Burden or Opportunity?

What Will Become of My Un-published / Un-finished Stories and Poems

By Jeff Salter

Topic: Most of us (writers) will depart this earth with several unfinished manuscripts. Have you ever thought of what might become of them? Will someone in your family pick them up and FINISH them? [as the estates of some famous authors have done]. Would you WANT anyone (family or otherwise) to finish writing those stories you envisioned and possibly outlined?

Folks, I’m not sure what I was thinking about when I suggested this detailed topic. And maybe that doesn’t even matter now. The thought that just now popped into my head is about Emily Dickinson, one of my all-time favorite American poets. By the time of her death – at age 56 (after an eccentric and reclusive life) – she’d published only a tiny handful (10) of her verse… leaving some 1800 other poems to languish. Her sister (Lavinia) discovered the invaluable cache after Emily’s demise.

It was some four years later (1890) that acquaintance M. L. Todd and poet friend T.W. Higginson published a heavily edited collection of selected Dickinson poems. If not for the later work of scholar Thomas H. Johnson (in 1955), perhaps we’d never have seen ALL of Emily’s work… nor would we have had access to her un-edited versions of those previously published pieces.

So why am I going on about Emily Dickinson?

Well, if not for her sister and two friends, “we” (the world) would very likely NOT have ever experienced Dickinson’s exquisite verse. And those 10 pieces that were published during her lifetime – in little-known journals – would hardly have survived (much less worked their way into the curricula of schools and colleges across the globe).

Now consider a very different example: the widely-published and best-selling Louis L’Amour, who released around 100 titles before his death (1988).

But L’Amour’s demise did NOT halt the production of additional titles. Since his death, L’Amour’s wife (Kathy) and children (Beau & Angelique) have released at least 19 additional books (mostly, I believe, collections of short stories). But notice this quote from the end of a typical L’Amour paperback about his wife and kids: they “carry the L’Amour tradition forward with new books written by the author during his lifetime…”

The obvious question – at least obvious to me – is whether those 19-plus additional books had been completely finished manuscripts at time of L’Amour’s demise… or whether his family members have picked up his incomplete stories and finished them. My own very strong hunch is that L’Amour left un-finished stories and – for reasons of legacy and sales – his family wanted to complete them and keep alive the “production” of their departed author.

What about me?

From those two extremes – basically un-published Dickinson and internationally best-selling L’Amour – we see that each had family / friends who saw value in their writing and made the effort to bring it to light for the world’s readership.

As I post this blog, I’ve published 16 novels, 4 novellas, some 120 poems, a co-authored collection of short-stories, plus two co-authored non-fiction books… among other articles, reviews and photos. There’s another complete novel as yet un-published, plus a handful of un-published short stories, and at least 1200 more un-published poems.

Based on the number of un-finished manuscripts that I have now – at nearly age 70 – it’s almost certain that by the time of my own demise, I will leave behind an estimated 200 story concepts or “starts”, plus a few dozen stories with up to 5,000 words, a couple dozen with up to 10,000 words, and maybe another dozen with up to 15,000 words. That doesn’t count the dozen or so that already have as many as 35,000 words. And I have to wonder, what will become of all them?

In one sense, I hope (by the time of my departure) that my fiction readership (and sales) will have increased to the point that someone in the family will want to do “something” with that handful of fiction manuscripts that are drafted at least half-way. My wife would be the logical one to undertake such an effort, since she’s read each of my published fiction works and has assisted me in most. [In fact, for a few of my stories, my wife contributed significantly.] She has the talent, knows the territory (of blended genres) and would presumably have access to my files. I hope she will have the time, the energy, and the interest in doing so.

As we mortals approach the hereafter, however, I somehow doubt we’ll be focused much on our literary heritage. But I can well imagine it would bring a smile to my face to know that at least those few “mostly-finished” stories of mine… might have a slim opportunity to be completed, submitted, and (hopefully) released by one of my publishers.

What I have NOT covered, so far in this blog, are the many reams of correspondence that I’ll leave behind. Even assuming I have the time (and opportunity and focus) to aggressively weed through my filing cabinets and boxes of “papers”, there will still be many hundreds of significant letters, dream accounts, journals, memos, and miscellany. A fraction of those personal papers are – may I say, immodestly – items of literary merit and/or emotional beauty. My task will be to locate that fraction and make them accessible to my survivors, while segregating them from the other papers that were important to me (but would not likely mean much to anyone else).

