Why I (almost) never throw away old drafts

Back in 2003, I was taking a fiction writing workshop, and it was my turn to submit something for class. And I had nothing. Nothing, that is, except a bunch of old drafts and half-finished stories I’d written years ago. In a handful of cases, I had finished the stories, and so I reached for one of those.

It was a vampire story, and it was awful.

Oh, I thought when I reread it, this is awful. When did I think this was actually good?

I’d written it back in the 1990s and hadn’t looked at it since then. What was worse, I didn’t have time to revise it much before turning it in. Still, crunch time had arrived, and I had to turn something in the next day. So I crossed my fingers, ran spellcheck, and printed it out. Then, for the next week, I steeled myself for the inevitable blowback.

Oh, they were merciless. And I deserved every bit of it. The story felt contrived. Stilted. Full of florid language. It was too long. Nothing happened. The instructor pinpointed the relationship between the two main characters as the best part of the story. It was honestly felt, he said. Everything else was pretty much crap.

I survived, though. I put it back in the drawer and forgot about it for a while. I’d written two more stories around the main character, and I still haven’t brought myself to look at those. They’re probably even worse.

Time passed (cliché alert!) and I got a request from a good friend to submit to a vampire anthology. I like vampires, but I didn’t have anything in my “current ideas” bin that revolved around the undead or that I thought could be adapted to focus on bloodsuckers.

But that story was still lying in the drawer. When I pulled it out and reread it, I tried to look beyond everything that was wrong with it to find what worked, starting with what the instructor had said.

This story needed more than a light revision. I put a clean sheet of paper in the typewriter found my first line, and started typing:

Let’s get one thing straight: I never bit Darren.

When I got my contributor copies of the anthology, I sat down and read the collection. I usually skip my own contribution when I’ve done this sort of read in the past, but this time I read it. After all the time I spent laboring over those characters, it was funny to read it and realize how much I cared about them. I still do. One day, I might revisit the other two stories I wrote and see if I can salvage them.

Oh, the other story I wrote for that workshop back in 2003? It was called “Next Stop,” and it was about 28 pages. When I turned it in, I thought, there’s more to this story. The class reacted positively to it, but they generally agreed. I put it aside for a little while and then pulled it out of the drawer about a year later.

It’s now called Detours.