The Manuscript in the Drawer

It is weird to face a former self in the pages of a novel that never made it off the ground. I should say, “selves,” as there are bits of me in every character. I finished the first draft in 1995—the final draft was completed in 1998. I haven’t cracked this book open since the early 2000s. At that time, I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I guess I thought I’d improved. During this more recent reading, I was gentler with myself. I did make it to the end of the story—I’d forgotten most of the plot. While the manuscript is certainly not ready to sell, I found many parts worth salvaging, including descriptions of Eugene, Oregon, and environs, where the book is set.

Some might wonder why I would bother wasting precious writing time redoing something I finished when I was a much less sophisticated thinker, and less adept with my craft. Why not leave the manuscript in a drawer (as a badge of honor) and move on to spark new work born of a mind that is older and wiser? With a handful of new short stories underway, I was actually willing to do just that, but I wanted to give the manuscript one last look before I buried it for good.

As I was going over the story, I experienced a number of emotions, as well as regular cringing. Still, I came away with renewed resolve to continue working on the project. I’ve decided it would behoove me to interact with the younger me, because the younger me had a different voice—one today’s me cannot completely duplicate. I’m now curious to see what an amalgam of the two voices will look like. It might result in a book the older me could never have pulled off on her own.

I lived in Eugene between 1980 and 1988—I pretty much came of age there. I find it a very different city these days. There are lots of new student apartment complexes. The campus exterior, as seen from Franklin Boulevard, is snazzier with its sleek Matthew Knight Arena and a couple of other buildings I don’t remember. The city is now preparing – once more – to host the Olympic Team Trials in Track & Field. I was happy to hear this as a couple of my characters are runners. Eugene has moved into a new phase, but folks still love to talk about how it once was—as I have done in this novel. I’ve decided to further develop the running aspects in the book. I plan to make my characters a bit younger, transforming the genre from young adult to middle grade. Ultimately, I’d like to enhance the humor, while making it more painful and resonant.

I must admit, before I got around to rereading the manuscript, I worried about finding it banal. It does have passages that made my eyes glaze over. What was interesting about looking at the story after all of these years is that certain notes—bits that could be highlighted with the “meaningful” marker—stood out to me in ways they hadn’t before. Aspects I thought would would come off two-dimensional weren’t as flimsy as I remembered, while the stuff I’d tagged to be the heart of the narrative didn’t ring out as well. I’ll probably need to construct a different tale altogether, capitalizing on those places I feel do succeed. I did find my characters more likable than I was expecting them to be. I think I can push them further now, taking them more deeply into their struggles, angst, and happier moments.

My next task is to go over the best draft and identify what I want to retain, as I also note where the story needs to go from this earlier incarnation. I’m still happy with the backdrop. I intend to keep 1980s Eugene alive, instead of moving the town forward and mirroring what it is today. This decision could put me at a disadvantage come time to sell the story, because experts in the children’s book industry – those delineating its various forms – tend to recommend that novels be set in a timeless place—or in a most up-to-date place, one with all the bells and whistles of modern technology, which apparently our kids can’t live without.

I don’t completely agree with this line of thinking. As a child of the sixties and early seventies, I enjoyed reading children’s books set in the fifties, not to mention decades prior to that. I wanted to know what my country was like before I showed up. But this is a discussion that must be shelved until I have something worth defending. Tearing up the old manuscript and building some new scaffolding is my first order of business, now that the new year is looming and there are a few more weeks of winter break and rain continues to saturate the Oregon Coast.