Monday, May 23, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 1

Every writer has a collection of trunk stories: stories they can’t seem to get published no matter how long they keep trying or how much effort they pour into trying to revise and improve them. If you are at all serious about being a writer, you probably have a pile of them, too.

If so, congratulations. You’re in good company. I have known hundreds of professional writers, and with one exception, not one of them has sold everything they wrote. 

Isaac Asimov complained about having trunk stories. Arthur C. Clarke complained about having trunk stories. Even Ray Bradbury complained about having trunk stories—but then in 1975 Gale Research published The Bradbury Companion, and everyone else began to complain instead. For example, Spider Robinson, in his book review column in Galaxy, described the then-newly released thing as:

“[a] labor of love—the kind that makes people build shrines to Lana Turner or wait in an alley for twelve hours for a chance to rip Paul McCartney’s lapel off. It is a shrine to Ray Bradbury, and as such serves to support the contemporary suspicion that he’s dead (at least as a writer of fictional prose).


“But the vast bulk (and it sure is) of the book is a hideous amalgam of…all I can call them are souvenirs. There is, for instance, an enormous selection of facsimiles of original manuscripts of unpublished works. Did you get that? You’re buying hand-written copy that a professional couldn’t sell to anyone.”  

If even Ray Bradbury, writing in the heyday of the pulp and slick magazines, couldn’t sell everything he wrote, until he at last had ascended to such an exalted height that he warranted hagiography of the kind Woody Allen so incisively satirized in “The Metterling Lists,” then what hope do you have that those old manuscripts in the back of your closet will suddenly and spontaneously germinate in the dark and become best-sellers?

Well, there is some cause for hope, and that’s what we’ll be talking about this week in Not Quite Ad Hoc Trunk Story Week. But do you see the immediate problem for a publisher? “These are stories a pro couldn’t sell to anyone” is a really tough sales pitch to make work with readers, unless we’re talking about the literary equivalent of a dead rock star. And of course, becoming successful after you’re dead doesn’t do you much good.

As for the one writer I knew who sold absolutely everything he wrote? I’ll reveal that secret now, although I won’t dignify him by naming him. He was, to speak plainly, a hack, who worked in multiple genres under a half-dozen pseudonyms and had an established reputation for delivering competent, formulaic, and commercially successful mid-list mass-market paperback originals exactly on schedule. He sold everything he wrote because he never began to write anything until he had a signed publication contract in-hand, and while he produced a tremendous number of books and made a comfortable living by doing so, he never produced one book that was interesting or remembered for any length of time.

That’s the nature of our business, folks, and your challenge as a writer. If you’re going to take chances, you’re going to produce at least some work that you can’t sell. Contrarily, while there can be very good money to be made in never taking any chances or doing anything original—see Brooks, Terry—if you choose that path, you’ll never produce any work that is of more than trivial and temporary interest.  

So now is as good a time as any to ask yourself: what do I want to be known for?