I should have probably included this in my articles about creative blocks and the origins of stories, since it’s fairly heavily related to both topics. But, anyway, this is an article about the importance of keeping your old unfinished stories and all of the story ideas you come up with, but never really use (especially the ones you never use). I’m guessing that some of this stuff is probably fairly obvious, but I can’t think of another topic to write an article about at the moment.
This is probably different for every fiction and/or comics writer, but I’m guessing that you probably have a fairly large “slush pile” of unfinished stories and unused story ideas. If you’re anything like me, they probably consist of lots of scribbled notes and sketches scattered within numerous different notebooks. It’s always a good idea to write them down unless the idea is seriously memorable – even then, it’s better to play it safe and make a note of it.
There are lots of reasons why a particular story idea might not work out – either you’re not sure about how to write it properly, it doesn’t quite feel right or you’ve started to write it but ended up losing interest. Sometimes you’ll abandon it when it’s just an idea and sometimes you’ll actually try to write it – either way, it isn’t a total waste of your time.
Keeping your failed stories can prove to be extremely useful too. For example, there is a fantasy comic I tried writing in March called “Tuladore” – I was extremely enthusiastic about it and it started out well. Really well. In fact, I made about twelve pages of it in just two days….and then it just kind of ran out of steam.
Seriously, I just lost all enthusiasm for it. I was sitting there, trying to muster up the enthusiasm to draw/write the rest of page thirteen of it when I acidentally spilt or dropped something on the page. Faced with the prospect of re-drawing the first panel of page thirteen, I just thought “screw this!” [not in those exact words…] and returned to the comic I’d been working on before I started “Tuladore”.
As comics go, “Tuladore” was an abject failure. But it wasn’t a total waste of my time, since I was able to recycle it a week or two later when I had writer’s block and couldn’t work out what the next self-contained chapter of “Somnium” would be about. Having a ready-made, but abandoned, fictional world and main character came in very handy. I was able to keep “Somnium” going for a couple of days until I could think of some better story ideas by writing a random crossover chapter with “Tuladore”.
This is why you should keep your old story ideas and failed stories – they’re an essential reserve of ideas which can be plundered for “spare parts” whenever you’re running low on inspiration. In a way, it’s a form of recycling and it’s certainly good for the environment of your imagination too.
But how do I recycle my failed stories?
1) Mix Them together: Seriously this can work wonders and I’m not just talking about writing crossover stories either (although I’ve written an article about that too).
It’s truly amazing how an abandoned or failed story idea may not work on it’s own, but can work absolutely perfectly when you combine it with either another abandoned idea or with your current ideas for stories.
Some story ideas don’t fail because they aren’t good, they just fail because they’re incomplete. They’re just missing something. Well, that “something” may well be in one of your other failed story ideas – whether it’s a change of setting, or better characters or maybe even a different genre it could be the thing which saves your story.
2) Plunder your unfinished stories for useful descriptions/senteces etc..: If you really like one of your story ideas but it has still ended up being nothing more than a few unfinished, but very well-written, pages – then all is not lost. You’ve come up with lots of interesting descriptions/characters/metaphors/settings which, with a few alterations, can be re-used in one of your later stories. Since your unfinished story will probably never see the light of day, no one can accuse you of recycling or just repeating parts of your earlier works.
3) Just wait: This is sort of similar to the first point on this list, but it’s slightly different. Sometimes a story idea will fail because you just don’t know how to write it – this is probably more common when you’re less experienced at writing, but it still happens to experienced writers (yes, even Neil Gaiman – although I regret to say that I haven’t read “The Graveyard Book”.)
The trick here is to just move on to other creative projects, but keep your failed story idea somewhere safe. A few years later, when you have more experience, you might work out a way to make your old story idea work.
4) Enjoy the relaxation which comes with having an “idea buffer”: This is kind of a very indirect way of recycling your failed stories, but knowing that you have a stock of story ideas which you can rely on in an absolute dire emergency can really take some of the stress out of writer’s block. Yes, you might not actually end up recycling any of your failed stories, but know that they’re there and that you can recycle them if you have to can feel surprisingly reassuring when you’ve got writer’s block.
5) Laugh at them: If they’re your really early stories, then they may be filled with totally unintentional comedy and hilariously bad writing. Most of the “serious” stuff I wrote when I was 16/17 (let alone the truly awful horror and dystopic sci-fi fiction I wrote when I was 13-15…) always makes me laugh when I re-read it.
As well as cheering you up and making your current writing look better by comparison, this can also be a good thing to show to your readers if you have a writing/comics-related blog in order to point out that most writers start out by writing badly and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s all part of the learning process. It’s also absolute comedy gold too.
Well, I suppose I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t include part of one of my hilariously crappy old stories here (complete with the original grammatical errors too). This is from a ghost story called “Christmas At Rackthorne” which I wrote when I was seventeen. I was more than a little bit pretentious when it came to writing back then. Enjoy:
“To Anna, this all seemed like something out of an old novel. She wouldn’t have been surprised if she had caught a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes prowling around on the trail of some intricate case or if she had seen Heathcliff at the end of the vast mist-shrouded gardens, bellowing for his lost love. As she pondered these things, she heard the clang of the dinner gong – such novelty. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
A sumptuous feast had been laid out on the vast dining table, there were dishes of all varieties and Anna couldn’t resist grinning at the luxury of it. All the other residents were already seated at the table and Anna apologised for her lateness before sitting next to the youthful Jack, who was admiring his reflection in the silver cutlery.
After they had consumed several courses of the finest food, Lord Rackthorne stood up and announced:
“We shall be going to the main lounge for cigars and brandy shortly, but first, we must have a toast to both you, my guests and to Christmas.”
This was followed swiftly by the clinking of wineglasses. Anna didn’t usually drink, especially after a bad experience in her youth involving the raiding of a spirit cabinet – and it definitely wasn’t at a séance. However, it felt wrong to break the quaint atmosphere of the place by refusing the wine. It wasn’t bad wine actually and there was probably a whole raft of jargon that you could have used to describe it. ”
Anyway, I hope that this was useful. Just remember, everyone fails every now and then – but a failed story isn’t always a waste of your time…