Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The First Million Words, and Treasures Within

Marion used to say that the first million words were practice, but I have never taken that literally. It's important to give ourselves time to develop as writers, to work and work and hone our craft. Sure, there are rare writers whose first efforts are so good that they sell, but for most of us--particularly those of us who began writing as children or teens--those early stories represent a sort of flopping-about, trying to figure out what makes a good story and how to tell it.

I was in high school when I first started sending stories out, and pathetic amorphous things they were, too. I never got so much as a personal note scribbled on a form rejection slip. A girl in my English class sold a story to a big magazine, or so I'd heard. When I tried to congratulate her, she shrugged as if anyone who really wanted to could be published in a national magazine. I was devastated. I really wanted it, after all. The inescapable conclusion was that I was no good and never would be. The best revenge, they say, is living well. Or in this case, having two shelves of books with my name on or in them.

So those million words, all those high school stories and all those unsold early novels, were practice.

As a published author, I've learned something else: Practice does not mean worthless. Practice means trying out our dreams, shoving around story elements to see what fits and what bounces...figuring out how to take the things that delight us and bring them to life in a book. So many of us began (and continue, sometimes in private, sometimes not) to write the books we want to read, the books that thrill and comfort us, the characters we dream about meeting or wish we were, the landscapes we want to run away to.

Madeleine E. Robins writes about her own early novel, Althea, in today's Book View Cafe blog.

I wrote my first book because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read. ...Here’s my dark secret: I wasn’t writing for publication.  I was writing to give myself exactly what I needed to be reading at that point.  A comfort read, full of froth and dress descriptions and a happy ending.  And I got to write about an historical period I find fascinating, which meant doing research, and that was totally a plus. 

Thirty years later, I look at Althea and it holds up.  There are occasional sentences that make me want to take my 22-year-old self aside and say “no, really, honey, no.”  It’s not a mature work, as the lit-critics say, and I am pleased to say that my writing has certainly improved since then.  But Althea was exactly what I needed it to be then: a fun, frothy entertainment.  If you’re in need of a little romance of the popcorn variety, Althea returns to sale today as a BVC e-book.  I’m not just delighted to see it available again, I think I’m actually kind of proud of it.  The 22-year-old girl typing away in that one-bedroom apartment had no idea what doors that work would open.

One of the wonderful things about epublishing, reprint or otherwise, is that stories like these, which are not necessarily commercially viable for traditional publishers (although Althea was), can now be read and enjoyed.

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