Sunday, March 6, 2011

Abandoned novels

page one of King's book
I guess I'm a few days late on this topic, but I only just now read the Dan Kois piece in the Times about abandoned novels and thought I'd throw in.  First off, my favorite line in it, as my Twitter followers have already seen, is Elizabeth McCracken's: “It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.”  That is echt McCracken.  And I was also delighted to learn that Stephen King had posted manuscript facsimiles of his abandoned novel, The Cannibals.  Very cool!  Though after reading a few pages I think he made the right decison.

I've got a couple myself: three complete novels, actually, that never went anywhere.  The first, Telegraph Road, was about a rock band who has to drive a baby from Seattle to Philly in their van.  Ann Patchett, my teacher at the time, said, "This is just a list of band names."  Ouch.  Too, too true.  The second is a crime novel, Born Again, that I wrote in maybe 2004?  I still kind of like it, but I am the only one, apparently, because many an editor passed.  It was to have been only the first mystery featuring the overly tall, overly selfconscious campus-cop-turned-homicide-detective Malcolm Friend.  (I still have two complete plot lines in reserve in case I take him up again someday.)  And then there's 2009's The Document, a novel about an annoying person's every annoying thought, to which my agent said, "I'll send this to your editor if you really want.  But I think you should shelve it."  I shelved it, and wrote him a new one.

I hope Rhian weighs in--several of my favorite things she has ever written are abandoned novel bits.  I don't think non-writers realize how difficult it can be to actually finish a coherent long-form narrative--even the very best concept can be utterly destroyed by a host of factors.  The novel I just finished, Familiar, was an abandoned book for eight years before I took it up again--the problem, it turns out, had been that I'd chosen a topic I lacked the maturity and experience to properly explore at the time.  And even now it took a couple of false starts and a major, major overhaul to crack it.  (At least I think I cracked it: time will tell).

Let's hear what you've got in the orphanage.

28 comments:

jrlennon said...

One thing I forgot to mention...one of my all-time favorite abandoned books...Andrew Sean Greer's "Blue Lusitania." I think he's written about it himself, calling it his favorite thing he's ever done. ANDY...FINISH IT

Pete said...

My first first novel lasted only about 30 pages before I gave up, but at least I salvaged the opening scene, which became one of my first published stories. But my first
REAL novel (completed a full first draft) was a historical novel called "Eden" about early Illinois settlers in the 1830s. I haven't read it in years, and don't think I really want to. From what I remember it had a lot of problems - too many POVs, too much exposition, too little narrative momentum. I'd like to think Eden was a learning experience, and leave it at that. I already have more new fiction concepts than I'll ever use, without the huge effort of reviving Eden.

Matt said...

Walking away from a novel, particularly - as it was the case for me - your first, is the scariest and most liberating thing you can do.

It's kinda like realizing a longtime girlfriend represents a you you don't recognize anymore. A you you don't wish to pursue.

rmellis said...

The first one feels good, the tenth... not so much. After I abandoned my first novel (which was about a super-computer and Civil War ghosts, among other things) I wrote my one published novel very quickly. I credited the quitting of the one for the finishing of the next, and maybe set up some kind of bad precedent. I then abandoned the next (about a woman who has an affair with a teenager she talks down from a bridge) and the next (about a fat camp) and the one about the runaway nun, the one about Picasso's abandoned daughter (based on a true story!), and all the rest.

At some point you might have to look really hard at your process and your books. Is it them, or is it me?

My favorite orphans are the most deeply flawed -- the one that never even had a chance.

jrlennon said...

The fat camp one...that's your secret masterpiece. SOMEDAY. :)

KooKooKaChoo said...

I remember the Fat Camp. One paragraph in particular, when the main character was expressing her peculiar pride at being the fattest at fat camp--a planet, that the others revolved around.

Loved that. Still think about it sometimes.

violentbore said...

About a year out of college, I went through a phase in which I obsessed over the concept of Heaven.

For months, I fashioned atrocious introductions to a story in which Heaven is a singe-file line. Its inhabitants wore funereal dress and were arranged by their respective times of departure. Everyone was polite.

This 'evolved' into an extremely long list of rules and conditions, most of the entries beginning, "In Heaven,..."

Some were funny. Some morose. The end of the list is fraught with the most contrived ideas I've ever penned.

That 'project' is six years old, but I still think about it from time to time.

Chris said...

I wrote a detective novel years ago that I abandoned after 80 pages or so. It featured no crime and was really just long descriptions of a private detective in his 20's eating at different fast food restaurants.

rmellis said...

It would be interesting to put together an anthology of failure, with the best bits of all these failed projects...

Elizabeth McCracken said...

I occasionally give "bootleg" readings, pieces from dead projects or large standalone sections that are so standalone I've had to cut them. I often think some of my best sentence-making is in those sections, which is generally why they've been cut.

I actually gave such a reading last week, from the book in the Kois article. A woman sweetly said afterwards, "I want you to write that book!" I said, "Lady, I've written it." Finished it, too, a whole bunch of drafts.

I think an anthology of orphans is a great idea.

jrlennon said...

Howsabout the two of you edit it?

jrlennon said...

And then you could abandon it!

Sung said...

I have on my shelf a book titled "I, the Divine" by Rabih Alameddine. It's a collection of abandoned novel beginnings that supposedly form a coherent whole, but I can't attest to it as I haven't read it yet. But it's an interesting conceit, sort of like making lemonade out of lemons. Though I think Alameddine meant to write this book this way, not just cobble it together out of false starts.

Before writing my current second novel (still going...), I sort of abandoned the one I was working on. But I do plan to go back to it when this one is done, so I'd like to formally announce that it was only a pause, a caesura, if you will. I'm coming back for you, little book, I swear!

