(Scroll to the bottom to read about Andromeda’s next online class for 49 Writers, called IT’S ALIVE, starting Oct. 12.)
In August 2017, I had one of the strangest experiences of my writing life. I opened a file in a folder associated with a novel I’d given up on five years earlier, read a few unfamiliar paragraphs, What’s this?, and then a few pages more, I know I wrote it; I just don’t remember writing it. I kept going all the way to the end of the chapter, and found myself intrigued, What the heck is going to happen next?
I should have known the answer. I was the one who had dashed off that chapter, which was full of clues and foreshadowing, a sense of something spooky unfolding. And even so, though the names and setting were vaguely familiar, the set-up and the incidents were not. I didn’t know if I’d written it with a definite plan for what would follow, or if I’d been just pretending to know, winging it and having fun before I slam-dunked this final, desperate attempt into the trash.
It made a certain sense that I’d want to forget. This new chapter was a last-stab effort to resuscitate a semi-autobiographical novel—partly about Annie Oakley, partly about a novelist who was writing about Annie Oakley as a way to deal with her own family traumas—that had troubled and occupied me for several years. I had at least twenty files of various drafts of this dead-on-arrival book already, as well as notes from readers, including an agent, who was excited about some parts but agreed that something wasn’t right yet. Just before giving up, I’d thrown myself into brainstorming mode, willing to structure the novel a radically different way, or rather ways.
I turned the novel on its head; I started at the end instead of the beginning; I made it a mystery instead of a realistic novel; I played with adding documents and newspaper stories in the mix. These were big revision attempts, but they weren’t enough. My main character and my basic plotline remained. I was just moving and resizing the gears, trying to get them to mesh a different way.
And then, evidently—though I don’t remember this moment at all—I went one step further. I opened with an entirely new main character (a historian now, not a novelist, and with an entirely different backstory and personality), in a completely new setting, with different problems, evidently heading along a different story arc. Gone were the autobiographical elements, except as deep background. Gone was the impulse toward full realism, which clearly hadn’t been serving this story. The only thing that remained was my dramatic question—a question about revenge as well as memory, still the pulsing heart of the thing—and in the background, an Annie Oakley subplot.
I had written that first chapter, saved it, then forgotten and moved on, because another novel was calling. I published the next novel, and the one after that. Neither gave me quite the same trouble as the Annie Oakley book. And then, five years later, as I looked around for my next projects in the queue did I open that old, forgotten file by chance, and think: Hey, I wonder if I could invent a chapter two that might build off this mysterious chapter one, which ends with a cliffhanger I don’t even understand. It was almost like playing a game with another writer—the person I’d been, who handed me the baton and said, Do whatever you want. I don’t care if it you take it in another direction. Just please promise me: be loose! Don’t take this next draft seriously!
Fast-forward to early 2019: I signed a contract for the entirely new novel written out of that weird chapter one. The novel is set to come out in January 2021.
Editor’s note: Yes, this blog post is also a cliffhanger! Read part two to find out how you might learn from Andromeda’s mysterious discovery…
P.S. If you want guidance along the resuscitation road, check out my 49 Writers course that starts this Saturday: IT’S ALIVE! Radically Rewrite or Repurpose Abandoned Drafts into Something New with Andromeda Romano-Lax.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a 49 Writers co-founder, creative writing teacher, book coach and the author of four novels including PLUM RAINS, recently selected for Canada’s Sunburst Award for speculative fiction. www.romanolax.com.