In March 2015, Terry Pratchett, the British author of over seventy books and creator of the Discworld series, lost his battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. He was just sixty-six years old. In June and September 2015 respectively, The Long Utopia and The Shepherd’s Crown, his two final completed books, were published. In 2017, the manager of Pratchett’s estate used a steamroller to flatten a hard drive containing all his unpublished, incomplete works and tweeted a picture of the destroyed device. It was Pratchett’s wish fulfilled.
Pratchett’s estate and heirs were in an enviable position. With seventy-odd books already published, the royalties will be flowing in for many years to come so their decision to respect his dying wish was, it would seem, a relatively easy one.
However, it doesn’t always appear to be the case. Despite her immense success, after Virginia Andrews’s death in 1986, her estate hired a ghost writer to keep penning works in her name. Some of them were begun by Andrews but not completed before she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of sixty-three.
And seven years after the publication of his last “standalone” novel, Tom Clancy began collaborating with a variety of other authors, publishing five co-authored books. Since his death in 2013, six novels have been written using the characters he established and with his name the most prominent wording on the covers. Three more are already planned (at the time of writing). Also at the time of writing, Clancy’s widow has filed a lawsuit to have ownership of the character of Jack Ryan clarified. She believes it belongs to the estate of Tom Clancy. The personal representative of the estate disagrees.
It’s unclear whether Virginia Andrews had any preferences regarding her unfinished writing at the time of her death but Tom Clancy seems to have embraced the commercialisation of his characters and his name (even if the legalities could have been a little bit clearer).
Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous of all posthumously published writers. The writing was her own – intimately and perfectly so – but when her diary was first published in 1947, certain details and entries were omitted to avoid offending the conservative moralities of the time. These deleted components were reintroduced in subsequent editions. But Anne always intended for her diary to be read by others (although it is unlikely she suspected it would be posthumously). An entry dated 20 May 1944 noted that she had begun redrafting her diary with future readers in mind after hearing a radio broadcast in which the exiled Dutch Minister for Education, Art and Science called for the preservation of ordinary documents such as diaries and letters as a testament to the suffering of civilians during the Nazi occupation.
These are some fairly famous examples but the options for what happens to your writing after you die appear to be as follows:
*It is destroyed – this probably isn’t anyone’s first choice if you’re not Terry Pratchett. Writers work hard to put words into an order that elevates them from language to art and the idea of all that effort going to waste is generally unpalatable. (Whenever I plan what to save in the event of a house fire, it’s always cats first, hard drive containing all my back-ups second. Of course, life is what happens while you make other plans. When I did have a house fire in 2009, I saved the cats and forgot all about the hard drive. Luckily, the fire was contained to one room and didn’t get anywhere near my computer.)
*It languishes in obscurity – this probably isn’t anyone’s first choice either. The majority of people who write, just like Anne Frank, do it to be read. Languishing tends to suggest it’s ready to be read but isn’t anywhere accessible that would allow it to be.
*It is published by your family/estate – an interesting proposition. This means that someone found, read and thought your writing worthy of going to the effort of putting it out there. Sure, you won’t get final book cover approval but hopefully they’ve given your writing the respect it deserves by doing justice to the editing, designing and publishing processes. It’s what most writers dream of, dead or alive.
*It is completed and then published by your family/estate – a more problematic proposition. I’m currently 85,000 words into writing a novel with about 25,000 to go and I have no idea how I’m going to finish the book. I made some notes several years ago when I first started writing it but since then I’ve decided that I don’t like the ending I initially came up with and I’m not going to use it. But if I die before completing it, someone might find those notes and think I still intended to use those plot points. It’s also still in first draft format. Of the three books I’ve published so far, two of them were onto the third drafts when I published them and the other was on the fourth or fifth. I suspect my family/estate wouldn’t be prepared to put in another two, three or four drafts of my incomplete works because they’re not invested in my writing the way I am.
And then there’s one last option that has nothing to do with your writing and everything to do with money:
*Your family/estate slaps your name on something you had little or nothing to do with – I don’t know about you but I find this a little distressing. Either you’re forever associated with something that is simply a poor imitation or another writer who has expended time and energy writing something great is denied proper recognition for their work.
I suppose the answer is, as much as it is within your control, to write and publish as much as you can while you’re still breathing and to leave clear instructions about what you want done with your incomplete or unpublished writing when you do depart this earth. There are no guarantees, of course. But if it bothers you, remember this: you’ll be dead, unable to do anything about it and likely completely oblivious. Besides, if one of your legacies is to provide a source of income (no matter how small) to the loved ones you leave behind, it might just be worth it.