Monday, June 3, 2013

5 Uses for That Unpublished Novel

Last year my friend James Kendley posted a terrific article on The Blood-Red Pencil blog on five uses for your unpublished novel. I liked it so much I asked him for permission to repost it for my readers. He was gracious enough to say yes. Kendley is a member of the Horror Writers Association from Charlottesville, VA. Visit him at He is also a fellow member of the Virginia Writers Club.

My first novel, The Wine Ghost, was lollygagging on my hard drive for almost three years before I put it back to work.

It had already done a lot for me. The Wine Ghost was twelve years in the making. I wrote more than 350,000 words on three continents to get 110,000 in the final draft, and I learned lessons in writing that no classroom can contain. The novel is so dense, challenging, and chaotic that it's unpublishable in its present form, but writers who've read the whole thing (and the handful of agents who've read the substantial pitch and excerpts) have said it's a remarkable achievement, despite the fatal flaws.

Yup. Fatal.

The first half of the novel is a spiritual nosedive, and thirty pages into it, most readers are already wishing for the sudden stop at the bottom. The upward spiral of the second half has stronger structure, and it’s less grim than the first, but the pacing is crippled by chapters up to 9,500 words in length. Moreover, basic readability is hampered by chapters ending like short stories rather than ending in thrills, chills, or cliff-hangers that might help keep readers turning those pages.

Worse: even at a slim 110,000, the current version is nearly Dickensian in the number of characters and subplots. A ridiculously overdrawn expat milieu obscures a simple tale of disgrace and redemption.
Well, what to do with a novel like this? “Kill your darlings” comes to mind, but there’s still good meat on those awkward bones. I’d be a fool to just delete it.

Here are five ways to put The Wine Ghost to work.

• plucking out whole works of short fiction
Done this. From The Wine Ghost, I’ve harvested short fiction (“Dry Wash” in The Bicycle Review, “Coolie Tales” in not from here, are you?, “The Belly Lesson” and “Tracy-baby Tells a Ghost Story” in Danse Macabre) and poetry (“The Algerian Witch’s Abandoned Brood” in Hauptfriedhoff, for which I also penned the foreword). This is good exposure and possibly good advance PR, as long as I credit these appearances in my final MS.

Oh, and as long as I eventually rewrite and sell the book.

• repurposing plot, setting, and character
Check. If The Wine Ghost is to become a viable novel, I must cut 40,000 words of extraneous characters and subplots, and I’ll be damned if they’re going to waste. Almost all of that 40,000 words, including an entire valley and one of the most frightening maniacs I’ve ever written, is going into my horror/urban fantasy series. A no-brainer, as they say.

• entering first-chapter contests
Consider this: your first novel, like mine, may be unpublishable in its current condition, but you polished the living daylights out of that first chapter, didn’t you? Despite structural flaws in the work-as-a-whole, you might still get some cash out of that first chapter. Dr. John Yeoman has put out a straightforward, thoughtful guide on How to Win Writing Contests for Profit.  Now you know.

• thematic analysis: the rut or the sweet spot?
We make and break patterns in our writing over the years. Sometimes patterns emerge because we’re caught in the loop of trying and failing to get it right, and sometimes such patterns remain because we got it right the first time and it works so damned well. Because we’re swinging for the fences and bursting with things to say, our first novels are perfect for spotting the beginnings of larger thematic patterns in our writing. 

The Wine Ghost is no exception. My old friend, developmental editor Zak Johnson, says this: “I think you've mined your Wine Ghost for more than you even realize. (the evil uncle from Dry Wash) has reappeared as the obscene old man in many of your works … if you do (rewrite The Wine Ghost as a commercially viable novel), keep the original as a relic of the exorcism that brought it out of you.

Or as a standalone shrine to my daddy issues. Enough said there.

A re-read of that novel may show you patterns to build upon or abandon. Don’t just write it all off as juvenilia.

• just one more draft, I promise
After 30 years as a professional writer and editor, I put The Wine Ghost aside and started submitting fiction in 2009. I have a completed and competitive genre novel making the rounds of publishers, and I’m halfway done with the sequel. I can’t drop that to start draft five of The Drowning God, especially knowing that it would take a sixth and seventh draft to get this beast on its feet.

But I’m not giving up the idea. The lazy monster on my hard drive is an important book, the book that called me to write it because it may speak to some teenager as confused and depressed as I was when I first got a little relief by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren or Lord Dunsany’s Pegana tales. It may show some kid a path out of darkness.

So I keep honing my craft in order to do the story justice. Every genre chapter I write, every blog post I submit, every short story that goes over some indifferent editor’s transom — it’s all training to deal with The Wine Ghost.

I’m lifting weights here, people. If I can get that novel to do a little work in the meantime, we’ll both be in better shape when I get back to it.

Thanks, Kendley, for laying this out in such a clean manner. I too have a 350,000-word manuscript lying in cyberdust. I wonder what I can mine from it. Believe me, you are an inspiration. I will be doing a lot of digging over the next few months...