Monday, August 19, 2013

Write. Learn. Destroy.

Last week I did something that I'd never done before. I wrote a story. It was about 20,000 words. I did not edit this story. I had no real reason to write it other than that I felt like writing it, and writing it was fun. Never once did I entertain the thought of getting it published. And as soon as the story was done, I read through it once (and realized it was actually a pretty good story)...

and then I deleted every word of it. Gone. Forever. Except the parts still floating in my memory.

You might be thinking, what is wrong with you? Why would you destroy something you created? Why didn't you get it published? Why why why! The answer is simple:

You don't have to publish everything you write, even if it is good work.


There is something very freeing about destroying what you write, especially if it is good work.

Many of us began writing stories in childhood. Back then it was fun. It was an escape. Then you grow up and realize, I am pretty good at this, why shouldn't I have something published? And then you do get stuff published because other people agree you are good at this. And then you make some money and you realize, I could make a career out of this. And then you do make a career out of it and you think this means that every story you write henceforth must be of publishable quality and must be published.

I'm here to tell you you're wrong. You do not have to get something published just because you wrote it, just because you have the skills to shape it into something of publishable quality. You do not have to even save a story just because you wrote it. Here is why you shouldn't:

Writing a story knowing you will never get it published releases you from shackles you didn't even know you were wearing.

I told myself, "No matter how good (or workable) this thing turns out, I will not publish it." In that instant, a weight of mental stress lifted off of me that was so heavy it almost felt physical. I could breathe again. I could write without fences. I could write whatever I wanted to and it didn't matter because I was the only one who would ever EVER see it.

The result? I found my author voice again. It had been buried under the stress and worry of possibly doing something wrong. The words flowed freely and the story came out lightning fast. 20K in 2 days. I can't remember the last time I could say that, if ever.

I also reaffirmed that my most favorite thing to write is contemporary romance. That is what my storytelling inclinations leaned toward when I told myself, "Write whatever you want to." Something else I learned? That even when I don't pre-plot a darn thing, my natural storytelling inclination follows basic structure. I applied structural turning points to an unplanned first draft without even thinking about it. This reaffirmed that my way of pre-plotting with a certain structure is the right process for me.

When you finish a book, it's an amazing accomplishment. The pursuit of publication turns that accomplishment into a job and suddenly you are shackled to this idea of other people falling in love with your work, and shackled to this book because the publishing process is long and slow. I am not suggesting you give up on your dreams, or that you give up on your stories, not all of them.

But just once, write something that you know will be for your eyes only, and just see what happens. You might learn something about yourself and your writing process that you didn't know before, and you might reaffirm something you already knew.

Then, ensure that it is only your eyes that see this lovely story that has taught you so much, by destroying it as soon as it's finished.

Destroying good work has a way of building your confidence.

As writers we often joke (or maybe not joke) that when we write something we feel is sub-par we want to burn it. The natural inclination is to destroy something you view as a failure. But if it is something you view as a success, the natural instinct is to cherish it and protect it. And that's fine, most of the time.

But just once, try writing something--a complete story--that you know is good and then deleting every trace of it. What does this teach you? That you have the power to write something this good again in its absence. That you do not have to cling to every word. You wrote well once, you can write well again. It came from your head, the same place the next story will come from.

Sometimes I think we get too attached to our good work, and this can hold us back from creating better work. You CAN and you WILL produce something of quality again, so it's okay to let this one go. The next one might even be better because you didn't linger on this one. You wrote, you deleted, you moved on, you wrote again.

The story I wrote is still in my head. I could write it again if I wanted to, but I won't. There were a lot of good lines in it. It was a Good Story. And I am not going sit here and tell you that destroying it was easy. That was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my writer life. But once I committed to it, and then deleted it, the mental boost that followed was so strong that I actually laughed out loud.

It built up my confidence, and this confidence helped me when I returned to working on my story that I do want to get published.

And perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that whether or not something I write gets published is first MY decision, no one else's. It gave me back a sense of control in a career where you have very little control over your own work once you place it into someone else's hands--your agent, your editor, the general reading public. It begins with YOU deciding the fate of any given piece of work you create.

This whole exercise felt like a mental readjustment. I think we need those every so often to maintain balance in our writing pursuits. Fiction writing is a creative endeavor, and sometimes we forget this and make it too clinical.

So go ahead and write something just for you, just because, and see where it takes you both in the story and in real life.



  1. I really don't think I could destroy good writing on purpose. When I've lost something I've written, I feel like I've lost something of me, because the words captured what I was thinking and the process of getting to the result. I think 'out loud' in that the act of writing often helps me figure out what I'm thinking.

