“Storage of corpses is important.”

Warren wrote about having to kill a story:

The lesson is simply this: you just have to recognise that, no matter how much weight you put behind it and how much you tart it up,sometimes a story just doesn’t bloody work, and you have to take it behind the stables and shoot it through the head. No writer is perfect.  We all have dead bodies to our names.

Knowing that someone I respect and admire as much as Warren has had to abandon something that just wasn't working makes me feel less terrible when it happens to me.

I was especially happy when he said,

The corpse gets thrown in the Loose Ideas folder, where one day it will doubtless be cannibalised for its more interesting/less ripoffy parts and interpolated into something new and better.  Storage of corpses is important.  As in life, you never know when bits of them will come in handy.

…because I do precisely that, all the time. Sometimes I have a fully-formed story in my head, and I just write it before it gets away from me. Other times, I have an interesting character I want to explore, or a story about some thing that I want to tell, but once I get down to the path and look up, I realize I've lost myself in the woods, it's getting dark, and I'd better go home before the wolves come out. When that happens, though, I always save whatever I've written to that point; just because it didn't work in this story doesn't mean that it won't work in another one that I don't even know exists, yet. It's reassuring to know that writers I look up to do it, too.

29 thoughts on ““Storage of corpses is important.””

  1. You are both so very correct. I have a motto taught to me in screenwriting classes: writing is re-writing. You have to be your own editor, and try not to be your own worst enemy. On the flip side to that is the idea that we often do not know what is truly good or bad on our own. Sometimes people love what you wrote even though you hated it. Conversely, what you wrote might seem like genius to you, but nobody else gets it.

  2. I have a box full of torn-off notebook papers, with lines or characters or really weird story ideas that I’m going to write some day. I have *runs to check* 13 pages in a Word document filled with much the same. Not to mention that 36 of the 40 Notes on my cell phone are dialogue or story ideas. Nearly all of these were once part of stories or poems that I just couldn’t make work. I prefer to think of it less as cannibalization and more as using every part of the buffalo.
    I once wrote a poem about the need to kill words, in which I was Rambo-writer and my Delete Key was my trigger. These are the sort of things that comes from my brain. They scares my brother, exasperates my mom and makes my friends cackle knowingly.

  3. One of my favorite types of books to read is the ‘reassembled discarded ideas stories’ of authors I like. Things like Orson Card’s “Worthing Saga”. You can read through that and see the seeds and attempts at many of the ideas that later appear wholly formed in his novels. Many short story collections are like this

  4. I definitely keep an idea morgue, and go through it periodically. I have yet to produce a complete ‘monster’ yet…but some day, I hope…

  5. Yup. It’s true for blog posts, too. I sometimes go through my drafts and totally rework some old idea, or take the good stuff from something that didn’t quite work and put it in a related post.
    Cannibals! We are you.

  6. Well, it is certainly a relief to know that I am not the only person who saves virtually everything I have written. Perhaps I will be able to cannibalize some of my older snippets, and perhaps not. Either way, they are filling notebooks, journals, and hard drive space until I come up with SOMETHING to do with them.

  7. I actually keep a notebook called ‘Pocket Muse’ for precisely this purpose. All the little scattershot ideas, the things that don’t quite work out, the stories that got killed go into Pocket Muse. Whenever I need ideas later, that’s where I first turn!

  8. “Storage of corpses is important. As in life, you never know when bits of them will come in handy.
    …because I do precisely that, all the time.”
    I knew you were talking about stories, but something about the wording made me giggle in a sick way and imagine you rooting around in your “golem parts” drawer.

  9. I encountered a similar, and friendlier, take on this elsewhere — the ideas that don’t work are the “nurse logs”.
    Sometimes when an old tree falls, seedlings later take root in the fallen tree and feed off its decaying matter. All of the ground litter in a forest is absolutely vital to everything that grows later, actually, but most of it is made up of smaller branches or leaves; these “nurse logs” are a bit hit of fertilizer all at once, and tend to attract other seedlings that take root and do well.
    And so — as the argument went — sometimes the ides tht don’t work and have to be set aside aren’t “worthless” — sometimes they become nurse logs for other ideas later.

  10. The title to this one, and most of the content for that matter, reminded me of a Usenet post in one of the C groups titled, “When you kill the parent, do the children die?” Great to know it’s talking about processes on a UNIX machine, but dayum!
    Very good post. And thanks again for pointing me to King’s “On Writing” and John Scalzi’s blog. Reading, learning, writing.

