The Back of the Filing Cabinet

I was visiting my filing cabinet today, looking for an early draft of a manuscript as I set out on revisions again. When I couldn’t find it where I’d thought I’d put it, I ended up wading deeper and deeper into the murky depths of my dead files. Deep in the back of the cabinet, I rediscovered old stories that I wrote way back when–you know, the ones begging to be written that first called us to pick up the pen.

As I pulled out the handwritten pages, a touch of the excitement I’d felt when I first wrote these stories tingled through me. Back then, there were no worries about themes or escalating stakes and tension, no lost sleep over how to create the perfect hook opening or snag an agent. Back then, writing was pure joy. I remember feeling that at last I’d found something that gave me true satisfaction, something I could succeed at.

Of course, we all know there’s a reason why they end up in the back of the filing cabinet. The more we write, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we understand that some of those stories just aren’t going to make it. The works we once believed gleamed of pure platinum were actually closer to Swiss cheese, riddled with cliches, weak characters and disconnected plots. In a fit of embarrassment, we banish them to the dead file, vowing to never let another soul see our muddled first attempts.

And yet we file these away, rather than shredding the evidence. The reason is because these stories showed us a glimpse of the future, they made us BELIEVE. Good, bad or ugly, they are ours, and they are special.

I thought we should have a post to salute those all-important first tries. Let’s give them their due, and while we dare not show them to others, we can talk about them, sharing what drove us to write them in the first place.

My first attempt was a 1200 word picture book called A Frog Named Flamingo. It was about a frog that fell asleep in the sun the afternoon before his Naming Day and woke with a bright red sunburn. Mortified, he tries all sorts of ways to disguise his skin so the other frogs don’t make fun of him–dirt, mud, etc–but in the end faces his fellow frogs in his own skin. He is given the name Flamingo, and discovers that being different is not always a bad thing.

The theme of not fitting in has always appealed to me, and that being different doesn’t have to be a negative experience. This book taught me a lot, including that I had a hard time working within the descriptive constraints of a picture book, and that I probably wasn’t suited for this type of writing, lol. My aunt, an illustrator, kindly made up some sample illos for the story, which I still have. Someday I might just bind it up myself, just as a keepsake.

So, who else is up for a little sharing?


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Gina Scott Roberts
Gina Scott Roberts
6 years ago

I have often found going back to some of my earlier works–all of which are actually part of other series–quite helpful for dealing with writer’s block. Or worse, doubt.

While I see all the mistakes made during the writing process, it shows me how far I’ve come in my writing. And, yes, I do feel that old excitement that seems harder to find all these many years later while reading them. The nice thing about computers is, it’s so much easier to peruse these old works since I can take them wherever I go and access them at any hour. Which, considering my schedule is a good thing indeed!

Like everyone else, I like your picture book idea. Having been raised to be ‘different’, i.e. yourself, such stories are very appealing even as an adult. I just hope someone at the naming ceremony had some Noxzema for poor Flamingo.

12 years ago

I was in search of an audition song for a show coming up, so I was over at my mom’s house looking through my old piano books. Low and behold, I came upon a Christmas play I’d written when I was maybe ten or so. I was actually kind of impressed by it considering the age I was when I wrote it!

12 years ago

Word, you are not alone! I made so many horrifying infringements in my early days, it’s not funny. Even today, some of the crits I get make me want to crawl into a hole…but we can fix our babies and make them work, with time and knowledge.

Zoe, I think for every writer out there who has a few ‘practice’ novels out there, there are those who keep working at their first until it sells. It is possible. I think that even my first books have potential, if I took the time to rewrite. I wrote them in the first place for a reason, so I know the story is there.

Mary, your book sounds awesome, and this is just what I was saying to Zoe. First books can succeed, if we stick it out. Have faith!!

Mary Witzl
12 years ago

This is such a great post, and you are so right: many of us save all our first efforts with a kind of wistful yearning — we can’t bear to throw them away because we remember how writing them made us feel.

My first story has been through so many alterations and revisions that it is almost entirely different from the original version. It is about a girl who is adopted by mistake, through a series of misunderstandings. Oddly enough, I’m still trying to get it published. I feel like Don Quixote of the writing world.

