As a writer, aside from losing all my work (or thinking I have), what’s the one thing that is guaranteed to give me a mini heart attack, no matter the circumstances?
Let me tell you, my dear friends. It’s hearing another writer (usually someone who is starting out, but not always) say: “what I wrote was rubbish, so I delete it from my computer/shredded it/fed it to my dog.”
So PLEASE, ladies and gentlemen, fellow writers.
PLEASE, please, please don’t do this.
“But why?” you may ask and rightly so. After all, those lines you just threw away were yours to do with as you please. That’s the beauty of writing. You have total control. If you think it’s rubbish, you can bin it. If someone else thinks it’s rubbish, you can think they’re rubbish (note: but I do think you should always listen to criticism, at least as long as it’s constructive).
Well try looking at it like this. You may think that what you wrote is a huge pile of regurgitated alien bile with bits of rotting space-slug excrement thrown in for good measure, and perhaps that’s true. I’m really sorry if it is, as I’ve produced a few stinking piles of alien bile myself in my time. I know what it feels like. You never want to see those words again. Well fine. But don’t throw them away just yet.
Because guess what? When you put a whole lot of smelly (natural) leftovers into a pile and leave them long enough, they’ll compost. The resulting soil you get is so rich with nutrients that you can increase your chances of making things grow. It may stink a little, but the lovely flowers and plants you will get because you thought to reuse all those old vegetable peelings and broken eggshells will be totally worth it.
It’s the same with your writing.
Now I can’t guarantee that the terrible paragraphs will turn into beautifully-turned phrases by themselves. Some may remain horrid chunks of nothing full of adverbs and bad metaphors forever. That’s fine. Because some day down the line, you will be able to read them and pit them against your current work. They’ll show you how much you’ve progressed (and progress you will, young Padawan, through sweat and tears and hard work. 🙂 You’re welcome). If you feel like it, you can even go back and edit the offending prose just for the hell of it, congratulating yourself on how perceptive you’ve become. It’ll feel good, trust me. Don’t let the writing in itself make you cringe. You were younger, you didn’t know then what you know now. Would you go up to some stranger, hold up a drawing they did when they were five, and mock them about it? If you would, go take a very cold shower and reflect on your actions for a little. But to those of you who “of course wouldn’t do that!”, don’t do it to yourselves. Be kind. After all, you have to live with yourself forever, remember?
There is the possibility also that the piece of writing in question is really not that bad at all. You might be having a bad day when you decide to kill it, or something might’ve made you feel insecure about your abilities. You might be suffering from writer’s block and think that just because you can’t continue working on something now, you’ll never be able to touch it again. It just won’t work. The stress might get to you, and you might end up with a full-blown writing version of the Freezergate incident on this year’s Great British Bakeoff. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, contestant Diana took fellow-contestant Iain’s ice cream out of the freezer and apparently the whole dessert was ruined, so Iain threw it in the bin in a grand gesture filled with angst and drama… only to be told off by the judges for not presenting the rest of the cake, which was probably fine. I think this is a particularly relevant example for our topic today: he could have shown something for his efforts, even if it wasn’t perfect, but instead he chose to chuck it all away in a fit of rage. Result? He got kicked off the bakeoff.
So you may think it’s all over, all of it was for nothing, you’re just a worthless excuse of a writer and all you’ll ever write amounts to putrefying alien gloop.
If you’re serious about writing and perfecting your craft, then I can vouch that it’s not.
