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When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?


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 The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.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?

4 thoughts on “When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?

  1. Yes. I resurrected the first novel I ever wrote. I salvaged about 20% of it, rewrote the rest, and it turned into my first bestseller and it gave me a career as a writer and the ability to finally support my family from my fiction. I also revamped my second and third unpubbed novels from chick lit to adult contemp romance and pubbed them two. Worth it!

  2. “there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)”
    Actually, you DID know … that’s the way it was done back then!

    I think most of my books have been built on earlier trunk novels.

    The big question is: Do you WANT to do this?
    Do you know where to take it now, how to handle it? Are you OK spending time in that world? Is there something in that book that you still need to say?

  3. I resurrected a novel I wrote during my sophomore year of high school because the idea simply wouldn’t leave me alone, which sounds a lot like what you’re dealing with now. It took four years, countless drafts, and some serious hair-pulling. Then, when I was finally ready to send it out, it was rejected by every agent on the planet. Three years and 1.5 books later, Islandport Press snatched it up, and it will be my debut novel coming in Spring of 2017. Totally worth all that agonizing. Listen to your gut; if it’s saying there’s something about that novel that could resonate with readers, go for it. You’re an amazing writer🙂

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