The Ghost of My Second Novel

Posted on 24 August 2010

My husband and I recently traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a weekend getaway. As we crossed the state border and left Ohio behind us, I remembered something about my second novel — a manuscript I hadn’t  thought about in ages.

“Oh my god,” I said. “I set my second novel in Michigan.”

While he’d never read this manuscript, Peter knew what I was talking about. In fact, as he reminded me there in the car, I apparently told him back then that I wanted to go to Michigan to do some research.

That was news to me. Almost everything about my second novel would be news to me. I barely remember it. Sure, I can recall the characters, and certain scenes, and the general course of events, but beyond that it’s like a ghost. The kind of ghost I’m totally ashamed of, and that I’d try to conceal before guests come over.

I wrote my first novel, Developing Olivia, for my undergrad thesis. It actually started as a novella, and then I revised it and fleshed it out until it was novel-length. It wasn’t in shape to be published, but today I look back on that novel fondly. It was my first attempt to write a book-length piece of fiction, a terrifying and exhilarating experience, and I put a lot of myself into it. There are many parts of that book that I hold dear, even though it will never see the light of day (unless I decide to completely rewrite the entire thing, but that’s not currently on the agenda).

I wrote my second novel about a year later. Developing Olivia had taught me a lot, so I took all those lessons and dumped them into the second book. It turns out I still had a lot to learn. That second novel had no real plot to speak of, nothing changed or really happened in the end, and there was no underlying tension to pull a reader along. I also think I was subconsciously trying to write something I thought the publishing world would want versus what I was actually interested in writing.

I revised the manuscript only one or two times. Then I submitted chapters to a few writers’ groups (cringe), gave the whole darned thing to two readers (a fate they certainly didn’t deserve), and even lugged it to a writers’ conference, if only because it was my current work and I had nothing else to show. Three agents requested partials, but by then I was starting to suspect something was wrong, deeply wrong, with the novel. When the agent rejections inevitably rolled in, I mentally shrugged, as if telling myself, That sounds about right.

The only smart thing I did with that novel was give up on it. I’m not a quitter, and I recognize the power of revision — but I don’t think it would have mattered how many drafts of this novel I churned out. It just wasn’t going to happen. So I scrapped the whole manuscript and chalked it up to another learning experience.

Even then, I knew it wasn’t an entire waste. In those 80,000+ words, I allowed myself to apply lessons I learned from Developing Olivia and gave myself freedom to fail again. (A lot of freedom, apparently.) I learned other things that I missed the first time around. And I put tens of thousands more words behind me — words that would help me grow into the writer that I am today and, hopefully, the writer I still hope to become.

Flash forward to my current work in progress, Opal. This is my third novel, and it comes years after that failed second book. But this one is different. I’m convinced of that, even though it’s still new and I have a lot of work and revision ahead. It’s scary to believe in something that could so easily fail just as hard as my first two attempts, but I can’t help it. I believe in this novel, and in a way I never believed in novel number two. It’s not even how I believed in Developing Olivia, when I was fresh off the high of writing my first novel. At this point it feels like it takes a lot of faith to believe in a novel again, but here I am.

Remembering the ghost of my second novel on the drive to Michigan was like a strange dream, as if I’d been sleepwalking my way through a whole book. It’s a dream I hope to never have again. I don’t want this manuscript to become some distant shadowy thing I end up shoving in a box in a basement storage space. I want it to be something I continue to work on and believe in — even if my beta readers rip it apart, or I have to revise it 50 more times, or it gets roundly rejected by every agent or editor in the business. Maybe that’s the difference between Opal and my second novel — with Opal, despite its newness and its flaws, I have something I think is worth fighting for.

Photo: Philippe Sokazo

1 Response to The Ghost of My Second Novel

  • Simon says:

    Ha, this reminded me that I don’t even remember my first novel any more. It was the novel that taught me how to write, and I pretend that it never even existed. Writing can be so cruel.

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