11 December 2012

The Dark Valley of Unpublished Stories

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, I have a few unpublished stories concealed in my trusty desk.  It's not important how many; we're not bean counters, right?  No, we're writers, artists of the highest order, sensitive people who see the world a little...oh, alright then, more than ten, but less than fifty.  How's that?  And yeah, a couple of novels stuck in a drawer somewhere.  You happy now?  Sheesh!

Sometimes, when I've run out of writing ideas, I take a little walk down memory lane and enter the valley of unpublished stories.  It's usually twilight in the valley and a little misty.  The path, overgrown and difficult to follow, threads its way through years of literary endeavor; an elephants' graveyard of lofty aspirations.  Here and there, nearly hidden in the undergrowth, headstones lean drunkenly, lichen covered and barely discernible.  Approaching with a mixture of dread and nostalgia, I wind my way through their titles: Anti-Intruder, Wisdom (I must have been channeling De Maupassant when I picked that title), Green Messiah, The Writer's Wife, The Book of Yaroes, etc...   All so young...so beautiful...and they never had a chance.  What a loss to the world, I cry.

Then, when I'm feeling especially foolish, I'll dig one up and flip through a few pages.  That's when I get the cold water in the face and couple of sharp, stinging slaps for good measure.  Not every time, mind you, but a lot.  So I get a little flushed and ask myself, "You did not submit this...did you?  What were you thinking?  Your writing sucks, dude!"  Said walk through the valley comes to a screeching halt and I get busy with the old shovel and spade.

They're not all bad, of course, and some show a little promise--some more than others.  But they all offer a few lessons in writing, as well as illustrating a little personal history.  It's a bit like thumbing through the high school year book--yeah, that's you alright...but not anymore, Sonny Jim, not anymore.  My choice of subjects is revealing in terms of where I was in my life at that time.  Happily, my efforts appear to improve as they march through the years.  Two reasons occur to me for this: Firstly, practice makes perfect--my craftsmanship improved with repetition, as well as a lot of trial and error.  Secondly, I hesitate to say I've grown wiser, but I've certainly matured since I began, and the writing shows it, I like to think.

One thing that I notice is that in the earliest stories I relied more on atmosphere and a sense of place than I do now.  They were more like walk-through paintings, murals, perhaps--action and dialogue were clearly aspects of story-telling with which I was less comfortable.  As the years passed it became evident that my confidence in those areas improved, though I still approach dialogue with trepidation--sometimes it flows well, and at others it's a struggle.  I hear that I am not alone in this.

Writing action sequences has become one of my favorite things to do now.  It seems the easiest to me, which is probably why I like it--you don't have much dialogue to worry about, the setting is generally already established, and it's a great way to reveal aspects of the characters without a lot of obvious narration. 

My stroll through the graveyard of stories reveals that I have almost consistently avoided use of first-person.  It seems that, from my earliest days as a writer, I have side-stepped this convention, in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in exactly this way.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps some psychological insight might be contained in this observation, if only I had the psychological insight to do so.  Writer, know thyself.  Or is it better not to?  Do we become too mannered the more self-aware and, possibly, self-conscious that we become?  Or is it liberating in the sense of making one comfortable enough, and confident enough, to make the most of one's own talent and experiences?  I am of two minds on this subject, as I am on so many when it comes to writing.  Mostly, I just want to write, and write real good, without having to work too hard at it or know myself uncomfortably well.  This seems funner to me.

But the revenants in the Valley of Unpublished Stories seem to say otherwise.  "Go thou from this vale of tears," they command.  "Go dwell in the sunlight amongst your progeny...and work, work, damn you, so that this sad place will have no further interments.  We are your victims, do not increase our number--even if it means that you work like a dog and have less time for drinking than you'd like!  Learn from us and never, ever, repeat the mistakes that brought us to this forsaken place.  And, oh yeah, on you way out close the gate behind you and pick up that candy wrapper--that wasn't here before."

I not only close the gate, I put a padlock on it.      



  1. You haven't lost that knack of scene, David!

    Fortunately, most of my early opuses (opi?) have been lost to time and distance.

  2. David, what a wonderful way to start the day--with your words this AM! Love the way you treated that dark valley hidden in our desk drawers or computer files. I don't have many occupants in mine because I really just started trying more short stories. I've sent three out into that world of acceptance or rejection just recently, so there's a strong chance my occupants in the dark valley will increase in the coming year.

  3. even more frightening than the vale of unpublished stories is the great abyss of unpublished novels!
    Nice piece.

  4. Ah, but every once in a while, one emerges into the light. Seriously, I wrote a story called "Zoo Story" in 1982 - and sold it to Alfred Hitchcock in 1999. You just never know...

  5. Thanks, Leigh. I like opi, reminds of Sheriff Taylor's boy back in Mayberry. Nice town, that.

    Fran, I'm glad that I helped make a good start to your day, even if it did cost me a few rejection slips. It was worth it.

    Janice, one of the titles mentioned was a novel. But, heck, it was only a year, or so, out of my life so who am I to complain?

  6. Boy, does that feel familiar. My earliest stories were full of old men being killed or at least threatened (paging Dr Freud). at least one got published.

    Eve is right, too. I have received an award nomination for a story I pulled out of the Lost File and sent to one more market. but regrettably, most of what isin there does stink.

    I was expecting the spirits to say "Don't let the cemetery gate hit you on the butt on the way out."

  7. Great column, David. I think all of us have some of those stories stashed away.

    Eve, I too have reworked a few really old stories and wound up selling them to AHMM and the Strand. But there are plenty more under the bed and stuffed into the back of the closet that aren't worth reworking . . .

  8. Oh, John, I've got a ton stuffed in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet that aren't worth reworking, too. But I never throw them out because there might be something I can salvage. Then again, maybe not.

  9. Eve, I have a very poor average when it comes to breathing new life into a piece. But, I have succeeded on two occasions, but two only.

    Rob, the spirits in my cemetery always stop short of crossing the line. I just threaten to have Fr. Gregory lay them to rest and suddenly they have other things to do.

    Thanks, John. Yeah, without admitting to any actual numbers (I'm sure no one is really interested in that anyway) I'm having to consider additional storage space.

  10. I’m glad you took “The Thirteenth Child” out of that trusty desk. Read just before Halloween. My advise to anyone who wishes to read it: do so in the daylight with the windows and doors locked.

  11. Thanks for that, Louis. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. Yes, that was one of the few successful resurrections that I have performed.


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