Just as I should responsibly do with my non-literary belongings (before my demise), I owe it to my family to weed through my literary legacy.

[JLS # 515]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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12 Responses to Burden or Opportunity?

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Interesting topic. I was once asked by a mutual friend to complete a manuscript for her should she not make it back from a lengthy vacation. I was dumbfounded but honored and agreed since I knew the story very well. As for myself, I have a few completed short shorts (4k words) and a handful of poems. Doubtful anything there of value since all were written before discovering I could actually write. *shudders at the thought of how amateur they are* I have 2 completed 90K novels I am sitting on for an upcoming 4-book series. I’m currently writing book 3, but am in the very early stages of it. I have mixed feelings about what I’d want done with them should I unexpectedly pass. Of course, I’d want the finished ones published. But my family knows zilch about my publishing world. So they’d have to rely on my friends to do so. I’d be okay with someone picking up and finishing the other 2 in the series, but the “voice” would not be the same. It would need to be stipulated as a co-authorship, I suppose. Other than that, I don’t have a secret cache of unfinished work. Just files and files of research.

    I has been weighing on my mind, however, that I should take care of what I want to be done with my intellectual property before I die. And that is an overwhelming task.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      yes, very important to “settle” one’s affairs — whether financial or intellectual or possessions. my wife’s maternal grandmother had a considerable collection of china (among other things). One year — when she was in her early 80s I believe (and some 10-12 years before her demise — she went through all her stuff with her daughter and three granddaughters. As they identified each piece (or set) was of interest to that particular individual, grandmother marked those pieces with a small piece of tape and a name.
      While that worked very well for china and silver… it’s obviously a different matter with intellectual property.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I need to ask if you have thought of adding Denise’s name to the works to which she has “contributed significantly”? Not only would she have some claim-to-fame, but those works would automatically belong to her, and I know that she is a little bit younger than you and statistically, women generally outlive men; copyrights generally last 50 years beyond the creator’s death. Now that I am reminded of this, I will add the discussion to tomorrow’s post concerning at least one of my works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I usually indicate in my acknowledgements when Denise played a specific role in one of my stories — such as when she helped me figure out how the rooms of the Ghostess would have been decorated in 1914. And I always list her assistance in reading early drafts and/or proofing galleys. Her more typical role is helping me brain-storm about a scene or a character … or a character’s name.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeff, I agree with you. What happens to any unfinished work we may leave behind won’t matter to us. We’ll be too happy rejoicing with our Savior.

    Like I mentioned in an earlier blog, If anything I don’t finish is left behind, I’d like to think that Arnie would send it to Pam, my editor, and she’d finish the work. If it’s in a first draft, I don’t think it matters at all. First drafts are terrible. LOL

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I definitely agree that most first drafts leave a lot to be desired. But at least they (presumably) have the entire story-line and all the characters in place.
      I have a few that have the neighborhood of 30,000 words — some have the ending indicated, some have it mapped out, but some have almost nothing (in writing) about the story’s projected finale.


  4. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I didn’t know Emily Dickinson’s story! How fascinating. As you say, it’s fortunate for us that her family saw her talent and took the initiative to publish her work. As for the rest of us, I imagine that the more well-known one is, the more likely your unfinished work will be completed by someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Agreed. And there are also anecdotes that stand out among those extremes… like John K. O’Toole and his Confederacy of Dunces.
      He wrote that single novel, committed suicide, and his bereaved mother hounded noted author Walker Percy until he read the ms.
      Percy liked it and turned it over to LSU Press, who published it and it earned awards.
      In O’Toole’s case, I believe the ms. was mostly complete, but surely needed a lot of editing from the team at LSU Press.


  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    I didn’t know about Emily Dickinson. How interesting. I really don’t expect anything to be done with unpublished manuscripts, and that’s okay. It brought pleasure to me to write them, and that’s important to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Agree completely. I write because there’s something inside me that MUST emerge on “paper”. I’m thankful I was published early in my life, because that’s made it easier to press on. But I really believe I would have kept writing even if I’d never been published.


  6. It sounds like it will take awhile to get “weed” through your writings.
    The amount of poems that you have completed is astonishing to me. I can’t even imagine having written that many!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Well, my poetic scrawlings go back as far as 1959… so I had a lot of years in which to accumulate that total. Also, I’ve experienced some half a dozen rich “veins” of poetry — brief periods when the verse just wouldn’t stop.
      early 1966, winter of 1972-3, 1991, and 2006 are the four I remember most. Those four periods alone, likely tally up to 400 or more poems.


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