Writing can be a difficult process. Sometimes, we spend hours upon hours working on something that still doesn’t quite come together, despite our time and effort. But sometimes within these “failures,” you might find hidden gems.
In 2010, I set about writing my first full novel—up until that point, I’d written strictly short stories and humor columns. I carefully outlined my plot and set up a writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, every day, without fail. The book was going to be about a young woman growing up on a farm in a dysfunctional family, who finally finds freedom when she goes off to college—only to discover she’s brought her problems with her.
I wrote. I wrote every day. I fought the urge to go back and edit as I was writing. I kept to my schedule and churned out pages like a madwoman, occasionally revisiting my outline, reworking it, but always faithfully writing my 2,000 words a day.
Within three months, I completed my first draft. I had a moment of “Look what I did! I wrote a book!” that elated me, until I went back and read what I’d written. My very first book . . . was terrible.
I’d essentially written a memoir, and not a particularly interesting one. The girl’s family was a dysfunctional, cruel mess, but not different enough from my own family. I could easily envision a future in which my parents stopped speaking to me upon publication of this thing. Plus, since I’d thought I was writing fiction, I’d taken some not-so-nice qualities from people I’d known over the years and exaggerated them. For example, I had a roommate in college who used to chew with her mouth open. I’d written a scene in which a boyfriend revoked a marriage proposal based on one unfortunate dinner with her parents in which the whole family was gnashing their food, maws gaping, while discussing wedding plans and spitting globs of shrimp scampi on each other. If my former roommate ever read that, she would not be amused.
If I tried to sell this book, I’d find myself disowned by my family and sued by my friends. Plus, as I mentioned, it wasn’t very good.
I struggled with rewrites for a while, before finally declaring it unsalvageable and trunking the manuscript. I went back to short stories. I toyed with the idea of a different novel. Farmer’s Daughter sat neglected in a closed file.
It languished there until one day when I was writing a story for an anthology about a woman keeping her zombified boyfriend in a barn until she can find a cure. I needed a description of the barn, something dark yet hopeful, that would serve the purpose of keeping a zombie contained. I remembered I already had one. I’d described the hay barn of my youth perfectly in Farmer’s Daughter. I dug out the manuscript, dusted it off, and lifted the barn description verbatim from my failed novel. It worked, and it saved me the time and frustration of trying to get the barn just right. Now I could move along to the rest of the zombie tale.
I’ve since mined scenes and characters from that first flawed novel three or four more times when trying to get past a block or scene. So although Farmer’s Daughter is destined to never see the light of day—nor should it—it has still provided me creative fodder when I’ve needed it. I encourage new writers to keep everything they’ve written, even if it’s not particularly well done. You never know what might come of those first flawed attempts.
Stacey Longo is the author of Ordinary Boy (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and Secret Things: Twelve Tales to Terrify. Her YA horror novel My Sister the Zombie is due out in 2016. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Shroud, Shock Totem, and the Litchfield Literary Review.
She is a past Hiram Award winner, and was a featured author on the 2014 Connecticut Authors Trail. A former humor columnist for the Block Island Times, she maintains a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com.