On "Keeping Everything"

They say writers should never throw away any of their past work, regardless of how terrible it is. Writers should keep everything. Back before I was really writing "seriously," I confess to breaking this rule a lot. But as time has passed, and as I've improved in my writing and storytelling skills, I've recognized why that rule exists, and I've done my best to adhere to it. Every book I've written has gotten its own sub-folder within the "Story Stuff" folder on my flash drive. Those sub-folders contain all the usual stuff -- the books in Word doc, .mobi, and PDF format, all the corresponding cover art, etc. -- but they also each feature another "Old Stuff" folder that contains every single draft, outline, and all versions of any troublesome scenes I've ever written. Granted, all of that might be a little bit overkill, and I end up having to cut some of it in order to fit everything onto Dropbox, but whenever I'm in a writing slump or suffering from Impostor Syndrome, going back and reading my old work and seeing how far I've come always gives me a nice self-esteem boost. 

Today I'm just going to chat a little about some of the things I've kept over the years, some of the things I wish I'd kept, and why keeping too much has sometimes felt like a bad thing.

I've talked a little about the things I used to write and how I felt like I really got my start while co-writing an original Star Wars story with friends. But I had numerous other projects -- saved on about 6 different floppy disks -- before that, many of which actually ended up serving as the bare-bones foundation of the Ziva Payvan series we know today. I went through a period of being totally obsessed with all things police/agents/counter-terrorism. I'd started watching NCIS and absolutely fell in love with it. At some point when I was in 7th grade, I was on vacation with my family and we were flipping through TV channels and stumbled across some reruns of 24. It was the middle of a season so of course we had no clue what was going on, but it was enough to hook us anyway. We went home and rented all the existing seasons and marathoned them until 2am like crazy people. It was at that point that I started wanting to write stories along those lines. I loved the team structure and camaraderie of NCIS and the high stakes and rogue protagonist of 24*. See where I'm going with this?

* Disclaimer: in my opinion, the first ~3 seasons of 24 were ridiculously addicting, albeit unrealistic and somewhat nonsensical. Seasons 4 - 6 were "meh" and repetitive. Season 7 was downright dull. The only two episodes of season 8 I ever made it through were overly-dramatic and unbearable. I never did finish it. There are only so many times Jack Bauer can yell "You're gonna have to trust me!" or "We/you don't have any other choice right now" before a person just can't take it anymore. Maybe one of these days I'll try again...

The first story along those lines that I ever tried to write is, unfortunately, one of the projects I got rid of. However, a couple of years ago (just before Dakiti's publication, actually) my friends and I made a shared cloud folder where we uploaded every single piece of writing correspondence we'd ever shared, and a couple of fragments of that story found their way through, despite the fact that most of the work we collaborated on was Star Wars-related. The story centered around a female agent at an FBI-esque fictional counter-terrorism agency based in Portland. The whole setup was deliciously clichéd: brash protagonist who doesn't play by the rules heads up a team consisting of the level-headed second-in-command, the wise-cracking computer nerd, the muscle, and the rookie agent (and the usual supporting cast including the hardass supervisor, the jaded medical examiner, and the scheming unit chief). I do remember I ended up finishing the story and starting a sequel, but the two fragments I have are both from the first one. It's one of those stories that I wish I had kept just for the heck of it, but at the same time it's so terrible I'm almost glad I don't have much of it anymore. The plot makes no sense logically or logistically, the dialogue is flat, the character names are generic.


From what little I remember of it, the sequel was actually shaping up to have merit, at least more so than the first one. I remember feeling good about it, more confident, and that's always nice. Having learned valuable lessons from her teammates in the first story, my protagonist had softened up a bit and was starting to show a little humanity...just in time to be framed for murder. Sound familiar? For the most part, the plot of this story ended up being the plot of Nexus (in fact, the scene where Aroska helps Ziva fake her death on the riverbank was a direct adaptation and was the one scene I'd clearly had engraved in my mind all along). Of course there were a few differences, some of which just had to do with the differences in setting and genre, but all in all I was able to completely recycle that old story, despite the fact that I didn't keep it. It has always made me feel like all that work I did didn't actually go to waste.

Ziva and her entourage came about shortly after that. I wanted to stick with the same team structure as I'd been working with before, but after having written those Star Wars stories with my friends, I wanted to gravitate more toward sci fi. I've mentioned a couple of times that Ziva actually started out as a filler character for a couple of scenes in one of those Star Wars stories, and I liked her so much that I pulled her out, revamped her a little, and threw her into an original universe where she could be the protagonist. She fit perfectly into that rogue-team-leader role I'd already been using. Skeet and Zinni came next, and I started moving away from writing with my friends so I could focus more on these new characters I had created.

