The other day I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast in which they interviewed Charlie Holmberg, who said she had finished nine novels before she sold one. That was mildly worrying, as I'm currently pitching The Thing in the Woods (got a full-manuscript request from an agent who's an AAR member ten minutes after querying, although he ultimately rejected it) and seriously considering indie-publishing Battle for the Wastelands in hopes of being like Marko Kloos (parleyed independent novel Terms of Enlistment into multiple-book deal with 47 North) or Chris Nuttall (successful independent writer). Both Battle and Thing are my first finished original novels. I'd rather not have to write between three and six more that never see the light of day--when I make something, I generally like the ideas, characters, etc. too much just to toss them.
There's a term for books that never escape the drawer--"trunk novels." I've got one writer friend who has a book (that to me sounded really cool) she was told was "fatally flawed" that's never going to see the light of day, plus a second finished novel that doesn't seem like it's going anywhere either. I've also heard the "my first, second, third, etc. novel didn't sell either" from a bunch of different writers.
It turns out I've got a fair number of those myself. The main difference being, however, that they're not actually finished.
Darkness in the North-This one I actually started writing in high school, with one of my friends really liking the prologue. It has some interesting concepts, including the idea of a revolutionary republic in a fantasy world (which the Powder Mage novels like A Promise of Blood get into) and how a coed military (of said republic) might function. I was outlining it and it turned into a rambling mess, but the prologue did eventually see the light of day as one of the stories in Flashing Steel, Flashing Fire. Other than that prologue, nothing from this is likely to see the light of day. 14,750 words.
Seventeen Sons-This one I remember writing in college (my college ministry had a writing group as part of its arts division) and bringing before my secular writing group at least in part some time after I graduated. It involves a half-demon who's getting hunted by a religious order despite not being a bad guy at all. After his girlfriend is killed by mistake, he wages a one-man counteroffensive, only to unintentionally help his evil father carry out his plans for invading the mortal realm. This in turn necessitates allying with his old enemies. Perhaps it'll get "reimagined," but in its current form isn't going anywhere. 22,964 words.
The American Principate-I'm generally a conservative, but there was a lot of stuff about the Bush Administration I came to dislike. Think the Patriot Act, the Transportation Security Agency, citizens getting interned without trial, etc, all to the applause of people who would have been outraged if Bill Clinton did it. A wise man named Randolph Bourne once said that, "War is the health of the State" and Founding Father James Madison said that if tyranny and oppression came to America, it would be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. And there's this questionable quote ostensibly from Julius Caesar.
So I decided to adapt the fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire to American circumstances, with a faux George W. Bush as Julius Caesar, an illegal war with Iran as the crossing of the Rubicon, faux Ron Paul as Brutus, and ultimately faux Dick Cheney (whom I dislike much, much more than Bush) as Caesar Augustus. Here's some more detail. The manuscript is full of early-2000s zeitgeist and even some flirtation with questionable economics--there's the implication that the war with Iran had to do with the country deciding to sell oil in Euros and the United States ends up a financial vassal of China. As such the window of opportunity to write it would have been in 2004-2006 or so. Too late now. 2,769 words.
Aaron Greymalkin-This is another high-school story--I remember telling some of my Quiz Bowl friends about it on a trip and one said they liked the character's name. It's set in an independent California after a comet strike destroys most of the United States and causes an impact winter that wrecks the rest of the world. Think the awesome novel Lucifer's Hammer. Notable for a nuclear-armed neo-Aztec cult being manipulated by the surviving U.S. military leadership in Colorado Springs and an independent Alaska trying to avoid resource vassalage to Japan. I'm thinking this would make a really good setting for an RPG. 2,727 words.
Blasted Lands Cycle-Another high-school project--I remember doodling about this rather than watching a Spanish translation of The Never-Ending Story as the first semester drew to a close around Christmas. This takes place in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and Putin's Russia...in which the latter deploys some kind of weapon that opens a gateway to the age of the dinosaurs. So you have various warlord types, Haitian settlers, a Russian warship that's still fighting the war, and dinosaurs. Another good RPG setting, but the actual novel isn't going anywhere. The last time I remember doing anything with this one was in 2006 when I visited Destin with my friend Nick and his buddies from Ohio. 7,561 words.
Gates of Vasharia-Up until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Ninth Legion was destroyed somewhere in Scotland fighting the Picts. I wondered, what if the Ninth Legion wasn't wiped out in battle, but ended up...somewhere else? And they weren't the only ones?
