The Frugal Writer – Using Leftovers

(I thought it only fitting that for my first post I go with some writing advice, talking about using ‘leftovers’ in a blog post from a site no longer with us.)

For good or bad, I am a pack rat. Not a hoarder, I don’t keep everything (I couldn’t, I’ve lived in different countries, on different continents, and you can only carry around so much stuff), but I do keep anything that one day might have a use. I’ve tossed away once-favored things and retained the ones with which I have a deep connection, or things I think may on some distant day not only have a use but become ‘the perfect thing.’ Any guy with a garage full of treasures (which are known as ‘junk’ when translated into wife-speak) knows what I’m talking about. Some of us have our treasured mementos in boxes, crates, rooms. Some of us can fit them into a single bag. We all keep something, though. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up with a dad who was a child of the Great Depression, but one thing I hate to throw away is food of any kind. The other thing I hate to throw away is writing. Both can be used to add spice or create something altogether new.

It could be a few scribbled lines, the only remnants of an idea never developed. It could be a detail about a character, their appearance, or an incident from their past. It could be a chapter, a short story, or most of a novel. These scraps and fragments accumulated as I wrote myself into a corner in a story or saw something hit market that was almost identical to my work or simply gave up in a fit of frustrated rage when I realized I bit off more than I could chew. Or I just lost interest and moved on to something else. It happens.

Stories are like friends in a way. There are a few we treasure; they’ll always be with us. Others move on and new ones take their place.

I never throw out those old ideas, though. They are leftovers, and a good cook can always create something appealing from them.

I have stories and notes and unfinished works going back many years. In working on Made in the USA, which should be available here in a few weeks, and plotting the prequel, the sequel and one spin-off novel (as much as I do plot; sometimes characters take the wheel and turn left when you wanted to turn right and all you can do is go along for the ride), I took another look at my discarded notes and unfinished stories from the ever-expanding universe that I call the Compound Tales. And I struck gold.

Back in the 90s I wrote most of a short story about a mixed-race woman on the run from a mean son of a bitch named Lincoln Goodcock. Let me digress for a moment. I mention that my character is of mixed-race specifically because I am painfully white, a dork, a square, and sometimes I have to make an effort in my writing to reflect the world I live in, especially since I live in California’s East Bay just outside San Francisco. For me it’s easy to Write White, but these days the thought of an all-white world is ludicrous, and boring, unless you are pining for the Fourth Reich. The tough part is that I have to fire up the Imaginatronic Make-Believe Engine and research cultures and viewpoints I’ve either never experienced or don’t fully understand. The bonus is that sometimes I get lucky and breathe vibrant life into a character. Also, I like names like Lincoln Goodcock. Linc is a mean son of a bitch, but he’s one of mine, so I like him even though he does the most awful things. Anyhow, I got ¾ into the story of this young woman named Cei (pronounced say) and then . . . got nowhere. I didn’t hit a wall, but I did blow out the tires running over a spike strip (while writing a car chase scene, no less) and crawled to a stop.

I liked the characters of Cei and Lincoln (and Lincoln’s suffering partner Big Dog) and I liked the set-up that had Cei on the run, but after a few chapters I realized I had NO idea where Cei was running TO, and instead of the typical girl-in-peril action movie ending (and then she got all girl-power and stuff and kicked his ass and lived happily ever after) I decided to set the story aside. I played with it again a few years ago, but found myself facing the original problem—how in the beer-battered fuck do I end this thing? Back into storage it went, cold storage, like leftovers sitting unnoticed in the back of the fridge.

Around about the year 2000 I was working on the plot for a novel called Sunday Morning, featuring one of my favorite characters from Made in the USA (I work on multiple projects all the time. This is a bad habit for a writer. Very bad. I do it anyway. It’s either that, or try and rewire my brain). I had all the elements I needed, except some believable bad guys that I wanted to throw into the mix (in a nutshell: when a science experiment goes terribly wrong, Deputy Sheriff Al Johnson and the little California town of Sunday Morning are shifted . . . somewhere else, a wonderful place where the sky rains deadly javelins of ice, a bite from a certain insect can make your body literally explode, and there, on the horizon, my god, what is that?). I set aside the issue of the bad guys and wrote out the entire plotline, and the first few chapters.

Here’s where things get even more complicated, especially for someone outside my head, which is all of you. Hometown, the direct sequel to Made in the USA, will also feature Al, the Deputy Sheriff mentioned above, and it will tie together and complete the stories told in three other novels (one being MITU). I really wanted to get my Sheriff to Hometown, but found myself struggling with a plausible reason for him being there, since the residents of Hometown . . . let’s just say that most of them are not like you and me. In fact, many of them are walking nightmares.

At this point I was scratching my head over unresolved situations in two novels and had a nearly forgotten short story lying idle.

Flash forward to yesterday. I stumble across my short story about Cei and Lincoln, and in a flash I have one of my bad guys and a plausible destination for Cei by sending her to Sunday Morning, and hallelujah praise Jesus, a legitimate reason for Sheriff Al Johnson to make the journey to Hometown after all.

If I had tossed out the uncompleted story of Cei a few years back, I would still be spinning my wheels today.

Be a frugal writer. Never toss out your leftovers.

(This first appeared on JXM’s Dark Red Press blog in June of 2011)

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