Way back then when I was first dabbling in early drafts of what would eventually become Dakiti, there was another project in the works. Once again, I didn't keep it, but this time it wasn't entirely my fault. It was my sophomore year of high school, and one semester of my English class focused entirely on composition. Part of that course included a 2-week long character development segment. Using any of the characters I had already developed felt like cheating, so I played it cool and went ahead and just created an entirely new one. Those were the days when I was first starting to pay close attention to the collegiate volleyball scene, and hailing from Oregon, UofO was naturally one of my favorite teams. They must have some sort of exchange student recruiting program, because it's not uncommon for them to have a couple of girls from the Balkans playing for them. In the first part of the segment, our assignment was to create a character and fill out this comprehensive character sheet for them, as well as write a short bio. I created a Serbian girl who played volleyball for UofO; I've still got her character sheet somewhere at my house, as well as a picture I drew of her. The second assignment was to create an outline for a 300-page novel starring whatever character we had created. I remember being so glad we didn't actually have to write the novel and balking at the idea of ever writing a 300-page book! My, how times have changed. I absolutely loved this assignment though and knocked the whole thing out in 2 or 3 days, even though we had an entire week to complete it. My plot involved this girl and her team returning from a game in southern California. Their plane ended up being hijacked by Serbian terrorists, and unbeknownst to them, this girl could understand everything they were saying. I actually took my rogue agent lady from my original story and inserted her into this one to be the FBI agent heading up the investigation. I don't remember many of the smaller details, but my Serbian volleyball player ended up having to directly involve herself and work with the FBI because of the information she knew. I turned that assignment in and have no idea what ever happened to it. I really wish I would have made copies before then, because this was a story I definitely could have actually written sometime. 

It was then that I started really focusing on Ziva and Co. I wrote several little short stories and one-shots featuring the Alpha team before I started developing Aroska. I've mentioned before that his role was originally never meant to extend beyond Dakiti. In early drafts of the story, he was just meant to be that-guy-who-happened-to-be-helping-them-on-this-particular-mission, and then he might have ended up being a cameo character at some point down the road. That was, of course, before I developed the backstory between him and Ziva, and once that happened, he was kind of locked in. That, and I'd come to like him so much that I didn't want to get rid of him.

That's actually kind of what prompted me to write this post. Yes, I've gotten to where I keep all of my work, but I've also gotten to where I keep too many characters, and it's almost always because I've come to like them too much. That's honestly why I've ended up killing some of them off; my supporting cast becomes too large, and I have to do a little bit of crowd control. In a way, that's a good thing, because it means I've put enough care into developing secondary and tertiary characters that they actually mean something, but it's no less sad. Occasionally when I already have a good idea of how the story is going to go, I'll develop a certain character whose sole purpose is to contribute to that single book and not go any further, and I often establish some more...permanent measures to ensure they can't (Nexus readers might be able to guess who I'm talking about). But there are others who have taken me completely by surprise -- Sadey and Aura were prime examples in Ronan -- and I often find it hard to move on from them. I'm finding myself in the same situation while working on Fracture. A couple of characters I didn't expect to like -- and who weren't supposed to even last until Embers -- are growing on me, and it's hard to fight the temptation to figure out some way to keep them. But a) I don't need any more characters, and b) it would totally screw up the logistics of the story. So no more keeping characters for me. The ones that are still living can have cameo parts later on or something, but for now I'm doing my best to keep the accumulation under control.

All the stories I've talked about so far have been ones I, sadly, haven't kept. But there's a very important one I did keep. It's an old, 25,000-word pre-Dakiti Ziva and Co. adventure that's going to end up serving as the foundation of Embers. It fits perfectly with the plot structure I'm introducing in Fracture and will really cut down on the amount of planning I have to do. There will definitely be some differences in the finished product, but I'm excited to be able to recycle this piece. Remember the, uh...revelation flashback in Ronan that explained what really happened to Aroska's brother? That was recycled too, in a way. I actually wrote it way back before I'd even finished writing Nexus, just as kind of a one-shot for my own benefit. I'd originally wanted to try to include it in that book, but the characters just weren't ready. It ended up serving as such a crucial plot point in Ronan, so I'm really glad I went with my gut and saved it.

On that note, I also keep all of my killed darlings. They go into a Darlings Graveyard, either in the notepad on my phone or Word doc stored in Dropbox, and will occasionally get resurrected. It usually feels pretty liberating to cut them, but each of them also represents a certain amount of hard work (and often wit) that I don't want to go to waste. The majority of them are lines of dialogue that I had wanted desperately to include in a scene, but they either ended up feeling out of place or out of character. There are a couple of lines that have been in the Graveyard since the early-Dakiti-drafting days, and they've ended up fitting perfectly with some Fracture and Embers scenes I've been working on. It's cool to not only be able to re-use them but also see them in a more appropriate context where I wanted to see them all along.

So, authors, what are some crazy things you've kept over the years? What are some things you regret getting rid of? Do any of you also have a problem with accumulating too many characters and ideas?

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