Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trunk Novels: The Long Road to Happily Ever After

By Marilyn Brant

I know a number of writers that drafted and sold their first manuscripts -- often with the help of insightful critique partners, lots of revision and a great willingness to work hard at marketing their novel to the right agent/editor in the right genre at the right time.

Sadly, I wasn't one of those writers.

I didn't know what the hell I was doing twelve summers ago when I began my first manuscript. Really. I hadn't even read a how-to book on novel writing until after I'd drafted my first (embarrassingly dreadful) 627-page manuscript -- written by hand, by the way, on lined yellow paper because I didn't own a computer then. And, of course, I hadn't yet joined a helpful writers' organization like RWA or begun working with a critique partner or six, like I do now. My first manuscript has so many unresolved issues, it needs therapy. And it's not sitting alone with its problems on my hard drive. I wrote four full-length books before beginning my fifth one, According to Jane, which became my debut novel. (And I wrote two more novels after I finished 'Jane' but before it sold.)

So, not everyone's process is the same...and this roundabout, meandering, trying-to-get-the-big-picture-before-you-learn-the-details approach to storytelling just happened to be mine. Which is to say, when it comes to "trunk novels," I have a few.

Here's what I've learned about them in the past decade or so, though: They were not entirely awful manuscripts. Not even my first one. But they were different than what I write now. Different in a way that, when I'm being honest, is certainly less skilled and sure than my current writing, but not always poorer by comparison.

It reminds me in a way of when I first started teaching. What I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm. The kinds of projects I was willing to try with my classes early on were sometimes ambitious activities that I was years away from having the skill to pull off without a hitch. But I didn't know that then, so I did them anyway. And some of the students from my first few years later told me how much they loved those goofy plays or weird radio shows or huge murals that we did. Imperfect as they might have been, they were memorable and, in their own strange way, maybe better than if I'd known how to avoid every potential glitch -- at least in light of what my goals had been at the time.

I know my voice and myself as a writer better now -- and I know oh-so-much more about story structure -- so I approach my choice of novel premise and point of view and escalation of conflict with more mindfulness than I once did. BUT those early books also had a freedom and an openly experimental, throw-the-rules-to-the-wind flavor to them that I'd be less quick to replicate these days. I'm not even sure I could pull it off. And in three cases, those trunk novels were close to selling to a NY publisher. SO CLOSE!! But the timing wasn't quite right and, for years, their day in the sun didn't come.

However, thanks to the recent digital revolution, I was able to test out releasing two of them online last year -- editing them with the more professional eye that I now have, but striving to retain most of the youthful writer exuberance that had been woven naturally into the storytelling.

And it's been so fun!

Such a delight to discover that these shorter, romantic comedies have an audience and have brought joy to a group of readers. I can't tell you how appreciative I am. Are these books as complicated or as thoughtfully structured as my traditionally published women's fiction? Oh, heavens, no. But they are, in their own way, exactly what they should be, and there's something extremely satisfying about that. On Any Given Sundae was a top 100 "Bestseller in Humor" on Kindle last year, and Double Dipping just finaled in the contemporary novel category of the 2012 International Digital Awards, both of which pleased me as much as my Golden Heart® win for According to Jane because there's nothing like the right story finding its right readers at long last.

Not every manuscript I ever wrote should be foisted upon the world (trust me, you should be very grateful I'm keeping that first one to myself), but I do believe it's true that nothing we write is wasted. Sometimes, it's put away but becomes the springboard for a later, better idea. Sometimes, it can be heavily revised and substantially improved. But, sometimes, just needs a little polishing, the right timing and a receptive audience to find its proper home. In those cases, patience is indeed a virtue and persistence will one day be rewarded.

Moral of the story? You just gotta keep writing and revising...revising and writing...and keeping hope alive as you press onward. A happily ever after is possible for us all. :)

I've posted chapters from both of these novels on my website:
On Any Given Sundae is excerpted here.
And Double Dipping is excerpted here.

I hope you'll enjoy them. And, because you've probably guessed from the titles that I'm a big ice cream fan, I'd love to know, what are your favorite flavors?!


  1. okay. Now I really want an eclair! Love the excerpts.

    1. LOL, Karin!!!
      Ahhh, I had a lot of fun with that scene ;). Thrilled you enjoyed it -- thank you!

  2. "The kinds of projects I was willing to try with my classes early on were sometimes ambitious activities that I was years away from having the skill to pull off without a hitch. But I didn't know that then, so I did them anyway."

    This analogy is right on. Sometimes I try to forget what I "know" while I'm drafting (or, in the case of teaching, creating a syllabus). If I let myself think about it too much, I'll back off, try to simplify. And be disappointed with the results.

    This reminds me of a pep talk my high school band instructor gave us. He said (and is this true?) that every law of physics tells us the bumblebee can't fly. It's wings can't support its body. But, he always told us, the bumblebee doesn't know it can't fly so it does anyway.

