When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?

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I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.

Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.

Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.

Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.

Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.

I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.

Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.

I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.

Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.

Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.

I think of what could be done and redone.

I think of the possibility.

(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)

I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.

Could I do it?

Would someone publish it?

Is it worthy, after all these years?

I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.

In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.

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I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.

But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?

When I have the distance?

Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)

My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.

But I also had some ideas.

This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?

I would have to rewrite so much of it.

I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.

I would have to disguise a great many things.

Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?

It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.

It could be something.

And yet, do I want to go back there?

• • •

I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?

Have you performed a resurrection?

And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?

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The Teaching, the Inspiration, the Chupacabra, the Not-Writing

2015-11-14 09.18.43This has been my most public year, ever, in my life. It’s been wonderful… and it’s also been somewhat of an adjustment for a shy person like me.

So much of 2015 has been about teaching. I really made this goal a priority to have better balance in my life—the ultimate goal was to get a lot of experience so I could get a job at a low-residency MFA program, and I had a specific school in mind—and I’m astounded at how much I did this past year, and how, even before the year was over, I made my goal come true.

I’m going to talk about some of the not-so-good stuff, but first, let’s focus on the good…

Last week I was in Texas, at the Writing Barn, Bethany Hegedus’s wonderful retreat center in the heart of Austin, leading what was billed as A Week in Residency with, well, me. This was a weeklong workshop-retreat for YA and middle-grade novelists, and ten wonderful, enthusiastic writers signed up to spend the week with me. We workshopped, we did writing prompts, we talked, we got inspired, we had guest authors visit, we did readings, we had a real whirlwind… I was so thrilled by how well it all went, and I miss the writers now that it’s over. My TA Jess Capelle (one of my former Djerassi workshop writers!) helped me through the whole week and was rewarded one night by a visit from a possible chupacabra making noise on the rooftop of her cabin! I left the week feeling really inspired, really content and excited, and I hope the writers who worked with me did, too.

Here are some photos from the truly fantastic week (I am sorry to tell you there is no photo of the chupacabra):

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The path from my cabin to the barn to lead workshop one morning…
Bethany Hegedus and me at the Writing Barn...
Bethany Hegedus and me at the Writing Barn…
My lecture on Novel Openings at the Writing Barn...
My lecture on Novel Openings at the Writing Barn…
Industry panel at the Writing Barn with local guest authors Cory Putman Oakes, Lynne Kelly, and Varian Johnson
Industry panel at the Writing Barn with local guest authors Cory Putman Oakes, Lynne Kelly, and Varian Johnson
The lights outside the barn at night...
The lights outside the barn at night…
Book event at BookPeople in Austin with my friend and fellow author, Suzanne Young (look at how much fun we had!)...
Book event at BookPeople in Austin with my friend and fellow author, Suzanne Young (look at how much fun we had!)…
At BookPeople with Suzanne Young and my Writing Barn TA, Jess Capelle
At BookPeople with Suzanne Young and my Writing Barn TA, Jess Capelle
The workshop group! Such a fantastic group of writers! Here we are all with my TA Jess Capelle and guest author Lynne Kelly
The workshop group! Such a fantastic group of writers! Here we are all with my TA Jess Capelle and guest author Lynne Kelly
At the end of the week, we painted rocks with a word that symbolized the week for us... Here are our rocks...
At the end of the week, we painted rocks with a word that symbolized the week for us… Here are our rocks…

I may as well take this moment to tell you that if you’re reading this post thinking it might be nice to take a workshop like this with me, I’ll have to calm down with the outside teaching very soon, because I’m now on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. BUT, I am still committed to teaching this last weeklong workshop in 2016, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, quickly approaching in March. Apply now, before the deadline of December 17!

Here’s my latest newsletter with some more info and a FAQ, if you’re interested.

And I should tell you that Bethany has some wonderful programming upcoming at the Writing Barn in 2016, and keep an eye on the website!

WB-featuredbenchNow a breath.

I do need a breath. It’s been a busy year of events, teaching, and coming to a great realization about the book I was writing, which meant shelving one thing and starting fresh on another.

I have one last thing before the year is out. In case you’ll be at this conference in Minneapolis, I’ll tell you:

This weekend I’ll be at NCTE/ALAN (I’ll be signing The Walls Around Us on Saturday, November 21 2-3pm at the Algonquin booth 525–527, and I’ll be on a panel at ALAN first thing Tuesday morning).

But after that I need to go quiet. The teaching and appearances have been important, but know what also is? The writing.

So what about the writing, you may ask? What about the writing…

I know I made the right decision about my next book. I know that in my heart and my gut. But what I don’t know is what’s ahead for me, for my writing career, and the weight of that has been pressing down lately, pressing down hard. Being online and seeing all the news of book deals flashing by makes me happy for the writers… and mad at myself for not being faster, more prolific, more career-minded, more smart. This ugly game of comparison is something that gets a lot of us down.

I’m worried my negativity is seeping out. Not to my students, no, not during my workshops—not when I’m talking one-on-one with another writer about her novel and wishing her all the great and lovely things. I mean when I’m alone with myself, in my writing corner, as I am today, when it’s just me and the page and my whole future is reliant on what I do there, what words come out, and how well they sound and how slow or fast they dribble onto the page.

Sometimes all those doubts and second-guesses and ugly thoughts get animated into a creature that follows you and wants to take you down: a chupacabra on your rooftop, and you’re huddled inside wishing it would go away.

I think what would help is some time off from social media (Twitter especially) and my bad online habits (Googling myself to see if there’s something I should know and seeing snippets of bad reviews of my novels by accident in the search results… Clicking away incessantly on distracting, unnecessary things… Comparing myself again and again to everyone else, when I have always and only been myself in all things and I need to remember that).

I may take off the month of December, apart from sharing the Djerassi deadline and book news, when/if I have things to share.

I may hide from the chupacabra for a while. I know so many of you understand.

I want to make real progress on this novel before 2016 gets here, so I can look at this year and see that I didn’t just make my teaching goal come true… I also moved forward as a writer. That’s what I am first and foremost. (Otherwise, why even bother teaching at all, right?)

For those of you feeling like you let this year slip away from you in some places… it’s not over yet. We still have time.

What if we wrote a ton of words that we felt good about to round out the end of 2015?

What if?