Over the years I have accumulated a number of manuscripts that will never be published. Sometimes the story just doesn’t work, or the ms has been turned down so many times that I give up on it. For a long time I saved these old mss, thinking that one day I would use a part in another story. After reading a mystery novel by Julian Symons (and I can no longer remember which one), however, I have changed my practices.
A prolific writer with many interests in fiction and nonfiction and one of my favorite writers, Symonswrote 29 mystery novels; 33 works of nonfiction; including biography, autobiography, history, and criticism; 2 collections of poetry; 9 collections of short fiction; and edited 8 collections of fiction or nonfiction. His history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, is a classic and an original perspective on the genre. But in addition to his many mysteries, I remember him for something that was probably not meant to be memorable.
In a mystery novel about an architect (I apologize for not being able to identify the title), Symons describes everything in the novel in terms of angles, sharp corners, flat planes, stark floors and ceilings, and the like. There is no softness, warmth, or curving in this story, except for one character. As I recall, the character was named something like Uncle Puffer, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the description of this sweet, warm-hearted, soft and round-shouldered fellow with the lopsided smile was the antithesis of everything else in the novel. I mentioned this to another writer, and we both jumped on the only explanation. At some point Symons had written a description of a character, not found a use for it at the time, and kept it. He popped it into this particular novel, where it stood out like a glass of milk at a sports bar.
Symons was a great writer who came up with stories and ideas that will continue to entertain and surprise readers. But he taught me something unexpected in that novel. Everything in a piece of fiction has to belong, has to have its organic place in the story. This description of Uncle Puffer, as I’ve named him, did not fit, and the dissonance between that description and the rest of the novel is what I remember. Perhaps this is a case of failing to “kill your darlings,” as Oscar Wilde, William Faulkner, and many other writers have advised. Perhaps Symons merely didn’t want to waste a fine character description—and it was vivid—but either way, he should have left it out.
I have interpreted this reading experience differently from what might have been expected. If I write a novel or short story and later feel that it doesn’t work, I might keep the plot or the title, but the rest of it goes. I don’t keep passages to rework into something new. When I write a story I believe the experience has to be fresh for me or it won’t feel fresh and new to the reader. As hard as it is, and it’s actually not as hard as I thought it would be, I toss any ms that didn’t work. I delete it from my computer, and I recycle the printed pages. When I begin a new ms, I want a fresh start every time.