On “Lost” Novels and Trunked Manuscripts

There’s a story that Elizabeth Gilbert tells in her book, Big Magic, about “losing” a novel idea to Ann Patchett. If you haven’t read Big Magic, the story goes something like this: Once upon a time, Gilbert was struck by an idea for a novel set in the Amazon. She got excited and started compiling research and notes, but then life got in the way. So, she put her notes and research aside to take care of life happenings, even writing a different book. Then, when she came back to her novel idea to resume writing, she’d lost the magic. The idea was still there, along with all the research that should have been like a map to follow during writing, but she’d gone cold. She couldn’t write this story anymore.

Then one day, her friend Ann Patchett started telling Gilbert about the novel she’d recently started working on. The book that would become State of Wonder was set in the Amazon and bore enough resemblance to the original “lost” idea that if Gilbert had ever actually written the story, she’d probably have strong grounds for copyright infringement. But she never wrote the novel. Ann Patchett did. The story needed to be told, so when its first partner wandered off, it found someone new to tell it.

I suddenly remembered this story over the weekend after blazing through the last two hundred pages of Tomi Adeyemi’s incredible novel, Children of Blood and Bone. While reading it, I’d been struck by the feeling that I desperately needed this story. It tied together the threads of so many things I loved in a way that felt so right. I’d focused on postcolonial and YA literature for my master’s thesis for god’s sake! This was the book that I had been looking for at that time but couldn’t find. And then I realized that it was more than that. This was the book that I’d been trying to write but couldn’t.

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I wrote a YA fantasy novel about a young girl on a quest to save the world by unlocking her magical gifts. It was super rough in the way that all my first drafts are, and I spent the next two and a half years picking through the mess of that draft to build a better story. Finally, I thought I had found it. I did my outline and started a new draft. But then the story died. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get myself to move forward with it. I was sick of it, sick of the characters, sick of the world I’d built. There was nothing there I could work with. So I trunked the manuscript and moved onto something new, though I still hoped that one day I might be able to come back to it.

When I finished Children of Blood and Bone, I was smacked in the chest by the similarities between Adeyemi’s story and the core elements of my dead novel. The bones of my story had gone something like this: fifteen years ago, there was a war and magic died forever. Now, someone is trying to bring it back. The main character gets pulled into the renewed conflict as she’s chased down by those who think magic is a weapon. Everything she knows and loves is destroyed, is on the run, and gets captured. There’s a love interest (of course), magical artifacts, and it all ends with a ritual that releases magic back into the world.

These aren’t exactly unique elements of a story. It’s basically the hero’s journey with some specifics shared between the worlds created. My novel was set in the US, while Adeyemi’s is set in a secondary world, and our magic systems were very different. But in my heart, it felt like the same story. The story I needed to be told. And what a relief! Finally, it felt like I could truly put that old trunked novel to rest. I didn’t have to try and solve the plot holes or world-building issues. The characters I loved could be released for another project. And I was completely free to work on a story that still held magic.

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