It was a YA novel just shy of 70K about three kids who find themselves suddenly transported to the world they made up. I first had the idea in 1996 or thereabouts while improvising stories from random objects with a couple of guy friends after school; I finally shut the drawer on it in 2007 after – if I recall correctly – about two dozen rejection letters.
It’s been a while since I thought about this project, mostly because I cringe a little bit at the memory. So much old anxiety. So many mistakes. So many egregious mistakes.
Topping the list: Querying before finishing. You might not have thought there were people out there with so little basic common sense, but yes, I was one of them. I was 18 and cocksure. I had zero doubts that I’d have the thing wrapped up within six months. Never mind that I’d never completed a project this long before, like, ever; never mind that I had only the vaguest idea where I was going with it past the first ten chapters or so. I was awesome and invincible. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I could actually get requests, for starters.
Ha. Hahahaha. Oh, past self. WHY WERE YOU SO FOOLISH.
Next big mistake: Staking my life on finishing it. I signed up for a writing course in 2002 or 2003, thinking this would kick my ass into soldiering through completing the manuscript. I was also, to be honest, looking for some relief from the terrifying imposter syndrome that was paralyzing me in grad school. Because this, at least, I knew I was good at. Right? So naturally my instructor’s canny criticism pitched me into full-on panic: for the first time I seriously doubted whether I could actually do this. And if I couldn’t, what the hell else would I do?
As if that wasn’t enough, another big mistake: Once I finally hauled myself through a complete draft – it took me until June of 2006 – I cracked open Writer’s Marketplace and fired off more queries. Revision? Screw that. I’d finished the goddamn story and I was closing the book on it, so to speak, come hell or high water. I did actually get a couple of requests for partials, but they fizzled, albeit in relatively encouraging rejections (one agent told me I was a good writer). I sent my last one in February of 2007 and, with a mix of relief and faint mortification, decided the market had spoken.
By now I can look back on the whole thing with a more clinical eye, overlooking (mostly) both the dogged devotion and the mortification I associated with the project for so long.
What I see: An assortment of spooky scenes I’m still proud of. A neat humanist creation theme. A world I still find compelling, despite its generic medieval trappings. A travelling troupe of actors from an oppressed minority group who were well and truly scooped by Patrick Rothfuss’s Edema Ruh in The Name of the Wind (and he did the concept so masterfully I couldn’t even be too dismayed). A weirdly middle-grade voice that clashes entirely with the darker elements of the story. A premise that is, in the words of that kind rejection, a bit too familiar.
All in all, I look at it now and see a flawed but not-so-terrible story that (a) taught me how to damn well finish something, i.e. how to apply butt-in-chair-despite-anxiety discipline to fiction, and (b) smacked some desperately needed caution/humility/realism into me. I’ve toyed with the idea of dusting it off and rewriting a “good parts” version, but I think it will probably just go on the scrap heap so I can recycle said good parts into a worthier project.
I would not wish you back again, first novel, but I learned a hell of a lot from you. Requiescat in pace.