Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – What’s the Use of Trunk Novels?Posted: December 16, 2020
Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
Everything old is new again.
Trunk novels. Everyone’s heard of them. Heck, odds are some of you have one or two lying around. Personally, I’ve got three. Three and a half, if you count a couple false starts from back when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I recently dug one out and started reading and editing it a bit, just to see if there’s a viable release opportunity for me in it.
I’m kind of a modernist when it comes to publishing. My background is in lots of short story publications, but when it’s come to book-length work, I’ve always gone the direct route and published things myself. The good news this year is that I’m already ahead of schedule on the next book I’m writing, which means I’ve got more than enough time to try and polish this older book, see if I can turn it into something presentable. It’ll take some time. Let’s face it, there’s not much in writing that can’t be improved or sharpened in some fashion. And it’s a trunk novel, which means I chose to hide it away for a reason.
That term, trunk novel, it’s got a slightly negative connotation, hasn’t it? It would seem to imply that if a book were any good, it would’ve gotten published rather than collected dust in some old trunk, either in reality or in the newfangled digital sense. This book I’m looking at, I wrote it about thirteen years ago. That’s kind if astounding, really. I also happen to have written it at a time my writing gifts were still in the soft-boiled state.
Although I do find the material worthwhile to pursue after a fashion, I just wasn’t a very good writer back then. That’s par for the course, if you ask me. So what are you to do if you’ve got some old book you’d like to resurrect, but the writing isn’t up to your present standards?
Well, I say do the hard work and chip away at it, bit by bit, until it looks a little better. Grab the opinions of a few beta readers, and then chip away at it again. The focus for me has been in shortening and cutting. Lots and lots and lots of cutting. I was a pretty verbose writer, so I expect to cut something like 30,000 to 40,000 words from a manuscript originally in the 120,000 word range. But you might have a very different task. Maybe you’ve got to make additions, or perhaps you’ll have to rewrite whole sections of it.
The truth is, if you really still believe in the story, you should be willing to do just about anything to give it a fair shot. And look, you have so many more publication options in the year 2021 than you had in decades past. The traditional route continues to be the preferred option for just about everybody out there, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Reviving an old work, hiring an editor, a book designer and cover illustrator, or doing your best with some or all of these duties yourself, it can be a very gratifying way of letting the world see something that likely would have never come up for air otherwise.
I’ve always thought hidden art is the worst kind. An alternative to publishing a more polished version of old material outright, of course, would be cannibalizing it for spare parts. This can be a really effective tool for future story development. Maybe the trunk novel has a second life in it. Is it possible it contains ideas or even entire passages or chapters you could lift out and use somewhere else? Sometimes being a writer under the gun is the same thing as being a Frankenstein-like doctor, assembling narrative monsters from bits here and bobs there.
Or, and let’s be perfectly frank about this possibility, maybe you’ll find the trunk novel needs to stay in the trunk. No problem with this. Perhaps it was meant to be. At least you know for sure now. The time I’ve taken to look at my thirteen-year-old manuscript has been well spent. So far, I haven’t seen anything too objectionable, nothing that can’t be fixed. Is it possible this kind of retreading takes more effort than simply drafting up a new story from scratch? Potentially, but again, it comes down to how much you like the work and how much you think it deserves to be seen.
That’s it for this month’s craft and practice, everyone. Until next month.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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