RESURRECTING THE DEAD – Opening the Bottom Drawer

I don’t know about you, but I have a bottom drawer full of old manuscripts. Actually, I have a whole chest full. The first novel I ever wrote, “A Lesson in Darkness” will never see the light of day, it was my real training ground. It’s never even had a second draft. But I have three other projects that were precious book babies at some point but then, because of rejections real or imagined, became too hard to look at and were relegated to the bottom drawer.

What I’ve learnt over my twenty years of writing practice is never ever to give up on a piece of writing. Short pieces that were rejected for years, even decades, suddenly find the prefect home in better places than I’d ever dreamed of. “Mrs Sunshine” had done the rounds of many literary journals and competitions and then finally found a place in Best Australian Stories 2014. Other stories too, battle worn and bruised have risen to be published and paid for.

Even Thrill Seekers was resurrected from the dead after Barbara Mobbs, my then agent, told me to forget about it, put it in the bottom drawer and move on, after it was rejected by only one publisher. I wasn’t going to give up on it that easily. I submitted it to a worldwide call out and scored a contract with Ransom Publishing UK. It then went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards. It wouldn’t have, if I’d taken Barbara’s advice and let it perish unseen.

It takes courage to resurrect old writing, especially when it’s done the rounds a few times and faced a lot of rejection. “Remember,” I have to tell myself, “rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad, only that it hasn’t found the right home, or the right shape yet.”

I am not short on courage. I feel the fear and do things anyway. You have to be a risk taker to be a writer. But reviving “Dear Madman” and starting to work on it again after a break of some years has taken all my strength. When a book has been rejected, it’s not just the book that’s bruised, but the writer (actually, the book probably feels okay!). Sometimes you’ll have a loving spouse to drag the manuscript out of the rubbish bin, as Stephen King’s wife famously did for Carrie, his first breakthrough hit. But sometimes you have to be your own loving friend and do the same.

I have been working on “Dear Madman” on and off for over ten years. Yes, that long. This project is dear to, and deep inside, my heart. It began life as a memoir about the murder of my maternal grandmother’s sister as a child in the Lockyer Valley in 1912 but then evolved into a novel. The characters demanded it. I couldn’t shut them up. Besides, I felt the story was best portrayed as I saw it playing out in my mind – in scenes. I thought it worked well, but publishers didn’t agree. My agent at that time, Zeitgeist Media Group, were tireless in their efforts but couldn’t get it over the line. The rejection of this manuscript broke my heart. I started to believe it was cursed. That I was. And that’s never a good idea.

Recently, I attended Kris Olsson’s Memoir Bootcamp at the QLD Writers Centre with more recent memoir projects on my mind. However, once I started doing some of the preliminary exercises, I knew that the ghost of “Dear Madman” had called me there. Kris inspired me to take another look, to redo it as the memoir I’d originally intended, keeping the novelistic scenes if I wanted. That was weeks ago.

It took those weeks for me to gird my loins in order to tackle what seemed like a monumental task, the most difficult puzzle of my writing career. How to do it? The question loomed in my mind larger than the book itself. “Just do it!” I told myself like a sportswear commercial. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

I dug up the old files, the original memoir strand of 24 000 words, journal extracts from the time of my researching and writing, and the novel it all morphed into. Then I started fresh. I opened a new document and called it, “Dear Madman 2022” (I know, I know, we’re not there yet, but I’ll still be working on it then I know). Most importantly I added ROUGH DRAFT in very big letters. “Just muck around with it and play,” I intoned like a mantra.

So I played. I’m still playing. Anything goes. I’m shoving bits in, weaving things together. Writing new bits, writing about the process. Talking to the reader as if they know how tricky it is to braid these disparate strands. And guess what? It’s fun! I’m enjoying myself. After the first few days of timidity and self-criticism, noticing where I’d overwritten and made things worse, I’ve reached a stage where I’ve regained my creative confidence and my belief in the project. YAY! It’s all a huge schmozzle right now, but I have faith that it is becoming more like it is intended to be. It’s finding it’s shape at last and I’m enjoying the challenge.

And, quite literally, I’m resurrecting the dead as I write, or at least giving them another life on the page. Through writing, I’ve given that little murdered girl the chance to laugh and play with her sisters one more time.

