Your Unpublished Work Helps Your Writing Career

Or, why that unfinished novel isn’t such a drag after all

You have an unpublished or unfinished novel that you beat yourself up over.

At least, I’m guessing that’s true of you.

Otherwise, why would you click on this article?

For fun, let’s say that my guess is accurate. You’re a writer, and you’ve got a massive masterpiece that hasn’t seen the light of day, or has only been shared with one or two trusted friends. You have this dream of finishing your magnum opus, but can’t quite find your way to the end.

Or maybe you have half of a novel completed. It’s a good idea, and you believe in its potential, but you can’t get solve something in the second act, so it just sits there, unfinished.

Or you’ve got a few pages of what seemed like a good story, but you lost all sense of what inspired you at the first.

It sucks.

But it’s not unusual.

In fact, I think it might be one of the best things to happen to you.

Things Left Undone

I have a novel in my Dropbox. It’s nearly 45,000 words, and has a fairly decent plot. It’s a little derivative, but I know that with some work I could have a compelling dystopian religious thriller that puts a spin on a familiar biblical narrative.

Then there’s the novel that my wife and I co-wrote. It tops out around 57,000 words, and is another psuedo-religious thriller that deals with vampires in a small Southern church.

The chapters alternate between first-person and third-person narration, so it’s not exactly ship-shape, but it’s got promise if I ever decided to rescue it from mothballs and give it a little love.

There’s also the novel that I started about the last mass lynching in Georgia. That one didn’t get very far — it’s only 20,000 words or so — but the kernel of the idea sparked a screenplay that a friend of mine is currently developing. I’m helping him with the story.

Then there are the novels I’ve barely even started, one about an African-American hotel detective with full run of a 1960's Gulf shore resort who faces off against the Klan, and a post-Civil War Western about two brothers, one of whom is psychotic, the other just trying to get home to his secret wife and infant son.

Not to mention the second and third books of my middle-grade trilogy.

If I were to share access to my Dropbox, you’d find it littered with dozens of stories, story ideas, and random writings that are just plain weird.

And I’m okay with that.

Everything I start, every project that gets off the ground but doesn’t stay in flight, is one more idea that puts me closer to an idea that will work.

The same is true for you.

Words From Your Future

You can Google search if you’d like, but there are a lot of articles about how creativity comes from exploring bad ideas.

Which means, as a writer, you’re going to have a crap-ton of stuff that you start but never finish.

You’ll also have stuff you finish, but never release.

And then you’ll have stuff you wish was still in either category.

In addition to the stuff in my Dropbox files, I have hundreds of blog posts that sit unread every day. I put hours into them, more hours than I’d care to count, and some days I wonder what good they are to me, just sitting there, doing nothing.

That’s writing.

Writing is not the same as publishing. Writing is not the same as being famous. Writing is not the same as being beloved, or having fans, or making a lot of money because of your words. Those things are the after-effects of writing.

Or so I’ve heard.

The point is, where you’re at right now is where all writers find themselves eventually. And it’s where a lot of writers live. Even with the ease of the internet, there are still thousands of writers whose words will never meet eyes other than their own.

Call it the grind. Call it discipline. Call it the existential hellhole that most writers dread, but don’t for a minute think that it isn’t valuable.

Every mile of letters that I’ve typed has made me better. The practice I’ve put in resulted in my ability to write quickly, write clearly, and write creatively. That stuff nobody’s seen gave me the skills I needed to earn a living writing professionally.

Seriously. My family is able to eat food because of the words I type on a computer.

If you told that to the 2006 version of myself who was digging ditches during the day and editing video by night, I think that guy would laugh at you.

Or cry. I’m not sure which.

Don’t let your unfinished business ruin your confidence. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your work, for all the time you’ve invested in it, will never produce anything good.

The truth is, it already has. It’s made you a better writer. And so will the next unfinished story. And the one after that.

Writers are built one story, one page, one paragraph at a time. So you’re not leaving behind useless work — you’re building the career you want.

Stick with it, because — as this ex-ditch-digger-turned-writer knows — it’s well worth it.

Writer. Observer. Humorist.

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