I’ve started many novels, short stories and poems in my 27 years of existence on this nifty little planet called Earth. I’ve also started fanfictions and posted them online, exposing myself to quite a lot of wrath when the next chapter didn’t come soon enough. Sometimes I even finished these pieces (yay!) but most of the time I didn’t (boo!). I think that on some level, some of my loved ones believe I’m faking this whole writing thing because I haven’t yet published the next best thing since Harry Potter. Please. I’m only going to say it once. Stop telling me to write the next Harry Potter. No self-respecting writer (and die-hard HP fan) likes to hear that (and I can’t count the number of times I have). There is only one Harry and he is awesome. My books will be awesome too, but a different kind of awesome. My own personal brand of spicy awesome. Okay? And if you’re telling me to replicate the money-making aspect, then is it because you’re expecting some for yourself?? Because I’m quite happy as I am right now. If you want millions, please go make them yourself. It might actually happen faster.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a shrine dedicated to my stories where I bow and pay homage every morning, thinking that what I write is the best thing since Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. It’s not and I only wish it was (Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches are yummy). I often hate what I write, but I do have that one steadfast rule, which I have obeyed for as long as I remember (yes, even as a child): I never throw any writing away. I have dozens of pages torn out of notebooks, and dozens more notebooks with only a few lines written in them. Most of the time I’m not impressed when I stumble across them, but occasionally I’ll pick one up, read it, let it sink in and think: “actually, that wasn’t so bad.” If I’m lucky, I might even remember the premise for the story I’d intended to write back then. The idea might stick in my head for a few days and I might write something more. The sentence that sparked it all might never end up in the finished story, but without it that story wouldn’t exist.
I also do this because I know I’m a nostalgic sucker who adores reading and looking at old creative projects. Even if I hate a story or a character outline, I keep it because I know that one day, I’ll pick it up and have a good laugh.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m having problems writing at the moment. My current projects annoy me. I have the first draft of an entire novel waiting to be edited and yet I can’t bear to look at it. My brain doesn’t seem capable of producing new ideas.
So at the beginning of last week, I decided to dive further into the past. I unearthed my first serious novel project, aborted part of the way through its thirteenth chapter some five long years ago. I can’t remember why I stopped writing it, but I’m pretty sure it was because I felt frustrated with my style of writing. The characters felt fake, the prose didn’t flow… I don’t know. So I left it and told myself I would move on to better things. I’d already revised the first few chapters so many times that I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore. But last Monday, I decided that five years was perhaps long enough…
… and to my pleasant surprise, it was. I could once again read my work as if it had been written by someone else, which made it a lot easier to spot what needed changing. I won’t lie and pretend that it’s easygoing, because sometimes it takes me over an hour just to work on one page. This thing has over 90 A4 pages so far and because I extensively planned it (something I never usually do, but am eternally grateful now as I know exactly where it is going) all those years ago, I know that I’m about halfway through, possibly less. It’s going to be a mammoth of a book-child. But that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to take my time, to get to know it again.
As my friends will no doubt tell you, I’m not the world’s most mature person. I delight in making dirty jokes and giggle uncontrollably when other people join in. I don’t dress like I belong in an office and do not possess much refinement apart from the fact that I’m capable of sitting up straight for long periods of time. But revisiting this particular writing project had made me realised I’ve acquired a good measure of depth of perspective since I started writing it at the age of 19. I can tell exactly why my main character seemed vapid at the time. I can pinpoint when the interactions between my protagonists don’t flow as smoothly as they should. I can fix it. Bit by bit, sentence by sentence, word by word.
I’m so very glad I didn’t throw it away. It’s the only thing currently saving me from the looming pit of writer’s block and I’m ever so grateful for it, even if nothing much does come of it in the end.
So please, fellow writer, consider what you’re about to do. Why are you really throwing that story away? Because it might have been the world’s greatest novel but nobody understands you? Newsflash: nobody likes a martyr, you silly hipster. Be kind to yourself, I can’t stress this enough. Until you show it to other people, your writing is between you and you, and no one else. The only person you’re hurting (aside from all those characters you lovingly created, even the ones who are thick as blankets and don’t know right from wrong) in the process is yourself. Your stories are your babies and nobody likes it when people throw babies away.
So go write now, and keep your new baby safe somewhere. You never know when you might like to pick it up again and help it grow some more.