Juvenilia: More Embarrassing than Saturnalia? A Muddled Meandering Through a Writer’s Early Work – Alma Boykin

Juvenilia: More Embarrassing than Saturnalia? A Muddled Meandering Through a Writer’s Early Work – Alma Boykin


How many of us have marvelous, breathtakingly grand stories tucked away, pieces we wrote during our salad days that will leap to the forefront of the Hugo, Nebula, Rita, Lariat, and Pulitzer nomination lists the day after we publish them? Me either. How many of us have cleaned out a desk drawer or hard drive, opened up the pages, and wondered how on earth (or any other habitable planet) someone could write dreck that bad? Repeat after me, “My name is [your name here], and I was once a juvenile writer.”

Twenty years ago I destroyed the notebooks of, ahem, rough, prose that I’d committed between ages 14-18. I still have some of the poetry. There were a whole bunch of Mary Sue, odes-to-dead-trees, when-goths-take-over-the-world, and when-I-and-my-battle-robot-take-over-the-world stories. What I recall, thankfully vaguely, were plot-less wonderings through “borrowed” fantasy or sci-fi worlds, lots of proto-grey goo stories about victims who wreaked bloody revenge on the bullies, or who fled to nice planets with friendly unicorns. In short, bad teenage fantasy writing. But, and this is the important bit, I was writing and practicing my craft, and learning what worked and what didn’t. And laying the foundation for characters that would return in a non Mary-Sue, decently plotted, form.

What do you do with your juvenilia? As I said, I destroyed mine. I needed the closet space and it wasn’t worth keeping. Some people have kept them, with explicit instructions that the writings (or sketches, or recordings) are to be destroyed, not published, and not performed. Others, well enough known, donate their work to academic libraries for future reference (sometimes with phenomenally complex restrictions on who can use the material and how). A few people have gone back and done a “little” polishing, then published their early works.

Should you? It depends. If you look back and find seeds of stories and characters, then yes, save them, mine them for materials and learn from them what didn’t work. Although I didn’t keep my early stories, bits and pieces hung around in my subconscious, fermenting and percolating, distilling into Rada Ni Drako and her worlds. The McCaffrey-esque dragon shrank and became a lot more interesting (and smarter). The unicorn? Well, that creature morphed into something teenage Alma would never have written, especially after an alpha reader started smelling a whiff of brimstone around the “unicorn.” That overly heroic knight-in-shining-armor who never suffers defeat no matter how large, evil, or foul the ogre/dragon/Big Bad? Maybe if he develops a few flaws (allergic to horses and sneezes at exactly the wrong time?) or succumbs to overconfidence and has to be rescued by the small, plain but brilliant lore-mistress and her botanist-ranger brother, you can rehabilitate him. Especially if it turns out that the dragon/Big Bad is a brewer who is poisoning the water system with bad beer in order to make it easier to carry off the peasants’ livestock. Now that’s a story with some promise, using the same base as your too-good-to-read original.

On the other paw, you may read over your earliest writings and decide there’s nothing there but a horrible warning, or that Sesame Street fan-fic really should stay in the drawer. Perhaps your depressed knight who can’t be bothered to save the shrill-voiced, helpless princess from the dyspeptic wyrm isn’t what your muse wants to deal with. (Although if you call it “ironic” and “Bergman-esque” you’d probably get two agents and a art-movie producer clawing at your door.)

What do you do if you have to rework something juvenile? I did, after writing over 140,000 words of fiction and non-fiction. My first reaction was “yearrrgh! How on earth did this get past the committee? Kill it with fire!” And I walked away for a day or two. I didn’t want to touch the thing except to cut out bits and use them elsewhere. But since in academia you pretty much have to publish your dissertation (liberal arts version, with a few notable exceptions), I girded my loins, pulled on protective gloves, and set to revising and rewriting.

First, tackle the most obvious problems. In this case I couldn’t change the plot (it’s a non-fiction book), but the flow and pacing needed improvement, as did scene and chapter transitions. The most obvious typos got fixed, as did some unfortunate word choices. I also toned down the most academic bits and buffed up the parts that a general reader would find interesting. Had this been fiction, I would have added more characters, in order to provide more views of the setting, and probably had two characters live long enough to see most of the story and to provide continuity. Or played up the environment as a character, like Mitchner’s Centennial, or Conrad Richter did with Sea of Grass.

