Sunday, October 17, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Those First 50 pages

When people ask me how long I've been writing, my standard answer is: "When I was six. I tried before then, but nobody else could read it."

By the time I was in junior high (that's middle school for those who organize their schools differently), I had stacks of notebook paper all over my room with the beginnings of stories. Horse stories. Adventure stories. Mysteries. Historicals. High fantasy. I filled notebooks with isolated scenes from the middles of stories I didn't know the rest of. I filled folders full of notes, poetry, and maps of world-building. Every time I read a book that made an impression on me (which was maybe two or three times a week, more in summer) I wanted to write a book in response to it. Sometimes I wanted to riff off a movie or TV show, though I'd never heard of fanfic and almost never used the original characters. I was twelve when I started my Tolkien rip-off, fourteen when I finished it; and during the course of those two years I probably started two dozen other books. One writing book I read during this time claimed that all writers have the first 50 pages of at least one novel in a desk drawer. I believed it. Some of mine went more than 50 pages, but many never got past the first chapter, page, or even paragraph.

The paper stacks in my adult study are of a different type nowadays, and I've gotten good at not starting anything that isn't "ripe." But my WordPerfect (Word sucks. I won't use it.) file trees include "dormant" folders where I stick books, short stories, and whatever that were started and not finished. A lot of them date from the soul-sucking day job, when I would have to look busy, had done all the work, and had a reason not to work on my current project; either I was focused on revision, or needed access to something not available, or was between projects and keeping the wheels spinning while I figured out what to work on next.

The process of beginning an abortive book is simple: You sit down with an idea you don't know much about, or a blank mind, and you start writing. Often I'm starting with a character and a situation. An 11-year-old girl dresses for her first day at a new school and puts on a white t-shirt with a red-and-blue logo: "Stacy Stillman, Future President." A teen-ager, with the back of her neck coated in sticky black drawing salve to get a head on a boil - dubbed "the zit that wouldn't die" - so it can be lanced, gets on a city bus instead of the school bus, because the world would end if Certain People saw her that way. A nine-year-old reads to her little sister from her first novel while waiting for the bus. A fifth-grader comes home to a locked door. I have no idea who these people are, or what's going to happen to them, so I type to find out.

Obviously, some of these become garage sale ideas; but some of them sit around in a file folder or a hard drive for awhile, and become stories. The lesbian western was one chapter in Len's voice for years. I didn't have time to do the research to find out what happened to her once she dressed in her brother's clothes and left home even though Maudie Perkins wouldn't go with her, until recently. Last year I finished a book that I started in 1996; it was too short for a novel and too long for a short story, and I finally realized that what I had been treating as a finished story was really only setting up the real problem, completed it, and now The Astral Palace is out there trolling for agents. I'm not ready to put The Autobiographical First Novel of Annie Smoot into the garage sale, because even though I have no idea how to articulate, much less solve, Annie's core problem, I love the way she interacts with her little sister and find her Mary Sue story funny. I might even find out what's going on with Stacy Stillman and the Loner's Club one day.

It's easy to see a 50-page drawer manuscript as a waste of time, but you really should read through them every once in awhile. We get so tied up in writing and submitting and revising and researching and producing and critiquing that we get exhausted by our own processes. Sometimes you need a quiet mental cul-de-sac in which to hear your own voice. Yeah, a lot of them will seem silly, or pointless, or self-indulgent, but listen. Isn't that your key strength appearing in them over and over? You knack with dialog, your ability to delineate an entire complex character in a single phrase, your subtle humor? Maybe you don't have drawer manuscripts per se; maybe you have dozens of outlines of plots that, though they fit together like puzzle pieces, exceeded your capacity to flesh out economically. Still, isn't the plot itself a thing of beauty?

How did you ever lose faith in yourself, when even your cast-offs contain bright gleaming gems like that?

What's in your dormant file?


  1. I too have a file cabinet full partial novels, strange short stories, snatches of scenes. Periodically I go through stuff I wrote back in high school (stuff I wrote when I was younger did not survive the tropics.) There's imagination, humor, sometimes something quite lyrical or deeply philosophical and I am always surprised. "I wrote that?" Makes me smile.

  2. I too have a drawer full of "dormant" manuscripts, some finished, some not. I am in the process of resurrecting a piece I had given up on a long time ago. Not giving up.

  3. My dormant file has a lot of half baked ideas and a collection of incidents or phrases I found fascinating or thought provoking or that made me mad. It's a good reminder to go through these once in awhile. Thanks, Peni!