Alright, let’s talk about something that no one like to talk about: The novel that didn’t work.
I have some of those novels, as I’m sure you do. Every writer has a book that didn’t land an agent or didn’t sell or whatever. And in a lot of ways these novels, tucked deep into a drawer or trunk or damp dirty corner of your hard drive, can feel like failure.
Because a novel without a home is a failure, right?
And here’s why:
The novel that didn’t land you an agent, the novel that didn’t sell, is a lot like a game that is lost. It’s just one game. It’s not the end of the world. And sure, some sports teams can accumulate a losing season (meaning they’ve lost more games that season than they’ve won). It happens. But the team doesn’t pack up shop and go out of business when they have a losing season. The team keeps moving forward.
And so should the writer. One novel in the drawer does not a failure make. Ten novels in the drawer does not a failure make.
It’s hard to look back at the novel in the drawer and think about it as valuable but there is value in it.
I was recently reminded of this when I picked up my first novel for a re-read. Here are the 5 things my trunk novel taught me.
1. In my first novel I was huge on telling – I used to get this feedback all the time: “you’re telling not showing, show more”. But of course, that feedback alone doesn’t help me. It’s like saying to a newborn baby “you’re not using your lungs. Try using your lungs more.” Well, the baby’s not going to know what any of that means. I later had my showing vs telling ah ha moment, but that moment came after I had shelved my first novel. So, during the re-read I was blown away by how simple my telling was. Some of it was easy stuff like calling emotions by their name instead of showing the physical manifestation of the emotion. I had a lot of “Sarah was shocked. Tom was sad.” Etc. etc. I had to laugh. The value in this first novel could be summed up in one line: I saw the telling. I recognized it immediately. Which means I’ve grown a lot as a writer since then and as all writers know, growth is good. Growth is valuable.
2. My MC lacked agency – Character agency is a huge required element in strong storytelling. Not sure what agency is? Check out this post by the brilliant Chuck Wendig: Just What the Humping Heck is "Character Agency," Anyway? Go ahead and read it, I can wait. *taps foot* Without agency characters have the story happen to them – not because of them. That’s it, that's lack of agency. I enjoy stories more when the characters make choices that change the world around them. When the choices impacting a character are made by other people it’s less cool. Sure, there is the odd betrayal and what not, but ultimately, the MC needs to be the wave and the conflict needs to be the shore. Well, in my trunk novel during the climax the MC is completely reactive. In fact, her friends save the day and she does nothing (embarrassing, right?). When I wrote the story I thought the betrayal and friend intervention were great elements. But during the re-read I kept asking myself “Why isn’t my MC kicking more @s$? Why isn’t she doing something?” Now, this book was supposed to be the first in a series and I had plans for my MC to grow and have more agency in each book – which is fab. But she needed more agency in book 1. The book can’t happen to her. I need her to force the issue (because I personally enjoy that more). What was eye opening for me was that I recognized this problem right away. I got to the climax of the book and this fatal flaw in my storytelling practically slapped me in the face. Lesson learned.
3. Plotting is the bomb – When I drafted that first novel I basically let the story ramble out of me. I was the queen of word vomit. I didn’t outline and I certainly didn’t plot. I was a true pantser back then and the story shows it. Now, that’s not to say you can’t be successful as a pantser. A lot of authors do it and rock it. I’m not one of them. In my re-read I got to chapter four and spotted a plot hole. I remember a CP once giving me the feedback that elements in my story were not plausible. And at that time I understood that to mean elements/actions within my story were not properly supported by previous information or action. Which is a fixable issue. However, what’s much harder to fix are glaring openings in your plot that are just that way because – why-the-f-not-I’m-story-god. Those why-the-f-not moments don’t read as fun and cool. No, to the reader those moments are implausible. My re-read illuminated this fact for me. Plotting isn’t easy. It’s hard hard work. But plotting allows us to build a story that is plausible. And readers want believability.
4. The rule of 3 is key – What’s the rule of three you ask? Well, the rule of three is an idea that you only need to describe three things at any given time. That your character is really only capable of absorbing three things and the same is true for the reader. My first novel, may it rest in peace, is rife with over-description. And at the time I thought it made my prose pop. But when I re-read it I was blown away with how clunky it felt. My storytelling voice has evolved into a shorter, sharper, direct voice. My characters no longer seem to amble through a room remarking on every trinket and doo dad they see. I did not abide by the rule of 3 when drafting the first novel and it’s painfully obvious now. So now, I can happily say, the dude abides (the dude, in this case, being me).
5. There is no replacement for good self-editing – when I drafted that first novel I entered it in every contest I could. I got a lot of critiques from other writers but I also got critiques from editors. I won a crit of my first 25 pages from a Harper Teen editor I admired. I also hired a freelance editor to do a full edit (big picture and tight grammatical stuff) of my entire 98,000 word novel. Both professional editors offered great feedback and I incorporated their changes. But even after all that editing there were still problems. Not necessarily grammatical issues (and we’ve already covered the problems with telling) but these problems were at the basic word-choice level. What I saw in this old novel were lots of weak words being utilized. A lot of this weak language could fall into the telling category but I think it was bigger than that. In this first novel I used a lot of language that distanced the reader from the story. These words generally come in the form of sensory descriptions (he saw, she felt, it seemed, she thought, he looked, etc etc). In each case these words get between the story and the reader like wedge. I have since developed a self-editing slash list of words I try to obliterate from my MS. These distance creating words are on the list. I adopted the habit of attacking these words after hearing a lecture at an RWA conference. But it wasn’t until I re-read that first novel that I really understood the value in this approach.
In all five of these areas I saw the problems right away. I recognized these issues and that means I’ve grown as a writer. The growth is valuable. Each MS I produce is better because of the book before it. The cool thing about writing is that you can constantly improve (if you’re willing to do the work). I’m thankful I started where I did and I’m happy to be where I am. There is value in getting the words on the page, no matter how crappy, and no matter the fate of the story because even if this story doesn’t find a home, my next story might.