“When the cursed entities called the Fury compel people in her hometown to commit escalating acts of violence, Kindred Walker must use power she never knew she had to stop them before her world burns.”
—The pitch for the first novel I ever queried, which also happened to be the first novel I ever wrote.
I’m trying to keep moving forward in my career instead of looking back. But sometimes curiosity gets the best of me.
I started this blog back in 2017 as I was preparing to query The Fire Before, a YA horror novel that was the very first novel I wrote. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2011. I spent subsequent years trying to beat that draft into something resembling a good book. I also penned two sequels in the next two NaNoWriMo years.*
The opening page of The Fire Before got me into Pitch Madness in early 2017; I was one of 70 writers selected out of over 1340 entrants, so apparently the first page didn’t suck. I got one partial request during the agent round of Pitch Madness but never heard back from them. I queried the novel with just about any agent or publisher that took YA horror. And I racked up lots of rejections. Most were form rejections, but some gave me a tad more feedback. Basically, by the time I started querying this novel, YA Chosen One narratives that were intended to be trilogies were stale as hell, and my poor book offered nothing new or innovative in that overdone genre.
That summer I decided to work on getting Blood Tide, my 2016 NaNo novel, into shape for submitting to Pitch Wars instead of submitting The Fire Before, as I had originally planned. And that was a very smart move. Blood Tide got me a Pitch Wars mentor and, after a title change to Tidepool and lots of revision, eventually became my Bram Stoker Award-nominated debut novel. I dropped The Fire Before and its two sequels like hot potatoes and never looked back.
Recently, though, I got curious about them. A question burned at the back of my mind: Were these books really that bad? Was any part of them salvageable? And so I dug up the old manuscripts and reread them last weekend.
The second and third books truly are That Bad, mostly because they didn’t go through the heavy revision process the first novel went through. I never sold the first book, so there was no reason to whip the next two into shape. (If I had sold the first book, there’s a good chance the publisher would have wanted me to change a lot about the next two books anyhow.) But even so, I enjoyed some of the twists and turns the narrative took. There is possibly the kernel of a better book somewhere in them.
How about The Fire Before? It’s…not great, but not as terrible as I feared. Mostly, it feels really dated. I think I was still heavily under the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while I wrote it. My teen characters fire off quips and smartass one-liners that would have gotten teenage me grounded as hell if I’d ever dared talk to an adult like that. Also, the main character and her friends are all about Harry Potter, and boy is that going to change if I ever do something with this.
I can also see the writing flaws that I’d hear about again and again when I started going to writing workshops and working with editors. People kept telling me things in the book weren’t scary enough but they couldn’t quite explain why, and I didn’t understand the problem. I was an “efficient” writer, used to writing short stories and unused to a form where I had far more room to play with descriptions and emotions that would heighten a reader’s experience.
And yeah, parts of the book are just plain cliched. The angry townspeople from past centuries speak just like every bunch of angry townspeople in every witch-hunter movie ever. That’s disappointing. I know I could do better than that now.
As for whether any part of the story is salvageable, that’s already happened. Two of the characters in my upcoming YA novel The Keeper of the Key—the main character and her best friend—were originally from The Fire Before. The Rachel in The Keeper of the Key has a very different life from the Rachel in The Fire Before (where she was a secondary character), but her best friend Elena didn’t change all that much.
Could I take other parts of the book that I enjoyed and rework them into something that doesn’t suck? Something more original? Something that doesn’t feel hopelessly dated? Maybe.
Mostly, it’s helpful to look back on all that and remind myself that I’ve actually come quite far in six years given I started in the beginning of 2017 with nothing—no pro fiction credits, no network, no reputation. And I like revisiting my old stories, even if nobody else probably would.
*I know some writers say you should never bother writing sequels to a novel unless and until you’ve sold the first one. I say phooey to that. Maybe my first three manuscripts are unsellable, but they were good and badly-needed practice for me, and I don’t consider this wasted time. I had to write a few bad novels before I finally learned to write some sellable ones. Your mileage, of course, may vary.