A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any debut author whose name you see on a shelf in your local library or bookshop probably wrote at least one or two books before they achieved publication.
What’s often not acknowledged is the number of abandoned projects that pepper the whole of a writer’s career. Even after your first book deal, after the third, after the tenth, there will still be books you want to write that you simply can’t get off the ground.
Maybe you talked about them too much and used up all your enthusiasm before you actually found the time to write them. Maybe there was some massive internal flaw in the story that you couldn’t think your way around and you gave yourself so many headaches trying that you eventually gave up. Maybe your agent, editor or writing friends reacted with such blank incomprehension or lack of interest to the whole concept that you quietly dropped it. Or maybe you wrote the whole thing, loved it, believed it was good, solid work – and still couldn’t find a home for it.
But while this is a difficult reality of working in a creative industry, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Believe it or not, every work that you produce as an artist does teach you something, even if it’s how to mess up, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on.
I have a pretty impressive roster of abandoned projects. They don’t, despite the title of this post, live in a trunk. Several of them actually live on dusty floppy discs, because I’m old and that’s how we rolled before flashdrives and the Cloud. Other pieces are more on hiatus than officially ‘trunked’ – I still think about them from time to time and feel there’s life in them. Among these last are a novel with a disabled, asexual heroine who finds a platonic life-bond with a majestic, magical griffin, and a retelling of the Wars of the Roses… iiiin sppppaaaace.
But today I want to talk about a project that is truly and properly dead. One that despite all the love and effort expended on it, isn’t ever coming back unless the literary equivalent of a zombie apocalypse takes place. And I know this because I tried to perform CPR on this baby not once, not twice, but three times.
This trunk book is my very first one – the first YA novel I ever completed, at the age of 19. It was originally called BLOOD MAGIC. It was about a countess who had been hidden away by her family all her life on their tumbledown rural estate because she possessed a forbidden magical gift that was punishable by death (the blood magic in the title). Except then she’s summoned to court by the King’s chief advisor and becomes embroiled in a secret plot by a clandestine society of other blood mages to overthrow the government and take control of the country (they tried this before – hence why they’re now seen as vermin). Her father is murdered, she’s kidnapped, she falls in love, and eventually – despite saving the lives of the King and Crown Prince and almost single-handedly defeating the other blood mages – is banished from the kingdom she has fought to perserve because they think she’s just too dangerous. And they’re probably right.
I loved this book so much, you guys. I submitted it to dozens of agents and was rejected by all of them, so I moved on to publishers – most of whom, back in those days, would still look at unsolicited submissions. We’re talking the early 2000s here, before the YA boom. Everything was still all about middle-grade novels featuring wizards. Not surprisingly, the book was also rejected by every UK children’s publisher AND two in Australia before I finally trunked it.
However, it was this very novel which gained the attention of a young and ambitious editor at independent publisher Walker Books. Although he couldn’t get it through acquisitions, he liked something about it – about my style – so much that he asked me to send whatever I wrote next to him directly. And thus, The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames both found their home at Walker Books over the next couple of years. Happily ever after, violins play, everyone vanishes into the sunset, etc.
Except that’s not how publishing careers work. There is no sunset. You have to keep working, coming up with new ideas.
It was 2006. I had just turned 23 and had two books under contract. We’d revised them and edited them and they were ready to go, but the first one wasn’t coming out until 2007 and the second 2008. I had a chunk of free time ahead – time which I needed to take advantage of to work on my third novel – but my brain had gone blank. What was I going to write next? Normally I had too many ideas. This time performance anxiety had set in.
So of course it seemed like a GENIUS idea to bring BLOOD MAGIC out of its resting place in the metaphorical trunk and see if there was something to be salvaged there. After all, this book had gotten really nice rejections all over the place and had very nearly won Walker over the first time. A second look couldn’t hurt, right?
To my delight, on reading the manuscript over again, I still really liked it. I also saw lots of things that I could improve on from my lofty perspective as a writer who’d now worked with a proper editor on two books. And so I ripped the original book apart line by line. I changed it from third person to first, retro-fitted the fantasy world to transform it from a fairly standard European Medieval one to Regency steampunk (although I’d never heard the word steampunk at that point – I just thought it would be cool to do something like Georgette Heyer but with magic and machines) tightened up the plot and changed the name. The new title was BAREFOOT ON THE WIND (yes, I know – I reused that one, don’t @ me).
After several months of work, I sent it off to my editor, sure that my narrowing window of time before The Swan Kingdom‘s release hadn’t been wasted. Surely I’d done everything necessary to get this book a contract of its very own.
You can probably guess what happened next. My editor called me up and very gently told me the new version of the story still wasn’t good enough. He and my publisher wanted me to be moving on, testing myself, exploring new waters, not going back over old ground. This book, despite the makeover I’d given it, just wasn’t the equal of the other two books I’d written – and they wouldn’t be offering me a contract for it.
My editor did have some encouraging words to say though. He loved my proto-steampunk technology and the grittiness of certain parts of my Alternate-Regency magic city. He thought those were strikingly different from anything he’d seen in young adult novels before and also a real departure for me. Maybe I could consider developing those? ‘It’s time to go darker and deeper’ he told me. ‘Give us something scary, visceral and raw. Write your Sabriel‘.
