so I looked at one of my old trunk novels….

January 1, 2018

The back-and-forth between Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi really got to me. Like in a MY ID IS ON FIRE HELP ME kind of way.  I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Such a slow burn, such a build, so intriguing.

And then I remembered one of the storylines from my second trunk novel:  two mages on opposite sides of a war learn to communicate telepathically and end up helping each other, becoming more important to each other than their respective causes.

Oh yeah. That’s why my id lit up.

(Another writer friend of mine had this exact experience, with this same trope in an early piece of her own trunk fiction. But I’m not here to talk about the ids of young women writers and how the hell Rian Johnson managed to tap into the ids of young women writers.)

I’m here to talk about what I learned when I dug out that old manuscript and looked at it for the first time in 18 years.  Happily, the prose in this novel was quite good. Line by line, the writing pulled me through and had a lot of good images, turns of phrase, and so on. But the sum of those parts was not particularly stunning. So what’s the difference? What made that novel unsaleable, and my current work not just saleable but, you know, reliably good?

In a single word, the difference between my writing now and my writing twenty years ago is maturity. And it would have driven my twenty-five year old self who wrote that book batshit insane to hear that.

Because I thought I was pretty smart then. And I was. I thought my ideas were pretty good. And I guess they were. But I was writing the first thing that came into my head, I wasn’t thinking about it too hard. I wasn’t delving.  And the thing is that’s okay, that’s what first novels are for, to get that first layer of standard storytelling and received tropes that we all grow up with out of our systems. To learn to how tell a story before learning how to tell your story.

That old trunk novel is full of dead mothers. Like, all the mothers are dead. They all died differently and only one died in childbirth, but holy cow y’all, I was apparently really not interested in mothers.  The names are terrible. Uninspired. Obviously. At the time I must have thought it was clever, but now it just reads boring. I had naming conventions, I wasn’t doing it randomly, but it didn’t come across as a richly developed world. It came across as someone putting together a quick D&D game.

I didn’t really have anything to say. Like, I didn’t have opinions, or I did but they weren’t powerful. They weren’t passionate.  I hadn’t learned to take a stand in my fiction. In fact, I was probably being careful not to take a stand — didn’t want to offend anyone, right? But you have to take a stand. Good fiction has to say something.  The old manuscript has the feel of a kid who’s only ever watched 80’s cartoons trying to put on a play. Versus someone who’s been around the block deciding she has something to say and this particular thing is the best way to say it.

Alas, I’m afraid the only way to fix this is time, and writing the million words of crap.

The differences between me then and me now are a grad degree and twenty more years of reading stuff and learning what works and what doesn’t. Developing voice and not relying on the top-layer of stuff I’d been exposed to and was reacting to. Having my own thing to say rather than trying to find a shiny way to say what’s already been said.  What maturity brings to my writing:  Most of my work now makes some kind of argument.  Even if that argument is “I can write a better pirate story than Pirates of the Caribbean 2.”  I’ve seen and experienced a lot more, and while I really did have a lot to say when I was 25, these days I have a much better idea of where what I have to say fits into the bigger picture. And that’s where voice and originality come from, I think.

Mind you, in another twenty years I’ll probably have to reconsider all this yet again.

(For those keeping score, I wrote and submitted three novels, over the course of maybe 6 years, before writing Kitty and The Midnight Hour, my first published novel.)



2 Responses to “so I looked at one of my old trunk novels….”

  1. rmrecinos Says:

    Hi Carrie,

    I own a copy of Love is Strange, in which you have a short story called “The Temptaion of Robin Green”. I became a fan of that story few years back..
    but now, a certain movie brought me back to the book. I recently watched The Shape of the Water and felt the story line was similar to yours… but completely different story. Have you watched it and how do you like it?
    I was a fan of your story first 🙂

    Happy New Year 💚

  2. carriev Says:

    Hi Michelle,
    Yes, I’ve seen The Shape of Water and can see the similarities! The difference that I see is my story is rooted in the folklore of the British islands, while The Shape of Water is more rooted in 1950’s monster movies (ie. Creature from the Black Lagoon).

    If you haven’t seen it, I wrote a sequel to that story called “Sealskin,” in an anthology called Operation Arcana.

    Happy New Year to you!

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