It’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.
Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.
Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.
The advantage of being a packrat
Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!
It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.
Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.
The moral of the story
It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.
Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.