Ghost writing doesn’t haunt its ghost writer. Once a project is finished, it’s sent off with its new owner and the ghost writer can free his or her spirit from the piece. There are no remnants, no bones left behind. If the customer is satisfied, the work is finished. Often, the ghost writer is bound by contract to never speak of it again. That’s no problem.
However, those old, unpublished pieces of fiction that writers label with their own names can sit for years, never sent off, rejected, or just generally forgotten. These stories compose the writer’s graveyard.
The southernmost portion of my property lies in a scrubby little valley. Through it run streams that feed The Little Conewago (a native American word meaning “the place at the rapids,” given to it by 18th Century European settlers whose cemeteries remain, sprinkled throughout the area). Modern day “settlers” continue to move in, forcing surrounding wildlife into my little valley for water, shelter, respite from humans, and death. An expedition will reward a sharp eye and probing fingers with plenty of treasure: skulls, teeth, antlers, mandibles, femurs, and other organic artifacts. I collect these treasures and try to find uses for each one. If the bones have not yet been scrubbed by the elements, I wedge them into trees and allow the rain, wind, sun, birds, and maggots to do nature’s work. Then I do some scrubbing of my own, eventually putting them on display in a nakedly public form of recycling. When I gaze out over the places where I know they lie still undiscovered, clothed by rotting leaves and the remnants of their own flesh and fur, I’m haunted. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there. Somehow, bringing all those bones out into the open comforts me. They’re no longer legend. They now belong to a different world; exposed and obliged to tell their stories.
My bone valley reminds me of another haunted graveyard: that of old, forgotten fiction that’s never been published. You know the stuff: you’ve sent it out, but it was ignored or rejected. Now it’s filed away in a dust-covered hard drive you haven’t used in years, in that manilla folder you labeled “waiting for responses,” or on that flash drive that’s buried under thumb tacks and scotch tape in your junk drawer. Somewhere, in your home or office, there’s a fiction graveyard. Like my little valley, it’s a place where fiction that has toiled and labored goes to rest…to patiently await its next assignment. But sometimes it never makes it out; it sits forgotten, withering as flesh wastes from bones, until all that’s left is something that’s as good as dead.
Let’s challenge ourselves to crack open the creaking gate that leads to our literary graveyards. I understand this can be unnerving, particularly when you anticipate unearthing parts of yourself. Never forget that you’re a better writer than you were ten years ago, or even yesterday. Maybe there wasn’t a place for your stories in 2005’s market. Or, maybe you’ll discover (thanks to your polished skills) what those editors saw that sent them running. You’ll laugh at your former self. You’ll cry when you remember the heartache that fed those stories. You’ll smile at the prospect of skinning the fluff from each one, making it gleam bright white, clean, and newly relevant. You will no longer be haunted by what might have been.
Where to start? Choose a story that still lives in your soul — one that you can’t seem to forget; one that is unlike anything you’ve read since its death. Clean it (remove everything but the bones). Scrub it (scour the plot, the characters, until all feels smooth and fluid). Whiten it (polish it with the light of your acquired wisdom, so it gleams with impending resurrection). Display it (submit it, or publish it yourself).
For me, fiction ghosts will always be scarier than what lies within my bone valley. The metaphor is a tight one, but that doesn’t negate the fact that when I open my literary graveyard gate, more specifically the digital folder titled Works Submitted, I will see something that I never expected to see: my very own bones.