Trunk novels don’t get much respect. It’s become assumed among writers that if you trunked the thing, it was crap anyway. I can sort of agree with that. It’s hard to look back on old work. There’s an immense shame – were we really that bad? And doubt, don’t forget the whisper of doubt that niggles long after you’ve stopped reading. If I was so bad then… how bad am I now?
It seems the way writers avoid this painful matter is by separating themselves from their trunk novels. So, we make fun of them. We joke about the crap we used to write, and how horrible our first novel was, and how we wrote “angst-y adolescent poems not fit for a trashcan.” I see this kind of thing all the time. I’m sure you have, too. And recently it’s begun to bother me.
A little honesty time. I mean duh, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be messy. It might even be mucho messy. But really? Honestly? Was your first work, your fluffy baby chick of a novel, so darn horrible? This personal ridicule is much like how the geek-turned-cool makes fun of his old, geeky habits. By making fun of them, he’s distanced himself from the shame of it – but he’s alsoadmitting what he did was geeky. He’s saying, “what I loved was uncool.”
And that’s the scary thing. There’s a hidden message underneath our casual jokes. We make distinctions to try and protect ourselves (“all my unpublished books sucked,” “all my trunk books sucked,” etc) but the truth is that we’re suggesting there will be more distinctions in the future—and in the future, our current novels will be on the wrong side! It’s a secret admission that in two or three more novels, this WIP will be just as sucky as the ones preceding it.
How sad is that?
I’ve always respected my novels. Okay—so maybe my first was pretty bad. The premise had no realism. But it was still one of the most inventive, emotionally-charged stories I’ve ever written. And I respect that.
But doing so many interviews, I’ve begun to notice a trend. A huge bulk of my interviewees tend to throw out these negative comments; about how awful their first drafts were (“vomit” and “brain dump” is used a lot,) or how glad they are that their previous novels never got published (“wasn’t worthy,” “would have regretted it”.) Even authors with five or six books now admit that their first novels probably shouldn’t have been published.
Would they have wanted to know that then?
I don’t know about you, but I think this is destructive behavior. I have to trust in myself. I have to believe that even when I am imperfect, I still have something that lets me stand out, that gives me the ability to make it. Otherwise, how can I ever suggest that I’ve actually reached a place where I don’t suck? By my next novel, I might change my mind. Probably will change my mind. I have to trust myself now, or I’ll never do it. If the only benefit of our early novels was so we could learn how to do it better, what’s the point of our novel now? We’re still only writing to be better.
Like I said before, early work is going to have issues. That’s given. Books always have issues. If you can recognize those issues and learn from them, great. I just think it’s equally important to recognize all the good things we did, and how worthy our earlier work was.
It’s true. The angst-ridden poems we wrote as teens suck. They’re also full of creativity and awkwardness that we ourselves felt. We poured our souls into those poems. Do we still write like that now?
Our first novels were probably rough, yes, full of nasty “ly” adverbs and newbie stubbornness and sentences that went on forever. But they were a blast to write. Most people charge through their first novel. Do you still do that?
My point is, were our trunks really that bad? If they were, would you have written them? We diss ourselves, but in all honesty, there’s a reason for each novel we finished, and each one we didn’t. There’s a reason we felt compelled to start that story. There’s a lesson we learned. There was a time when we were involved, when we fell in love. The story mattered everything to us, once.
Shouldn’t we honor that?
Truly and always,