Your frog story sounds lovely. The theme of not fitting in is definitely one that appeals to me too.

12 years ago

I am only in the process of writing my first novel length book, and if frightens me that it may actually end up on the scrap heap!
My first books….. I went through a pirates and ‘treasure island’ phase in early high school, and my old sketchbooks are full of drawings for an unwriten epic fantasy about goblins, winged humans and dragons. Then there were a few re-workings of fairy tales. Then there was a short story about convicts.
Thinking about it, my characters are the thing that I think have really evolved: the first ones were pure Mary Sues: valliant dashing heroes with awesome abilities treated unjustly by one-dimensional baddies.
‘A Frog named Flamingo’!? I can really see it as a cute picture book. I will do extra pictures if you need them!

12 years ago

Oh must we share? I have a book that is still my fave – but I don’t know where it belongs. In my EARLY days of submitting (i.e. I had NO clue what I was doing), I submitted this book as a picture book. The problem? It was over 4,000 words long.


So, it’s still in the back of the file. But one day – I hope to fix it. I want to fix it. It’s still one of my “babies”! 🙂

12 years ago

I couldn’t have written the books I have now without having first written that one, or the other tucked under my bed

I feel the same way. Each book I’ve written was worth all of the time and energy I put into them, regardless if they ever sell or not. Each one kept me on this path, and taught me all that I know now.

12 years ago

What a cute story! I really like the idea of a frog named Flamingo 🙂

My first ms. was a 75k word fantasy. I loved CS Lewis and how he slide the message of Christianity into his work–as a kid, I understood Aslan much more than Jesus, and a lot of how I think about Jesus today comes from Aslan. So I wanted to do something similar. I wrote about a girl who escapes slavery in the south of a fantasy land and travels north to the land of freedom aided by a talking horse (horse = Aslan character).

I love looking back on that now. Even thinking about it reminds me of the joy I had in finishing my first book-length work, and the naive belief that publishing would be easy, comparably. But it is a nice memory…and it was practice for writing. I couldn’t have written the books I have now without having first written that one, or the other tucked under my bed.

12 years ago

Vijaya, I like the idea of an annual revisit of old MSs. I agree, it’s great to see how far we’ve come.

Angela, that’s so neat that you have audio files of your book, and that your kids could take part in the enjoyment. I know that one of my earlier novels, I would tell the kids the story in installments, brainstorming what would happen next as I wrote. Each night they would beg for more of the story. I guess they like hearing cliches, lol, because the MS was riddled with them!

Bish–isn’t it true about boldness? I recently found some old high school folders with some of my early creative writing. It was so out there, idealistic…I wish sometimes I could slip into that old me and savour the feeling of no constraints on what I wrote.

Creative a, I like the difficult situation you put your MC in. How perfect for that age, huh?

Becca, that’s one that I never got to see! *pouts* No fair!

Kelly, sounds like there must have been something sparkly in that MS to get you up writing it in the middle of the night…better go have a look one of these days!

Courtney, considering you said on your blog that all your old novels go feral on Halloween and sneak out from under your bed to howl at the moon and run amok, I think you at least owe us a few juicy details on your first book, lol! *puppy dog look*

12 years ago

A Frog Named Flamingo! Best title ever! My first MS was a YA masquerading as Women’s Fiction. That is all I will say about that.

12 years ago

Great idea to look back at your early writing…
My first attempt was three chapters of a chapter book about divorce that I wrote in the middle of the night (my parents are divorced)…I should go look at that, I haven’t in YEARS!

12 years ago

My first was a middle grade manuscript called Smelly, Hairy, Drooling Dogs. It’s a testament to everything you shouldn’t do in a children’s book, including the biggest, fattest moral ever squeezed into a manuscript. There are other early stories that I still love and remember fondly, but this one just embarrasses me ;),

Creative A
12 years ago

The first story I ever wrote was 8 notebook pages long, about this girl who wants a puppy, finds one that ran away from the pet store, and has to decide whether to keep it or return it. I was pretty young. Maybe ten.

