Monday, May 9, 2011

Nothing Creative Is Ever Wasted

I know I've said this before, and more than a few times. I've probably blogged on it before, but I'm not afraid of repeating myself because this idea does merit repetition.Marion used to say that the first million words were practice. I doubt she took her own proclamation literally. It's both a daunting prospect and a relief. Daunting: You mean I have to write ten 100,000 word books before I get anything right? A relief: I have lots and lots of time in which to develop as an author. So what do we do with those ten books (or those hundred 10K short stories)?

Well, occasionally we prevail over the proclamation and we get it right. We sell a story and see it in print. Every blue moon it's someone's first story. OMG, as my kids would say. I don't know about how your mind works, but I immediately start expecting the same from myself. I forget that a career entails slow steady improvement in skill, the gradual accumulation of experience, and lots of mistakes. If I'm not getting rejection letters, I'm not taking the risks I need to become better.

At any rate, by the time I sold my first novel, I'd accumulated a trunk full of writing -- novels, shorts, fragments. Most of them were unsellable, not just because of the amateurish caliber of the prose but because the ideas themselves were "half-baked," poorly conceived and developed. As I learned to revise, I was able to take some of these stories, excavate the heart of them -- whatever originally turned me on about them -- and completely or substantially rewrite them. (Northlight is an example.) By far the larger portion remain relegated to that trunk.

This is important, as important as it is to not sit around doing nothing while waiting to hear back from an editor. (You should be hard at work on your next book!) The stories stayed in the trunk because by the time I had the critical skills to see what was wrong with them, my creative skills had grown as well. The new story ideas, plots, landscapes, and characters I was coming up with were far and away better than what I'd done even a year ago. I chalked the old ones up as Marion's practice wordage and moved on to something that was the best I could do now. I've seen writers cling to that first unsold (and unsellable) novel, pouring all their time and energy into sequel after sequel. I also know writers who began with multi-volume series that were too complex and demanding for their skill level, and then set them aside to hone their writing craft on more skill-appropriate projects.

So what's this about nothing creative being wasted? First of all, there's Marion's practice principle. Then there are stories that you're not ready to write yet but they're grand and nifty stories, worth coming back to. Then there are stories that are never going to work, but have bits and pieces that still speak to you. I think of them as a sort of pirate's chest, a jumble of plastic beads and fake rubies, Spanish doubloons and splinters of Ygddrasil. I'll rifle through the chest, setting aside the things with rhinestones, looking for flakes of true gold. I'll strip away the settings of plastic and tin and hold in my hands a tiny seed. Sometimes it's not ready to sprout, but sometimes it's exactly what I need to plant in the carefully tilled loam that is my writing career today.

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