#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.
There will be a ten-year publication gap between my first novel and Monstrous Beauty. Ten Years. My family had health problems in there that ate up a chunk of my energy and writing time, but still...I wasn't not writing during that time, I was writing stuff that fell short of the mark. In fact, I wrote two and a half books that might never be published. While the exact words I wrote will probably not be "useful later," as Emma's tweet promises, I can still hold out hope that I learned something from writing them.
One of my only regrets in life is that it took me so long to figure out how to be a writer. I was a Biology major in college, and I got my PhD in Economics before I started writing novels. I loved to write, and I was fearless about research because of my academic training, but I had no idea what I was doing. Meanwhile, Megan Whalen Turner was at the same college as me, majoring in English Literature, learning how the greatest writers write (which she obviously absorbed in her core). She also learned how to read fiction critically, I'm sure. I spent so much of my life taking math tests, doing chemistry labs, reading academic journals, taking prelim exams, and writing a dissertation, I rarely—verging on never—read for pleasure between about 1981 and 1996. When I started writing, I had to teach myself everything.
I should probably consider those two and a half novels to be like the blemished pots that ceramicists have to discard while they're learning their craft. Maybe Emma Coates and the Pixar guys are right; maybe those failed efforts shaped my writing in a way that I use every day now.
Books I Haven't Published Just in Case You're Interested
The first unpublished novel is a middle-grade fantasy. It's about a girl in London whose father has abandoned her family, and an alternating story about a cuckoo who has issues about being "abandoned" by his mother in the nest of a pair of European robins, and about the terrible things he did after he hatched (the life cycle of cuckoos is rather horrifying). The girl's dad turns out to be a druid of sorts who can transform into a bird. He comes back for his daughter, and tempts her into his (somewhat reckless) life. In looking back on it, I may have only shown this manuscript to one editor, and ironically it was Wes Adams at FSG (the house that's publishing MB). He said the ending was predictable, and I'm sure it was. I put it away, promising myself to work on it later. But ten years later, I'm a completely different writer than the person who wrote it. The entire thing would have to be re-imagined and re-written, and I have other books shouting to get out of my head.
After that fantasy novel, I moved on to what I thought would be my magnum opus: a sweeping, Forsyte-Saga-esque novel about four generations of Italian-American women, all shown in their teens (except when they appear in each others' stories at various other ages), and meant to chronicle the changes in expectations and possibilities for girls from the 1920s through the present day, the cultural changes within an immigrant family over the generations, and the way teens never imagine that their parents and grandparents were also teens at some point. I got 60,000 words into it, 39,000 of which were a complete, sweet novella of my grandmother's young life, including her (difficult) marriage at age sixteen. I showed that novella to an agent (not my current agent), who loved the writing but said she didn't think teens would be able to relate to the conflict of the 1920s teen. She asked to see something written in the voice of one of the more modern characters, so I wrote an entire YA manuscript for her. Really. I wrote her an entire book in the voice of the 1980s teen, called Love at First. It was about first love, and falling out of love, and discovering what you love to do, regardless of what the people around you want you to do. After a few rounds of revisions the agent signed me on and sent LAF to eleven or twelve editors, with no luck.
While we were waiting for responses, I dashed off a fun middle-grade novel about a girl and her regal, ornery stuffed hippo called Hipponapped. In the story, one of the child characters is a comic artist, so my son drew three-panel comics as sample illustrations. The idea was that the comics would tell a separate, related story about Hippo that complemented the "real" story of the novel. My former agent loved the manuscript but didn't want to submit it to editors with the illustrations, which I felt was a mistake. Eleven or twelve editors later, we had another stack of rejections. Of all the unpublished manuscripts, this is the one I still hope to sell someday.