Thursday, 15 April 2010

Old Manuscripts - by Katherine Langrish

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? 

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Book Maven said...

What I have done, Kath is to buy cardboard archive boxes from the stationers and every book or books is boxed up and archived. This applies to both published and unpublished stuff.

The boxes are neatly labelled and then stored. In my case in a mixture of the eaves above th garage and the room in our house we call the office (they stack quite neatly under the wooden counter we had put in there.)

There may come a day, when you've had a huge hit with a book that an American university will pay money for your archive!

Or you might suddenly decide to reanimate and modernise an idea you have stashed away. If it's all stored and labelled you will find it when you need it.

Nick Green said...

"...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."

Kath, I rather like that one just from the description!

I agree, it's hard to throw away the old manuscripts. (And I bet you any money that mine are far, far worse than yours.) But I think they're invaluable as a map of the learning process. One can write 80,000 words of utter tripe, but then, buried among it, one character, one image, one turn of style, which you can notice later and say - Yes, THIS was good, and this is the direction in which I developed.

Old manuscripts are also great humbling devices. I remember my second manuscript, I thought at the time was brilliant. Looking at it now...! It makes me realise: NEVER think you've done the best you can do.

Gillian Philip said...

I remember pulling out a cockroach-eaten, embarrassing old manuscript and taking a pair of scissors to it. I cut out all the little turns of phrase and metaphors and descriptions I liked (the ones that weren't embarrassing), filing them in an envelope for possible later use, and burning the rest...

Gillian Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miriam Halahmy said...

I just keep them. They are part of my landscape, part of my lifestory. At least I'm not a sculptor. Imagine how much space you#d need to store that lot!

John Dougherty said...

All my old manuscripts are on computer files. I don't think I could ever have been a longhand or typing novelist!

karen ball said...

What a fascinating post and how generous of you to share an extract - I loved reading it! Sadly, many of my old manuscripts are on hard drives of old computers and possibly lost for ever. I find it very interesting that many contemporary writers don't have the same paper trail for their drafts and revisions as would once have been the norm - yet every word we casually share on the world wide web will be there to see for ever. That's what they tell us, anyway.

hilary said...

I absolutely love chucking them. It is my treat at the end of a book, to get every single page of it into the *bin.

*Recycling bin of course.

OfficeGirl said...

This post came at a perfect time for me. I just posted about getting a new idea and feeling bad about leaving the old ones behind. I have 3 unfinished WIPS as of now. Two of which I never work on. I probably will never through them away. I saved them on 3 diffrent disks, in case I lost one, and printed each of them out, stuffed them in my bookshelf sight unseen. I don't read them but I remember them well enough to know they never would have made it.
It's a learning process to write several manuscripts. They are all and probably will be for awhile, practice runs.

meyerprints said...

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating to find out what everyone does! I do work on computer (natch) but print out as I go, so leave enormous papertrails! But some of my earlier efforts are typed - or even longhand.

catdownunder said...

At a meeting of Australian authors Patsy Adam-Smith once said that computers were going to make it very difficult for students of future literature. She said the long hand drafts with endless crossings out would no longer exist and students would not get the same insight into the writing process. It is an interesting thought.

Nayuleska said...

Mine are in a folder, and at some point I'll get my parents to burn them (don't like fire), or I'll shred them. A bit worried people might steal ideas if I put them in recycling! Even if the originals are extremely different from the current versions.

Andrew Strong said...

I keep all mine, far too many of them, in damp cardboard boxes stuffed under the stairs. Just recently I began digging them out -not to read, but to recycle as drawing and doodling paper for my children.