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.
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?
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?
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
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
“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.
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
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.
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
Part XII: Polytheistic Religions
Part XIII: Hidden Magical Worlds
Part XIV: How Empires Rise
Part XV: How Empires Work
Part XVI: How Empires Fall
Part XVII: How I Plan a Novel
Dozens of sidenotes and extra thoughts on all these wonderful stories
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?
Ok, confession. The title above is slightly misleading. When I say I managed to write a book I don’t mean that I am publishing said book or that it’s in any state to be read by other humans. I mean that, after years and years of trying and several failed attempts, for the first time in my life I have a completed draft of a book that contains a definite beginning, middle, and end. Quality notwithstanding, if someone stumbled upon it tomorrow they would recognize it as being recognizably book-shaped. That might not sound like much but for me, it’s a huge accomplishment.
My problems started early
Like basically every aspiring author who ever lived, I started writing from an early age, typing up stories “inspired by” (read: plagiarized from) my favourite books on my mother’s typewriter. I would fold them up, and place them in sealed envelopes that I would never again read but would instead destroy several months later in a fit of artistic despair (I particularly regret destroying a series of Babysitter Club fan-fics I wrote when I was 10).
When I was 11 or 12, I managed to write a “novel” (I say novel, but it was probably 12 typewritten pages long). I was reading a lot of WWII stories (think Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier) so naturally what resulted was a very melodramatic story called War of the Heart about a Nazi fighter pilot who got lost in a storm and crashed into a field in Ireland and was later discovered by a 12 year old girl. That novel was another casualty of my need to destroy everything I ever created so I no longer have a copy but I’m pretty sure it was resolved by the girl telling her parents and the fighter pilot being sent to prison. A thrilling tale indeed.
This pattern of creation and destruction continued until my early 20s when I decided that I was going to take writing seriously for once and finally write a damn novel. I had not one, but two English degrees under my belt and a whole bucketful of ideas. Surely it would be a breeze.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
When you can’t even finish the first draft
I want to jump into the stuff that might actually be helpful so I’m going to make a long story short. I didn’t finish a novel in my 20s and I truly believe that the reason it took me 10+ years to finally do it comes down to two simple things—crippling self-doubt and a need to make everything perfect.
It worked like this: I would get an idea for a book and cheerfully start writing it. I would hit maybe 15-20,000 words when suddenly, I would realize how far I have to go—probably 50-70,000 more words. That’s a lot of writing. I would be hit by a crushing wave of despair and doubt. Did I have it in me to write that much? Was the idea good enough to sustain interest for that long?
I would then go back and reread what I’d written, tweaking a few words here and there (“I’ll just work on this chapter a bit more”) until eventually, I got caught in a cycle of reworking the same chapters over and over, never moving on and never satisfied with what was on the page.
I think that we can all agree that this is not the most effective way to write a book.
The worst part is that I’m actually an editor too. I’ve coached several people through early drafts of their work and whenever they got stuck I would always give the same advice: keep going, you can’t fix a blank page.
Sick and tired of being a hypocrite, I decided to finally heed my own advice.
Step 1: Drafting
You’ve probably all heard that there are two types of writers—plotters and pantsers. According to The Write Practice:
Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. Some people, like me, call themselves “plantsers,” which means they’re in a little of both.
As you might have guessed, for years I was a pantser. I would think of an idea, open a Word or Google doc and simply…go.
Typically, I knew what the start of the story was and roughly where I wanted to end, but the middle? That was a mystery to be unveiled as I went along.
This method worked for me…until it didn’t. As I said above, I would invariably hit the 1/4 mark of a novel and realize that it had completely fallen off the rails and I had no idea how to course-correct.
I knew I needed a guide, but chafed at the idea of a strict outline—I still liked learning about my world and my characters as I went. In the end, I decided to find a happy medium and try the plantsing approach. Here’s what I did:
I knew I wanted to write a scary story for children like the books I devoured as a youngster so I spent some time with a good old-fashioned pen and paper brainstorming some ideas. The premise came to me pretty quickly. In fact, here’s the original “pitch” I wrote (it’s changed quite a bit since then but this will give you a rough idea of what it’s about):
It’s almost Samhain and the walls between worlds grow thin. That means one thing – the trooping fairies have come to town. All the children of Clonbridge know three things: If you hear the music of the sídhe, block your ears, if you hear a scratching at your window, do not look out, and once the sun has dipped below the horizon, do not go outside. Cat knows this better than most—she has inherited her grandmother’s gift of the sight—but when her baby brother is stolen away she knows she only has one chance to save him because, when dawn breaks on November 1st, he’ll be lost forever.
