What’s the newly enlightened writer to do?
Old, abandoned stories are very much like ex-lovers. There was a time when they made your heart sing and your hormones percolate.
But it didn’t quite work out. You either dumped them or they ditched you. Either way, there’s an explanation that’s often left hanging, perhaps unaddressed and never fully understood.
Only when you’ve moved on to the next level – in love and in literature – will that explanation make any sense to you.
Remember that as we plow into the scary proposition of returning to our lost stories now that we have a clue what we’re doing.
If you haven’t published a novel yet, then you’re a first novelist.
Even if you’ve written an attic full of completed manuscripts. The term “first novelist,” as used by reviewers, agents and publishers, is a misnomer.
In my case, I had six novels yellowing away on a shelf beneath a stack of rejection slips before I got that life-changing call from my agent… and became a first novelist in this context.
Nobody sells their first manuscript. Nobody.
Which means, everybody has a backlog of stories they once loved enough to actually write (sometimes that process lasts longer than some of those discarded relationships), and often those stories haunt us.
Sometimes we admit that they sucked. Sometimes we cling to the belief that the world isn’t fair.
And then comes a moment when you know what you didn’t know then.
What published novelists usually have in common is this: something – practice, old age, or a bombshell of a realization about what makes stories work – has enlightened them. Raised their awareness and jacked their storytelling abilities (combined with a healthly dose of timing, perseverance and luck) to the point that they’ve actually sold something.
Such enlightenment takes many forms. For me, and for many Storyfix readers, it was something called The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, which pretty much covers the gamut of what there is to know about telling stories at a publishable level
That story that didn’t sell? I promise you, one or more of those Six Core Competencies was lacking. Even if one or more of them was stellar.
Knowing and doing are quite different, of course.
But knowing always comes first.
Once you know, you might venture back into that dark abyss of embalmed manuscripts and consider a do-over. You might ask yourself: what’s here worth saving? What might I have done differently… better… that would have put the story over the top?
The question is a little like considering if you want to go back to a spouse or partner that dumped you and try again, or set out to find a new lover.
Things look different on the other side of enlightenment. That lover you thought was so hot? Maybe not so much, now that you know.
That’s the first question you must ask yourself in that situation, or relative to your old story: is he/she/it (your story) really worth it? Or can I do better elsewhere?
The key lies in understanding why those stories tanked.
Maybe you were trying to make a Jimmy Choo purse out of a possum’s ass. Having a great story to tell is every bit as important as having the chops to tell it greatly.
You need both. And that is, perhaps, what you didn’t know then that you fully understand now.
So how do you know, now that you know?
So… was it the story, or was it you? And, on either count, could things be different this time?
Here’s the Great Truth of the Six Core Competencies as they pertain to the unpublished or B-list author:
One or more of the four elemental core competencies – concept, character, theme or story structure – must be exceptionally compelling, original and mind-blowing. If all four are simply good, that probably isn’t enough to get you published, it merely blends you in the crowd. Agents and publishers aren’t looking to add to the crowd, they’re looking for a home run to emerge from it.
And… both of the two execution-driven core competencies – scene execution and writing voice – need to be rendered at a professional level of excellence. Doesn’t need to be John Updike, but it can’t have a amateur moment anywhere on the pages.
That’s the ante-in. The bar you must reach. Now that the clouds have parted, you can see how high it is and what it will take to get there.
Did your abandoned story meet those standards?
You thought so back then… but how about now? Now that you know?
Too often our old stories are based on something we thought was a killer idea, but lacked the depth and sub-text and theme of a publishable novel. You know now that an idea alone does not a great story make, and that even stellar characterization without a compelling dramatic landscape is nothing more than a series of vignettes with no outcome.
One of my losers was about the Kennedy assassination. Yeah, like there weren’t enough of those out there. I figured the guys who knew the truth were getting long in the tooth, and perhaps one of them might find religion at the eleventh hour and confess the whole thing in a diary in an effort to save his mortal soul. When he dies his son finds the diary, tries to take it to the press to expose the truth, and runs head-on with the continuing conspiracy.
Instant Robert Ludlum meets Nelson Demille. Or so I thought.
But it tanked. Not only was my Big Idea not big enough, the other five core competencies were as vanilla as a Dick Cheney version of the National Anthem.
In fact, in looking at all six of my retired stories, I realized that they weren’t worth the time and effort. That bigger and better stories lay ahead, and that I was a far more enlightened writer in going there instead.
And then I got published.
Our old stories are a gift, actually. They paved the path of our learning, they sharpened skills that we would later need. They were the currency of the dues we are required to pay before they let us into the game for real.
A wise old editor once told me (in the rejection letter for that Kennedy manuscript) that nothing in the work of a real writer is ever wasted. Maybe he was right.
So thank those old manuscripts, say a prayer over their grave and move on.
Unless… the chemistry is still there and you realize you blew a shot at something special. Something you now possess the skills to write well enough. Second chances depend on that very same learning curve.
And the next time you see your ex, just smile and say thanks. Because, regardless of whose fault it was, you get it now. The future and a bigger, better story awaits.
Want more Six Core Competencies? Click here to read blurbs, reviews and pre-order my new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” coming from Writers Digest Books in February.