Tag Archive | family saga

Dredging Up the Dreaded Trunk Novels of the Past

We all have them, it seems. All writers have Trunk Novels – those first few novels that were lovingly, earnestly written in the hope of landing an agent, a publisher and eventually, book-world domination. Only they never quite made it. They might have been toted around various agents and publishers, were probably read by the writer’s nearest and dearest (usually under duress) and finally relegated to the old tin trunk beneath the bed or in the attic, never to be read again.

In the olden days of typewriters these would have been actual paper manuscripts. Over-long, heavy volumes either bound with brads, rubber bands or slipped between the covers of a thick lever-arch file. When excavated by the writer some years later (or his next-of-kin some decades later) these yellowed pages covered with brown spots and blurred typewritten sentences would conjure up romantic fantasies of undiscovered brilliance and success anew.

In the modern age these trunk novels are more likely to be old files on the computer’s drive. In some case they will have been deleted or lost when the writer bought a new computer, but the sentimental writers among us transfer them along with the newer writing for old times’ sake. An unread reminder of what once fired us up.

The sad truth is that all trunk novels – old style and new – are usually mundane, excessively detailed, badly-written, boring stories that are laden with backstory that is of no interest to anyone apart from the author, and are likely to send the reader nowhere but to sleep. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – all writers need them.

Trunk novels belong in the trunk for a reason. They are the practice runs, never to be witnessed by the public.

Think of a world-renowned concert pianist practising scales: people are not going to pay to listen to a concert pianist practise those scales, but if he doesn’t practise them, the audience won’t come to listen to the work that he plays really well. And he plays his concert work well because of those hours he’s spent practising his scales. But this doesn’t mean that we need to hear them.

The theory with writing is that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written a million words. And then some. But this doesn’t mean that that the world has to read them. It does, however, mean that we need to write those million words in earnest, believing in them and hoping for them, expecting success and acknowledgement from our peers. When it doesn’t happen, we retreat into our caves, throw our magnum opus into a bottomless pit (or trunk) and resolve never to let the world see us bleed again.

Or not. Those who are cowed and take up something different may find their happiness in another direction, but those of us who are meant to write will keep at it, despite the odds. We all benefit from a little encouragement. And trunk novels are no different.

A trunk novel is the first step taken by the baby, the early banging of notes on the family piano, and the finger-painted daubs that we stick on our fridges long before our children show any no signs of developing into a modern Van Gogh or Picasso. The trunk novel represents the test papers from old school exams written in our teens – back when we tried hard but perhaps failed to impress. They are the school essays and projects that a kind teacher marked with the words “Shows promise” or the report card that gave us marks for effort, with the words “Continues to improve but must work harder.”

Where would we be if all those parents, teachers and mentors had smacked the child for its unsteady steps, shouted down his first discordant notes on the piano, or torn up her daubs instead of attaching them to the fridge? We’d be lost, and probably useless at everything else too by now, because we would no longer believe in ourselves.

A writer I know who does pottery once said that she was not afraid to display her slightly uneven ceramic bowls and vases in her house, so why shouldn’t we self-publish our written art and give it to family and friends as gifts? A valid point indeed about self-publishing.

The problem with worldwide e-book self-publishing is that it may be akin to putting our uneven ceramics or our children’s fridge art in a national gallery alongside the Picassos and Van Goghs. This would naturally invite ridicule, since the first attempts will always be poorer than the later work which is done when the writer has honed his craft. If you want your work out there, you must be ready to swim against the strong currents of life and be able to dodge the sharks.

People have asked me why I don’t put my early works – my trunk novels – on Amazon too. My answer is because those works are not ready. They never were. They were the practice runs, the early daubs not to be exhibited in the gallery. Not meant for ridicule and certainly not ready to be seen until they have been totally rewritten.

I have tried rewriting them before. Every now and then I get all fired up over doing this because I take a quick look at the first few chapters and decide that they’re not so bad.

Usually I get about seven chapters in and then give up because I get bored. And I know that if I get bored, my readers will be bored too. The task, it seems, is always insurmountable.

I started my first novel back in 2004 and dabbled with it over the next three years, then sent it out into the world to look for a publisher. While waiting for success and book-world domination on the basis of that novel I began the second. When the first was repeatedly rejected, I sent out the second and began rewriting the first. When the second was rejected I sent the newly rewritten first one out again and threw myself into rewriting the second…

You can see where this is going, right?

I must have clocked up close to a million words by the time I eventually, in 2009, enrolled in a creative writing course, determined to learn how to fix my unwanted novels. I started a new project for that writing course, and yes – I did learn a lot. I also learnt that some sow’s ears will never turn into silk purses no matter how much re-writing you do. At the end of 2009 I began a totally new novel in an exotic Greek setting with a plot that actually went somewhere and a handful of quirky characters who bit and scratched at each other and were not perfect.

Bingo! A million words done and I had found the secret. The first two novels were relegated to the trunk and my new Greek novel went out into the world to look for an agent and publisher while I began writing the fourth, set this time in another exotic location – Italy – and with an exciting plot about art forgery and kidnapping, with another bunch of quirky, obstinate and imperfect characters.

After eighteen months and a very encouraging rejection letter from Penguin (who took eleven of those months to read and reject it), I knew that my Greek novel was ready for the rest of the world so I uploaded it onto Amazon. It’s in the world wide gallery now, up against the Van Goghs and Picassos of the writing world, and most people don’t even know it’s there, but I’m proud of it and glad that I gave my first million words to my other unsung children first, so that this one could go to places that my first two would never see.