If you have stories or novels or memoirs clogging up that bottom drawer, especially those that hurt to look at, especially them, dig them out and expose them to the air. Gird your loins, put on your grown-up pants, and tell yourself you’re just going to play and see what happens. Start a new document and dive right on in. Anything and everything goes. You can do no wrong.

Repeat after me, “I am confident and capable in my creative work.” You can do it! Who knows? You may even have fun. 

What projects have you buried that deserve a second chance at life? What projects have you resurrected? Any success stories out there? I’d love to hear them!

Come and get it!

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

FIVE FUNCTIONS OF YOUR FIRST FEW PAGES!

The first few pages of your book, or the first few paragraphs of a short story, have a heavy load to bear. These are the pages that make or break your chances with publishers or competition judges and, most importantly, readers. It’s best not to think about it too much when you’re doing a first draft. Just start writing and then, later, once you’ve written all the way to the end, you can figure out the best place to start and whether it’s working well.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

Most importantly your first pages must:

1.HOOK THE READER! Something in those first pages must intrigue the reader and compel them to continue turning the page. But how? SET UP A QUESTION. You can engage a reader with your beautiful prose but really, most of us just want to get our teeth into a riveting story that draws us in. By asking questions in that first page or so, you compel the reader to continue in search of an answer. This is your hook. The question you ask should relate to your story as a whole, not just “Which dress will Sophie wear to the dance?” but “Will Sophie ever escape her dreary small town?” 

Jane Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, sets up the question that drives the novel in the opening line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And there you have it – who will this rich man choose to marry of the five sisters? 

In my novel set in Cambodia, “Child of Fortune”, I set up my question in the first page:

“I need to let you know what really happened, who I really am. Who you are. I’m afraid to tell you, because when I’m done you won’t be the same anymore.”

Photo by Vincent Gerbouin on Pexels.com

What happened in Cambodia that changed this woman? And how will it change us too?

What is the central question of your story? Find a way to introduce it early.

2. GROUND THE READER. When we begin a new book, we enter a new world. This world may be as familiar as a suburban street, or it may be another planet 400 years ago. Make sure you include some setting details in that first page, so we know where and when we are in time and place. This is especially important for Sci-fi and Speculative fiction. Make sure the reader isn’t frantically looking for clues to figure out what’s going on. Just tell us!

3. ESTABLISH YOUR MAIN CHARACTER. Just as readers need to know where we are in the story world, we also need to know who we’re with and whether we like them. If your story is about Jane, start with Jane in action, doing or saying something that lets us know who she is and what is driving her. If you can manage it, also endear her to us. Show her in a moment of vulnerability or tenderness. Or show her being totally amazing and someone we’d like to be, or at least know. When we read, we commit to being with these characters for the length of the story, so even if they’re not exactly honourable, make them fun to be around. See Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. He’s a creepy paedophile but he still manages to be charming.

4. ESTABLISH GENRE. If you start your story with a horrifying scene of slaughter, the reader will expect more horror and violence throughout the story. If you start with a love scene or someone yearning for love, they’ll expect a romance. In film the opening image carries all the weight with establishing just what kind of movie we’re going to see. Make sure your beginning sets up the right expectations from your reader.

5. ESTABLISH TONE. You may have done everything else well, hooked your reader with a question that will keep them turning pages, set up a story world for them to enter and a protagonist they’re keen to follow and set up that it’s a romance BUT what kind of romance is it? This is the tone. 

Is it a light-hearted teenage romcom, or a romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet? Is it a quick, easy bodice-ripping read or a more philosophical exploration of a love affair? Your first pages set up expectations of what kind of a book it is. Readers tend to throw books across the room if they are lead astray in those initial pages. For example: Stephen King’s Carrie starts with a scene of blood and humiliation – spoiler alert – it ends the same way. But what if he’d started it with Carrie hanging out with all the girls at the coffee shop, giggling and eyeing off the football star? We’d expect a very different story then – a sweet teen romance, not the gory horror of Carrie’s revenge.

It’s all about grounding the reader, compelling them forward into the story and setting up their expectations of what the story will give them. Don’t think about it too hard or you’ll twist your brains into a horrible knot. Just check that your opening is doing these things. If you can’t tell, show someone else.

I’m offering a special deal for readers, send me your first 10 pages and a one page synopsis, and I’ll give you detailed feedback on what’s working and what may help you hit those marks. All for only $50 AUD. Drop me a line if you’re keen. I’d love to help you make your story the very best it can be.

Lots of love,

Edwina xx