Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dr. Frankenstein's Novel - Why I Have No Buried Books

Last week, just as the sun set and a rainstorm passed through, a perfect rainbow formed to the east of our house. I stood barefoot on our front porch and took this with the panorama function on my phone. It makes it clear how the rainbow is the rim of a big lens, focusing light. So unearthly, too. Perfect for our blog of assorted spec fic types.

This week's topic in the Bordello is The Book You Buried: The Terrifying Tale of Your Horribly Written Novel.

You have to give KAK props for her Halloween slant.

So, you all know the old saw this references. How all writers have a book or ten or twenty "under the bed" lurking like the formless monsters of our youths, muttering darkly to themselves and destined never to see the light of day.

Except me.

I don't really have a book that's buried and I've been thinking about why that is. I think some of it has to do with this story.

Way back, Oh Best Beloved, when I was first struck with the awesome, glitteringly huge, transporting and terrifying dream of becoming a writer, I entered a writing contest. As you do. Now, I have never been one to put in my bio that I've "been writing stories since I first picked up a crayon." I wrote stories as a kid, yes. I tend to think all kids do. I also drew pictures and made embroidered silk saddle blankets for my model horses. Which says a lot about childhood hobbies and future occupations right there, I think. I won a poetry contest when I was 12 and contributed angsty anonymous poems to the high school literary magazine. My AP English teacher taught me I didn't know how to write my senior year and I became much better at it but, though I got a 5 on the exam - a high score that let me test out of Freshman Comp in colleg e and put me in a special lit course - it never really occurred to me to be a writer. I was going to be doctor, then a scientist.

Only later, in my mid-twenties and while I was buried in getting my PhD in Neurophysiology, did I have the epiphany that being a writer would be my perfect life. I cut bait on the PhD, took my Masters, got a job as an editor/writer with a petroleum research group and starting playing with what the hell I wanted to write. One morning in my office, NPR told me over the airwaves about a contest sponsored by the Wyoming Arts Council. There were two and I don't recall which this was. They had a Fellowship for Literature that rotated each year between Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry, and the Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award for an outstanding woman writer in any genre.

You must understand that, not only did I not have a book written at this point, I barely had a concept. However - and this is an enormous caveat - I had fragments and a vague idea along with this shiny newly formed ambition. Though I should have been reasonably mature at that point, especially carrying the battle scars of grad school with a bipolar Hungarian for an adviser, my enthusiasm and hopeful faith in myself so exceeded the strictures of reality that I submitted a page and a half to this contest.

I know.

Do I need mention they asked for 25 pages? Yeah.

You're all wincing for me, I hope. I'm so embarrassed for myself that it took me YEARS to tell anyone this story.

What was I thinking? That's the worst part. I had this idea, this utter hubris, that my page and a half was SO FUCKING BRILLIANT that any judge would see in one glance that my talent was one to be nurtured. And yes, I still have that page and a half from so long ago. Needless to say, brilliant it ain't.

But I learned. I learned to write more and longer. To stick with and refine an idea. I went on in later years to win both the Fellowship and the Doubleday award, along with a Fellowship to the Ucross Foundation and other, really wonderful nods that told me, yes, mine was a talent they believed should be nurtured. Once I'd applied enough discipline to actually exercise it.

Thus, one point of this whole story is that, when newbie writers ask for advice and I say that you have to get disciplined, write every day, write a lot and finish the damn book, I know whereof I speak. I know how damn hard that simple advice is to take and implement. It's also the only way it happens. No one wins awards with a page and a half, brilliant or not.

I feel like I should note at this point, the debt I owe to the Wyoming Arts Council. Those contests did exactly what they were designed to do in encouraging aspiring writers. Not by awarding me accolades in recognition of my incipient, as-yet-unrecognized, as-yet-nonexistent ability, but by denying me and making me understand I had to work for it.

The other point, the one that applies to the topic at hand, is that I have no under-the-bed books because I took those early fragments and constantly cannibalized, reworked, recast and revised until I had a book that deserved to see the light of day. That page and a half? Much transformed and revised - perhaps unrecognizably so - is one of the core elements of my Covenant of Thorns trilogy.

Perhaps this makes me more of a Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together and reanimating what seems to be dead or dying. I have no buried novels because I tore them apart before they were done. I do have a lot of fragments in cold storage, waiting for that bolt of lightning and a bit of attention to be brought back to life.


  1. I was talking about this topic the other day with Hubs. I don't have anything I would consider 'trunk novels' either, but that's because every novel I have is salvageable. Sure, the early incarnations stink, but I can rebuild them! Better, stronger, faster... :cue 6-Million Dollar Man music:

    I love that you've cobbled parts of old writings to make something new - and awesome.

    1. Thanks B.E.! I'm grateful you think they're awesome. I do think things are salvageable - IF you do the work. :-)

  2. So you're saying I can't count my magnum opus from when I was seven? Self illustrated even? AND I did the cover art? ALL in crayon LOL. I don't know, there might be a market for flying horses, flying cats, and a riverboat captain as the love interest for the princess Seriously, enjoyed the post! Hug!

    1. LOL. A DIY-er even then?? Too funny! Besides, you had me at flying cats. ;-)