Perils of the Writer: The Importance of the Trunk Novel, and Recognizing it for What It Is.

I know a lot of people, if the reviews on Amazon are to be taken as a valuable sample, found David Eddings’s The Rivan Codex a waste of time, but for me it was a vital and rare look under the hood of a writer’s process.  One thing he said stands out:

“Write one million words.  Then throw it away.  Now you’re ready to start actually writing.”*

That one million words, almost without fail, boils down to a trunk novel or two. Or more.  So what is a trunk novel?

It’s a novel you write that’s never going to see the light of day.

This isn’t an easy thing to do.  Writing a novel is a heart-and-soul exercise.  No one writes a novel with the intention of sticking it in a drawer and not selling it.  Why would anyone do that?

Of course, you never write a trunk novel as a trunk novel.  When I wrote Fifty Year War, I had every intention, every belief that this was going to be the real dealWhich it wasn’t.  And then when I wrote Crown of Druthal— spend YEARS on Crown, to be honest– THEN I really thought THAT was going to be it.

Both works were messes in their own way, and it took me a while to see that.  But at what point do you say, “You know, this isn’t working, this isn’t going to work, and I need to move on.”

When do you decide that you aren’t going to fight the good fight anymore, because that fight isn’t the “good fight”?

For me, it was the realization that I wasn’t really writing a proper novel.  Both were, essentially, worldbulding exercises in novel-like form (history and travelogue, respectively).  They weren’t stories at all, so much as excuses for me to say, “This is the world I made, let me share it with you.”

Once I realized that these works were inherently unpublishable, that they were fatally flawed at the core… I knew it was time to put them in the trunk.  I’m glad I wrote them, I don’t consider the time invested in that as “wasted”.  But it is work that isn’t going anywhere besides my archives.  And that’s really a good thing.  For everyone.

*- This is not an exact quote because my copy is high up on one of my shelves and I’m lazy.


  1. I’ve always taken that quote/aphorism to be purely metaphorical. I would never insist on making a young writer throw out 1m words, some of it might have promise.

    Point is, people all take different a amount of time to realise what is trunk-worthy about their skills as a writer. For some it might be 1m words, but for others (most?) I’d bet it’s close 200k.

    I totally agree with you. It’s important for an amatuer writer to realise what is unpublishable before they make some stupid mistake.

    Then they can get on with the real writing.

  2. Well, the million words is more of a guideline than a hard rule. But, it’s more a matter of recognizing that writing is a skill that needs honing, like any other skill, before it can be fully applied.

  3. I did one of them, although I never intended to. I think if anyone thought that they would have to write a novel and bin it, before really starting then there would be far fewer writers in the world.
    It is incredibly good to get rid of all the junk in your head though. When I wrote ‘The gift of Chaos’, it was going to be the best thing ever written. Comparing it to what I am about to publish is like night and day. Sure, I used some ideas and themes for my new book, but oh so much trash has been scoured from my brain.
    So, maybe there are a gifted few out there who can write well from day one; I was not one of them.

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