Friday, 16 April 2010

Old Manuscripts

(Imported from my post yesterday on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

What do you do with old manuscripts?  I don’t mean crinkly old medieval manuscripts, I mean the manuscripts every writer owns, precious but useless piles of paper that represent months if not years of work – the forlorn not-dead-but-hardly-breathing remains of BOOKS THAT DID NOT MAKE IT.   I have at least six. 

I can’t bear to throw them out, yet there is absolutely zero chance of them ever being published.  Not only were they never good enough, they’re a stage of me which I’ve outgrown, like an old chrysalis, and I couldn’t fit back in.  On top of that, they’re too old-fashioned. 

Take a look at this:

An electric bell began to ring, violently, without stopping.  “Assembly!”
Another rush, this time for the classroom door.  No teachers about yet.  The corridor brimmed with people.  Tall arrogant prefects and groups of scruffy-looking blazer-clad boys.  First-form boys looking aggressive but clean, like choirboys playing rugger.  The little girls were being pushed aside in the rush: Linda caught sight of a frightened face near the wall. Noise and laughter echoed like sounds in a swimming pool, saturating the corridor clad in its dirty cream paint and pock-marked notice boards.
            The wide double doors to the hall were propped open: the flood surged in, slowed, broke into individuals who walked with more or less decorum to their places.
            Coughing: shuffling.  The slide of the khaki drugget underfoot.  Herringbone pattern of woodblocks showing through a split seam.  Mr Green, the music teacher, coming in talking over his shoulder to Miss Sykes: movement of interest among the girls.  Mr Green was popular: he was married but rumoured to be in love with Miss Sykes, and it made the older girls jealous.  He sat down at the organ, grinned at Mr Harvey who was up on the stage fixing hymn numbers, and made the organ groan breathily.  Then he made it squeak. Laughter interrupted the general chatter.
            The Head came in, wearing a black gown over his suit and banged for silence.  He was smiling with a rather forced cheerfulness.  The noise gradually faded into loud shushings from boys who knew the safe ways of being noisy. Precarious silence.

Yes, I wrote this – about thirty years ago.  It’s not badly written, and it was then a fairly accurate representation of the beginning of a new term at a completely ordinary grammar school.  Now – well, it’s just possible that some schools do still have blazers and prefects and electric bells, but I bet they’re not in the state sector; they won’t be holding quasi-religious assemblies for the whole school, the way it happened in my day; I don’t know when I last saw a ‘drugget’ (amazing word); and head teachers no longer wear gowns. 

So, sadly, even in the unlikely case that I do decide to write a new story with a school setting, I can never use this passage.  My personal memories and experiences of school are too out of date to be useful.  (A lot of amateur writers don’t realise this, and rely upon distant memories and – worse still – recollections of the sort of books they themselves read as children, and waste their time producing manuscripts that seem dusty and old-fashioned.  I’ve read manuscripts where it’s been quite obvious the only reason the action is set in 1975 is because that’s when the writer was a child. Unless there’s a valid plot-related reason to set your book in 1975, you had better not do so. )

All the same, I can’t bring myself to chuck the manuscript in the recycling.  (It was called ‘The Outsiders’, Reader, and was a supernatural thriller about an unpopular girl who attracts – erm – the wrong sort of friends.  The writing was good in parts, but the structure was a mess.)

Then there was the Alan Garner-y one about the children who meet a strange fugitive in the woods, who turns out to be on the run from the death-aspect of the Triple Moon Goddess (yes, her again) – and involved standing stones, unfriendly elves with golden faces, owls, ruins, and mazes.  And there was one about the girl who finds her way through a picture into a magical jungle.  I really loved this one for a few years, but looking at it now I see it’s appallingly overwritten.  The jungle found its way into my prose, and you could choke to death on the descriptive writing.  Only my mother could ever have had the patience to read it.  No one else will ever want to do so, nor would I wish it – so why can’t I throw the thing out?  Why?  Why?

There they sit, taking up much-needed space in the drawer, too embarrassing and poorly written to re-read myself, but once so worked over, so dearly beloved!  And so I ask again –

What do you do with old manuscripts?  What do you do? 


  1. Oh Katherine I keep them! I have piles of them too, and I keep every last banal scrap. Just think how fascinating it would be to look at Emily and Charlotte Bronte's juvenilia? To see when a writer's passions & preoccupations begin? You can't throw them out. One day someone will do a Ph.d on you, and think how valuable all your manuscripts will be to them. It would be selfish to discard them! think of posterity :)

  2. Well, I'm no Bronte! But actually I'm in no danger of throwing them out. In some rather forlorn way,I still love them.

  3. What happened to my long comment? Did you ever see it, Kath?

  4. I did indeed, Mary - but it was on ABBA, and is still there. Box files would be great, if I had anywhere to store them... at the moment, all my old m/s are stuffed in drawers (which barely open), along with vast numbers of files containing notes on every aspect of viking, native american and medieval life. None of which I want to part with.
    Need to reorganise!

  5. I recycle them. No, not in writing terms, in what an awful waste of paper terms. I used to keep them but like you I discovered that as writers we are constantly growing (evolving or maybe de-volving) and we 'outgrow' our old work that never quite said what we wanted it to say. I still stubbornly keep the bits I edit out of my WIPs but there too I know that I'll never actually use any of it.
    I think ideas that don't work in one thing can work in another but those we keep in our heads and they evolve with us until finally we hit upon the right way to present them.

  6. I once left a pile of writing behind, when I had to leave a house in a hurry and was never able to go back to retrieve them. It makes me blush to think that someone might have read them. It makes me cringe to think someone might have read them and laughed.

    Artwork presents the same problem; I have a flat file full of drawings and paintings. Every year or so, I go through it and ruthlessly throw old, bad work away. I've learned there's no point in keeping what may be seen, unexplained, by unknown, unkind others.