I was a big fan of Garth Nix and my editor knew it, so this really hit home. Challenge accepted! I WOULD write something strikingly different, something dark, visceral and raw. I’d make my main character a street urchin stealing and scraping for survival on the streets and my villains a bunch of technocrats who exploited the poor of their city for cheap labour while at the same time being unfit to control the terrifying new inventions they unleashed upon the world.
This book would be called BRASS GODS (another B-title).
But it was mainly known, by people who knew me and on my blog, as the Giant Killer Clockwork Praying Mantis Death Robot Book.
The very first scene of this manuscript involves my street urchin – John – kicking rats off a corpse in an alley so that he can frisk the dead man for valuables and steal his hat and coat for warmth. When I go dark, I commit, dammit.
But that didn’t mean I had given up on BLOOD MAGIC/BAREFOOT ON THE WIND. I needed a female character to share narration duties with John. And although this girl had a different name and no magical abilities (and was lacking the conspicuous violet eyes of her earliest incarnation) she was in every other respect exactly the same protagonist, with an almost identical background and set of family baggage as the one who had made her home in those earlier books. The grimy Regency city where the story took place was based on just the same principles as the one my first protagonist was summoned to, and the unscupulous technocrats were the blood mages, except instead of instinctive, deadly magic they wielded magic-clockwork hybrid weapons.
Looking back, I think I called this book the Giant Killer Clockwork Praying Mantis Death Robot book because my (frankly awesome) invented monster was one of only two real differences between BRASS GODS and BLOOD MAGIC/BAREFOOT ON THE WIND. The other being John, who was also pretty cool. Sorry, John.
I worked doggedly away on this book for over a year. My editor saw and loved a couple of the early chapters, which involved the aforementioned gritty street life and a scene where the heroine flees from a Giant Killer Clockwork Praying Mantis Death Robot in some snowy woods and manages to destroy it by jamming up its clockwork innards with a railway spike (also pretty cool) but not before it’s gutted her fiance (yikes). But then my editor left and his boss, a lovely woman who had always been super positive and encouraging towards me, asked if she could look over what I was working on.
*Record Needle scratch*
Suffice it to say that… this was not the direction that my publisher had serenely imagined I would be going in with my work. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe I could pull it off. It was more that they weren’t sure, following the launch of my career with two lyrical, romantic fantasies that drew strongly on folklore, that my readers were going to be that interested in a gritty, grimy book about street urchins kicking rats, and also this steampunky thing that I was doing, especially since the main thing the steampunk seemed to be about was… killing people in extremely gruesome ways? And also, where was the romance? My main characters were a twelve year-old boy and a sixteen year old girl whose fiance had been killed (in the aforementioned gruesome fashion) in chapter two? Um…
To be fair, the publisher said they were willing to consider the book when I was finished with it, even if it was unexpected. And I did stubbornly stick with it for several months after that, because I had 70,000 words and it was nearly finished. But as soon as I had heard the polite bamboozlement in everyone’s voices when they asked me about BRASS GODS, I had felt something vital in me, some connection to the story, die off.
This was because it wasn’t, ultimately, what I wanted to be writing. It never had been. I had been bouyed up by my editor’s enthusiasm and approval and the feeling that I was giving BLOOD MAGIC another chance by stealth. But for months and months by that point I had been fending off this other plot-bunny that kept trying to creep into my brain and multiply. This story about a vengeful Cinderella character who lived in a kind of fairytale version of Japan…
And that was how, eventually, I realised that my first editor had been right all along. I had already moved beyond BLOOD MAGIC – its ideas, characters, themes. I had outgrown it probably by the time I finished writing my next book. I hadn’t been seeking to get it published because it was important and good and the best thing I had to offer at that point. I’d just been clinging to it because it was too hard and painful to let it go and admit… it had never been good enough.
Trunked novels and abandoned projects can teach writers all kinds of lessons. The very process of giving up on a piece gives us a special kind of distance that we simply never have the time or the detachment to develop for projects that go on to become published.
If the main character of this book never quite came alive for you, then, with some distance, you’ll see how to construct a more authentic and nuanced person on the page next time. If this novel runs out of steam somewhere in the middle and you couldn’t finish, then when you come to plan your next story, hopefully will recognise the risks of letting your plot get hopelessly tangled and ensure it doesn’t. If the ending of that book always felt cliched and disapointing to you, then in future you’ll have the courage to try new twists so that your work feels genuinely surprising.
But the biggest thing that abandoned projects have to teach us is about the process of letting go itself. That though it might be painful, it’s also vital, and ultimately good. That even if we love a story and believe in it, we also need to admit when the time for it has come and gone. And most importantly that we must allow ourselves to grow and evolve past the works we have held dear in the past – rather than relying on them to define us as artists.
Like I said: there are no happy endings in a writing career. It’s always about the next idea, the next book – the next rule you’re skilful enough to break, the next risk you’re brave enough to take.
Let the works you have yet to imagine be the ones that define you. Keep moving on.