Love in the Time of Trunk Stories

If you follow the field at all, every now and then you’ll hear disparaging remarks about something called a “trunk story.” An editor for a new magazine or anthology (or a new editor for an old magazine) will usually make it part of the submission guidelines: “Send me your best. I don’t want your trunk stories.” For the perhaps two of you at most who don’t know what that means, a trunk story is just one that hasn’t sold, and hasn’t sold in a persistent or dramatic fashion, to the point that the writer either loses confidence in it—if they ever had any—or simply, for want of another suitable market possibility, files it away. Sort of a “time out.” The “trunk” part was probably always metaphorical, unless one had enough manuscripts of that type that they required a physical trunk to contain them. Back in the days of paper subs, I found that a cardboard box worked just fine.

I have trunk stories. I don’t know very many writers who don’t. Granted, some of us have more, some less. Some very few. Others a lot. The number doesn’t matter, but anyone conscious enough to go through this process should understand and learn to value the trunk. And not just because these days you can slap a cover image of some sort on them and post them as ebooks on B&N and Amazon, and to hell with the stupid publishers who don’t recognize your innate genius. That’s not always a bad idea, but it usually is where the trunk is concerned. Its value is more along the lines of helping you grow as a writer.

That “time out” factor is very important if a trunk story is to do its job, which is often to teach you something you didn’t know.  Usually when you can’t see what the problems are in a story, the only thing that’s going to help is time. The story doesn’t change while it sits inactive, but with any luck at all you do. You’ve put more stories, more projects under your belt. You’ve read more, considered more. Every now and then you’re going to look at your trunk stories again, and you’re going to see them in a way that, at an earlier point in your development, you simply weren’t capable of doing. If you’re very lucky, that second look is going to be a revelation.

Granted, sometimes you’re not going to like what that revelation is. You’re going to wish you were double-jointed so you could kick yourself for sending it out in the first place. You come to understand that the story just doesn’t work on any level. Maybe you can salvage an image or two, a scrap of dialogue that suggests a completely different tack, likely a completely different story. Sometimes a complete rewrite is in order. Sometimes you re-read a story months or years later and realize that there isn’t a damn thing wrong with it. Maybe you just haven’t found the  right market yet. Maybe that market didn’t exist and still doesn’t. That happens, and it’s frustrating. Save the story for a collection or keep watching the markets. Sooner or later the situation is going to change. It always does, but only if you’ve managed to acquire patience as part of your toolkit. Which seems likely. Patience is usually the first lesson, and we all learn it or we’ve taken our marbles (assuming we still have them) and gone home.

And then there are the stories which remain stubborn. You still like the story but you know there’s still something wrong with it, but you’re not sure exactly what. Yes, maybe there’s a bit more tell than show there, but that approach made sense to you at the time and still does. Maybe…no. You can fiddle with it a bit. Maybe you do. And it still refuses to divulge its secrets. So it goes back in the trunk until the next time. And the next. And why the heck haven’t I figured this out yet?? Don’t I have more experience? Haven’t I written a lot more? Why don’t I get this one?

Because you’re not ready, and it takes as long as it takes. Simple as that.

I had one of those. Very recently, in fact. As in “this week” recent. A story I liked, but as I read it over I kept thinking, “If I was an editor, I wouldn’t buy this either. Why not?” There were some cool images. The conceit was there. Powerful, vivid. A lot of the significant action took place offstage, and wasn’t that a problem? After all, I’d made that same mistake with another story, “Palace of the Jade Lion,” and it required a full rewrite, beginning to end, so what about here? No, there was no good way to bring that action onstage, or at least not that I could see, so maybe it should go back in the files until I figure out a way—


You know that feeling, at once exhilarating and completely embarrassing, when you realize that, “Yes, Virginia, I am an idiot”? Like the answer to the riddle that’s so simple—once you know the answer, and I’m sure some of you are waaay ahead of me here. The problem with the story was that it wasn’t a story at all. It was a 5000 word outline for a novel. The story didn’t have a problem, I did.  I’m mostly a short fiction writer. It’s my first love, and the way my mind works most of the time. But every now and then I get a story, like The Long Look or To Break the Demon Gate or The Blood Red Scarf, that can only be told in long form. That’s what this was. I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking for it. But it was there, like Poe’s The Purloined Letter, hiding in plain sight, patiently waiting for me to wise up. It only took me six years.

So whenever you hear someone bad-mouthing “the trunk story,” just smile quietly to yourself, and be open to learning what it’s teaching. I do wish for you that you learn quicker than I often do. Patience is one thing, but none of us has all the time in the world.