Never look back?

By PD Martin

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Buddha

I love this notion of living in the present (well, in theory at least). And I even think the notion of looking forward is infinitely better than dwelling in the past. What ifs, questioning your decisions…it’s never a good idea. We all know the past can be a road to heartbreak. Right? But still, sometimes it’s hard not to wonder how things may have turned out with different options or different choices during key moments in our lives. How would the different trajectory look? I adore the movie Sliding Doors for its core concept of playing out two different paths. Although I can’t remember how it ended. Did the two paths converge?

And I guess when it comes to our personal lives, I’m also a believer of dealing with the past (and perhaps it can be a fine line between dwelling in the past and thinking about it enough to move forward).

As for living in the present…well, I can’t seem to get the balance right on that one either. I’m constantly looking forward — making plans, setting goals. It’s part of who I am. And while it’s easy to say that in an ideal world we’d all live in the present, that world would actually look pretty grim. No one thinking or worrying about consequences? No one planning forward at a personal, national or global level in terms of money, resources, environment, strategy? Scary, as hell if you ask me.

I guess the key at a personal level, is not to worry about the future so much that you miss out on the present.

Recently, I’ve been questioning whether it’s a good idea to apply the notion of “never look back” to our creative lives. Yes, I have a vested interest in this. As I mentioned in my last blog, part of my 2012 strategy (yes, looking forward) involves taking a trip down memory lane and pulling out some of those earlier manuscripts that never quite made it into print. Is there enough of a spark for resurrection? I mean, everything’s a draft, right?

Like many authors, I also teach writing. And in the past I’ve always told my students that their first manuscript(s) — one, two, three, or maybe even more — are learning experiences. Ones for that top drawer that will most likely never see the light of day.

Still, I think back to my road to publication and there was at least one manuscript for which I found it hard to take no for an answer. In fact, many publishers also found it hard to say no. This particular young adult manuscript went through the very many levels of an unsolicited manuscript at the four top publishers here in Australia. This little book got through the readers, through the junior editors, right up to the acquisitions editors only to be booted out the door at an acquisition meeting. The dreaded vote. Of course, it’s all behind closed doors so I have no idea in each case who vetoed my book — marketing, sales, management? And I’ll never know.

But with the whole ebook thing (remember, I’ve been a bit of a dumb ass with this) it made me wonder whether this book could be resurrected. Since I last worked on my three YA novels (which I wrote between 1997-2002) I’ve learned a huge amount about the writing craft. And I’ve written another seven books. So what would that experience bring to my earlier novel(s)?

Well, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the past three weeks. Digging out “the one that got away”. And with fresh eyes (it has been nearly ten years, after all) I could see the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, but more importantly I knew a few editorial passes would address the weaknesses.

Alexander Graham Bell said:  “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

But what if closed doors sometimes open for us, once more?

Is there anything from your life that you’ve decided to go back to, decided to “dwell” on, with positive results?

10 thoughts on “Never look back?

  1. F.T. Bradley

    I haven't gone back to them yet, but I have a few drawer manuscripts that I might revisit. I'm almost afraid of what I might find… πŸ™‚ You're braver than I am. Looking back takes courage, I think, because the mistakes can be like harsh neon light.

    And Sliding Doors ends with the character winding up essentially in the same place in both story lines. Pretty cool movie.

  2. PD Martin

    PS And thanks for the reminder re Sliding Doors. I had a vague recollection that it happened that way but I've got the world's worst memory!

  3. Ronald Tierney

    When you think of the number of manuscripts rejected a jillion times that went on to thrill the reviewers and sell well, it's quite likely that a good writer has some great unpublished work tucked away somewhere. Maybe, looking at this past/future thing, you were ahead of your time then.

  4. Lisa Alber

    I'm working on an old manuscript too. I always thought it had potential, so while I query agents (uck–so painful, so utterly dinosaur-like, but I must try before turning to self-publishing), I've decided to revisit this manuscript. I'm having fun with it.

    I have trouble remaining the present. I have trouble forgiving myself for a couple of huge errors I made in my past. I suspect my life would be drastically different and better right now without those errors–how to reconcile that? I have trouble not worrying about the future too–retirement savings? Hah! We can plan up the wazoo, but happiness lies in the here and now. Seems like there's some kind of faith required–that what ever happened in the past, whatever may happen in the future, that we're in the right spot in our lives…I guess I have trouble with faith too. πŸ™‚

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    There's an Iroquois belief that a no major decision should be made without thinking of its consequences, seven generations into the future. Imagine how life would be different if our politicians did the same, or if we, as a society, required this.

    I also loved the film Sliding Doors. And I've also forgotten how it ends – but I do remember its impact.

    I think you should definitely patch up that old YA novel and release it as an ebook. It sounds like it was a hair's breadth away from being published anyway.

  6. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Phillipa

    Great post, and quite apt for me at the moment, as I'm currently working on a book that, although it isn't an old manuscript, comes from an idea I first had probably eight years ago for a supernatural thriller. I kept getting knocked back on starting it, but I knew I had a little breathing space between finishing the last Charlie Fox novel, and starting a new project, so I finally decided to get on with it.

    I've been writing only a few weeks, but am already 35k words in and thoroughly enjoying it…

  7. PD Martin

    Ronald – yes, I think there are lots of good manuscripts out there that get rejected. For all sorts of different reasons. It really can be being in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. And I think publishers are getting more conservative now too (and have been for the past 10 years or so).

    Lisa, yes, I think it's good to do the agent thing as well as the self-published thing. I'm working on a new book that will definitely go to agents, but I'm using the ebook self-publishing thing for a new YA 'stream'. Good luck with the agents and the new/old manuscript! And like you, I often think about major events and feel that things would have been different (better) if I'd made different decisions. And the future in terms of retirement savings…I'm shocking! I like your line: "what ever happened in the past, whatever may happen in the future, that we're in the right spot in our lives". That's great πŸ™‚

  8. PD Martin

    Stephen, wow, seven generations on! That's incredible. What an amazing way to live life and look at decisions (not sure if it would be good or bad). And thanks for the words of support for my YA venture πŸ™‚

    Zoe – glad I'm not the only one 'looking back'. I know it's different for you because you're working on an 'old' idea rather than an old manuscript, but it really does bring me back to our discussions on Murderati about it being easier to edit a first draft (no matter how much work it needs) than stare at the blank page!

    And like you, Zoe, I can't keep up with my ideas for novels and 'to do' list! I've got six books I'm yearning to write, right now!

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