Then I double-checked some details and sent it to the academic version of an alpha reader. The alpha suggested I flesh out the opening to provide more context (setting), tidy up a few more rough spots, and eliminate some repeating sections (how many times does your character do X? Is it part of the plot or filler?). Now, three years later, I’ve spent as much time rewriting as I did writing the original. If this were fiction, I’d have scrapped it a while ago after pulling out the few usable bits and written a completely new thing. You may discover a fatal flaw as you revise that leads to a complete gut and rewrite.

And in the end, you may put everything back in the drawer, to be revisited in a few more years just to see how far you’ve come and how much better your writing has become. There’s no right (write?) answer to “What do I do with my first writings.”

49 thoughts on “Juvenilia: More Embarrassing than Saturnalia? A Muddled Meandering Through a Writer’s Early Work – Alma Boykin

  1. I had a bonfire when I was 19 and burned most of my juvenile stories because they were so bad. Now, many years later, I really wish I had kept them. For better or worse, they were part of me, a kind of fictional diary of my life when I was young. Your mileage may differ, but there’s a nostalgia even in the worst of your sins of youth.

  2. Shift it to the _bottom_ of the drawer.

    _Fortunately_ most of my juvenilia happened only in my head and never got written down. A lot of paper was spared the burden of bearing maudlin and unrealistic dog and horse stories.

    On the other hand, once I started writing things down . . . I read the start of some Cadfael fanfic I wrote some decades ago. Let me just say that people with neither natural linguistic skills, nor any training should not attempt to flavor their dialogs with medieval nuance, and leave it at that.

    And of course, there’s the Pern fanfic. I’m afraid to look.

  3. Horribly derivative stuff that never got finished. That, in a lot of cases, never got past the first scene.

    If you ever find yourself unable to finish what you started, sit down and re-read a stack. The problem may LEAP out at you.

    I discovered this rule when I was twelve. What I learned was that I had not mastered the art of transitioning between scenes. (It’s been useful since.)

  4. Ever read Jane Austen’s juvenilia?

    Love and Freindship is just about perfect in its kind — foreshadowing the satiric side of Northanger Abbey. Catherine, or the Bower isn’t even complete, and probably never could be completed without massive revisions, as she set up a problem in the opening unfixable except by deus ex machina. Nevertheless it is Catherine that really shows how she’s going to develop.

    1. Apologies if this double posts — computer gremlins seem to have eaten the original.

      This post seems the right place to post the question that came to mind when I read Alma Boykins’ s comment:

      A few people have gone back and done a “little” polishing, then published their early works.

      How many people end up with Pride and Prejudice?

  5. ” In this case I couldn’t change the plot (it’s a non-fiction book),”

    There is no reason to let that stop you, there are plenty of authors, and even more screenwriters that don’t limit themselves that way.

    1. Welll, I’m a little too honest for that. In fact, a fellow grad student once scolded me for not ignoring something I tumbled into in a scrap book that forced me to change part of my MA thesis. A terrible thing it is to have a sense of honor.

      1. But you had to! It’s intellectual honesty! It’s what being a scholar is all about!!!

        (Okay, maybe I also read Gaudy Night about five thousand times and got propagandized. But seriously, why be a scholar if you’re not going to act like one? There are easier and cheaper things to study.)

        1. And anyway, there’s no low thrill like finding stuff out that other people don’t know and proving them wrong, even if it involves admitting yourself to have been wrong about the same thing previously (which is bitter).

          Even St. Albert enjoyed the moments he could point out that St. Augustine and Aristotle and Avicenna were totally totally wrong.

  6. I’ve outsourced the job to Microsoft and Apple. Things I wrote even 10 years ago are no longer in a format my laptop can recognize.

      1. MacWrite is child’s play. ClarisWorks, now THAT is challenging. The File Format was all untouchable “Bob Code” that nobody else understood, and when Bob left….

  7. Hmm … I have a tall stack of juvenilia, which is mostly stuff borrowed from books that I liked. I don’t think I would ever go through the typescript – there was nothing really original there, just borrowings roughly patched together. I did get some way into an emigrant trail story by the time I was in college, but dropped it about a third of the way in. I had a lot of it mentally worked out in my head, though – and when I did come around to writing the first novel, a lot of the elements were already there.

    I had considered burning the other stuff, but perhaps I ought to save it.

  8. I have a few older stories lying around somewhere. My favorite is the science project, done in the form of a report on an interstellar mission to an Earth-like planet. I got a good grade on that.

  9. Two-drawer filing cabinet. Correspondence with long-suffering editors, (Ben Bova is a saint for putting up with me.), as well as stories. Shredder. Burned up motor. Landfill.


  10. I’ve got a few smatterings, here and there. Primary school stuff. Nostalgia, ya know. But I don’t go read it. *shudder*

    Nothing in there, or much after, that deserves development. Some themes, mini-scenes, moments of tension, etc. that I’ve mined here and there. No full story structures that much interest me.

