Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Rescuing your first novel from under your bed

So, I was on the “Rescuing your ‘trunk novel'” panel at Archon, where I was somewhat surprised to find that the three other panelists — Elizabeth Donald, Henry Melton, and “Tex” Thompson — have also successfully rescued, revised, re-polished, and published some of their very early work. I thought that was fairly rare, but I guess it’s far from unheard of.

Tex Thompson evidently writes weird westerns, btw, plus she was hilarious as a co-panelist and did a particularly good job moderating, so I expect I will check out something of hers.

Anyway, as might be expected, we were all quite different in just exactly how we conceptualize “rescuing” a “trunk novel.” For example, Elizabeth described how she expanded an early short story that didn’t work into a novel that did work. Hah, totally the opposite of me cutting down a massive 1500 pp trilogy into first one and then another standalone novel.

I want to talk more about that here, including a detailed summary of just what went where. It was tricky to think how to talk about this; after all I don’t want to hand you a lot of spoilers for both the resultant books. Here is a list of important characters and elements from the original manuscript, in nonspecific trope form:

Important Elements of the Original 1500 pp Trilogy

The Village Girl
The Dog
The Mysterious Sorcerer
The Ghost Boy
The Best Friend
The Nice Boy from a Good Family
The Retired Soldier
Witches
Ghosts

The Responsible Princess
Her Brother, a Prince
Her Father, a King
Her Best Friend
The Wolf Duke
His Seneschal
The Evil Nobleman

The Prince Who Never Expected to be Heir
His Father, the Mad King
His Sister (deceased, a ghost)
The Clever Nobleman
The Lord of Thieves

The Fortunate God and the Quiet God
The Blue Priests and the White Priests
The Genii Locorum (spirits of places)

The Antagonist

A Basically Coherent Plot (With Significant Flaws)

Conveniently, that is 25 elements plus a plot. Twenty-five is such an nice, easy number to work with and remember. I didn’t do that on purpose, though. The above is just a list of all the important elements I could think of, sorted out in groups by which of the three protagonists they were particularly associated with. Now, on the panel, we discussed our various reclamation processes, and of course handled this in different ways.

Mine was basically … look, you know how sculptors sometimes say they carve away the part of the stone that isn’t part of the statue? Well, I started by deleting huge swathes of text that weren’t part of the new book I had in mind. Remember the idea was to turn an overlong trilogy into a single book. So this part was all about deciding which of the three protagonists was going to be THE protagonist, and then choosing the elements that would stay in her story. This was a fun destructive take-an-ax-to-it kind of process, the sort of thing that doesn’t take very long initially, so you can do it without actually committing to a real revision. (Less fun was carving away the pieces I thought were part of the story, that turned out not to be. But that came (much) later.)

So, taking the resulting books in publication order, here is —

The White Road of the Moon, coming out March 2017:

The Village Girl
The Dog
The Mysterious Sorcerer
The Ghost Boy
The Best Friend
The Retired Soldier
Witches
Ghosts

The prince who never expected to be heir was retained, though in vastly changed form.
So was his sister, the ghost, somewhat less altered.

A handful of new elements were naturally added, including a pretty snazzy horse (okay, sort of a horse) and a new antagonist.

And the plot started off looking the same but rapidly went off in a different direction.

That’s it. If you count, you will find that roughly 40% of the elements from the original trilogy were conserved in this story. Everything else was stripped away, mostly in the very early stages of the revision process, but some much later. I practically cried when I carved away the gods and the priests. I *really* liked those aspects of the story. They were there for a long time. But the story was too long and too complicated and finally I sent it to my agent saying Please help me cut this. And she said, I love some of these characters and I’m sure you can use them elsewhere, but this one and that one can vanish entirely from this story and then you can go straight from point B to point G without passing through C-F in between.

She was right. This cut was dreadful, but it worked.

In the end, about 1/3 of the resulting standalone novel was taken from the original trilogy. The first 150 pp or so are almost unchanged, just lightly revised. A few other extended scenes were retained, though with the pov character changing and other quite substantial revisions.

The climactic scenes changed a lot (after all, different antagonist), but a lot of my favorite sentences and paragraphs were conserved.

Okay, next:

The Dark Turn of Winter (title may change), an adult fantasy now set in quite a different world, due out November 2017

The Responsible Princess
Her Brother, a Prince
Her Father, a King
Her Best Friend
The Wolf Duke
His Seneschal
The Evil Nobleman

The Mad King

The Genii Locorum, now called Immanent Powers

The Antagonist

The Basic Plot, revised, including a different take on the gods. Also, much of the original geography.

Various new elements, including really scary dragons.

Okay, so how about that? That’s again about 40% of the original elements. I would estimate that for this book, close to 2/3 of the final story was taken from the original trilogy. A whole lot of pov scenes were added for The Brother and especially for The Wolf Duke, but the Responsible Princess’s plotline and most of her scenes are very closely based on the original trilogy. However, for this one, there were fairly extensive revisions and additions to practically everything.

The Antagonist and basic plot were heavily revised, but conserved.

How much trouble was all this revision? Enough that it is pretty comparable to writing two brand-new books. But writing these two was fun, a different kind of fun than I normally enjoy when writing. Seeing some of what I’d done badly in the original trilogy was educational. Seeing that my sentences and paragraphs were already good and worth lifting into a new story was actually very satisfying. Pulling coherent new plots together was interesting, and since plotting is hard for me, it was a relief to have so much of that already done, especially for the latter book.

The most painful part was cutting the important Blue Priest and everything associated with him. I’m now wondering if he might not be an important supporting character in a new project in the next year or two. Also the Thief Lord, who was a great favorite of mine. I’ve always had a really soft spot for thieves in fantasy. Well, we’ll see what I can do with them later.

Next up! Well, or sometime in the not too distant future, maybe. I would like to try rescuing my very first science fiction novel, actually a huge unwieldy duology that honestly I don’t think is all that well-written but has some great elements in it. A lot of it could be conserved, including all the important characters and some of the basic plot. I think.

Anyway, I certainly am happy that I never threw away that original fantasy trilogy. YMMV, but I suggest just tossing your early work in a drawer (or the virtual equivalent) and coming back to it in ten years, just in case you also find a rescue project worthwhile.

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2 Comments Rescuing your first novel from under your bed

  1. Katie Patchell

    The Thief Lord and Blue Priest could be in the same book! Or the same character but in disguise…? *dum dum dum!*

  2. Rachel

    I would love to put them both in the same book, but I’m not sure it will work…and *quite* sure they are not the same character in disguise! … Well, *pretty* sure.

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