“It is in the impartial practice of life, if anywhere, that the promise of perfection for the novelist’s art can be found, rather than in absurd formulas trying to prescribe this or that particular method or technique or conception. Let the novelist mature the strength of their imagination among the things of this earth.” ~ Joseph Conrad
I’m not really sure I know what all that means, except that maybe I shouldn’t be putting it at the top of a post that has absurd formulas and prescribes techniques and methods for dealing with failed books. Still, if I let the espresso do the talking, I have a sense that Mr. Conrad is saying something about creating fiction from life and not allowing ourselves to define failures by the strictures of others. And if not that, well, at least it reminds me of the shoddy sketch I made of Joseph Conrad in my notebook last year.
My failed books are a favorite pastime of mine. In fact, every 18 months or so I take it upon myself to make a private journal entry where I list all my past failed books and then set about tearing myself to pieces. It’s good fun and it’s probably something that sounds familiar to many of you.
In case you were worried about me going through the list right here, let me put your mind at ease. The list is my own private issue. However, I do have some criteria I’d like to share because not just any bit of scrawl makes it onto my list of failed books.
Criteria for a Failed Book
1. The written form of the book needs to be at least 10,000 words.
While I’m all for picking arbitrary boundaries as a means to defining success or failure, I actually have a reason for this number. (Shocking, yes, I know.)
Between 7,500 and 10,000, a bit of developing fiction might still have hope of becoming a story. Yet, once I get beyond the 10K mark I find that I just have too many threads going to hope for getting away from the tale. Clearly, if I can do what’s necessary to produce 10K, the thing is really gnawing at me.
2. A deep sense of dread about never being free of the story or fear about having a story too big for my talents.
Believe it or not, I’ve written stories I’ve completely forgotten about. Right now, I can open up the folder where I keep all my stories and find a wonderful trove of surprises. That’s what short stories tend to be for me. Little interludes. Intense interludes, mind you, but interludes nonetheless. I write them and then I pass on by.
Books are different. They usually start as stories (although I’ve had two that began with a full flash of the entire thing laid out end to end) and as I uncover the details and begin to allow the characters to take hold, they just keep expanding. I have no idea where all of this comes from, but this is how a story becomes a book in my eyes.
The sense of dread enters when I realize that I’ve got a big fish on the line. I see that I’ve blundered into something important, a bit of life that feels so real that I feel bad for the characters for having such a poor vessel as myself to bring their tale to light. Rather than butcher the thing, I bail. But it’s too late to bail. The proverbial big fish that got away is already at the surface and I’ll never forget it. This is one reason I can’t watch melodramas on television. Once I see what’s coming, I feel all nervous and I don’t want to see what happens next even though I know exactly what’s coming.
3. I have more notes than story.
I like to write out my thoughts about a story. It helps me work through the details. If you read these notes, it would be no different than sitting down across from me at the cafe and hearing me go on and on. The only difference is that the notes are actually cogent.
So when a book takes hold, I tend to work out about a thousand different angles. I write about the characters and the places. I write about potential plots, scenes, bit of poetry I’d like to work in, the grand themes. It all sounds great but of course these are just notes.
In my last post I mentioned the book called Revisions. The text of that book is about 70,000 words. The notes are well over 150,000. I have another fragment that is about 30,000 words but again the notes crack the century mark.
P.G. Wodehouse went about writing books in a similar fashion. He’s write about 150,000 words and then he’d get on with the tale. At least, this is what I read in his book on writing.
What to do about Failed Books?
It would be a little silly of me to talk about the right course of action for dealing with failed books. After all, I have half a dozen that fit the criteria above along with two others that are actually “complete” and yet have not been published. Still, here are a few things I know:
1. Understand that your book isn’t as bad as you think it is.
Truly, it isn’t.
This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a bad book, but I seriously doubt that it’s so bad that a mob of literati are going to appear on your doorstep and demand that you give up your typewriter so that they can destroy it in the town square. No, I assure you that your book isn’t that bad.
If you keep thinking your book is bad, you will abandon it just like I have done with each and every one of mine. Your book will sit in your drawer unfinished, just like all of mine. And if that doesn’t sound like the enough fun, you will find yourself haunted by those books for the rest of your life (or at least for a brief period every 18 months like me).
2. Get a second opinion.
Who reads your books? Your mom, your spouse, your best friends?
You need to get a second opinion from another writer, preferably one who has actually published a book or two or ten. While finding that person may not be the easiest task, it isn’t climbing Mount Everest either, unless the people you seek are wildly popular or dead writers of immortal literary stature.
Right now I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I like what I’m reading but Mr. Stegner is not available to give me a second opinion on my books. Mr. Stegner is dead and has been for a long time. Another option is Philip Roth, but for some reason he isn’t returning my phone calls.
3. Get over yourself or at least get out of the way.
A friend over on LiveJournal put up a link to my last post and then went on to talk about her problems (which are different than mine). She talked about getting over herself so that she could move on with writing what needed to be written. I like that idea though I usually see it as getting out of my own way.
I’ve talked about both angles many times here and if you reread that section about making more notes than fiction above you’ll see that I tend to get in my own way quite a bit. I figure that I won’t ever get away from making notes about my work, but what I can do is realize that I’m only hurting my chances of finishing the book if I stay in that world too long. That outcome has to become unacceptable – I have to get out of my own way.
In keeping with my new habit of sharing actual writing, I’ve attached a chapter from a book called Syntax. (I know, I know…. What’s with these one word titles?)
Syntax is a book based roughly (and I mean very roughly) on the time I spent in Switzerland some years ago. I actually started writing this book before I took up the character of Burt Thompson in Revisions. I ended up bailing from Syntax for the reasons stated in #2 above: I saw the whole story in front of me and I became afraid of writing it.
The book meets the minimum requirements as defined above. I have about 20K words along with 80 or 90K of notes. And of course, I’ve never forgotten the story. In fact, I recently wrote out 15 long hand pages about the story.
The chapter is about 20 pages (~5900 words), and this time I’ve even figured out how to spell “chapter” correctly in the filename. Hooray for me!
10 thoughts on “Moving on from Failed Books”
I find your honesty entirely refreshing. I’m afraid that all I am doing now is accumulating failed books.
Writer Dad´s last blog post..Hi, My Name is Sean (Not Seen).
@Writer Dad From your latest post, it seems like you’re about to move into knocking out a successful book. Knowing what you need to do (or write) is the first step, you’ve already taken the second – which is putting yourself on the path to doing it. I did the same thing when I wrote Revisions. I left a job that wasn’t working for me or my family and I actually wrote a book. The only problem is that I didn’t follow-up with the third step, which is to put it out there.
Thanks for the kind words, Sean. Keep plugging away!!!
This giving us single chapters of your “failed” books seems part confession, part exorcism, and certainly much more constructive than listing in a journal for the sole purpose of beating yourself up? More constructive for you – and for other writers, too, I suspect. Please do continue! Moving on from a failed book, from a destructive relationship, from a pleasure that’s become mere habit or a habit that’s become a roadblock: all good, but difficult journeys. It’s interesting to watch where you go.
rjleaman´s last blog post..Smells Like Comfort
@Rebecca Thanks! It’s definitely constructive for me. I hope other writers take heart from my process.
I’ve enjoyed going back over this old stuff and even having the occasional thought that it isn’t quite as bad as I thought it was. Maybe this is a good strategy: write it, put it in a drawer for 5 years, take it out and submit it. 🙂
Jamie, I am looking forward to reading this chapter. As I read I thought, “Dude, whoa you wrote 10,000 words! Like more than once!” (So shoot me I’m from CA and when impressed or excited I sound like a surfer). You do have talent Jamie, and I hope that sharing here is only the first step to you being published. Dude, you wrote a book!
Karen Swim´s last blog post..Mid-Week Musings
@Karen (and everyone else) I just want to say thanks. I hear from lurking writers via email from time to time. Many have novels of their own hidden in drawers and such and they tell me that they take heart from the kind comments on this site. I hope you don’t mind if I share the love with everyone else. 🙂
P.S. Karen, you should sooo do a surfer video for your site! It would be totally sweet!
Jamie, a surfer video could work. The world seems in need of comic relief. 🙂 Dude, you wrote a book!
Karen Swim´s last blog post..Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain
@Karen Ain’t it the truth!
By the way, I hear someone is posting about Mahalia Jackson on your blog. Here’s one of my fav’s in an upbeat style. 🙂
I’m glad you explained the shoddy sketch of Conrad because I first thought it was Lenin. Really I’ve got to get out more.
And to think I only have about two more days of clean up from the wind storms. Maybe I can work it into this year’s NaNovel. Last year’s is still hiding in an ugly green binder next to my right foot. I actually don’t know that as a whole I would try to do anything with it; I have considered recrafting the chapters into short stories. Who knows. I do not plan on any other eyes reading the whole thing in its current incarnation. But I do not consider it a failed book; quite the contrary I consider the whole enterprise most successful because it forced me out of my comfort zone professionally, creatively, and socially.
btw – As an aside, I am intrigued that you are reading Stegner. One of his novels was highly recommended by a very qualified reader and recommender I know online but some things drove me crazy. He would have a wonderful section of descriptive writing and then it would be like he jumped down a rabbit hole. But the thing that absolutely drove me to the breaking point was his character naming. I could not unify most of the characters’ thoughts and actions with their names, they didn’t go together. I probably sound like a Lit snob but I felt like I was fighting with the text and for literature that is not a fun way to spend an evening.
Deb´s last blog post..The NaNos are coming!
@Deb No, you’d know my Lenin because it looks like Leno. 🙂
For a long time I thought about taking my first book and reworking the chapters into short stories. It was a very disjointed series of events so that probably would have worked. That said, I decided not to do it because I wanted to move on to new material. I wanted to take what I’d learned an apply it to fresh work.
I suppose that’s the most obvious sign of a failed book: you stop working on it. I hope you keep after yours.
On Stegner, I am reading On Teaching an Writing Fiction, but I do plan to read a few of his books as well since that’s really the best way to learn more abut writing. Reading writing books (at least for me) just tends to be a rah-rah sort of thing. I can’t really say I’ve ever learned anything new, just found new encouragement to push forward in my own work.
P.S. Don’t worry about sounding like a Lit Snob. I think you’re in good company on this site. 😉
P.P.S. I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year too! You should buddy me! http://tinyurl.com/hntw-nano