From there, I started to ask myself questions:
How did I want the story to start?
How did I want it to end?
How would Cat’s brother be stolen away (i.e. what was the inciting incident)?
Why does she go after him alone?
What are some obstacles she might encounter along the way?
Once I had answers to these questions, I began to list out all the major events and things that need to happen (e.g. how Cat discovers her brother has been swapped for a changeling) and all of the important information a reader needs to know (e.g. that Cat’s mother is a single, working mother and her granny takes care of her most of the time). When I was relatively sure I had a comprehensive list, I began to order them into scenes and chapters.
I now had a roadmap that I could consult. It still had plenty of gaps to allow for random creative flourishes and bouts of inspiration but it gave me a direction to work towards.
Step 2: The Vomit Draft
With a plan in place, I set about writing my very first draft. For this, I employed the vomit-draft (sometimes called the zero-draft) approach.
What is a “vomit draft” you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You sort of…vomit out words. The idea here is to just get the story down on the page. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.
As I said above, you can’t edit a blank page and, for me, having something—anything— to work with is far easier than getting the story out of my brain in the first place.
The key to making this work is to not look back over what you’ve written until the draft is complete. Seriously, don’t do it. The minute you look at the word-soup you’ve created your inner-editor will rear her ugly head and want to start tinkering (“I’ll just fix up this one little bit…”). You must silence this voice by any means necessary.
I managed to quell my inner-editor in two ways:
I gave myself a deadline: last year I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. Knowing I only had 30 days to write 50,000 words was extremely motivating for me. I really, really wanted to win and managed to bust out some epic wordcount days near the end.
I summarized what I had just written: at the end of each writing session, I would summarize everything that just happened in my story. This way I could quickly remind myself of what I had already written without having to read back over the draft itself.
Step 3: Making it all make sense
I won’t lie, this step was daunting. Once the vomit-draft was finished I had a big pile of something that wasn’t quite a draft and wasn’t quite an outline but something mushy and in-between.
The first thing I did was pour myself a cup of tea (read: a glass of wine) and read through my summary, not my actual draft (it was too awful and I knew I would be disheartened). While I was happy with the story in general, I realized that I needed to add a few new scenes to up the tension and make some character changes. I also identified a few plot holes that needed filling in.
Then, I reworked my vomit-draft summary into an expanded and improved outline.
Now I knew with more certainty where I was going, I opened a new Scrivener file (more on my thoughts on Scrivener at a later date) and began work on my second draft.
For me, the key to getting through this draft was to take things one step at a time. I didn’t copy and paste everything over at once. Instead, I copied over one chapter at a time and worked through that, rewriting and tweaking as necessary. As I worked through the second draft and the story began to take on a more recognizable shape, I realized that there were other narrative and structural issues I needed to address. Instead of going back and fixing them in this draft, I decided to make note of them for next time—I had enough work to do adding in whole new scenes and creating brand new characters and I knew that if I went back at this point I would fall back into the endless self-editing loop.
By the end of the second draft I had two things: 1) a proper draft to work with and 2) a list of changes for next time.
Step 4: Polish, polish, polish
Now we reach the messy step. It’s the step I’m in now, the one that technically has no real end in sight.
I’ve written a third draft, using pretty much the same technique as I did for the second draft (one chapter at a time, rewrite/delete/write new scenes, make notes for next time). The difference is that now I feel like I have a really solid base to work from. I decided that for my next round of edits, I need to switch it up a little and make notes by hand. So, for the first time since I was 12 years old, I printed out a full copy of my novel.
And that’s where I’m at now! The plan is to read through the novel, handwrite some notes, and prepare for draft 4.
That’s the question isn’t it? How do you know when it’s time to let go and let other people read and critique your work?
To be honest, I haven’t fully figured it out yet. I suspect that, for me, it’ll be after draft 5 (which will hopefully be more of a copy edit than a full revision), but that’s the sort of thing that every writer has to figure out for themselves. I’ll let you know when I get there.
So there you have it, how I finally pushed past the first draft and actually wrote a (workable draft of a) novel.
I hope this was helpful for some of you who might be struggling through the same kind of thing. Please keep in mind though that there is no right way to write a book. This was just the method that happened to work for me this one time.
If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this giant ramble it’s this—don’t be afraid to switch it up. If your method isn’t working for you then try something new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good, it just has to be finished. Revising brings its own difficulties but if you have the raw material to work with you can always make something better.
Are you working on a novel? How did you push through your first draft? I’d love to hear from you!