What Happens to Abandoned Stories

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what’s become of all those stories I wrote over the past few years, the ones I finished a rough draft of and then set aside “to cool,” but then never returned to edit. They haven’t vanished, that’s one thing. I’ve lost a few of them in the labyrinth of several computers and inefficient backups. I’ve misremembered quite a few, thinking they were further along or finished when they weren’t, and some that were finished when I was sure I hadn’t gotten that far. But for the most part, I was surprised by how familiar these stories seem to me. Some even more familiar than the stories I’ve sold.

And I started to realize why: without getting them out the door, I still think about them a lot. Sold stories or stories that have made their rounds? I don’t think about them much. Now and then, I feel a little thrill remembering one, thinking, “Oh yeah, I love that story!”

But the abandoned stories come back all the time. I don’t work on them; I fester on them. Their core ideas pop back up again and again, they haunt my brainstorming sessions, and hypnotize me with possible solutions to problems I’d considered unsolvable. Still, I avoid them, trying to think up newer, shinier things.

Abandoned stories loiter. They occupy a shockingly large chunk of my mind, even when they’re out of sight and seem out of mind. But they’re there, hiding in the shadows, in the indented coils of my brain, whispering about themselves. Hey, you know what was a cool idea? Me, they whisper. You know what you’re itching to work on? Me again. 

For years, I ignored those whispers, because I was terrified I’d get sucked into a whirlpool of edits that would never end. I’d had stories like that in the past, stories I couldn’t get to work, that I beat my head against for months (or years) trying to fix without success. I got burned by those failures, so now when I face a short work I’m not sure how to fix, I get paralyzed, assume it’s worthless garbage, and toss it aside “until it comes to me.” It seems all too easy to start fixing and get sucked in, lift my head in six months and think: Shit. Where’d the time go?

But I also know, looking back, that there have been times when I’ve gotten a ton of work out, and even sold some of them. When I couldn’t come up with new work because my brain wasn’t in a “doing new things” mode (a.k.a. pregnancy brain–it’s a thing, folks), I found editing the perfect balm. It’s writing and yet not so overwhelming as starting from scratch. I got SO MUCH OUT during that period, because I focused solely on that. I didn’t worry about things being perfect (I do have that issue at times), and I didn’t worry about originality. I just focused on doing my best and getting anything I could honestly call “good enough” out. It led to my first pro-sale.

That’s not to say that everything I’ve ever composed needs to be submitted. I have had more than a few dead stories: poor, sad things I’ve written under an imposed deadline or as an exercise that just haven’t hit. Those stories just die quietly, and I let them go. They don’t haunt me.

But I’m starting to realize that the difficult stories, the awkward stories, the oddly finished stories: they’re not dead. The abandoned stories in the drawer beneath my desk aren’t really gone, even if I wish they were. They’re still alive. They’re still occupying mental space, waiting for their turn in the light.

Abandoned stories don’t let you forget about them. They just fill up more and more subconscious shelving space, until it’s impossible to ignore them any longer.

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