Every writer has a manuscript graveyard, a place where we gently—and often reluctantly—lay our projects to rest when it’s time to give up on finishing them, or getting them published. But do they really stay at rest?
Often a novel, short story, or character traipses through our subconscious for years after burial, calling out to be resurrected in a new way.
My manuscript graveyard is divided into three sections.
Cold in the ground
The “cold in the ground” projects are the ones I have no regrets about abandoning, thank goodness. They’re truly dead or as the Wizard of Oz puts it, “really, most sincerely dead.” Eventually, I accepted that they weren’t working. Many of these were from when I was young. Often I rushed them out for some reason, contrary to my usual M.O. of letting the various elements gel in my mind before they’re layered enough to start writing.
I completed my novel The Meltdown Years while in college in the early 1990s. I was in a haste to get something, anything, published. I kept hearing about fellow Generation X’ers landing book deals by age 30—like Doug Coupland (who actually wrote “Generation X”) and Dave Eggers. The Meltdown Years followed a nuclear family’s “meltdown” in the 1970s, but lacked shading and subplot. It was never as good as it could have been, and I realized I would need years of perspective to get it right. My passions lay with other projects, so I stopped submitting it and moved on.
The book wasn’t all bad (they rarely are). I’m grateful for what I learned from it, and also for the wisdom to bury it deep underground—or at least on 3.5-inch floppy disks.
This section of the graveyard is full of shallow graves—the “undead” stories and characters. They haunt my mind, scamper across my psyche, boogie in my brain. I’d like them to touch an audience someday, but there were unkind reasons why—at the time—I had to let them go. Often it wasn’t because the novel or characters didn’t work, but because of crueler circumstances: an unfavorable market or someone publishing a similar story first. Agents sent some of these projects out and found that they were good, but just not good enough to stand out in competition for publishers’ time or money.
One heartbreaker was a young-adult novel I’d worked on for years, about a group of teen athletes with big dreams. I was ready to focus on it after my first teen novel was published in 2003, paving the way. An agent to whom I showed three chapters liked the tensions and ambition among the characters so much that she said, “I want to lock you in a room until you finish it!” But a major news event happened that mirrored what I thought had been a unique plot twist—and then an entire season of a popular teen TV series centered on the same plot point. I felt like I was sacked before I could get back to the line of scrimmage.
Eventually I had to put the novel aside. But I still love my main character, Jeff, for his passions and contradictions, and I like the story for what it says about teenage dreams. Each time a new school year starts, I consider rewriting it. With 10 years’ perspective and fresh ideas, I think it would make a good screenplay. Perhaps I’ll lock myself in a room and do that.
I know I’m not alone in wanting my characters to thrive. In a poignant essay in the September/October 2015 Poets and Writers, called “Failure is An Option,” editor/novelist Michael Bourne talked about how he and his agent put a novel to rest after many years of rejection. Yet, Bourne wanted to see his protagonist, Jack Settle, a lawyer, live and breathe. I get it. After a writer gains enough time, distance, and new experiences, there’s always hope for a resurrection.
One foot in the grave, but…
Then there’s the third section of my graveyard—the manuscripts that aren’t buried but have one foot in the grave. They’re coming along slowly and would need my undivided attention to be in submission shape. I’m busy with other passion projects, but I can’t seem to bury these just yet. They may remain half-finished forever.
Do we sometimes make a mistake by burying a manuscript? Stephen King famously threw away the first few pages of Carrie but his wife fished them out of the garbage. Dozens of revisions cause us to lose perspective—so we need a second opinion, third, and fourth, but still must trust our gut.
I doubt any of us ever truly give up on a story or character we love, because when we decided to put them on the page, it was with tenderness and care. They teach us lessons that last our whole lives.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost a story or protagonist than to have never written them at all. I may never be fully satisfied with anything I write, but the lessons from each step make the journey worthwhile.