What’s the deal with trunk material?

Dean Wesley Smith has this great analogy of perishable produce that he uses to describe how traditional publishers view the products that we writers create. His point is that publishers believe there is a time stamp on books and after awhile they become stale and no longer marketable. This is a fascinating notion when you consider that so many of the best stories are those that were handed down through the generations—or retreads on William Shakespeare’s plot lines—which were probably retreads on Cicero’s or someone else’s. The point is, most authors that I know (moi, for instance) totally bought into the whole my-book-as-rotting-fruit concept. If you shopped your manuscript for longer than two years, you’d start to get rejections based on the belief that the book was now “trunk material” which, I believe, alludes to the likelihood that it has been molding in a trunk in the attic (kind of like “Confederacy of Dunces,”)  and so, of course, is not as good as something fresh and new. (Mind you, by the time publishers get around to editing and publishing your book, it seems to me even the freshest manuscript could then qualify as being trunk material by the agents and publishers’ own definition but perhaps that’s just the inherent irony of a complicated, confusing (IMHO) business and therefore completely lost to me.)

Anyhoo, laying to rest the notion of trunk material is another victory that must be claimed by the Indie Author. When I published the first mystery in my Provençal mystery series, this manuscript—which was at one point represented by John Grisham’s agent and thrown out for a bidding war among the Big Ten (at that time) and ultimately failed to find a home—was riddled with so many dated references that I despaired at ever having the time to tweak it into the modern age. (It is 140K words.) Not only did multiple plot points depend on my heroine using phone booths and doing things in an airport that today (post 911) would not be do-able, it was written in a heavily descriptive style that was more popular in the nineties than it is today, leaning more toward PD James and Elizabeth George-style exposition. But, in typical Indie style, I threw it up there anyway, priced it at a buck so nobody would be too pissed at having purchased a story written way back in the early nineties and directed my focus to my fresh stuff—written with NCIS precision and iPhones and texting galore.

I’m sure you can guess how the end of this little story goes. My ancient manuscript, dusted off from the bowels of the trunk it had been sleeping in for the last twenty years sells very well. It was always a good story—complete with dated marker comps and nary a mention of cellphones anywhere. When I read reviews on it, I always look to see if anyone mentions being distracted by how old this story is and so far no one has. They talk about the emotion of relating to the heroine, of the anger at the hero for failing to act quickly enough, of the sadness of the murder and of the pleasure of feeling like they had been transported to Paris.

Nobody even noticed it was trunk material.

I’d send this post to my ex-agent (one of many) to let him know that it all worked out in spite of his crap advice about the manuscript being “too old” (a year after I’d signed with him) but I’m sure even he’s figured out by now that the world has changed. If he’s still employed, hopefully he changed with it, (although not as a resource for authors, I trust.)

We not only have cellphones now, we writers also have a brand new dose of self respect that begins with making decisions based on what we know in our hearts to be true. And that is: a good story is a good story. And it’ll be a good story twenty, forty, a hundred years from now.

No matter what anyone tells you.

9 thoughts on “What’s the deal with trunk material?

  1. I agree with Monica – and good on you! It’s absolutely true; the best stories are timeless – and for good reason; they key into the fundamental nature of the human condition. That’s why we identify with Shakespeare (who nailed it, over and over again). All human societies over time and place reflect those truths, one way or another. And it is up to the author to tell that deeper story, and not succumb to the temptation to merely scoop some shades of grey out of the superficialities we see around us.

    • Love your last line and exactly right. It’s amazing how difficult it can be to trust yourself as an author, especially when your support system–who are often not writers themselves–is telling you conflicting information. I know most creative content is often subjective but are we writers all just insecure?

  2. Not to sound redundant in the face of the other comments, but yeah! I think the whole concept of longevity of published works is on the cusp of changing. Instead of launching with a bang and fizzling as advertising dollars run out, I think our work will start modestly and grow as people discover it. I love these changes!

  3. Yes, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a good story, is a good story. Fact is I’m willing to bet that more good stories are found in dusty attics, or our grandma’s old trunk than in most book stores. Go back three steps and no one can deny that the artwork on the cover helps, and sometimes flat out sells the book (I know because designing and illustrating covers for books and magazines is what I do for a living, got the awards to prove it) sure a better than average cover might talk some folks into buying your book, but only a compelling story will keep folks turning pages through the last paragraph, sentence, and word. Love old books, old authors, old movies, old theaters and the smell of old libraries, but give me good story to cuddle up with on a stormy night and magic happens.

  4. Pingback: How to make your story timeless – part 1 « M J Wright

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