Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Guest Post | Don't throw it out – the value of revisiting old work by A.J. O'Connell

I'm happy to welcome A.J. O'Connell to Book Den today!

Sometimes I hear writers saying that they want to throw out stories that they wrote a long time ago, things that might be old or embarrassing or that the writers for some reason no longer like.

Please, I want to tell them, please don’t do this.

I wrote the first draft of my novella Beware the Hawk in 2003 and 2004 while I was working with my very first writing group. It was my first attempt at getting serious feedback on a piece of writing. At the time I was just learning the ins and outs of telling a story. I was figuring out how to write dialogue and learning to build scenes.

Then for some reason, five pages from the end, the project was abandoned and ended up in The File.

If you’re a writer, you have some equivalent of The File. Maybe for you it’s The Drawer or the Box or maybe even The DropBox, but it’s the same thing. It’s like prison for creative ventures - it’s where your projects go to cool their heels until they are rehabilitated, or maybe, if they are very bad, to die.

For me, it’s The File, a file folder on my ancient Blueberry iBook G3, which currently lives under a couch in my house.

In the following years, I thought — every once in a while – about paroling Beware the Hawk.

I’d think “I should really write those last five pages,” but I never would. The most I’d do would be to review the piece, see how much my writing had changed and how much work the piece needed. Then I’d close the file and shove the iBook back under the couch.

About a year and a half ago, I briefly considered emptying The File for good, deleting everything that I had written before joining my Masters of Fine Arts graduate program in 2009. The stories weren’t good enough, I thought. They were written before I knew what I was doing, before I had a formal education about literature, and before I understood that adverbs were bad. They didn’t meet my current standards.

But something stayed my hand. And that was lucky, because, last summer, a friend, now an editor with a small publishing company, asked me to send her a copy of Beware the Hawk. She remembered it from the old writing group, of which she was also a member, and was thinking about releasing it as an e-book.

I was ecstatic, but I also dragged my feet when it came to revisions. The task seemed too big. The writing seemed too different from my current style. I was also nearly 10 years older, and the things that were important to me when I first wrote Beware no longer influenced me in the same ways. It seemed like I’d have to write a new book, but I didn’t count on something.

After a few days of rewrites and edits, I began to notice that the book’s eight years in The File had somehow not been wasted. For eight years, the story had been dormant, but marinating in my brain. The characters had been growing and deepening without my knowledge, and when I began to work on them again, I found that I understood them better than I had in 2004. I found that I had more compassion for Leo, the spy with the substance abuse problem, and tolerated less crap from my protagonist. I also found that the settings had developed more fully in my mind’s eye. I could see them more clearly now than when I invented them.

I had grown, but my story had grown with me. When I realized that, the rewrites were a lot easier.

This was all a surprise to me. In grad school I’d been concentrating on writing and workshopping two literary novels. I never thought that something from The File would be published first.

So authors, please don’t get rid of the projects you’ve consigned to your File. Bring them up for parole once in a while. One of them might get a new lease on life.

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, A.J.!


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  1. Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer!

  2. Great post, A.J. I'm tempted to go rescue some old writing now ...

  3. Definitely do it! You never know what you might discover.

  4. I love how your brain kept developing your story. :) Sometimes if I'm trying to solve a problem at bedtime, I'll wake up with the answer. I think it is fascinating that can happen with your writing! It's pretty inspiring.

  5. One of my professors in grad school told me there was a lot to be gained by getting a lot of feedback on a story and then forgetting the project for a while. I didn't believe her, though! I should email her and let her know that she was right.

  6. Awesome blog, A.J.

    I only hope I find the same peace with my story when re-writes come along.

    My how time flies.

  7. Amazing piece of advice! The task of revising when we've changed a lot is daunting, but something wonderful can still come out of it. For the most part. With lots of effort and some luck.

    I need to apply myself to this...

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ron @ Stories of my life

  8. Great guest post. I agree that some ideas just need more time to percolate. Sometimes stories that aren't ready to be told years ago come back and surprise us when we least expect it.


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