Learning to Love the Novel in the Drawer
I am a ruthless bitch when it comes to moving on from projects that aren’t working. I have a half-dozen partially completed manuscripts that I tossed for one reason or another. I have 150 pages of a novel set in Portland I started writing in 2009 called “Stumptown.” (A title which someone would have talked me out of eventually.) Not to mention one hundred pages of a novel I wrote about a haunted house before I decided to write my fourth book. Plus an entire novel I wrote after my fourth book, about a man rushing to save an old friend who lived in upstate New York called, sigh, “Upstate.” There are two others, maybe fifty or seventy-five pages each, both of them speculative fiction, the titles of which elude me now, forgotten, I am certain, for the best.
These books are all dead to me, although I got something out of writing all of them, even if it was simply to scratch a particular itch, or keep the motor running while I figured out what I was doing next. I never look back once it’s over, although I have an appreciation for what I did with those books, and I’d like to think I retained the lessons I learned in the process.
How did I decide when it was time to throw things away? Usually, it’s because of feedback from editors, agents, and friends. And sometimes I have looked at a work-in-progress and thought deeply, in my core: Dear god, I never want to touch this again. But I will admit I never threw anything in the garbage unless I had something else waiting for me to work on, another good idea asking for my attention.
Timothy Schaffert also isn’t afraid of moving on to the next good idea. The author of six novels, including the upcoming The Perfume Thief (which Emily St. John Mandel called “historical fiction at its finest, vivid and beautifully rendered”), Tim has two books he’s put away: the first novel he ever wrote, and a more recent book in a drawer, which we spoke about.
“I [put it away] because it was rejected by my publisher so I thought maybe I would table it until later rather than send it all over town..It took me a long time to write, and I fumbled around with structure.” But then The Perfume Thief showed up in his imagination, and he thought it would serve him better professionally to write it.
Plus it felt simpler to write. “The Perfume Thief had a central concept that was easier for me to wrap my brain around, though it required tons of research.” Tim said, “I think it's worthwhile to walk away from a project if you have another you want to work on. You can always go back and salvage.” And he admits he still has a few ideas of how to revise that novel in a drawer.
It wasn’t a failure, this novel of his, just an exercise on the long path of his career. And sometimes these books even just exist as evidence that we can write one in the first place.
Emma Eisenberg, author of the critically acclaimed non-fiction book The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, told me that the first novel she wrote was an expansion of a story she had written. “The characters wouldn’t stop talking to me,” she says. It eventually became novel-length…and then she put in a drawer. “Nothing really happened in it and my agent said she ‘didn’t get it.’ One day maybe!”
She’s cheerful about it, though. “I had heard that it’s helpful to write a shitty novel before writing a good one so I wrote that one knowing that it was my first and maybe the next one would be better.” Emma now has a two-book deal with Hogarth, and is in fact finishing that next one, Bernie and Leah, told from the perspective of two queer artists in Philadelphia. “I think writing the first was necessary to know I could sustain characters over a novel length size.”
Some authors throw away the original idea of a book and from its ashes rises something new.
“It was like a made-up corpse,” R.O. Kwon (Kink) told me of the early version of her much-beloved, gorgeously-written, bestselling novel, The Incendiaries. “I had twenty pages I'd been reworking pretty much every day for two years, and finally I reread what I had and realized it was possibly the most overworked, dead prose I'd ever read.”
How do we discard this thing in which we’ve invested so much time? How do we give ourselves permission to do it? But sometimes we must.
“I just...threw it away, then was very sad, then started re-imagining the book, with the same central characters but with a lot of changes.” I asked her if it made her feel better to do it. “It was painful, but also such a relief,” she said. The Incendiaries is being translated into seven languages and was nominated for eight prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Book. Because she was willing to throw it away and start over.
And some just have to say goodbye completely, with one little cherry pick.
Jasmine Guillory is the New York Times bestselling author of six romance novels, including The Wedding Date, The Proposal, and the upcoming While We Were Dating, as well as the subject of a recent Jeopardy question. She wrote me about her first novel, which sits on her laptop, untouched:
“I tried to get an agent with it, years ago, and got many rejections before finally putting it away. I was really sad about that, at the time…Recently, a friend who read it back then said I should try again to get it published, now that I have an agent and publishing history under my belt, and I was surprised at how firmly I rejected that idea. I love it very much, I learned so much from it, but it belongs to the past. But I did put my favorite line from it in my book that's coming out this summer, and that made me very happy.”
Salvaging. Cherry picking. Fresh starts. Firm goodbyes. I think about all these stories and it’s so clear: throwing things away is just part of the process. Can we look at moving on from something that isn’t working not as a failure but as a step toward a future success with our writing? I know, I know, it’s easier to accept making such a big move in retrospect. But every part of making your art is about taking a leap.
Leaving comments open for you to talk about leaps you’ve taken.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to 826 New Orleans and VONA.