“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
—William S. Burroughs
When a story just doesn’t work there’s only one option, you have to kill it.
Now before you start screaming at me just let me finish the thought. I don’t mean when you hit a hard spot or you encounter a bit of the old writers block that you take your story out back and put a bullet in its head. That would be insanity. I am a firm believer in setting those stories aside, writing something completely different, and then coming back to the trouble spot with fresh eyes. Nine times out of ten that does the trick with no muss or fuss.
Then there are the busted stories.
When I was 14 my father got me a foot locker for Christmas. Actually it’s a cube roughly two feet by two feet and is garishly anointed with the colors and symbols of the University of Michigan. For several years I primarily used it as my porn bunker.
Don’t know what a porn bunker is?
Damn kids, fine I’ll explain but pay attention because I’m only going to do this once. In the bad old days before the internet we had to get our porn in one of the physical mediums. Either books, magazines, photos (usually Polaroid’s you damn hipsters), or video cassettes. The problem with all of these forbidden objects, aside from acquiring them in the first place, was storing them where they would be both safe from parental discovery and yet remain convenient for firing off some knuckle children at a moment’s notice. My big yellow, sorry maize, and blue box was the perfect option.
That was until I hit 16 and didn’t care if they found my porn or not. That was when the porn, the glorious dirty physical porn, made the migration from the box to my nightstand. I mean really where the hell else in the years before the smart phone and tablet computer should an honest teenager have kept their porn? That’s right, we kept the smut as close to the bed as possible and near the tissues!
So what happened to the box?
I didn’t get my first computer, a clunky slow as hell behemoth, until 1998. Until then all of the writing I did, and I mean all of it, was done by hand. But this was before I had the courage to let friends read my stories let alone try and have them published so each and every one of them were effectively dead on arrival. As they died, either finished or unfinished they found their way into the Box of Busted Stories.
Every writer above a certain age has one, or many, of these boxes. Mine currently live in my basement nestled beneath the stairs alongside one of my dozens of comic book long boxes. Inside are hundreds of short stories, dozens of novellas, and three unfinished novels. It’s a glorious sight and some of the worst writing I’ve ever read in my entire life… I love every inch of it!
Right now you’re probably thinking some version of, “Hey Josh, that’s cool and everything, but what does any of this have to do with anything?”
Well keep you panties on if you’re wearing any and put some on if you’re not, I’m getting there. Once I switched to computer based creation I closed the physical Box of Busted Stories and added no more. Then I opened the virtual Box of Busted Stories. The first iteration was on a bright green 3.5x5 inch floppy and the current is a folder in my Drop Box backed up on an external hard drive.
I know EVERY writer has one of these.
The box contains story ideas, notes, and of course stories that died before they could reach that point of self sustainability. Once a story ends up in the current version of the Box of Busted Stories I’m done with it, it never comes back to life. These ARE the stories I’ve taken out behind the barn and told to look at the flowers. This is a law of my creative reality.
Or at least it was until last week.
I’d just finished a novella and was enjoying the post first draft high when I decided to open The Box. I don’t know what made me do it. I almost never skim the contents of the Box of Busted Stories. I mean seriously who the hell wants to be reminded of all their failures? But I did and I’m glad I broke my own rules, just this once.
To put it all in perspective, and to quote a wise and powerful man;
"Chicken arise! Arise chicken! Arise!"
- Billy Witch Doctor
In the trunk was a very old story called “Down The Old Road” (Seriously before I was actually publishing my titles were so pretentious they now make me want to vomit) a post apocalyptic alien invasion story I began in 2011. I got about ten thousand words into it and threw it down, the clunky disjointed tale was too much for me to handle back then so I did what I always did when things got hard back then. I ran away and back to the world of zombies. I remembered really digging the bones of the story so last week I opened that file back up and gave it a read through.
Whoa boy was my writing bad back then.
But grammar and structure aside the core of the tale was still strong. Yeah it needed a lot of help but maybe I’d consigned the story to a Carolesque fate too soon. So last week I did the unthinkable, I took a story out of the Box of Busted Stories and put it back on my working pile.
First I needed to edit and repair what was already there. It wasn’t fun, this was harder than a rewrite or an edit. This was more like tearing a house down to the foundation and studs and then starting over. Once I was finished with phase one the story went from just shy of ten thousand words to a hair over six thousand.
So yeah, I did some major renovations.
After the foundation was fixed I went back to writing and as of this moment I am closing in on twenty thousand words. The book, now retitled “The Long Night Book 1: Night Falls” will probably clock in around twenty five thousand words when I send it to my editor. I like to think of it as Lord of the Rings meets Hell Comes to Frogtown meets Independence Day set almost two centuries after the apocalypse.
Yes I know how that sounds… it sounds amazeballs!
So what was my point in all of this besides talking about my new project? I recommend all writers stop and look in their own Box of Busted Stories. Yeah most of what you’ll find deserves to be in there with the bullet still lodged in the back of their heads. But I’m willing to bet there are a few dusty unpolished gems in there. Take an hour every year check them out, you might be happy you did.
Unless it’s still your porn bunker… if that’s the case you have issues and probably need tissues.