When I was very young, I looked forward to the Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Back then, I was most interested in Rudolph and Hermey the Elf, lovable characters rejected by the Establishment because they didn’t fit an expected mold. I’ve grown up. The part of the show that sticks with me the most these days is the Island of Misfit Toys, that leper colony for playthings where “mistakes” and unwanted toys were sent to languish due to their imperfections.
I have a manuscript box like that. Stashed in a dark part of the basement, it’s filled with stories that, through no fault of their own, just … well … stink. Yeah, I wrote them. At one time, I even thought they were good.
Thank goodness we all get a chance to evolve.
Looking back, my writing has always been character-driven, especially if you consider a character sufficiently developed when he/she can be summed up in a word or two, as in “the sassy one”; “the troubled one”; “the one who surprises even herself.” (My earlier work is more accessible if you like stereotypes.)
You could always tell exactly how my characters were feeling, because the adverbs attached to the dialogue tags told you so. Readers were subjected to a lot of stuff like “she said questioningly,” and “he said evocatively.” If it still wasn’t obvious enough, there were many different ways to “say” things. Characters purred, chirped, and grunted. It was a regular zoo in each chapter. And, to make sure there was no doubt whatsoever, sometimes the dialogue tags were double-barreled, a fun reading experience for everyone: “she whimpered miserably,” “he snarled angrily,” “she commented pertly.” Dialogue tags, meant to be unobtrusive, were prominent enough to become their very own characters.
Plots were linear. Sure, there were stories to tell, but they lacked depth. Sometimes there was no hook, no compelling reason for anyone to want to turn the page to discover what happened next. Basically, I was writing for myself. Self-indulgent? You bet. Awful? Right again. And, yet, those stories still have a special place in my heart. Those characters and I were friends.
There are some manuscripts a writer puts away knowing that they’ll be back. The plot, although in need of editing, is compelling enough to revisit. The characters have something to say. When the time is right, that manuscript will be revisited and edited into something sharp and readable.
The manuscripts in the box downstairs are not those stories. There’s a reason they live deep in the basement, out of sight.
If I remember my Rudolph correctly, the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys are eventually picked up by Santa and delivered to children who will appreciate them. While nothing quite as heartwarming happens on the Island of Misfit Manuscripts, those early drafts do serve a purpose. Every once in a while, almost by mistake, I wrote a description or phrase back then that was actually good. There was effective use of imagery. There was a character who does not inspire cringing and/or eye-rolls. Like old cars that have outlasted their use, these old manuscripts can be mined for “parts” to use in newer stories.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling frustrated with my current manuscript, I re-read one of my oldies-but-baddies. It never fails to make me feel better.