Why Stories Sit on the Shelf

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Art by Phatpuppy, used with permission

Art by Phatpuppy, used with permission

My TBR (To Be Read) shelf overfloweth. That’s nothing usual for any writer or bibliophile. But my TBF (To Be Finished) shelf overfloweth as well.

So why do stories sit on the shelf? Why would a writer put them there in the first place?

The first reason is the most common. Sometimes, a story just isn’t marketable. This absolutely does not mean it should not have been written. Some stories are destined to never see the light of day, but they hold great value in other ways. Simple experience and practice for the writer is one. Stories may have a good core, ready to be later revised and rewritten. Stories may be cannibalized, with scenes and characters being used in other stories. A story may be a writer’s self-introduction to a world, including the info-dump and nitty-gritty details that shouldn’t be included in the book that is marketed to the public. Charity’s story, in the Kingdom Come series is this for me.

Some writers (myself included) need to put a rough draft on the shelf for a while before looking at it again. For a short story, I might let it sit for a day. For a novel, it usually sits for at least a couple of months. For the duology of The Jubilation of the Southern Cross and Hearthsong, it’s been just over a year.

A story may go on the shelf simply because other things take precedence. Sometimes, it’s what we call ‘real life demands’ as in family, the day job, and other non-writing commitments. Sometimes, other writing takes precedence either because the writer has  a marketable opportunity with another work, or simply because the writer personally wants to work on something different for a while. With the aforementioned duology, I first had a dayjob commitment that kept me from getting back to it, and then I had a contract for a different series that took precedence.

When a story is part of a planned series, it may need to sit on the shelf while an overall story-arc is worked out, or while background details that affect the entire series are decided on. With the Pangalactic Sojourners, one important detail is the legality of same-sex marriage from state to state. When I started writing these stories, only a few states had legalized gay marriage. Over the last year, the map has snowballed until almost the entire nation is a rainbow. If I set my stories sometime in the last few years, then I’ll need to include this snowballing as important events that occur during the time of the story. If I leave the stories on the shelf for a year or more, and then set them in 2015 or 2016, then I’ll be starting with most of the map already rainbowed and there will probably be fewer momentously newsworthy events to incorporate into the stories.

Of course, some stories go on the shelf just because there’s no inspiration to finish them. Maybe the author grew disenchanted with the characters, or there was something about the plot that simply wasn’t working. However, as I said above this absolutely does not mean it should not have been written. Every story has value. Even awful ones. Sometimes you need to get the awful stories out in order to make room for the good ones. I did that this weekend with a little story about a genie in a neti pot.

The ROW80 Goals this week:

Some writing, some revising, but nothing being promoted at the moment. I sent a short to a critique partner a few hours ago, which is very productive. I’m working on a couple of projects that have very real possibilities in the near future, which is, of course, why those projects are on the plate and not the shelf.

Er… ROW80 is supposed to be measurable goals. I think I need to keep closer track of what I’m doing. Buttocks in chair and fingers on keyboard is happening, but it’s mixed with personal stuff and those hours are hard to count. I finished and revised a short story, and wrote a couple pieces of flash. I polished up a couple of documents to make them submission-ready. Next on the plate is transcribing a hand-written short, then plotting and planning a SciFi novella using my Incorporeum characters.

SO! Have you ever taken something off the shelf and discovered a hidden gem?

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
This entry was posted in ROW80, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Why Stories Sit on the Shelf

  1. nagrij says:

    I have a serious question; how can you tell the difference? I can’t seem to want to shelve anything without scrapping it entirely.

    • I never completely scrap anything. I may leave it on the shelf, forgotten, never to be seen again, but I won’t actually take it and throw it away.
      If my files were on paper, I wouldn’t be able to do that. But with electronic files, I can keep at least one copy of everything.

      I don’t think you CAN know the difference at the time. Sometimes, a story that seems like it’s going nowhere eventually finds a purpose.

  2. shanjeniah says:

    I always find a gem or two in anything I’ve shelved (and, for me, EVERYTHING gets shelved at some point; I work on many things together so that I can easily rotate in and out; my projects tend to feed one another.)

    Sometimes it’s only a turn of phrase, or an awareness of an idea or thread I’d forgotten, but there really is always something to take away with me…

    I set lots of goals so that anything I might decide to do probably fits somewhere in my massive ROW80 agenda. I go through at least once a day to update; and I often choose directly from my goals list.

    Whether you can account for all of it or not, it sounds like you’re moving along. And that’s a good thting!

  3. Starr Bryson says:

    Oh, the irony of reading your post this morning. I was just writing about the projects that get put on the shelf – and the ones I dig back out to dust off.

    Sometimes, I think writers are all tapped into some great, creative shared mind – a glowing crystal buried in the earth, guarded by the Muses. Well, that’d make a good story, anyways!

    • You’re right about the collective consciousness lol! Last weekend I wrote a silly story about a genie in a neti-pot, and a friend pointed out that a genie-in-a-neti-pot story was in Electric Spec this month!

  4. Beth Camp says:

    For me, 2015 is the year of the UFO (Unfinished Objects). This is a happy quilting term, but I’ve expanded it to include my writing as well. I really enjoyed reading about why we might put our projects on the shelf. One more reason for me is that I can’t really work on more than one project at a time, even though other ideas will come along. Thank you also for that kick in the pants re ‘measurable’ goals. I think I have a tape measure here somewhere! Have a great week!

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