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The Book That Wasn’t: 5 Fiction Writers Talk About their Novels in Drawers

By posted at 6:14 am on July 28, 2014 4

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“For every book I publish,” a writing teacher once told me, “there’s one book I don’t.” At the age of eighteen, armed with a truly bad novel and a rather absurd sense of optimism, this line did not exactly resonate. But as I amassed rejection slips of every size—and once my first novel was rejected by a pantheon of New York publishers—I realized that nearly every writer has a novel in a drawer: a manuscript that, due to any number of reasons (rejection, timing, chance, diversion) never quite becomes a fully-formed book. 

By the time an author’s debut hits bookstores, it’s very likely been preceded by a string of books that weren’t: doomed half-novels; slivers of inspiration that curled up and went to sleep; baggy short stories that grew into novellas, then stubbornly refused to grow any more. Some become first drafts, but never find the right agent; others find an agent, but not a publisher. In general, Novels in Drawers are an unruly breed, prone to shape-shifting and border-crossing. Some NIDs lie prone for years before being resurrected and, miraculously, finished; others have their characters or ideas recruited to breathe new life into a different manuscript. 

What are we to do to with our books that weren’t? How can we learn from them, and when should we let them go? Below, five fiction writers on the story they still haven’t been able to tell. 

coverKiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

When I was in grad school, I wrote this five hundred-page novel about a round runaway character. I was sure that book was going to change the world. When I finally published Long Division, a book kinda-sorta about a round runaway character, it had literally three paragraphs from that five hundred-page novel that I knew was going to change the world. I needed to write every word of that novel but in the end, only a few paragraphs of it needed to be seen. The sad thing is that some people told me that way back then. I didn’t really listen.

covercoverLaura van den Berg, The Isle of Youth

Six or seven years ago, I drafted a story called “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” and turned it in for workshop. Amid the usual critiques, much of it helpful, were comments about how the story seemed “novelistic” and like it was “part of something larger.” Which, in hindsight, was a gentle way of saying it was way too fucking long and I had made some truly confounding choices in structure. But I did not have that hindsight back then, so I started thinking maybe this story could be “part of something larger,” that I should write past the end and see what happened. I made it about fifty pages before I realized I was on the verge of Death by Boredom. Though the story itself I would grow to love, I knew then that it was not “part of something larger,” but a shaggy dog of a short story searching for its final shape. I was reminded that the story is a very particular and singular kind of art—not a warm-up for the novel. When I began Find Me, my first novel, due out next year, it was never anything but a novel. For years my draft was messy and misguided and floundering, but at least I was always certain of one thing: I was not writing a short story.

coverKaren Brown, The Longings of Wayward Girls

I hate to give up. If I start a novel, I finish it, which is why I have stacks of three-hundred-page manuscripts, all purporting to be books, all maintained in dark storage, queued up like records in an old jukebox awaiting their turn to play. Sadly for them, I’ve learned that a book isn’t finished simply because it’s finished, that it enters a stage of being we call a draft—a term I’m now quite familiar with—and that this has the potential to multiply, to become draft six, possibly draft seven. These abandoned novels might always be first drafts, but even in their rough, elemental state their characters still enact their complicated lives in various towns and houses, in relationships with various others. In them it is winter, it is an island in the Caribbean, it is a night club in South Florida in the 1980s. I am aware of their presence—miniature worlds in stasis, pending transformation into draft five and draft six—but I’m also cowed by the work required to get them there. It takes a certain bravery to dive back in, especially if you are the kind of person who hates to give up. 

Since I now have a better concept of what “finished” entails I suspect the decision to revisit an old draft will depend on my sensibilities when I reread it—usually after years have passed. Maybe I hadn’t intended a certain relationship to carry much weight, but suddenly this relationship interests me, and I begin to imagine the story differently. I just finished a novel that involved several drafts (seven? eight?). I wrote it after a series of short stories set in a cold, bleak, upstate New York winter, and the focus had always been a love affair. Now, the story is about the relationship between two sisters—something I hadn’t even explored before—and this shift in focus has created an entirely new book.

coverMichelle Wildgen, Bread and Butter

Food shows up in almost everything I write. Aside from the way the culinary world pleases me aesthetically, food is one of those universals that can be employed to explore almost anything, from family to religion to class to love. So why has a nonfiction book about my favorite subject eluded me? I have drawn up notes, gathered my essays and looked for their common threads, and examined my upbringing top to bottom, but I have yet to figure out the personal story my food life might tell or to find the external food story I feel compelled to dive into. It’s tempting to blame my too-normal Midwestern upbringing (shouldn’t someone have been curing a pig leg in the garage, maybe, or serving meals so spectacularly terrible that I could be perversely proud of them? But no one was, and my mom is in fact an excellent cook). But the truth is, my favorite pieces of writing about food are not about extreme cooking. Laurie Colwin wrote beautifully, hilariously, and movingly about everyday, English-inflected nursery food, and MFK Fisher’s most luminous and insightful essays are about the relationships among the diners more than the amazing dishes before them. I haven’t pinned it down yet, and maybe I never will, but even now that elusive food book seems so, so close—I just can’t quite see its shape.

coverKaren Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles

For a few years when I was in grad school, I kept coming back to a short story I’d tried to write about a modern day woman who starts wearing a homemade hair shirt like the ones people wore as penance in the Middle Ages: itchy, painful, and flea-infested. But I could never get the tone right. It kept coming off as more funny than dark, more ridiculous than bleak—and I wanted it bleak. It was liberating to give up on that story so that I could focus on others, and it helped me realize that throwing out a piece of writing can sometimes count as progress. It feels like backtracking, but it can ultimately be the way forward.

Image via Dan4th Nicholas/Flickr





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4 Responses to “The Book That Wasn’t: 5 Fiction Writers Talk About their Novels in Drawers”

  1. The Untranslated
    at 1:17 pm on July 28, 2014

    Salman Rushdie mentioned an interesting abandoned novel called “The Antagonist”. “A dreadful sub-Pynchon piece” in his own words.

  2. Compulsory Enjoyment
    at 11:56 am on July 30, 2014

    Of contemporary American novelists, Michael Chabon famously wrestled with “Fountain City” as the follow-up to “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” for years before jacking it in to write “Wonder Boys” (and has more recently mentioned having totally jettisoned different versions of “The Yiddish Policement’s Union” and “Telegraph Avenue” while writing those novels). Jonathan Franzen dumped thousands of pages (and presumably different versions) of “The Corrections,” while Jeffrey Eugenides started a novel about a debutante’s party while taking a break from “Middlesex” that he never finished, though some characters ended up in “The Marriage Plot”. David Foster Wallace sketched out ideas for a novel based around pornography at one stage, as well as having various false starts on the books that became “Infinite Jest” and “The Pale King” in the 80’s and 90s.

    I’m pretty sure I can recall Martin Amis having abandoned the original ‘blindingly autobiographical’ version of “The Pregnant Widow” and having mentioned he was working on another biographical novel as the follow-up, which has presumably also been cast into a drawer for the time being.

    And of course there are those scraps and fragments that suggested that the late Raymond Carver was about to start writing his first actual novel in the late 1980s prior to his death…

  3. Gert Loveday
    at 8:23 pm on August 2, 2014

    We could have some fun with the ones that should have been kept in the drawer!

  4. Book Empire Vol. 34 | Bored to Death book club
    at 1:01 am on August 5, 2014

    […] Published authors also have some skeletal manuscripts in their drawers. The Millions asked writers about what manuscripts are hiding in their desks, to never ever see the l… […]

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