February 8th, 2007
Mike and Dana Jean and Angie, over on my message board, were wondering if Heart-Shaped Box is the first novel I ever completed. No — in the years before Heart-Shaped Box, I wrote a bunch of other novel-length works I was never able to sell. At fourteen, I fell into the habit of slinking off to my bedroom after school to spend a couple hours playing pretend with words, and eventually, as they will, all those words added up. I sort of assumed I would be a published novelist by the time I was 19. In fact, it took me until I was 32 to sell my first book, 20th Century Ghosts.
But what if things were different? What if I had sold one of those early stories that I wrote when I was much younger? Here's a list touching on a few of those early unpublished stories, along with the age I wrote them, a brief plot description, and the imagined critical response to their release...
Midnight Eats (14): Plucky boys at a private academy discover, during a late-night panty raid, that the dean is a Satanist, and that the Friday goulash served in the cafeteria is, in fact, made out of the ground-up bodies of missing students. Think American Pie meets Cannibal: The Musical meets Captain Underpants. "Utterly convincing in its presentation of young men pitted against believably rendered zombie-Satanist-mutant-liberal-arts-professors, Midnight Eats made me hungry for goulash!" — Trent Larsen, The Wichita Book Journal.
Jonah Who Could (18): Plucky barbarians lead a gang of desperate scholars on a late-night book raid into a magical library, where the goblin librarians will eat your soul if you return one of their tomes late. Think Lord of the Rings meets The Shadow of the Wind meets Slave Girls of Gor. "If Salman Rushdie ate a dictionary and upchucked on a pile of blank pages, it might read just like this!" — Gary Reznor, The Toledo Library Times.
The Fear Tree (26): During a pogrom, a plucky young thief abandons his family to save himself and is blinded in his escape; after, he discovers he has acquired a very selective psychic power, a gift for knowing other people's secret fears. Think Lord of the Rings meets The Fixer meets... meets... meets unanimous rejection, in three different nations. I don't have to imagine the critical response to this book: I got one, and it wasn't pretty.
I started The Fear Tree very soon after graduating from college, high on the fiction of Bernard Malamud and fantasy novels like Eyes of the Dragon. The scary part was when I got three hundred pages in, and showed my soon-to-be-wife, and she hated it. Hated everything about it. She couldn't stand the endless trivia about my invented high-fantasy world, or the halt-thou-vartlet dialogue. Worst of all was that my story didn't seem to be about anything, didn't ask any interesting questions... it was just guys crashing around in chain-mail, poking each other with lances.
By then I had been working on it for most of a year. It was too awful to read, and I had too much invested in it to quit. So I did something I hated to do, at the time. I started to rewrite it. Did I mention that up until then, and even through college, I more or less considered a story done when I wrote "The End" on the first draft?
I revised the first three hundred pages I had, and plodded on for another 700. Then I went back to the beginning and did two more drafts, putting off showing it to anyone, because I was scared of what they'd say about it. Finally, though, I gave it to my parents and my wife — and they all were excited and happy and relieved for me, because it had turned into a pretty engaging read. The dialogue was more lively and the characters had filled out. Best of all, the book was about something now, had become an attempt to examine how fear can turn a whole society against The Other. We all thought that I'd be beating back the offers.
It took two years for that book to be rejected by just about every publisher in the English speaking world, big and small. One major American publisher who shall remain nameless held it for eighteen months, and ignored repeated and increasingly hostile queries from my agent, before finally returning it with a badly photocopied form rejection.
Know what? I think they all made the right call... not just for them, but more importantly, for me.
I have an idea that many published writers have a book or two (or three) in the bottom drawer. These are not sadly overlooked masterpieces. They are, instead, deeply flawed learning experiences. The Fear Tree had a lot of good in it. It also had weaknesses — grave, crippling weaknesses — that I was not able to overcome, even with three years of work.
At the time, I thought all those rejections meant the end of my fledgling career as a writer. The truth is, an acceptance would more likely have led to the end of my writing career, because the book would have probably been a commercial and critical disaster.
Books mentioned in this post
Joe Hill is the author of Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel