Lessons from my trunk novels

I’ve written trunk novels that should be kept from the world for its own good. Doesn’t mean I can’t read them, laugh, and maybe learn something.

I expect most people who write long enough end up with a collection of novels (or pieces of novels) that will never see the light of day. I have.

I love my trunk novels. I love how cringeworthy the earlier ones are, full of purple prose, plotless plots, nonsensical worlds, and blatant plagiarism from my favourite authors.

I love the progression of goals: save the village, save the kingdom, save the world. Because what else could the goals possibly be?

And there are so many Mary Sues.

Golden Horse Summer

It’s a fantasy novel so there has to be a magic sword. I know! I’ll have them find one lying by the side of the road, because that makes sense. And the sword’s purple. Come to think of it, the main character’s eyes are purple too.

Purple is the best colour.

To be fair, I was only ten when I wrote this, and (initially) there was a plot. Two children (aged seven and eight) live on their own in the wilderness (I see no problem here) near a herd of horses.

Golden horses, obviously. I think this is a reference to the colour of their coats, but it’s possible they’re actually made of gold.

Bad guys want to steal the horses because they are short of horses. That makes sense. And the children have to take the horses somewhere safe. It is hard and many Random Events happen along the way, but in the end they succeed. And then they live happily in a meadow full of flowers.

See? I told you it had a plot.

Lessons: Give the main character a goal and someone to oppose her. And purple eyes to match her sword.

For Glory and the Khan

Step forwards in time. My first “completed” novel was a 200k word monstrosity in which the plot didn’t appear for 60k words. The only other person to read it was my sister. She said she liked the part before the plot appeared best.

It had everything: a record of the main character’s whole life from birth (on the longest night of winter, in a storm), a prophecy about how important the character was going to be, a dead mother, an abusive father… And a lot of horses.

I went back and read it about a year ago. It’s not all bad.

There were gods in the streams, characters who were alone too long developed magic, and the Empire had a soul. No dragons, though.

At the climax, the main character had to choose between betraying her friends and destroying the Empire. Chills!

The setting is an empire of steppe-dwelling nomadic people. I struggled so much to capture the feeling of it (I even spent two weeks in Mongolia for “research”), and I thought I failed.

Reading it recently, I’ve changed my mind. The sense of the setting is my favourite thing about the story.

A few gers, a lot of emptiness.

Lessons: Give your characters hard decisions and watch them squirm. “Things happened” is not a plot, even if they were exciting things. I should steal this setting and use it in a book with an actual plot.

The book without a name

This book never made it beyond 15k words. It’s set in the same universe as For Glory and the Khan, several hundred years earlier in a neighbouring kingdom.

I love it.

I never finished it for two reasons. First, I wrote myself to a point where I had no idea what happened next. Second, the only possibly satisfying ending is “they all died”, and I don’t want to write that book.

Let me explain.

The main character, Callisathene, born among the nomads, was betrothed when she was a child to the man who would be the next khan. Because she was super pretty**, and khans get to have a lot of wives, so why not?

** I mean it. History remembers her as “the most beautiful woman who ever lived”. (This is probably an exaggeration.)

This is not Callisathene, though they’re both blonde.

Then it was discovered that she had healing powers, so she was sent to the neighbouring kingdom to train.

The story starts five years later. Callisathene has learned to heal and become all “civilised”**. She has also fallen in love with another apprentice at the healing school. Oops.

** “Civilised” in inverted commas because part of her character arc is rejecting the prejudices her adopted land has about her homeland.

She and lover boy are very good and chaste, and they sneak around at night so they can be together. This isn’t a euphemism.

They know it’s all they’ll ever get, but they expect it to last a while longer.

Then the khan is killed in a skirmish and Callisathene is summoned home to marry her betrothed.

Instead of obediently going, she and lover boy decide to run, and so cause a war between the kingdom and the empire. Yes, they’re young and foolish and obsessed with each other beyond all reason. That’s the whole point.