  11. Fortunately, my early works were paper only and got lost in moves years ago.

    Oh, some of my ideas resulted from my “oh come on now” list created while watching the original Star Trek.

    The most obvious, the landing party sent to check out a new planet was not the Command Crew. They were a team under the command of a lower-ranking officer.

    Another idea was that the Very Big Exploration Starship wouldn’t hang around a planet while the landing party “checked out the planet”. The landing party had a smaller starship (which could land). It provided shelter for the landing party, had a FTL communication system and could in theory take the landing party back to the nearest Exploration Base if something happened to the Very Big Exploration Starship. [Grin]

    1. That’s kind of similar to how the exploration ship was in Anne McCaffrey’s Dinosaur Planet and Dinosaur Planet Survivors. The giant ship left them in the system in a shuttle, which I believe should have had the capability to make it to another system, but it definitely had a way of signalling the nearest base (albeit not quite as fast as some methods that other sci-fi stories use).

      1. Did you intentionally pick as an example the McCaffrey juvenilia (actually I have no idea at what point in her career she wrote those, but they certainly read as juvenilia) that should have seen a burn pile rather than been published?

            1. Copied _Citizen of the Galaxy_ and failed to file off the series number is more like:-(.

              I was *very* disappointed with _Sassinak_.

  12. This weekend I had it reaffirmed that I am an oral storyteller. I use my face, voice, timing and gesture to convey meaning. You can’t put that on paper. This is a major reason I do not write.

    But the memories of my early attempts to put things on paper when in High School do contribute. There was that tortured beginning to a (current time) revolutionary adventure in a Philadelphia cityscape written under the influence of studying Homer — all about the sun colorfully slipping up over the horizon — scratched out on yellow legal pad with illustrations by author.

    I, thankfully, no longer have any of those pieces, someone else destroyed them, but that is another story. (The couplets of one of the poems I wrote is engraved in my mind to this day.) Did I write that? Terrible. Why do I remember it? To teach me never ever to do that again.

    1. It’s true that with oral storytelling, you have more tools at your disposal, and you can cover a weakness in one area with strengths in another.
      With writing, pretty much all you have to work with is word choice. The black and white words have to handle everything – tone, foreshadowing, subtext, plot, characterization, and everything else.

      1. Also, I have noticed that certain kinds of digressions and asides work with oral story telling, but not in written work. That is unless you are someone like Terry Pratchett.

        1. And writers are outside the range of “rotten fruit/vegetables” reviews. [Evil Grin]

  13. Ray Bradbury burned all his early works because he was afraid that after he died someone would find them, publish them, and dissect them as postmodern critics are known to do.

    So that’s one way to handle it.

    Me, I just keep them on hand in case an idea, name, or action strikes me in whatever story I’m currently writing. My REALLY bad stuff was scrapped long ago in one of many moves and I can’t say that I’m not grateful for it.

    1. This can forever be held up as an example of how not all fanfiction is terrible, just most of it.

  14. I also wrote a werewolf story back in my junior high years which I keep meaning to dig up. I wonder if I might extract the main character (a Solomon Kane-style monster hunter) and use him elsewhere.

  15. Two turquoise 2 inch three ring binders. In a box somewhere. And some long ago misplaced but most likely not pitched out five inch floppies, probably stashed with one of the Apple IIe’s. That would be up until the year when my parents bought a new Windows 3.11 computer for Christmas. You know there’s something slightly odd about your kid when you get a computer that comes with three video games (the only one I remember playing was a Star Wars) and she spends all Christmas day writing. That was Word Perfect, and that stuff has migrated from computer to computer since.
    Computers allow a great amount of possibly unfortunate portability of early words–I think it’s actually faster to transfer them than to remove them from the to be transferred folder.. There’s one concept I’m still rather sure I could do something more with–started out as a knock-off of Anne McCaffrey’s Pegasus books–I liked the dystopic urban world and ditched the ESP right from the beginning.

  16. They’re all under the bed. Some of ’em are awfully cute and fun, and others are earnest and embarrassing. Also, my Mary Sue lived alone in the wilderness a lot.

  17. Sesame Street fan-fic really should stay in the drawer.“?????

    So there’s no point digging out my twelve-volume (four trilogies) star-spanning history of how Teeny Little Super Guy overthrows an alien occupation of the Solar System armed with nothing more than his pluck, his wits, his sling and his whirled peas?

    In dactylic hexameter, using language derived from Persian roots.

    I was counting on the movie rights for my dotage.

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