    I think part of this loss is that even on a good flow day, coming up with words to capture those elusive tendrils of feeling is still difficult. I don't want to have to go through the process again from scratch. Hence why when I've written a thoughtful comment to a post or article and something glitches, deleting what I've just poured out, I often give up and don't bother trying again, because those thoughts are gone. I can't retrace my steps, can't find the words I need. Those first connections, synchronicities, and inspirations that prompted a response won't be as fresh on the second go round. The gist will still be there, but the words to explain it won't be.

    Maybe that's just me. I don't know. I do think the idea of writing down stories 'for my eyes only' could be freeing though. I make up plenty of stories that I have fun with in my head and no intentions for sharing. I guess I'll keep in mind the destroying part, too. Some of my head stories are a bit cheesy romantical. Not sure I'd ever want anyone seeing those.

  2. *cringing* You erased-ed it-t-t? *gulp*

    I can see where that's freeing, but my time is so limited. I don't think I could do it. Writing for myself? Yes, that I've done, too much probably. Writing without an intent to publish is awesome, and man do I LOVE the stories that I don't need to pressure myself into smoothing--but you know what I love more? The ones I've perfected to the point where I can love them and have confidence others will too. There's nothing better.

  3. If I was in a dark, low place with my writing, I could see doing this. Though I wonder if I'd still save a file somewhere. And yet, I have work that I could easily delete because it's NOT very good, and yet it sits on hard drive space.

    I think writing exercises help a lot to get writerly fears over and done with. Any time I've written based on a prompt or for a workshop, I like the idea that it's not connected to a larger story in progress. I can see how the same might relate to deleting.

  4. Great post, Lydia. You're very brave! I like this idea of writing something no one else will see, of not worrying whether it's publishable or could ever be publishable. And I like the fact that you found your voice again and what it is you truly love to write. I wonder if the same thing would happen to me. I'll have to try it one day.

    I'm working on an email with interview questions for you today. :) I've never done it before, so I'm hoping they're good, thoughtful questions.

  5. Cynthia Leitch Smith says she destroys her first drafts ... before writing the second drafts.
    Yep, she starts over from scratch.

    I have written so very much material, and have tried to publish only a fraction of it, and have gotten only a fraction of it published, that I don't think of it all as precious. Some stories I keep just for myself to read (I doubt anyone else would be interested in a romance that revolves around botany, but I like it). I wrote a whole book between my first and second published books that I haven't tried to publish because it's not quite right. But I don't delete stuff unless I really don't like it or lose interest in it--I keep it around to amuse myself or to scavenge for parts!

    1. I can't imagine doing this for every story, but every once in a while it feels good for a readjustment.

  6. This, I suspect is good advice. I want to try it someday. I used to write in regular spiral notebooks, and I would rip out the pages and tear them into little pieces. But that was out of anger and fear that I would always be terrible at finding the right words, and that is an awful feeling, one that leads to a mental exhaustion of writing. (I've since gone to typing on a computer, and without the physical pleasure of ripping with my hands, I've ceased that catharsis.)

    Your idea sounds a lot better. While I haven't been published, the thought of it looms in my mind, and it is a lot of pressure to make everything perfect and not just good. So, I hope I do get to try your advice, and just let it be and then let it be destroyed. It would be good, to just let s good story not have to be seen or asked about.

    Anyways, lovely post! And have a blessed day. :)

  7. Very cool - but I'm not sure I'd have the guts to do that! But the important lesson is that we don't have to query or publish everything we write! In fact, I want to go into my next project with those shackles off! You've motivated me. :) Meaning I can delete it if I'm not happy and start again.

  8. Yes! People keep pestering me about publishing...and I can't convince them that I might not publish this one. I need more practice and time. I've only been writing fiction for 2 years! Some people just can't fathom working on something for a long time and *not* trying to get it published.

    I saved deleted scenes in a separate file. I've actually gone back and pulled a few things from my deleted scenes.

  9. Lydia,

    I agree that not everything I write has to be published, but I never think that in the first place. There is no pressure for me to do anything with my work when I'm finished, but there are some pieces that I know are going to be entered in a contest or submitted to a publisher.

    When I'm inspired, I write the story and thank the Great Writer in the Sky for giving me the inspiration to write it. But destroy a part of something I've created? I don't think so. Those stories get tucked into files on poetry, short stories, or memoirs.

    Maybe one day my children will want to know more about their mom through my work. Maybe one day I will revisit memories. There are just too many great things about my work and the writing process, at the very least that imagination is a gift to a writer.

    It takes no physical room and nothing special to store a file on my computer. I know it's there, and maybe I'll forget about it--perhaps a mental way of deleting it. But what a great find when I come across it again!



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