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Fiction, My Novel, The Writer's Life

Fessing Up to the Novel in the Closet

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

[1] Coming from me!

[2] More evidence that famous writers can write anything and have it published.

[3] Yes, it’s a feeble attempt to write my own life and frustrations. Oh, the shame…


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


27 thoughts on “Fessing Up to the Novel in the Closet

  1. My first “novel” is long, long lost… it was buried in a box in my grandmother’s basement, but the general synopsis should suffice: imagine if you will a trio of madcap detectives romping about town in a yellow…I don’t know cars well enough to tell whether it was a Model A or a Model T, but you get the idea.

    My next attempt at the great American Novel was an angst ridden teenaged drama…in my defense, I was an angst ridden teenager at the time I wrote it. But I considered myself a serious novelist. I subscribed to Writers’ Digest. I read books on writing. I knew more than my Creative Writing teacher. Or so I thought. ;-)

    I’m glad I set aside writing for about a decade to play with paints and clay, and generally live my life a little, before trying my hand at serious writing again.

    Posted by hbpattskyn | May 26, 2012, 12:56 PM
    • Funny, I think I just saw a similar synopsis for a new detective novel. But I understand the need to live a little before getting back to writing. With 2 published books you’re sure ready now!

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 4:54 PM
      • Thanks, Jon; if nothing else, I’ve got lots of real life experience to draw now on and know enough interesting people to inspire new characters!

        Posted by hbpattskyn | May 26, 2012, 11:40 PM
      • Sorry, thanks JOE — in my defense, I’ve been sitting at a dealer’s table at an Anime convention with three of my fellow Dreamspinner authors all day, so my brain is more than slightly mush….

        Posted by hbpattskyn | May 26, 2012, 11:42 PM
      • No problem. Of course I could have simply edited your comment. But good point about knowing people in real life who inspire your characters–they often make the best ones.

        Posted by jpon | May 27, 2012, 12:14 AM
  2. Honestly, even my last novel makes me feel queasy sometimes. I just started editing again from chapter one and I can’t believe I wrote that crap. I bet that if you asked, most writers who are published can pull the published book off the shelf and point to the embarrassing parts.

    Posted by girl in the hat | May 26, 2012, 3:28 PM
    • No doubt about that. Many of the stories I’ve had published now make me wonder what kind of dementia the editor must have had to accept such poor writing.

      I think, though, that you are far too hard on yourself.

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 4:55 PM
  3. My drawer novel was my third, intended to be third in a series. I was trying to edge my way into the dark side I now occupy, but that particular novel reads like an unfinished thought. And there is a stunning bit of deus ex machina in the end, of which I was blissfully unaware until about six months after I wrote it.

    Posted by Averil Dean | May 26, 2012, 3:29 PM
    • Nothing like a big surprise at the end! Maybe you could still turn it into a Hollywood script.

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 4:57 PM
  4. My very first attempt, started when I was about 16, had a young fellow leaving the Civil War (1861-1865) ravaged South to live with family in Europe, only to be swept up in the Crimean War (1853-1856.) Good grief.
    I’ll be posting a more recent failure shortly.

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 26, 2012, 4:19 PM
    • That’s great, Jon. But you were probably too young to realize you had invented an early form of sci-fi steampunk… The soldier comes back from the Civil War to find his father, an eccentric inventor, has perfected the steam powered time reconfigurator, and of course, the young man volunteers to be the test subject, unaware that the gizmo bases its time depository setting on the passenger’s memories, which of course… well, you get the idea.

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 5:01 PM
  5. My zip drive novel is a murder mystery–daughter finding mother’s killer. Horrible attempt at mixing Sue Graftan’s everyday ease on the page with literary Medean rage. A real crash and burn and not in a good way.

    Posted by CJ Rice (@leapof) | May 26, 2012, 5:01 PM
    • Ah, the old Zip drive. I have one of those in the closet too. Come to think of it, that closet is getting pretty crowded with old computer equipment and failed novels.

