I have two manuscripts in the drawer. Although they’re not actually in a drawer, and I have no idea where they went. They are so old now that I know not if any current software could even read them, so I’ve pretty much abandoned the idea of ever looking at them again. This may be for the best.
The first time I wrote a book, I sat down and made up a story about a girl in middle school who becomes friends with the strange-looking new girl. She also had a blossoming romance going on with a boy who was once her best friend, and a beautiful, shallow, hair-tossing enemy. It was all very original. I had no plot in mind and no idea how to write a book, but I blithely wrote away, throwing in plot twists and betrayals and, erm, ghosts. Because I had to do something to make it interesting.
I didn’t really make any effort to get this book published, although I did have enough optimism to enter it into a middle grade novel contest at some point. Strangely, it did not win. But when the winner was announced, I was able to read a description of the manuscript that did, and I learned a valuable lesson about the difference between a strong premise, one likely to get an agent’s or publisher’s attention, and a premise like mine, which was a really big yawn. And I also got something really important out of finishing that book. Back then, I found drafting slow and painful. I didn’t enjoy it. But I wanted to see if I could write something that long, something book-length, and I was glad to discover that I could. Although, since writing was such a struggle, I sometimes wonder why I wanted to do that.
My next idea for a book was more like a novel in short stories. I used to ride the city bus every day to get home from school, and I would watch all the people and think how strange it was that our lives were all intersecting here, so briefly, just for this time that we were on the same bus together. It made me think about small interactions with strangers and how a moment soon forgotten by one person might possibly change another forever.
I decided to try telling the story of a woman’s life through the eyes of other people. Each chapter would have a different narrator, someone whose life she had touched. She would never have a point of view, and her role in each story would vary in size, but every time she had contact with another person, if only briefly, that moment of impact would change the person’s story. Boy, did I think this was ingenious, and maybe it was a good idea, but I’m not sure I pulled it off too well. Some of the stories were stronger than others. Some, which could stand on their own, I did get published by submitting to contests and literary journals, and that was probably the most useful thing I got out of the book besides the writing experience itself.
In the end, I was disappointed with the result because I discovered, whether it was due to her lack of point of view or my own lack of talent, that it never really did feel like the reader could know the one central woman of my book. I didn’t have the skill to draw her completely using only other people’s descriptions of her, and she felt kind of flat to me. Maybe I could revisit the idea some day, but I wonder if I would find the fault really lies in the concept? I will say this—I think my second attempt at a book went much better than the first.
And that brings us to The Dream Peddler, which was the first book I ever sent out to agents—the first one I really had faith in. Luckily, it did not end up in a drawer.
As I write this, though, I realize that there is, in fact, a third book that I abandoned. Maybe I hadn’t considered including it because I never finished it, never even came close. But I think in some ways it counts, particularly since I won NaNoWriMo with it, and it was well over fifty thousand words when I set it aside.
This book was a bit of a departure for me. A ghost story, told from the ghost’s point of view. Much like the book in short stories, I feel like it was an interesting concept that just didn’t go well in my hands. The ghost, once she figures out that’s what she is, can’t really remember how she died, or even much about how she lived, as though crossing over has caused some kind of amnesia. She has to piece it together with clues from the house where she lived, photos and other things that jog her memory bit by bit. While she watches the effect of her death on her family, it’s also the story of her solving the mystery of her own demise.
I’ve described this premise to a lot of people and they always respond to how cool it sounds, but I just couldn’t make it work. It might have been the NaNoWriMo thing, which I hated and which caused me to hate four fifths of the manuscript I had at the end. Or maybe it was never going to work anyway. Either way, that experience was well worth it for me, too, because I learned a lot about how I work and what I need to produce a decent book. I can’t rush it. It takes me a long time to get to know my characters, including a lot of time that is spent not writing, and the pace of NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow for that. Everything about the book felt dulled to me, eventually, and that’s why it ended up in the so-called drawer.
All this to say, it’s clear to me now, writing this post, how much I learned from each book that was never really meant to see the light of day. Each one taught me so much through the different ways in which they failed, I feel as if they accomplished what they were meant to—they were never meant to be on the bookstore shelf. But I had to write them in order to end up where I am now.
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- Interview with Lana Wood Johnson and Giveaway for TECHNICALLY, YOU STARTED IT - Saturday, August 10, 2019
- Work in Progress - Friday, August 9, 2019