Enter the world of Vasharia, where the descendants of the Ninth Legion established a new Roman Empire that grew to encompass various other cultures (including my personal favorites, the Nestorian Christians--imagine a world where the Church of the East continued to thrive) and traded with other worlds through controlled wormholes. I started writing this one probably in 2004 and there are characters based on people I knew in high school and early college. Oh boy, that's a good way to get into trouble. :)
It's been so long since I touched this one that I'm thinking this one isn't going anywhere. That said, I had the idea of re-telling the story from the first-person point-of-view of Patrick Rassam, a Nestorian Syrian general who was cast into the dark spaces between the worlds (think Stephen King's todash darkness), only to return having made a Faustian deal with things living there. I'd call it I, Dark Lord, a title that would capture Rassam's dry wit.
I re-read the manuscript a year or so ago and found there are some pretty good character moments, so of all of the "trunk novels," this one might be the most salvageable. Of all of them, it's the one that's gotten the most attention from my writing group, which helped me work a lot of the bugs out, especially dealing with military stuff. 40,274 words.
However, although none of the above would count toward having a bunch of finished novels one writes before one sells the big one, I have finished novels that aren't going anywhere either. They certainly contribute to the whole "you have to write a million words before you're any good" maxim far more than the 91,000-odd words of those "trunk novels." They're called fan fiction. You can find my fanfiction.net profile here.
The Wrath of the Half-Blood Prince-My friend Jamie pointed out this one is actually longer than the first three or even four Harry Potter novels combined. It's actually 193,000 words. It's basically the entire First War if Snape had broken with the Death Eaters his fourth or fifth year--the divergence is at the same time as Snape and Lily's argument about his skinhead friends, some time before the "Mudblood Incident." If this was a book series, I imagine it could be a trilogy.
Lord of the Werewolves-This one I wrote with a pen-pal. It's 125,000 words. It's a "fix fic" intending to correct the underuse of Lupin and Tonks in Deathly Hallows. The first part of the story is basically Deathly Hallows from Lupin and Tonks' points-of-view and includes stuff we don't see, like their romantic relationship (a lot of people thought Tonks some kind of stalker, but the impression I had was that Lupin liked her too but was just too hung up on being a werewolf to act on it), wedding and honeymoon, and much of the Battle of Seven Potters. It diverges from canon during Bill and Fleur's wedding and gets really dark. Like, really, really, dark. Of all my fan-fiction, it's probably the best in terms of characterization. Heck, of all my fiction generally it ranks up there.
Revenge of the Fallen Reboot-I loved the first Michael Bay Transformers film, but was rather disappointed by the second. Good concept, but mediocre execution. So this is how I would have done it. There was some stuff suggested by the commercials (like a confrontation between female lead Mikaela Banes and Starscream) that never happened, but would have been really cool. Heck, the Bay universe botched Starscream's character massively, and that's just one of its sins. 58,476 words, about the length of a decent novel and not that much longer than Thing. I should probably write a TVTropes page--there's already Fix Fic, What The Hell Hero, and a bit of Your Approval Fills Me With Shame.
The Dragon and the Bear-There's very little actual narrative here. It's basically an alternate version of S.M. Stirling's Draka timeline where Russia defeats the Domination in World War II. In terms of sheer word count it would match a novel though--and I still haven't posted all of it on fanfiction.net. I'm self-banned from the forum until Christmas, so maybe I'll post the rest of it then. It's 46,000 words now, but there's a big chunk left to transfer. I kind of let it peter out a decade or two after the Final War between the Domination and the Alliance for Democracy, but I would bit it's around 60,000 words all total.
So of my "modern" fan-fic (i.e. stuff I wrote after college), that's around 436,000 words. I also wrote some Dark Angel fan-fic in high school that was basically how I would have done Season Two. Combined I think that's around 100,000 words--there were several 20K to 25K installments. There're also various dribs and drabs from short stories both unfinished and finished, my 2006 Battlestar Galactica short story "The Death of the Triton," the 600-odd posts on The World According to Quinn (if they average 800 words each that's 480,000 words), and the thoroughly massive amount of writing I've done for multiple newspapers in my seven-odd years as a full-time and part-time professional journalist.
(Not sure if the latter counts, since some members of my writing group have said writing like a journalist leads to a rather dry and overly-informative product. Good for newspapers, not good for novels.)
So I realized that I'm not necessarily all that different from those "I wrote ten books before I sold one" writers. Even if Battle for the Wastelands (92,000 words) is ultimately destined for the trunk too (God forbid, and I mean that), perhaps The Thing in the Woods (56,000 words) won't be, and neither will my secret third project I've obliquely referenced before (17,000 words presently) or my science fiction tale The Cybele Incident (20,000-odd words presently). :)