Revisiting the Trunk

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Books get “trunked”–I always imagine that as put away in an invisible steam trunk, one that will be shipped back and forth across oceans without ever being opened–for many, many reasons. In my case, there’s a book, RIGHT ANGLES TO FAERYLAND, that’s been trunked for most of a decade because (o the hardship) I’ve been being paid to write other things, and haven’t had time to get to it. But that trunk has never been all that invisible to me; I’ve been looking at it year after year, waiting for the chance to open it again.

Two weeks ago, I did.

ANGLES is a book I’ve been trying to write since I was twelve years old. In 2002 I woke up in the middle of an early October night with the first sentence in my head, and rushed to the computer and wrote the first chapter. Then I set it aside and went back in November and wrote ANGLES for my one and only successful Nanowrimo project.

It was the fourth book I’d written. It was unquestionably the best thing I had ever written. It’s the story of five children who discover a fairy circle on Midsummer’s Day, and make their way into a Fairyland torn apart by centuries of strife–on one side is Fairy, caught in Winter, and on the other side, Goblin, bound to endless Summer. The five make allies on opposite sides of the conflict, and individually go on quests that will help to bring the shattered land back together–or destroy it forever. In other words, it’s a classic children’s fantasy novel. I drew on Narnia, I drew on Prydain, I drew on Will Stanton, I drew on The Secret Country, and I drew most of all on my own childhood. The four people to whom ANGLES is dedicated know that it’s a true story, and that, beyond anything else, is my triumph in writing it.

But there are a hell of a lot of other triumphs in it as well.

In 2003, pretty much on a lark, I sent the first twenty pages in to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Writing Contest, a contest I recommend to burgeoning writers wholeheartedly. To my utter surprise, ANGLES won the SF/F category of the contest. The judge was Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who later told me she had had a terribly, terribly difficult time choosing between ANGLES and Mario Acevedo‘s hysterical NYMPHOS OF ROCKY FLATS. Her choice, she said, was between Mario’s completely original idea done very well, and my traditional tropes done perfectly.

I will carry that compliment to my grave.

By about that time, I’d sold URBAN SHAMAN and had gotten an agent, who shopped ANGLES around. We got the same feedback everywhere: great structure, good story, characterization needs work. After enough people said that, I started to think that maybe, y’know, the characterization needed work.

I did not, however, have the skill to deal with it. I had gone so far beyond my presupposed capabilities with the book already that I couldn’t even see the problem, much less fix it. After a while, ANGLES got put to bed and I spent the next six years writing three and four books a year and wishing, wishing, wishing, that I could go back and revise the book I loved best. Twenty books later (no kidding! I’ve written twenty books since then), I’ve finally found the time for it.

Two weeks ago I opened that steamer trunk and moved the file from “Inactive Projects” into the top-level directory, and started working on it. I can’t even tell you what doing just that little bit, moving it to the active files directory, meant to me. I spent four days re-reading a book I hadn’t looked at in at least five years. I fixed really basic sentence-level problems: things like using a dialog tag instead of attaching dialog to an action. Things like cutting adverbs. Oh lord, the adverbs. 🙂 I still over-use them, especially in rough drafts, but OMG, the adverbs. 🙂 Really small stuff like that. Things I could do without worrying about how it might affect the overall structure.

I got to chapter thirteen, which I had been so very, very proud of ten years ago. And I am still, and always will be proud of it, because it tells one story from four different points of view in such a way that the reader gets to understand what really happened without any of the characters getting to. I remember holding my breath while I was writing it. I held my breath re-reading it. I finished the book and was honestly astonished at the structural craftsmanship. I’d forgotten the graceful unbraiding of five storylines and how neatly they wound back together. I thought, as I did a decade ago, that the last quarter of the book was a triumph.

I discovered everyone was right. The characterization needed work. The first chapter, particularly, needed rewriting. There were scenes early on that, in re-reading, I feared were boring, but thought I could fix by addressing the characterization issues. There were scenes I hated (yes, even in this book I love so much) that I finally knew how to fix. These were things I could not have done ten years ago.

I did them now, and I am no longer afraid there are boring scenes (a belief which will be tested shortly when I give the manuscript to my 8 year old nephew to read). The characterization is much improved. The weak scenes have been rewritten entirely.

And it is unquestionably the best book I have ever written.

Is it done? No, of course not. My agent will have comments. The editor who eventually buys it will have comments. I, in formatting the book differently for its patrons, could see places to fix more details. But it is certainly the very best I can do right now, and it’s so much better than it was ten years ago. I’m proud of myself and I can only hope other people like it half as much as I do. And I have never been so happy to have opened up that old trunk to see what lay inside.

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8 comments to Revisiting the Trunk

  • I don’t have anything put away in a trunk that’s finished other than a couple short stories, but I have a very big stove and a LOT of things on the back burner(s). 😉 I think that if I were to try to finish everything I have waiting on that back burner I’d be writing till I’m 80 or so. Sounds good to me. 😀

  • Bill Hause

    I am hesitant to revisit the pair of WIPs from high school. I am sure that it is more than adverbs…though I am sure it will bring back some nice memories…

  • Unicorn

    “Right Angles to Faeryland” sounds like something I would definitely read. Tell us when it’s on the shelves, please. 🙂
    I used to write at an incredible rate, finishing eleven stories longer than 30 000 words from the age of nine to the age of thirteen alongside a whole bunch of short stories. Now I take it slower, but the stuff that happens is definitely better; most of the older stories I don’t even want to look at. However, there are one or two that I still like… sort of… maybe later… Hmm.
    A very interesting and enjoyable post. Thanks, Catie.
    Unicorn

  • Mikaela

    Do I have trunk novels? Yes. Will I re-visit them? Maybe. I would love to finish Stormwizards. Revising Magic Missing might be fun…

  • I totally, totally, totally get this. I lift a cuppa tea in honor of your joy!

  • I have a book that has been in the trunk, been pulled out and reworked and put away again. And again. And again. I still love it, but I think it gets one more pass later this summer. And after that, if it’s not ready for prime time, the trunk becomes a coffin. Thanks for sharing this, Catie. Inspiring.

  • My trunk has very few finished works, although there are a several partials that I put away for a variety of reasons. Those reasons range from a) plot needed more percolating, b) I’m not strong enough to write it yet, c) love the character, but where’s the story, d) love the x but where’s the y. You get the idea. In the meantime, I continue to work on other things, and periodically I go through the collection and find one whose idea has blossomed while I wasn’t looking.
    Great post, Catie. Thank you.

  • Ronda Swolley

    I have my first real writing project, which is not finished, written in spiral notebooks nearly 35 years ago, which I recently have been thinking I need to actually dig out and type into word – I got as far as going through the character outlines and already have issues with it… I think I am in trouble.