    I think there's something magical in those early writings, those pieces we wrote before we knew we "couldn't." And even if they're never rewritten, there's a lot to be said for seeing what we could do when we shouldn't have been able to do anything.

    Oh, and the ice cream? Chocolate peanut butter.

    1. "And even if they're never rewritten, there's a lot to be said for seeing what we could do when we shouldn't have been able to do anything."

      Oh, Lexi, thank you!! I love this. You said it perfectly...and you're so right about the bumblebee. The high school my husband teaches at has a bee as one of their mascots so, over the years, he's brought home lots of bee-related things, including a bee lapel pin. On the card that came with it, it said just what you did about how the bee wasn't supposed to be able to fly and, yet, it did. It always inspires me to think of that.

      p.s. There's a gelato place not far from here that has the most incredible chocolate peanut butter. 5,000 calories per bite, I fear, but so good!!

  3. My fave is mint chocolate chip.

    And I love this blog! Shows everyone that writing takes hard work and lots (and LOTS) of editing!!

    1. Brenda, thank you! You get extra props for coming up with this great topic for us. It's been fascinating to read everyone's trunk novel stories!!

      And, ohhh, the editing...sigh. A never-ending process, isn't it?! I forget every time I finish a novel just how much revision went into it, until I start working on the next one and realize, "Oh, my God...this is going to take at least 875 drafts!"

  4. It's funny, so much of what you wrote here resonates with what you have shared with me during our personal chats about writing. Just proves, you are one authentic person, Soul Sis! xoxo Because I am such a groupie for both ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAE and DOUBLE DIPPING, we have covered the ice cream question ten ways to Sunday. But, for today, my fav flavor is....homemade banana, caramel and macadamia nut (since that's what I made this weekend!!) Great post!

    1. Jill, you made homemade ice cream this weekend??!! You talented lady, you! Yum...I love that cool flavor you created :). And, LOL, yeah, we have talked a lot about ice cream...and about writing/revising!! Always a pleasure to discuss both with you, my friend!

  5. Such a great post, Marilyn! Congratulations on According to Jane, and also for all of your trunk novels. Nice reminder that those early disappointments are our apprenticeships--we work tirelessly, pouring our souls into the work and receive no pay or reward. But in the end, what we learn is invaluable.

    Fav ice cream? Hmmm. Salted Caramel at the moment:-)

    1. Lori,
      I've only had salted caramel ice cream once this summer, but it was SO good I could have devoured the entire tub of it :).
      And thank you -- I'm delighted you enjoyed the post! I also really appreciate you said about those early disappointments as our apprenticeships. They're rarely easy experiences to go through but, just as you said, they're invaluable...

  6. Count me in for mint chocolate chip! Fun post. Glad your stories are out there, making readers happy!

    1. Sara,
      thank you!!!
      And I can tell you that mint chocolate chip is a HUGE fave in our house. I think my son would be finally be cheerful in the morning if he could get away with eating it for breakfast :).

  7. Marilyn, so interesting to hear about your journey as an author. Funny how one's debut is almost never her first book. Wishing you much continued success!

    1. Lucie,
      Thanks so much for the good wishes :).
      As for the writing journey...I really believe there's just an overwhelming amount of information and skill development that needs to be acquired, whether a novelist sells her first manuscript or her tenth. I have a writing friend that sold her very first manuscript, but she confessed how much she still had to learn about the industry while she was going through the process of being a debut author. Some of it was information other writers picked up long before ever selling...
      So, I think we all end up having to learn the same stuff, but sometimes it just comes at us in a different order!

  8. Almost any flavor Blue Bell sells is my favorite, though the ones with chocolate and caramel always rank higher.

    I loved this: " My first manuscript has so many unresolved issues, it needs therapy."

    1. Christa,
      Thank you :).
      And I haven't had Blue Bell ice cream in a long while! Must have that again soon...

  9. Great post, and full of encouraging words my poor struggling writer's heart needed to hear.

    I too, taught high school, and also concocted wild projects for my classes with a heavy dose of enthusiasm...we'll have to trade stories sometime :)

    So excited to see those "trunk novels" break out and shine!

    Fav flavor of ice cream...oh, that's tough...praline?

    1. Melonie,
      We'll definitely have to talk teaching sometime! My husband is a high-school teacher and I taught elementary school for almost a decade. Sometimes I think about those days and just grin, remembering funny student stories...
      And I'm so glad you liked the post! We writers go through much of the same stuff (sigh), so you've definitely got lots of people who understand the struggle :).

  10. What a great post! Sorry I'm late to the party.

    My favorite line: My first manuscript has so many unresolved issues, it needs therapy.


    Chocolate ice cream (or any flavor, really) with hot fudge sauce is like looking into the face of God. Alas, I'm lactose intolerant and gain 5 pounds just LOOKING at ice cream ...

    Gotta love those short romantic comedies! xo

    1. Thanks, Ellen!! (If only that line about my 1st manuscript weren't true... ;) And I'm SO with you on the chocolate thing. I'm a true addict. I need a little chocolate every day as much -- sometimes more! -- than oxygen.