A Guest Post from SJ Finn. Your unfinished work: to keep or not to keep?

When we put a manuscript away, in that mythical drawer, we don’t always expect to get it out again. Indeed, it can be a big decision when to let an unfinished draft rest, when to work on it, or even if we should. Sometimes it might seem easier to begin again, completely, rather than patch up or reinvigorate or get re-enthused about something that seems to belong to another part of our lives or another frame of mind we were in, and, which now, we can’t quite tap into.

Happily, I can say that my recently published novel, Down to the River, wasn’t one such piece of work. Written over 20 years ago, the manuscript had to be reworked, but the story at its centre had never dimmed. There were, of course, things to consider. 24 years is a long time. Although the subject matter – that of child sexual abuse – hasn’t changed much over those decades, our society’s response to it has. When I wrote the first draft there was certainly no Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Nor was a child’s word about abuse always taken seriously. Much of what occurred was either ignored by adults, or swept under the carpet.


All of that, particularly recently, has changed dramatically. And, as Down to the River was in the final throes of being edited, news bulletins were dominated (it seemed) by the subject of paedophilia. Reports of testimonies from the Commission, judgements from current cases, and items about accusations made against notable people, were laced through the news. It was such a hot topic that to be writing about it was both gratifying and daunting. And since Down to the River is about our response to paedophilia – the way our community deals, or doesn’t, with those that commit the crime – to have it being discussed so widely and so often, made me hypersensitive to both legal matters and historical shifts in attitudes. I wondered if what I had put on the page all those years ago still applied.

What I realised about what had to be changed and what could remain the same in Down to the River was surprising. Concerns our society had around paedophilia nearly a quarter of a century ago were based, largely, on a fear of the stranger. There was far less awareness than now about things such as the grooming of a child, or what a trusted relationship with an adult could lead to. However, I was surprised to find that changes in social attitudes have largely occurred on the surface of things rather than intrinsically. While expectations have changed around behaviour, mores and language – not to mention modern gadgetry (the internet has played a major role in the issue of child abuse) – other things such as emotional responses to betrayal, the power of adults over children, the insidious nature of obsession that leads to such a crime, have remained the same.

To this end, if a story has an emotional exchange in it, it will always be relevant. Struggle and triumph, hope and despair, weakness and resilience are the things of literature, and the reasons we read.

But there’s also some other quintessential, almost unconscious, process that’s going on while we get ideas or scenes down on the page. It’s rather like a well with a source that springs from somewhere deep in the ground. And, it could be said, that people who are involved in creating art are tapping into that within themselves.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn

It’s also true to say that when I dig out things from the drawer, I’ve often found the essence of what I want to capture is still there, intact, in that original piece. Even if it needs reworking, I will be reminded about what it was I was thinking at the time, why I discarded it, and, even more importantly, what the effect of the piece was supposed to be.

I guess the lesson in this is that, as a writer, keeping everything you put on paper, no matter how badly written it is, is essential. I’ve found long-discarded pieces that have a freshness that I now long for. They may even remind me of why I write and what has always been at the centre of my creativity.  This is why the first draft, no matter how sloppy it is, is so important. For me, it’s the blueprint of the idea behind the novel, or, to put it another way, why I thought this novel was worth writing.

Keeping things doesn’t just apply to whole novels or short stories or poems or even jotted-down ideas. It applies to words, phrases and sentences, paragraphs and chapters, things we are writing currently and have edited out. I’ve deleted parts of novels, then wondered (as I worked on them) where a thought or notion or action disappeared to and, because I keep a trash file for every piece of work I do, I am always rapt to be able to hunt back through my discarded work to find it. Particularly that sometimes rewriting – if we’re not careful – can remove that specific emotion or meaning we wanted to capture. So the great challenge about writing we get out of the drawer is to make sure it remains as fresh and as potent and as essentially true to the intention we had when we initially wrote it.

SJ Finn is an Australian writer. Her latest novel is Down to the River (Sleepers Publishing). More information about her work can be found at www.sjfinn.com




  1. says

    Thank you for an excellent post! I have a folder called ‘parked bits’ of rejected paras, documents and ideas whose time has not yet come. This was a very encouraging post to read and gives me hope that they may not be parked forever 🙂

  2. says

    Thanks for the comment Felicity, and you’ll be mighty glad one day that you have kept all your musings, notes, well written paragraphs and not so well-written. Best of luck with all that you mine from your folder. Finn.