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 5:03 PM
  6. Thanks so much for this post, Joe. I will share, and I hope it doesn’t sound siilly, that I actually love and value my first novel which I finished, rewrote and sent out with the encouragement of my writing teacher Tod Goldberg. What followed was the typical heartbreaking rejection experience. I still think my book is meritorious, but I realized then and remind myself continually that so many of us are deserving, but that few will get the validation that we would wish for. This is a tough row to hoe for artists who indeed must think that their work is “special” but it is our duty somehow, I think, to make writing in a sort of Zen way — sending it out, but doing so humbly, realizing that the messasge in the bottle may or may not get to that distant shore.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | May 26, 2012, 5:30 PM
    • What a great way to think about writing, Stephanie. Many writers could benefit from looking at their craft that way, instead of from within the vacuum of their egos. I’ve been working on getting my Twitter numbers up, and lately have exchanged follows with hundreds of writers, and there are thousands more out there to meet–it’s a great reminder of how many people love to read and write, and how few will actually “make it” in the business. If financial success is a writer’s main goal, s/he will probably never be content with the outcome.

      Posted by jpon | May 26, 2012, 7:07 PM
    • Very nice, Stephanie. (And just what I needed to hear today — feeling discouraged by the whole damn business….)

      Posted by ThreeKingsBooks | May 30, 2012, 9:49 PM
  7. Ah yes. The work of long ago. Or not so long ago. I recently looked at my MFA application portfolio stories–and then started hitting delete. God they were awful. No wonder Iowa didn’t want me. The great thing is that I can see how far I’ve come.

    Posted by Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown | May 26, 2012, 7:24 PM
    • I’d be afraid to even look at some of those early short stories. I remember being so proud of one I wrote when I first started writing fiction, that I showed it to a Journalism teacher I’d stayed in contact with over the years. Her lack of response was deafening.

      Posted by jpon | May 27, 2012, 12:17 AM
  8. My novel in the closet is more of a screenplay in the closet. It is all half written and is a love story/fantasy with reincarnation, period hairdos and kinky intimacy. I like it :) and need to go to the finish line. In its present form, it is way unpolished. Also, I’ve had my thriller novel critiqued over a two-year period, and I’ve let it rest in the drawer for a similar period of time. Not sure why. Maybe I’m apprehensive of the final show.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | May 26, 2012, 8:36 PM
    • Sounds like they both could turn into publishable material. The hard part, to me, is turning away from current projects to find the time to go back and revise something from long ago. I’ve got another novel that came close, and have wanted to go back to it for a few years. Maybe some day I’ll be able to.

      Posted by jpon | May 27, 2012, 12:19 AM
      • Go for it. Dig that novel out of your closet and into the light of day.

        Posted by nadiaibrashi | May 27, 2012, 2:23 AM
  9. My very first was a fantasy novel I started in high school, and all I remember is lots of scenes in “the woods.” My second had a bizarre structure (were the chapters really all named for colors of the rainbow?) that fell apart before I finished. My third sounded pretty but was lacking in the plot department. I still have a copy of that one on my computer, but I haven’t read it in nine or ten years; the other two are probably on floppy disks someplace. I love the idea of keeping these old wrecks around to remind myself of how much I’ve learned. If I count these early attempts, which I usually don’t, my current work-in-progress is book number six.

    Posted by laurastanfill | May 27, 2012, 6:52 AM
    • The color chapter titles remind me of a failed attempt of mine to title each chapter in a novel with a line from a poem. A poem I wrote.

      I should mention I am not a poet. Not by a long shot.

      Posted by jpon | May 28, 2012, 1:22 AM
  10. I wish I had 3 practice novels in the drawer —- because my current fear is that my memoir might be my practice book. Thinking of that hurts.

    Posted by Teri | May 28, 2012, 3:09 PM
    • Oh, what a sobering thought. A writer never imagines his/her current project is “practice.” I certainly didn’t think that about my first two novel attempts when I was writing them, and I still have some hope for the second, although as time goes on that book seems more and more like a closet dweller. On the other hand, I know several writers whose first book was published and went on to success, and Teri, I hope yours takes that path.

      Posted by jpon | May 28, 2012, 3:39 PM
  11. I definitely have a few of these. The best (worst) one is about 2 first cousins that fall in love … pretty glad no one is ever going to read that one. I can only hope what I’m working on now won’t end up in the closet one day. Really fantastic post.

    Posted by Alison D. | June 7, 2012, 1:20 AM
    • Thanks Alison. Just shows how long and difficult the process to being published is for most of us. We just have to keep writing and moving forward. But it’s fun to look back sometimes and see how far we’ve come.

      Posted by jpon | June 7, 2012, 1:26 AM

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