest, worst fiction. Even your crap.
Now this is a little easier to do in 2018 than it was in the early 1970s. When you write everything on a typewriter, it’s easier to lose those loose pages. It’s easier to misplace that story you wrote two years ago and forgot where you put it.
When you have everything on your computer, it’s always there. As long as your system doesn’t crash and you don’t drop your fifteen-year-old file in the trash icon, you’re probably fine.
So if all of your writing is resting soundly on your hard-drive somewhere, I’d like to take this advice a step further: copy and paste all your years’ worth of short stories, novels, poetry into a specific folder that contains everything. EVERYTHING.
You never know what piece might speak to you in the moment. Once in a while, when I have time, I’ll pull up an old unpublished story I haven’t looked at in a few years, and I’ll spend an afternoon revising it, cleaning it up, adding new dialogue, expanding the beginning and ending. Twice I have done this, sent it out, and gotten the piece published. You just never know.
At the very least, reading through some of your old work might spark an idea for a newer piece, something with a similar concept but maybe more complex, more involving. There is a creepy monster story I wrote in sixth grade that I re-wrote from scratch about fifteen years later, which I then sent out to a few horror magazines and got accepted just days later. I am not suggesting you take a story you wrote when you were seven and try to get it published. You should only send out your best work, at all times, but there can be nuggets of great things in any of your older writing, and you can either polish it up considerably, or start from scratch.
I save everything. It’s in my nature.
This last year I’ve been working hard on my MFA thesis novel, a young adult thriller that’s gone through a lot of major revisions. The first draft was 110,000 words and had a second act that I cut entirely from the second draft. I’ve never done anything like this before, nothing close. 82 pages of writing, yes, 82 PAGES OF WRITING was cut from the manuscript on one sad Monday afternoon, and it genuinely took me about a week to get over the pain. I had to start the second act from scratch, basically, and that first revision came in a lot shorter, at about 75,000 words. The third draft I built up to 82,000 words. And then I’ve been cutting back for the next three drafts. I am almost done with the sixth draft, and the manuscript is currently at 67,000 words.
A novel is always a work-in-progress, at least until it’s officially published. Sometimes it takes a few drafts to find the story you want to tell, to find the scenes that best serve your narrative. You can’t be delicate about what stays in your story and what goes out of it. You can’t be afraid to Kill Your Darlings. You have to do everything it takes to make the story soar, no matter what. Even it takes you ten drafts or more.
At the same time, it makes me so happy that those early drafts, especially that first one with the 82 pages never seen again, ARE STILL THERE. They’re still saved. Maybe I’ll pull them out again one day and read them. Maybe those 82 pages could serve for a different novel, or a different short story.
You. Never. Know.
So don’t panic if you have to cut big chunks from your novel, and don’t feel like those old unpublished stories you wrote at the beginning of your career should go in the trash, never to be seen again.
Hold onto your writing. You’ll be glad you did!