I have a general rule. When something is finished, its… finished. Get over it. Move on. Its a general life rule, but it also applies to writing fiction. Write a story, edit a story, re-write a story, start another story. You can’t keep living in the past.
I haven’t always been like this, when I first started writing I would get stuck on the same piece, for years sometimes. I would keep starting again, unhappy about some minor detail in the opening paragraphs, or maybe just because the story I finished wasn’t the one I started. It didn’t help that in those days I wrote in note books with rollerpoint pens. Black ink. Had to be black ink. The point is, once something was down on paper I couldn’t change it without making a mess on the page. Presentation was important to me then, for some reason. And it wasn’t like today where you write on computer and can easily go back and change things as you go along. I used correction fluid sometimes. But I had a natural aversion to the stuff, it was too messy. It was much easier to sniff than to use for its intended purpose. It never occurred to me to use a pencil and eraser.
Thinking about it now, much of this behaviour probably stemmed from a lack of confidence in my writing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, and I just didn’t think my stories were good enough. And I was right. Those early stories were shit. They all had eighteen opening lines, nine first pages, six different middle sections, a selection of random misplaced characters, and no ending between them. Or I might have several endings with no beginning.
It took me a long time to realize that one of the biggest hurdles a novice writer has to overcome is knowing when to let go. When to go and when to stop. When to turn left and when to turn right. It was a bit like driving a car, but less of an exact science. Unlike driving a car, with writing there is very rarely an out-and-out wrong way to do something.
So I started cultivating the popular practice of completing a story – putting it aside for a few days, going back to it with a new perspective to brush it up and fix any errors, then drawing a line under it and moving on to the next piece. It became easier when I started writing on computer, I could just file the finished stories away and hope to forget about them rather than having to leaf past them every time I opened my note book. Knowing when to let the baby birds fly is the most important part of the creative process.
But the temptation is always there. You still have contact with these stories. Admittedly there are a few that slip through the cracks and stay on my hard drive gathering virtual dust for years. But you maintain a relationship with most of them while you are submitting them to magazines and websites and gathering the inevitable rejection slips. A bit like an absent father who only has minimal contact with his grown-up children.
Every time you get reacquainted with a story a little voice inside says, ‘Is that story as good as it can be? Could you have done better? Is there a weak point somewhere?’
Often the temptation is too much and you open the file, just for a read-through. But then you notice something, and change it. That leads to something else and before you know it you are pulling the guts out of the thing and re-arranging it all. For better or for worse. Before you know it you are left with something very different than the original story. Sometimes I ask myself, are the stories alive?
Not in a physical walking, breathing sense, obviously (that would be very Dark Half!), but in some less definable way. Not flesh and blood, but never-the-less a living creation that gets old and changes with time. Sometimes maintenance is required. For example, some of my stories are so old now they read like retro pieces. I talk about Walkmans’ instead of MP3 players, typewriters instead of laptops, and landlines instead of cellphones. Unless there is a very specific market, most editors and publishers today wouldn’t even consider running something so obviously dated, so from that perspective it’s in my best interests to update things occasionally. From what I know of other writers it is common to re-visit old stories, either to update or re-write them, so I know I’m not the only one.
I only have one rule: If the story is published somewhere, anywhere, then afterwards I consider it untouchable, and can’t find it within myself to mess around with it. I just leave it be. Like an old working horse at the end of its days grazing in a pasture. I can’t keep messing around with the same pieces all the time, to my mind it is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a rut. I hate ruts. Ruts will suffocate you in the end.