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How do you know when a novel isn’t working?

Genuine question here guys. How do you know when a novel you’re writing just isn’t working and, relatedly, how do you know whether it’s time to give up entirely?

Let me back up a second.

You may remember a few weeks ago I finally (finally!) finished writing a novel from beginning to end and got it to a state where it’s fit to be seen by other humans. About two weeks ago I sent that manuscript off to a few beta readers for feedback and I figured, while I was waiting, I might as well start working on something else. The only question was…what should I focus on? Should I reach for the shiny new idea (of which I have several percolating away in the back of my brain) or should I return to a previously abandoned novel attempt and try to see that through to the finish line.

I chose the latter option.

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I have two abandoned novels that, for one reason or another, I never got around to finishing (long story short, a combo of being a longtime Discovery Writer or “Pantser”, a severe lack of confidence, and increasingly busy full-time jobs worked together to create the perfect creative storm).

One novel was a YA portal fantasy that I thought I had abandoned at the halfway mark but turns out I just wrote and rewrote the same six chapters over and over again trying out different scenarios (again, the plague of not outlining anything for years).

The other was an adult urban fantasy novel that I actually got pretty far with before running out of steam. I took a look at the most recent draft, which I had optimistically titled Draft 2 for some reason (I don’t know why, both Draft 1 and Draft 2 are almost exactly the same and neither of them was complete) and found I had 48,000 words with 17 chapters fully written, two chapters half-written, and six chapters with a couple of bullet points in each. I knew how the story would begin and how it would end and I had somehow meandered my way over the years to a manuscript that was 3/4 of the way done. Seems like a no-brainer which project I should work on, right?

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Yeah, I think it was a bad idea and here’s why:

I decided my first course of action should be to transfer everything over from Google Docs to Scrivener (my current writing tool of choice). Once that was done, I started to read through everything to understand a) what I actually had, b) where the gaps were, and c) what I would have to do to make a minimal viable draft—i.e. a draft that I could work with and improve. At first, I was pretty optimistic. I like my opening chapters a lot. I think the dialogue is pretty strong and I really do love my main characters—they’ve lived in my head for seven years now, how could I not?

But therein lies the problem. The roots of this story are seven years old. Seven. That means, when I started writing this book, I was 24-years-old. I’m 31 now and a LOT has happened over the years to make me a very different person. I still love a lot about the characters and the world I created, but looking over the draft now, I’m just not sure it’s really working.

The more I read, the more it feels like a book written by someone else—after about three or four chapters it just doesn’t sound like me anymore. Well, actually it sounds like me trying my best to write like someone else (an unholy mashup of Jim Butcher and Neil Gaiman). So there’s my first problem—the voice of the book is all wrong.

By chapter seven, I realized I was mixing third-person limited and third-person omniscient perspectives in the same scenes. That my friends…is not good. Over the last almost-a-decade I’ve learned so much about the technical aspects of writing and I recognize how amateurish it reads to me now. To be honest, the whole book has massive structural issues that would require an extensive rewrite to make work. So that’s my second problem.

My third problem is that it’s obvious I had no idea as to where I wanted the story to be set because I never committed one way or another. I jump back and forth between setting the book in Toronto and setting it in a fictionalized, unnamed city. There are pros and cons to both approaches and even now I’m still not sure which would work best for this story.

There are a whole host of other problems with this book that I won’t get into right now but essentially boil down to this: if I go ahead and try to finish the draft of the book in its current state it will be bad and I would only be doing it for the sake of being able to say that I finished the damn thing.

Now, an argument could be made that this isn’t a bad goal in and of itself. It’s good to finish things because you learn something from the process of seeing something through to the end. It’s just so hard to make myself finish this when, in its current form, it’s a story I no longer believe in.

There are kernels that I could salvage (the premise, the characters, a few scenes here and there) but in order for this book to work, I honestly believe I would have to go back to the drawing board and outline the whole thing from scratch. Truth be told, I don’t know if I can do it right now.

Seven years is a long time and maybe any affection I hold for this story is simply a product of familiarity—like a friendship I’ve outgrown or a job I should have left years ago. Maybe it’s time to shelve the novel for good and finally move on to something else. It’s just so hard to let go.

I don’t have a good way to wrap this blog post up because, honestly, I don’t really have an answer for what I should do next. So I suppose I’ll end with a question—have you ever abandoned a novel? If so, why?

 

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3 Underrated Books on Writing You Should Check Out

If you do a Google search for the best books on writing you’ll see the same titles pop up time and again—The Anatomy of Story, On Writing, Save the Cat! etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these books are essential reads for a reason, but today I want to share with you a few books on the craft of writing that may have flown under your radar.

Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, Chuck Wendig

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Hook Your Audience with Unforgettable Storytelling!

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common?

Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling. In Damn Fine Story, you’ll explore:

  • Freytag’s Pyramid for visualizing story structure–and when to break away from traditional storytelling forms
  • Character relationships and interactions as the basis of every strong plot—no matter the form or genre
  • Rising and falling tension that pulls the audience through to the climax and conclusion of the story
  • Developing themes as a way to craft characters with depth

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, comic, or even if you just like to tell stories to your friends and family over dinner, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.

If you’re an aspiring author and don’t know Chuck Wendig you’re doing something wrong. His blog terribleminds.com is a treasure trove of tips and tricks for aspiring authors and as well as writing a whole bunch of novels and comic books, he’s also found the time to publish several books on the craft of writing as well.

In Damn Fine Story, Wendig mixes personal anecdotes with tangible examples from some of the world’s best-known stories to explain the elements of storytelling and, most importantly, why these elements work.

It’s funny and irreverent and honestly, I got so much out of it! It really helped me think about the mechanisms of story and how I can apply them to my own work.

Fair warning, Wendig swears A LOT (and very creatively might I add) so if you’re the kind of person who gets offended by that sort of thing this one might not be for you.

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, Rachel Aaron

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“Have you ever wanted to double your daily word counts? Do you sometimes feel like you’re crawling through your story? Do you want to write more every day without increasing the time you spend writing or sacrificing quality? It’s not impossible; it’s not even that hard. This is the book explaining how, with a few simple changes, I boosted my daily writing from 2000 words to over 10k a day, and how you can, too.”

Expanding on her highly successful system for doubling daily word counts, this book offers practical writing advice for anyone who’s ever longed to increase their daily writing output. In addition to updated information for Rachel’s popular 2k to 10k writing efficiency process, 5 step plotting method, and easy editing tips, this book includes all new chapters on creating characters who write their own stories, plot structure, and learning to love your daily writing. Full of easy to follow, practical advice from a professional author who doesn’t eat if she doesn’t produce good books on a regular basis, 2k to 10k focuses not just on writing faster, but writing better, and having more fun while you do it.

Rachel Aaron (who also writes as Rachel Bach) is an absolute powerhouse. She’s a hybrid author who has been both traditionally published and who’s recently taken to self-publishing. It’s safe to say she knows her stuff.

Her book on writing efficiency, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love is a little different from most writing books because there’s a strong focus on the act of actually getting the words on the page as quickly as possible.

The first section breaks down the method she used to maximize her writing output and take herself from writing 2,000 words per day to over 10,000. She explains everything so well and gives real, concrete advice on how to implement her method to increase your own output.

The second section includes more traditional advice on plotting, writing memorable characters, and editing your own work.

No matter what stage of novel-writing you’re at, this book has something for you. And honestly, the eBook costs about as much as a cup of coffee so it’s an absolute steal. Highly recommend this one.

On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I, Timothy Hickson

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Writing advice tends to be full of ‘rules’ and ‘tips’ which are either too broad to be helpful or outright wrong. In On Writing and Worldbuilding, we will discuss specific and applicable ideas to consider, from effective methods of delivering exposition and foreshadowing, to how communication, commerce, and control play into the fall of an empire.

ON WRITING
Part I: Prologues
Part II: The First Chapter
Part III: The Exposition Problem
Part IV: Foreshadowing
Part V: Villain Motivation
Part VI: Hero-Villain Relationships
Part VII: Final Battles
Part VIII: The Chosen One
Part IX: Hard Magic Systems
Part X: Soft Magic Systems
Part XI: Magic Systems and Storytelling

ON WORLDBUILDING
Part XII: Polytheistic Religions
Part XIII: Hidden Magical Worlds
Part XIV: How Empires Rise
Part XV: How Empires Work
Part XVI: How Empires Fall

EXCLUSIVE CONTENT
Part XVII: How I Plan a Novel
Dozens of sidenotes and extra thoughts on all these wonderful stories

My last recommendation for today is the newest release of the bunch, YouTuber Timothy Hickson’s On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume I.

Hickson’s YouTube channel, Hello Future Me, is a fantastic resource for writers—particularly those of us who write fantasy and science fiction—and this book is basically an updated collection of Hickson’s video scripts along with some new material.

What I really appreciate about Hickson’s work is that he avoids using absolutes where possible—there’s no “you should/shouldn’t do this” to be found here. Instead, he lays out some best practices for everything from writing prologues to creating a fantasy religion and, like Wendig, he explains how and why they work.

He pulls from dozens of well-known novels and movies to illustrate his point and turn potentially abstract concepts into concrete and easy-to-grasp examples.

At $5 or so for the eBook, it’s another absolute bargain for any writer.

*****

There you have it, three of my favourite underrated writing books! I’m always on the look-out for great new writing resources. What are some of your favourites?