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.”