In my first stories, I was desperate to explore a certain area that fascinated me. I agree with slhastings; I think the ideas were never worthless, not the core premise; I just don’t think I had the know-how to execute them.

Bish Denham
12 years ago

You have taken me on a walk down memory lane, Angela.

I have stories and partial novels that go all the way back to high school (we’re talking the 60’s here folks!)Somehow I have managed to hang on to most of it. There are stories I wrote for my English class…like “Saffron the Schizophreic Yellow Jeep,” “A Day in the Life of Miss Pumperding and Mr. Bullingheimer,” “In Which Turn-On and Freak-Out Try to Catch a Teen-ager.” This latter turned into my first attempt at a novel called “Obsessed Between the Breasts.” It was a total satire and my family thought it was hysterical.

I too occasionally dip into the dark nether reaches and re-read those early hand-written pages that my pen so rapidly filled. I cringe at how bad most of them are and I laugh at how free and bold I was.

They are an inspiration.

12 years ago

PS I love ur frog story – stories about misfits always hold my attention. UR aunt’s drawing is sweet too. I second the idea to make bound copies!

12 years ago

Oh that’s great! Just today my oldest was talking about my first novel (an evil MG fairy tale). She said, “I know it like the back of my hand.” That’s because her and her sister listen to the audio tape I made for myself when revising (well, they listen to tape 2 because tape 1 wore out awhile ago). They keep begging me to re-read it….but I know it needs a major revision.
That manuscript will always be one of my favorites even if it is never seen (or heard) outside of our family.

12 years ago

Once a year or so, I do go back to my old stories … and I laugh because I had the nerve to submit them. Boy, am I glad for those rejections.

That said, I’ve actually worked on some of those old stories … and found homes for them. The finished story is often nothing like the first version I wrote, but the germ of it still existed.

I really do get a boost from seeing how much I’ve learned over the years.

12 years ago

Boni, I like that–the welcome wagon. Thanks for sharing!

slhastings–I agree, in all the books/stories we’ve set aside, there are always usable nuggest to be found, or we wouldn’t have felt driven to write them in the first place. I have a novel that I’d love to look at again some day, because it still haunts me with the potential of it.

Michael, you are too funny. I admire you for giving rhyme a go…I tried this once and just could never quite get the hang of proper metre. I loe that story though, so who knows…?

Good to hear from you, Christy!

C.R. Evers
12 years ago

what a fun post! I enjoyed reading it!


12 years ago

The first things I wrote were rhyming children’s stories, kind of Dr. Seussish. And it’s funny you use that title, because they’re all still sitting in a file folder in the back of my old filing cabinet. I actually had one of them, not a rhyming one, called Huggy Bear published years ago by Wee Wisdom. I think they’re out of business now. It’s probably my fault.

12 years ago

I call the back of the filing cabinet “the dream drawer.” And I think it’s best if that drawer is left open!

Me? Once I take a little break – having just finished my second 53,000 word MS (multiple drafts) – I’m going to dust off that first MS and bring it back to life.

There is no such thing as a bad idea, or so I like to think. Maybe just poorly executed ones? On that note, there’s always a glimmer of something good. Sometimes the best ideas are sparked by the ridiculous, even the mundane.

Anyway, we all need to dust of the mannies we’ve tucked away – that is, the ones we believe in, learn from our mistakes, breathe new life into the words, and turn those frogs into princes. After all, dreams weren’t meant to be filed away!

p.s. I love that illustration. It’s sweet!

p.p.s. Funny, the thing of “not fitting in” is a theme in my current MS…

Boni Ashburn
12 years ago

Great post, Angela!

I, too, am sentimental about those “practice” manuscripts and save all of them. Kids and teachers love to hear that my first book was not the first book I wrote- it was the eighth. I need lots of practice 🙂

Now, my first ms was about a little girl who wouldn’t clean up her room and I think the first draft was 1600 words. It went through many loving revisions, but is now happy to be the filing cabinet’s Welcome Wagon for new residents 🙂 There always seems to be room for more to move in- ha!