At writers’ group last week, one of my friends alluded to her first attempt at writing a novel. Her unfinished sword and sorcery book sits in a closet, she said, and serves as a reminder of how bad her writing can be if she doesn’t continue to work at it.
The rest of us looked around the table and began to smile. Almost all of us have novels in the closet, under the bed, in the garage—manuscript boxes preserving what was once a proud, hopeful dream of breaking into the writing world, but which now entomb our writing shame.
Since then we’ve been regaling each other with embarrassing tales of literary incompetence. We have an email thread, which has morphed into a special folder in the group’s Dropbox, where we’ve been posting excerpts of long buried failures.
Mine was a mess titled All Politics is Local, technically version one of the novel I finally completed six years later, although any resemblance between the two works is purely coincidental. I found a copy of the book and took a look a few days ago. I knew the writing would be weak, but still I was shocked to see such utterly amateurish prose.
The characters were cartoonish, the plot breathtakingly self-indulgent, the prose a deep shade of purple, and the opening featured almost as much backstory as Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Here, with apologies and great trepidation, is a sample:
The differences among opportunities – those worth taking and those not – was one of the things that concerned Papparelli. He’d been burned enough times and thought he’d learned to spot the phonies, mostly by recognizing the all-too-promising outcome in return for the all-too-easy buy in. He disdained those who fell for the ridiculous pitches. Buying foreclosures, indeed. Investing in Kruggerands – please! Couldn’t they see through the scam? You could tell a lot about a person, he believed, just by considering the types of opportunities he or she chose to pursue.
A little investigation beforehand could reduce much of the risk. Better yet, serious work and foresight could help create an opportunity so tightly controlled that it hardly seemed an opportunity at all, but more of an expected result. He liked that approach.
But not every opportunity lent itself to close examination. In some instances, there simply wasn’t time to consider the possibilities. In the supermarket, when the beautiful woman on the other side of the vegetables seemed to be looking – or was she just perusing the broccolini – there was no time for thoughtful debate, only for action. And so occasionally he would find himself suckered, allowing his own desires and frustrations to delude him into believing things would, by shear chance, work out. The woman, in fact, was merely shopping, and married as well, and her look of contempt at his suggestion that he knew the best way to discern vegetable freshness rekindled the burning doubts he had about his ability to make the right choices.
If there’s a bright side to this drivel, it’s that my writing has, at least in my eyes, improved exponentially, and if I can come that far there may be hope for a writing future. And I guess that’s why we keep these embarrassments around—our first novels are like the personal trainers of our consciousness, standing in the background, reminding us how puny we once were, and forever pushing writers to prove we can do better.
Fess up—you’ve got one too, don’tcha? Feel free in the comments to recall your first novel, or even post a sample. If that’s too revealing just pull out the old ms in private and read a few pages. Either way, may you find it as humbling and motivating as I did.