Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In fact I had two albatrosses around my neck for many years. By which I mean two decades. Let me fix you with my glittering eye and tell you the saga.
They were two novel ideas I came up with back when I was a teenager. I never wrote them. I wrote a billion notes about them and just kept adding more and more layers to the stories, but I never sat down and wrote either story. What was I waiting for? The muse maybe? Or some mythical time when they’d be just right.
Of course they gradually became gigantic epics – or at least outlines of gigantic epics. But not in a good “A Song of Ice and Fire” way. More in a “bloated like a corpse fished out the river” kind of way. And I kept feeling guilty for not actually getting on and writing them.
Finally, back in late 2003 I started writing – but not the epics, oh no. I started writing fanfic and sharing it on the Internet. Which I loved doing and started to think, well, hell, I can actually write after all. Maybe I should start writing the epics?
Between the fanfic and the original stories I started writing, other characters started taking up more of my attention. I finally accepted I would never write either of those epics. That I had to let them go.
It was the best thing I ever did.
Once I did so it freed me to come up with new ideas and eventually of course to take the step of writing for publication. It cleared up thinking room for other stories with a better chance of being written. It made me lose the guilt and sense of obligation to those stories.
They weren’t a total write off – I’ve stripped them for parts. Characters from them have popped up in other stories. Sometimes in a very different place than the one they started. I also used a small chunk of one of the epics for my NaNoWriMo novel in 2008. It wasn’t all that good. Though I tore apart the old outline and ruthlessly tried to improve on it, removing a large amount of stupid from the story, and eliminating many of the “cast of thousands” characters, it still betrayed its origins in my teen-aged brain. For all that my writing skills had improved, the story itself was fundamentally flawed and half-baked.
I’m not saying a story you thought up years ago will never work if you delay a long time writing it. But there’s definitely a risk it won’t be as good as you believed it was back when you thought it up. You’re smarter now. And there’s something to be said for going ahead and finally writing it in a mad sprint like NaNoWriMo, just to get it the hell out of your head. After that you can decide how salvageable it might be.
I think a first novel for many people is an albatross and maybe they have to write it to get it out of their systems, even if it then becomes a trunk novel nobody else ever sees. I always recall a line in a sitcom, the name of which I don’t even remember, when the main character, a writer whose first novel has been a smash hit is being asked when her next one will be coming out. She said it’s not so much the writing time as the thinking time. How long was the thinking time on the first? Oh, about thirty years… I can relate.