Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lessons from trunk novels

There are writers who've sold the first book they ever wrote. And I suppose there are writers who have sold every book they ever wrote. But it's far more common for writers to have several unpublished manuscripts lying about the house. Or stuffed away in a trunk--hence the name "trunk novels."

Trunk novels remain unpublished for several reasons. These reasons fall into two categories: 1) the quality of the novel, or 2) the state of the universe market at the time the manuscript is submitted. The second category includes books that are esoteric, or out of fashion, or cover a subject that the market's already saturated with. It includes books that don't have a wide enough audience, or don't stand out enough from other books, even though they may be perfectly good reads in themselves. It includes works that just never find an enthusiastic enough champion to publish them. It also includes works of genius that are so innovative that publishers just don't quite know how to market them. Sometimes, projects that fall into the second category end up coming out of the trunk and having a new life when trends change, when editors turn over, or when the author finds self-publishing success.

We all want to believe that our rejected manuscripts fall into the second category. This is natural, because nobody in her right mind sends out a manuscript unless she really believe that it's of publishable quality. And yet, I realize that the majority of my trunk novels fall into the first category. I wouldn't be surprised if many writers find, in retrospect, they have a project or two that wasn't as ready as they thought at the time. I have projects that never left the privacy of my own computer, because I didn't even need anyone else to tell me they didn't work.

If a first-category trunk novel isn't worth reworking, it can still be valuable for what it teaches us about writing. Looking back over my discarded projects, I find these lessons:

A book needs a plot.
Bad stuff has to happen to the main character.
The main character's friends shouldn't have more interesting problems than she does.
A book needs conflict.
If my book is just a blatant rip-off of an already-successful book, people are probably going to prefer the already-successful book.
A setting should feel realistic.
If a plot is contrived, it shows.
A novel written from atop a soapbox is off-putting.
Lots of stuff can happen to the main character, but at some point he or she has to take action.
Language counts.
A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. At least one of those parts will be extremely difficult to write.
I don't have to write what I know, but I'd better be able to fake it really well.
(For YA) Stay true to the inner teen.
Don't hide so much. Be brave. Don't worry so much about what people think.

What have your trunk novels taught you?


  1. I"m actually thinking that with what I'm working on now. Granted, 8,000 words of a first draft tell you nothing much compared to a completed manuscript, but I know my biggest problem will be making the main character shine. I can write everyone ELSE easily, but I may have to be digging deeper to figure out what the hell this character wants.

    I always find it interesting what authors do with trunk novels. I fully believe they can be re-written and even published if the author is skilled enough to note their faults with the plot and rework it.

  2. John: Yes, they can be reworked. Most of mine I've lost interest in, or I've cannibalized enough of them for use in other stories that there's no point for me anymore. But I just realized that the book I have coming out in January is a rewritten, much better version of one of my oldest trunk novels!

    Good luck with your MC. Sometimes I've had to switch mine, when I realize I'm more interested in a different character than I originally thought!

  3. I love the way you crossed out "universe" and wrote "market." : )

    This is a great post! I'm one to put a trunk novel away for a while, then revisit it and rewrite it. However, it's true (as you commented) that a writer has to still stay interested in the story to even attempt to revise it.

  4. Cynthia, sometimes it seems as if the stars must align, doesn't it?