  11. Random writing toolbox thought: I wonder if it’d be useful to do a “post-mortem” on a story when it’s been killed, instead of simply filing it whole, i.e. discarding everything but the bits that interest you and filing those ideas. Properly, I mean, for example, expanding character bios, jotting down plot developments, etc. and putting them in a folder, rather than trying to keep them in your head. Through that process, you might even find out why the story didn’t work out and be able to re-awaken the passion that got the story going in the first place.
    BTW, “Storage of Corpses” is the name of my Rolling Stones cover band.

  12. This is so very very true. I’ve been doing this for a long while. I’ve been keeping ‘codexes’ since I was sixteen and knew without a doubt I was a writer.
    I remember one idea I could never ever get working, until one day I went travelling, and found myself suddenly and inexplicably on the snow-covered streets of Edinburgh, and the idea transformed around me. That’s a book now.
    Storage of Corpses is vital!

  13. I believe that EVERY game product I’ve ever worked on has generated a file that I call “Cuts.” Each Cuts file contains all of the original text encompassing an idea I had to discard, for whatever reason. This is mainly for the purpose of back-burnering the idea, in case it becomes useful in some other product, but, before I began versioning my work, it was the easiest way for me to restore some text I had written, discarded, then later found room for.
    – JD

  14. The same is true with songwriting. You never know when that little snippet you came up with 10 years ago will suddenly become the bridge to that new song you didn’t have quite right. I haven’t thrown away a scrap of anything I’ve written in 30 years.

  15. The most frustrating thing about writing, at least for me, is that I rarely generate ideas in an sort of logical, linear order. I have numerous concepts bouncing around in my head that I’ve dealt with for months now, but they are often just elongated scenes, often well into a story.
    It would be like having this image of a spaceship with X configured wings, flying down a huge artificial canyon on the side of a massive space station, firing torpedoes into an exhaust port and then zooming away as the space station explodes, and then trying to formulate an entire story that leads to, and justifies, that one scene.
    Of course, maybe that is how writers work. I honestly don’t know. I’ve frequently discovered that in all of my various creative pursuits (whether painting or writing or sketching), I have an enormous amount of baggage about how I assume it is supposed to be done, and anyone (me) that takes an alternate path to the desired result, is a complete and total fraud.
    You grow up as a kid watching Bob Ross squirt out these wonderful paintings without any apparently prep or shortcuts, and it is hard not to believe that form of assisted success (creative short-cut or creative problem solving) is just the behavior of a talentless faker.

  16. We had to scrap a few ideas for the Transmetropolitan art book down the line before it became what it is now. It was tough to set aside things we thought would be brilliant, and yet couldn’t quite execute. But later on, when a sponsor wanted ideas for a not-for-profit pitch, we had those “dead” ideas in a box just waiting to be sifted through. If their pitch works out, there might be a cool Transmet surprise at SDCC 2011!
    Even good ideas can become better ideas. We didn’t know what we were going to do with the wonderful essay donated by editor Stuart Moore, and then a perfect Dave Taylor illustration came along and now those have been paired as an Afterword (incidentally, Warren Ellis claimed the Foreword, lucky us!). I guess what I’m saying is, your post applies to other creative projects too– not getting lost down the narrow path of one precious idea or detail, and accepting that a better idea or solution might be right around the corner if you change direction.

  17. I am a committed saver, for some reason I cannot let something I have done be discarded, I realize, like you (& lots of others :P) that creativity can be fragmented and need to be reviewed with perspective at later dates..

  18. Two things. First, John Varley established himself as one of the great sf writers of the late 20th century by writing books and stories set in the universe of his first novel, which was too bad to publish. Second, storage of corpses is important. Nederland Colorado has an annual festival “dead guy days” where they raise the money to keep my friend trygve’s grandfather packed in dry ice. Trygve got deported back to norway in 94 and can’t do it himself. (yeah, the one illegal alien I know best is a viking.) I blogged about this yesterday. http://vark.blogspot.com/2011/02/norweigan-of-year-deported.html.

  19. Wil,
    Writing is the art of staying true to yourself. How can you know if someone else will like your work? That can drive you crazy. Even if it is something that you do not like, run it by some people. Sometimes, they will love the creations you trash.

  20. I play at being a board game designer every now and then, and I’m so delighted when I can take a concept/idea/mechanic from a discarded game and insert it brilliantly into a new one that might actually have the potential chance of maybe working, sort of, if it doesn’t suck. But if it does? More meat for the grinder. It’s all sausage in the end. But I’ve had some darn tasty sausage in my time.

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