Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let Sleeping Wolves Lie

This week's blog topic is The First Novel You Wrote.  I signed up knowing that this topic could go one of two ways for me, but not really knowing which one I'd pick. See, depending on your point of view, the first novel I wrote could either be (a) the novel-length first-person adaptation (I hadn't yet discovered the term "fanfiction") of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I wrote in high school and never really edited, or (b) the original novel that I wrote shortly after starting my literary agency job, edited like crazy, tried and failed to get an agent with, and ultimately abandoned.  I chose the second one.

From where I am now, with a book coming out in four months from a publisher I truly love, it's easy for me to say I'm glad that first novel of mine never got published. At the time, however, it was killing me that nobody wanted to sign it/me.  Agents of the world, are you crazy?  What do you mean you don't want a YA urban fantasy* about a girl with Special Snowflake magical powers** and also werewolves***?

* This is, for the record, not actually a genre.
** I can see you yawning. That's just rude.
*** I wrote this when the YA market was already oversaturated, not before.

To be fair, the book also contained a lot of things I'm still proud of, like a system of magic regulated (supposedly) by government laws.  Like a cure for werewolves that, naturally, goes horribly wrong. And like the little wolf cub who turns into a boy under the full moon.

But aside from those few ideas, the book doesn't actually read as terribly original – and there's a reason for that.  It was basically a collection of my literary turn-ons, given different names and woven together into a new story.  I liked secretive teachers with mysterious pasts.  I liked teenagers who succeeded where authority figures fail.  I liked it when other people's backstories came back to bite the main character in the ass.  I liked… well, okay, I liked any of the themes and archetypes found in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I was kind of obsessed with at the time.

Thing was, you could tell.  My book, The Spellcaster’s Wolf, didn’t read like an original story so much as a meditation on themes from a story by someone else.  At least, that’s how it seems to me when I look back on it now.  I doubt the reactions of the agents who rejected me were that specific.  (Well, except for one, but we won’t name names.)  Mostly, I imagine they just felt that this had all been done before.  And they were right.  It had.

That was an important thing to realize, and I’m very grateful to the agents who told me everything from “I’d love this if it weren’t about werewolves” to “I got a few chapters in and just… kinda lost interest.”  Those things made me think in the right direction.  I needed to write about something new (or at least something significantly less trendy than werewolves, because I had nothing new to say about them), and I needed a story conducive to momentum.

I tried editing The Spellcaster’s Wolf for momentum, but the story was already at the point where it didn’t want to change much.  And I was getting bored with trying to make it change.  So when a new idea occurred to me (“Genies + kissing = ???”), I set the werewolves aside, figuring I’d come back to them if the genie thing didn’t pan out.

The genie thing panned out.

When I’m done writing my genie-centric trilogy, it won’t be The Spellcaster’s Wolf that I work on next.  It was nice to know I could always come back to that story if I needed to, but I don’t need to anymore.  The werewolves were a training exercise – my own personal MFA program, if you will.  Except without the student loans and the high standards and the… never mind, it was nothing at all like an MFA program.

Lindsay Ribar is a literary agent by day, a writer by night, and a concert junkie 24/7.  Her first novel, The Art of Wishing (Dial Books, March 2013) is about making wishes, making music, and making out.  She thinks you should read it.


  1. I had written a short story probably 15 years ago, and elements of it kept nagging at me. I broke it out recently, and my face got redder and redder as I realized it was basically a mashup of two fantasy stories I'd read, with an alternate ending slapped on. So, yeah, that story will stay in that drawer.

    BUT, it was good practice on writing longing and love, so definitely not a wasted effort.

  2. I enjoyed this, Lindsay, thanks! Werewolves and snow power. Amazing.

  3. For the record, I was all over the snow power! No yawning here. But very glad the genie kissing thing worked out!

  4. Sadly, her magical powers had nothing to do with actual snow. It was more like she had unique ("special snowflake") powers that Nobody Else Could Quite Understand. :)

  5. "It was basically a collection of my literary turn-ons, given different names and woven together into a new story."

    I think everyone should write at least one story that does this because, well, it's fun! And it teaches you things, as you so eloquently explained in your post. I really enjoyed reading this.

  6. Great post! I have a couple of "finished" novels (as in they're in various draft states so not technically finished) that I know I won't return to. They weren't bad ideas, or horrible stories but they just didn't work. But I'm definitely thankful for that because they taught me a lot about characters, plot twists and my own writing.