  3. Heather Thomas says

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m in the throes of reorganizing my study, making it (hopefully) a quiet place to read and write rather than a busy work space. And while going through boxes of old files, I’ve come across a lot of old memoir/journal writing that amazes me because the issues then are the issues now. And what to do with the half written novels or book ideas? I so appreciated SJ Finn’s thoughts on finding the essence and freshness of her original ideas in her old writing. However I have a computer question for anyone who is dealing with “old writing”. The writing I have is from the 80’s and later (yes, I’m old). It’s on paper–hard copy–and the computer records are long gone. My printer will scan the material onto my current computer, but not in editable form. I can’t imagine re-typing it all. Has anyone used software that will scan the writing into a computer in editable form, preferably MS Word? I’d sure appreciate some info. Thanks.

    • says

      Dear Heather, what a great project you’ve initiated, to turn your study into a sanctuary! Thank you also for sharing your thoughts about engaging with your old work. How very wonderful it must be to find masses of potent material. Maybe Finn will have some good suggestions for you re- software. Personally, I’m not a technical person, but I can see a sort of blessing in that you can’t just offload that writing on your computer. I find that if I engage actively with old writing – choose and re-write bits that are most important/worthy to preserve, then this prompts me to write more ‘around’ it and finish new stories/chapters/essays. So I do the opposite – I actually print hard copies of old material, reread hard copy and then re-type only what inspires me. Why not try this?

    • says

      Along with Lee, Heather, I applaud your idea to turn your study into a sanctuary. The space we spend so much time in, thinking, working, reading etc. should be enticing, and the best way for that to happen is to create an ambiance we like. Also like Lee, I’m rather a techno flunk, and would have said to you to put aside an hour a night and type up 300 or so words, and before you know it you’ll have it on the screen. Then you can play around with it. This, of course, maybe totally unrealistic. However, I’ve found in life that what seems insurmountable is often able to be accomplished from small but consistent attempts. Like building a house, of which I have done 3 times (and I mean literally building 3 houses with one other person) it is extraordinary what is possible. If I was you, I’d work on new stuff during the day, and tap away at night, doing some editing perhaps, but not a lot, so it’s not too much hard work. Otherwise, it sounds like a discussion for a tech head.

  4. says

    It resonates with me too. Similar experience. I wrote my “novel” thirty years ago. “The Secret Seduction and the Enigma of Attraction” is based on a true story I wrote when I was a young woman but abandoned because of its very personal content. I took it out many years later when my memoir “Losing Alexandria” was published and was a literally best seller. But alas, my publisher at Picador, rejected it, saying: “It’s not my cup of tea.” So back it went in the drawer–I’d given up, until one evening, John Mitchell, psychoanalyst/psychotherapist and bookshop owner, encouraged me to re-work it because, he said: “There is a great need for the story to be told — more people are seeing psychotherapists now than ever before. And besides, it is such a damn good story!”

    John went on to say the book was important because it documents the dangers and pitfalls of what can happen during psychotherapy sessions. When two people are alone together, great intimacy develops; an emotional bond occurs between them. Freud maintained this was a necessary part of the process — for the patient to develop a transference onto the psychiatrist. Sometimes, something very dangerous and destructive happens — the countertransference. Countertransference is defined as redirection of a psychotherapist‘s feelings towards a client—or, more generally, as a therapist’s emotional entanglement with a client. Not much is written about this process — it is uncharted territory — and yet it occurs — with disastrous consequences for the patient, and also for the therapist.

    • says

      Victoria, if the essence is good, as I said in my post, then, even if it’s completely rewritten, the story is worth resurrecting. Mind you, I worked as a therapist for many years, and got into a few tangles with transference, so the subject matter sounds absolutely fascinating to me. I hope you can get it into a good form, and it sounds from Lee’s comment that you’ve got one nod for it already.

  5. Heather Thomas says

    Dear Lee and SJ,
    I’m so glad I plucked up my courage to post to you on this “old writing” theme. You’ve given me a new perspective, and maybe in this case my goal shouldn’t be efficiency–the quick solution–but the opposite–giving myself time to delve into the old stuff, to think and feel and remember. . .
    Thank you,

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