Toys was a terrible short story.
Sometimes in writing, you do it wrong. You tell a story from the wrong perspective or from the point of view of the wrong character; you let a minor character dither in the spotlight too long or allow a major character to cast such a shadow that it blots out everyone else; you stretch an idea too thinly over the pages of a book when a novella would have been sufficient; you compact an idea into a short story when it would have been a better book. My crime was the last one, and it was a felony offense.
The mitigating circumstances were that I was a young writer at the time, and I’d read publishing short stories in magazines was the way to launch a book career. So I wrote Toys to this end, about a girl of modest background desperate to make a noble marriage, and her prized family heirloom of necklaces filled with talismanic magic. Sick of living on the edge of high society, Ambress hopes to use these necklaces to break in and better her circumstances. But she falls in love with a family servant working in the stables instead, and a romantic tragedy ensues.
It was an impossible tale to cram into 5,000 words or less, but I did it. And I did it badly. It came at the expense of the characters and their world, dialogue and description. Instead of exploring this interesting land on foot, I’d soared overhead and missed all of its features. The characters were ciphers because there was not the space to get to know them. The kingdom was largely left to the reader’s imagination, because there wasn’t room for that either. The romance could only exist in hints underneath that bar of 5,000 words. When I finished the story, I did not recognize how miserable it had turned out to be. Naturally and rightfully, it was rejected for publication from a variety of places, and then it returned to molding in my computer for years.
Writers often have a graveyard of unsuccessful stories, ideas that just didn’t pan out between brain and page for whatever reason. In quiet moments, I walk through my personal graveyard and dissect why each idea died in order to learn from it. One middle-grade novel just bored me, and after getting three-quarters of the way through, I stopped caring. A young adult fantasy world died halfway through a seven-book series because the subject matter didn’t match the emotional tone. That one still bothers me, and now and then I dig it up and poke it with a stick to see if resurrection is possible. The demise of Toys stuck in my craw as well. The initial idea was good. So why hadn’t it worked?
When I dug up the story again at last, I flinched as I read. It was obvious that I’d bitten off far more than I could chew for a short story. At her sixth birthday when she receives the first of the magical necklaces, Ambress is in her late teens when it concludes with her putting on the last one with magic meant for her wedding night. I’d crammed too many years into too small a box, dressed up what should have been a novella as a short story, and I had no clue what I’d done with the original notes over the years. Opening a file, I started back at square one.
Well, I was wrong again. The story grew and grew, flying past that 5,000-word mark and then 15,000, shooting on by 25,000 and the 50,000 that is the upper limit for novellas. It careened on past 60,000 and 70,000, and finally docked at the 80K pier. That abominable short story was a much better book. Instead of reading like a catalogue of events stripped to bare essentials, it had become a fascinating world about a society obsessed with titles and heirs, love restricted to whom one could buy to provide it, and a girl who has to make an impossible decision where there is no right answer.
My personal graveyard of writing failure has been shorted a tombstone now with this entirely unintentional novel, and it is my pleasure to introduce Toys here.