- Sung

Elizabeth McCracken said...

THE ORPHANAGE does have a ring to it.

The problem is that you'd want all of the pieces to be good--which would put an editor in that weird position of telling a writer, "That thing that didn't get published? We'd like to publish it! Unless, of course, it's unpublishable."

Kevin said...

Sign me up! I have a hundred and twenty pages I wrote at MacDowell six years ago. I broke the Hemingway rule of always stopping when you know what's coming next -- left New Hampshire & the novel at a natural break point and have never been able to figure out what's on the next page. About once a year I try to soldier on, so far without success. If you want it for the Orphanage, it's all yours.

rmellis said...

There's a magazine out there that only publishes stories that have been rejected 5+ times. It's kind of terrible.

violentbore said...

Huh? Does the magazine reject submissions without documentation of rejection?

An anthology of orphans has the potential to be romantic and somewhat hopeful for those pieces that would've otherwise slipped through the cracks. It might not work, but I like the idea.

I think this magazine reinforces Elizabeth's problem that some shelved works are exactly where they belong.

Dylan Hicks said...

Yeah, the Rejected Quarterly. One has to include copies of five rejection slips (or emails, presumably) in order for one's submission to be considered. I've never actually seen the journal or submitted to it (though I've had lots of eligible candidates!).

I saw something recently about a journal that rejects everything (and accordingly has no content, just a website and an address for submissions).

I'm gonna set a deadline for abandoning my novel.

Jennifer said...

I am struck by all of the really good ideas for novels. Early Illinois settlers! Civil War ghosts! Fat camp! A novel about heaven that is just the RULES of heaven!

When I was teaching introductory creative writing, I'd have the students jot down 10 or so made-up story titles. Then in the next class, I'd have them exchange lists, and the students had to write a story from one of those inherited titles.

I think we should absolutely set up a failed novel orphanage. No original text, just an idea. And like an orphanage, there to be adopted.

Dylan Hicks said...

George Steiner's "My Unwritten Books" explores this subject, precisely how I'm not sure, it being one of my unread books.

Elizabeth McCracken said...

I have several abandoned novels, too, not one of which could be summed up in a single sentence--unlike my two published novels and the one I'm nearly done with. Does this mean anything? Not sure. & if it did, it would be peculiar to me and my novels, not novels at large...

Edward Champion said...

I have a few abandoned novels -- abandoned only because outside forces prevented me from finishing them. One wasn't bad, and it involved the ongoing patterns of physical and psychological abuse that carried over several generations of a family, but my hard drive crashed at around the 30,000 word mark. I didn't back it up and it was just too soul-crushing and emotionally raw for me to return to it. (Needless to say, I've taken obsessive measures ever since.)

The second abandoned novel wasn't quite that intense. It was more of a goofy comedy about a man who liked to break into houses, charm whoever happened to be there, and then sleep with them -- no matter if they were old, young, male, or female. (And I should point out this was a few years before Captain Jack Harkness.) The government then decides to hire this man for special assignments, figuring that the man's charisma can prove vital to interests of national security. But his charisma becomes altered by other cultures and languages. And because of this, he becomes the center of a national debate on multiculturalism. It was really a lot of fun to write, very much my clumsy effort to figure out a way to make Levi-Strauss (the anthropologist, not the jeans maker) applicable to 21st century American life. And I was jamming away at a rapid clip until my apartment caught on fire and I was crashing on couches for two weeks.

violentbore said...

Edward: Forget J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg and Paul Haggis and (god forbid) Dave Matthews. You need to contribute another installment to the long list of "Crashes" with the story of how your orphans became orphans.

Computer meltdowns, apartment fires, and couch-hopping?

It seems like these tragedies could breed a story about a paranoid writer who fears his own good ideas will inevitably lead to personal ruin. Eh?

jon said...

I have 2 abandoned novels. Abandoning the second one was hell. And just as I got over it, an agent through a friend expressed interest, so i had to abandon (temporarily) the new novel I am working on, the one where my heart finally landed, and revise the old one. No agent has ever taken interest in anything else I've ever done. But I suspect it will be re-abandoned when it is rejected, and I'll be able to get to work again on the new book.

McQ said...

I'm with D and JRL on fat camp, Rhian - I think about it at least once a month and wonder when I'll get to read more. Talk about a character who sticks with ya...

David Abrams said...

I have one abandoned novel: a mystery featuring a Jane Marple-ish sleuth named Mrs. Winter who is at a Hollywood party when the host, a has-been actor filming his comeback movie, falls into his swimming pool and is eaten by piranhas planted there by the murderer. I got about 50 pages into before realizing the best thing about it was the title: "Mrs. Winter and the Pool of Teeth."

Did I mention I was 13 when I started writing it?

Sasha said...

I'd just like to join the chorus of people interested in the fat camp novel. Can it somehow be combined with the Civil War ghosts? They're always good, too.

Maybe she's a fat camper kept from her habitual civil war re-enacting because of needing to be at camp. And once she's svelt she won't be able to play the part of a General anymore. Because who ever heard of a lanky General back then? So losing weight has zero incentive for her.

But then...uh....ghosts? Carried in her super computer? Symbolic of her diminishing frame?

Just spit balling here. But I would yank a book about a haunted fat camp off the library shelf in like negative seconds flat. FYI. :)

Kois said...

What a bunch of interesting comments! Elizabeth McC's quote was fantastic, and I had to leave a bunch more on the cutting-room floor, like her explanation of how she decided to abandon MARVELOUS:

"I talked to my agent and I said, 'If I get the book right, do you think it will be a terrific book or do you think it will just be a good book?' He said, "It'll just be a good book.' And I said, 'I'm giving up on it.'"

I would totally read THE ORPHANAGE anthology.