But in the end they’ll have to decide whether their love is worth the price.

Spoiler: it’s not and they all die.

crow
Everybody is dead, Dave.

See what I mean about the bummer?

I wrote this a while back, but I think the writing’s decent. In places it’s pretty darn good. (Hear that tooting? It’s me blowing my own horn.) Reading it, I re-learned things I’d forgotten.

Lessons:

  • Using other people’s reactions to someone can be an effective way of characterising.
  • Earned competence makes a character likeable.
  • Introduce a likeable character who badly wants something, and the reader will want it too.
  • Love is noticing the details.

I would share some specifics, but perhaps I’ll purloin them for another story instead. Recycling will save the world, right?

The biggest thing I learned from looking back at my old writing is that you get better with practice. Thank goodness.

What have you learned from looking back at your trunk novels? Did anything surprise you?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

10 thoughts on “Lessons from my trunk novels”

  1. Worthy and important lessons — and there is nothing that goes so deep as hard-won wisdom, right? I am convinced you have some gems there (Scythian-type warrior tribes who go storming around on the steppes on horseback? I am SO in) that will either find a place in your future work, or will be profitably returned to. More and more, I’m convinced the most important thing about writing fiction is to just keep doing it.

    1. Absolutely! The time when you really believe something is when you learn it for yourself, usually through pain.

      Aw, thanks! I’m a big fan of my steppe nomads too, they just need a good story to live through. And to shed most of the over-used tropes.

  2. I have a character with purple eyes in the graveyard. ^_^ I wish there were less stories in the graveyard, but some characters, like the one with purple eyes, are still my favorites. The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is that if I really love an idea, I don’t care how long it takes to come together, and I don’t care how much work needs to go into it. If I’m not excited about editing, then I don’t love the story enough, and it’s not worth continuing to work on it.

    1. That sounds like a great attitude. If you still love a character or a story after so long, it’s likely there’s something there that other people will love too. We shouldn’t let those purple-eyed characters die! 🙂

  3. I think we can all agree purple is the best colour 😀
    I cringe looking back at some of my old stuff. It’s mostly fanfiction, and the writing is terrible. Bad thing after bad thing happens for no real reason, and each bad thing ends with the main character in pain. There’s always an eventual happy ending, but I love to torture my characters a lot first apparently!

    1. Yes, we can agree on purple. Now that that’s out of the way… 🙂

      Haha. Somehow I missed the fanfiction stage (I didn’t know it was a thing until years or even decades later), but my earliest writing was atrocious and I’m proud of it. The instinct to put your characters through bad thing after bad thing is probably a good one, you just need to put reasons behind the bad things that happened.

  4. Purple is totally the best color! Eyes. Hair. Swords. Dragons.

    I am not sure I could even find my oldest trunk books. I had printed some out so I would have them, but they were lost in one of our many moves.

    The digital copies are lost to the annals of time. I guess I stopped trying to save them based on how bad some of them were.

    More recent unfinished works…I actually read them and they were bad, but I had written them so long ago I couldn’t remember the ending. I stayed up late to finish one! So that was interesting. It had four different endings as I was clearly struggling with how to end it. But they were all happy endings 🙂

    I was also struggling with writing fantasy or writing romance. It’s clear my genre was confused and sections would have be completely rewritten depending to match one.

    Probably my biggest issue was things happening to my characters rather than them making choices. It’s something I still struggle with occasionally.

    1. I admit I don’t currently have copies of all my earlier books–I blogged about them from memory. I used to write in a program called First Choice that probably hasn’t existed for decades, so I’m not sure I could read them even if I had the files.

      I love that feeling of coming back to read something I wrote but can’t remember. I’m always surprised by what worked that I thought didn’t and vice versa. Staying up late to finish reading your story is clearly a good sign!

      That’s fascinating that you couldn’t decide whether to write fantasy or romance–it might have taken time, but I’d say you came up with the perfect solution.

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