The following year my Italian novel went onto Amazon as well. It’s also there in the world wide gallery trying to keep its head above the water in a sea of Correggios and Titians (not to mention a few sharks as well) and it’s doing okay too. The novella I wrote for my creative writing course slipped silently into place between its two bigger siblings, and in a few months’ time I hope to have their Australian sibling swimming in the same ocean, fighting for its survival too.

I’m past the point where my books are only for friends and relatives to be nice about. I’m willing to take the risk, and so far the response has been good. I’m not ready to give up my day job yet, but I do love my interesting hobby and I feel confident that my books are bringing a measure of entertainment and fun into the lives of readers around the world, even if there are not many of them.

As far as my two trunk children are concerned, I would like to give them a chance as well, but not until they’ve both been totally rewritten. Back in April this year I started with the first one again – you can read my blog-post about it here.

This time I took a different approach. I ignored the 110 000 word text and went straight for the jugular in the chapter outline. It’s a lot easier to hack around at an 8-page outline than a 284-page manuscript! I also put each of my characters through a rigorous Myers-Briggs Personality Test to see exactly what characteristics they might be drawn to in others, and why the members of the historical family fight each other so much. I also discovered what the modern characters were likely to do under certain circumstances. Sometimes their choices surprised me, but I went with what they chose and it all added to the plot.

Exotic settings? Yes: London and Africa. Engaging, action-filled plot? Yes, I’ve shortened the timeline, increased the stakes and thrown in some nasty complications. Quirky characters riddled with flaws? Yes, and this time they are active, pissed off and bubbling with hidden agendas.

These guys are determined to leave their own mark on the world wide gallery, and can’t wait to romp with their siblings in the shark-infested ocean. But first I have to rewrite the whole thing, starting at page one…


Tantrums and the Best Way to Throw Them

Several years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were discussing people who lose their tempers. Since he had been a work colleague before we got together, he knew that I was capable of losing my temper. He had seen me do it several times in a work context.

So I was surprised when he said: “You don’t lose your temper. My ex-wife loses her temper. That’s why we could never have a gun in the house – or any weapon – because if there was a weapon around during one of her rages, me and the kids would be toast.”

I had met his ex-wife and had found her to be a calm, placid woman with a lively sense of humour. I overlaid this impression of her with the mental image of a female Viking in a Beserker rage, foaming at the mouth and mad-eyed as she lopped off heads to the right and left of her. It was pretty scary to think of my mild-mannered boyfriend ever facing such a creature.

“Well,” I reassured him, “I wouldn’t do that, but I do have a temper. You’ve seen me lose it.”

“No,” he said. “You don’t lose your temper. You just throw tantrums. You’re in danger of throwing one now because you don’t like what I’m saying…”

“I do NOT throw tantrums,” I said, gearing up for a mini-Beserker rage of my own. “I lose my temper.”

“No,” he insisted. “You throw tantrums. You do it for the effect it causes. It makes people think that you are losing your temper, so they give in to you. But it’s really a tantrum, because you know exactly what effect it will have and that’s why you do it. You can stop it anytime you want to. My ex-wife can’t – that’s the difference between you.”

I thought about this as I stopped my potential outburst. He was right, of course. He smiled knowingly.

“Don’t get smug about it,” I warned him. “There’s a first time for everything.”

His smile broadened. “Not you. You’d never allow yourself to completely lose control, would you? That’s why I love you.”

Good answer. Damn, it’s annoying when someone knows you better than you do yourself!

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately, and the limits they reach before they lose it completely. So this remembered conversation brings up just another question to ask myself when creating a character: what pushes this character’s buttons to the point where he loses his temper? Or does he actually lose it? Is he always in control below the surface and just doing it for the effect? Channelling a pent-up release of energy in the most cost-effective direction?

Looking back in my novels, I have tried to find that trigger point. In my first ever novel, based on my family’s history, the father in the family is pushed to those limits and a chance remark from his eldest son pushes him over the edge to the point where the father aims his gun at his son. The first-born is not about to take this calmly either, so they grapple for the gun and both fall to the ground where the gun goes off. The mother, hearing it from inside the house, rushes outside and grabs the gun from the two shocked combatants. Both men disappear in different directions, shamefaced at their behaviour.

Obviously this was a tantrum, because no one was foaming at the mouth and the shock of the shot going off stopped them both from actually killing…

In case you think this is a bad melodrama that never saw the light of day (well, actually it was badly written and consequently never got published), let me hasten to assure you that this actually happened in my family. Yes, it does beg some questions about volatile rednecks who take up arms against their own offspring, doesn’t it? When I first read that bit in a local historical archive, I was terribly embarrassed by it.

But I have to admit that this single event got me thinking more than anything else had about my great-great-grandfather’s character. In my search for what might have pissed him off, the only thing I came across was that his farm was not doing terribly well. Some years before – in 1880 – he had brought his family all the way from Manchester to South Africa as part of the Willowfountain settler scheme; a scheme that failed spectacularly and ended in misery for most of the settler farmers. Those who couldn’t make the payments on their stony little plots of land packed up and relocated to the nearest town because they couldn’t afford the fare back “home” to England.

Why did he snap at his eldest son? Perhaps the youth had been against the move from England all along and a snide remark from him was the final straw to the father who knew that his son had been right. And in that moment I had the two most important things that characters need in a novel: Something that they desire above all else, and conflict when they are denied what they want.

It remains to be seen whether or not I will ever rewrite this novel into something halfway decent, but in the meantime it’s good to know that my intentions were on track when I found that first spark which initiated it.