So I’m 30,000 words into a new novel, and this weekend I realized that I have to throw out everything except for the first 600 words. The last two months of work? Completely erased. Hit “Delete” and kiss that effort goodbye.
Normally there’s something to be scavenged from a manuscript collapse, but this is a total implosion. My protagonist used to be a harried, frightened nerd, prone to punching when cornered; in this new novel she will become a nerd-king, the kind of super-popular high-school kid that has yet to realize that she’s peaking and that things have already begun to slope downwards. The villain in my old book was a charming, well-meaning rogue; now he’s a sneering killer who’s only masquerading as human. I’m reducing everything to such rubble that there’s nothing I can retain.
Such an exciting failure.
Failing is a good thing in writing; it means you’re taking risks. But furthermore, it indicates you’re skilled enough to recognize that you’re writing something flawed. Which is a sign of growth to be cherished.
A few years back, I would have looked at the scenes I’d written and said, “But those are good scenes!” And indeed, they are; some of them are touching and beautiful and honest in a way that I’d never been capable of before. There’s a scene where my protagonist faces down her reclusive, immature father to have to justify her expulsion from school – which was one of the subtlest and truest things I’ve ever written. There was a lot of good stuff in that 30k, personal high-water marks.
Yet the novel as a whole wasn’t up to snuff, with character largely revealed through interminable interior monologues and backstory instead of action. The fact that I recognized that was a sign of how far I’d come. And figuring out how to fix it involved a combination of using every tool I’d developed as a writer and having the boldness to go, “No, this can’t be massaged back into position.”
Now, I’m trying a new technique: I’ve never outlined a novel before. I’ve only written the scene that comes next, hoping my internal searchlight would find the correct path. But in outlining, I’m having to use all sorts of techniques stolen from the theater – the three-act structure, internal versus external challenges, ensuring that character is revealed through action, explicitly raising the stakes with every chapter – and that’s a sweaty workout.
I’m learning so many new things that I feel revitalized. This novel doesn’t feel like a slog any more, but a mountain to be climbed. It’s tough, but there’s a certain masochistic satisfaction I’m deriving, a brisk slap to the face.
To which I say to you, dear readers, is that there are mundane failures and exciting ones. The mundane failures you can’t learn from, you just did the same thing all over again. But the exciting ones are the ones where you can break yourself and then reforge your shattered forearms into adamantium claw-laden superpowers.
What I encourage you to do is to fail big. Write to the edge of your limits. And when you realize you can’t pull off this tricky story you’re halfway through, don’t get depressed; take it as a sign that you’re recognizing flaws even if you don’t know how to correct them yet. Writing’s full of invisible pitfalls where you think it’s brilliant, but your readers are unsatisfied. Just understanding that something doesn’t work is a major accomplishment, one you should congratulate yourself for.
What’s important is not this story. It’s your overall skill level. And a failed story can teach you far more than that easy sale.
Today, I’m taking the first step in spending at least a month outlining my novel chapter by chapter. Maybe it won’t work. But I’ll learn, and if this collapses then it’ll be such a glorious failure that I’ll be harvesting new talent from the ruins. Celebrate with me, people. Go blast a story of your own.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.