Since writing this and the one about my first foray into Kickstarter, some people have opened up to me in private about their own failures and shared some things that were helpful to them such as John and Hank Green on their failures, Marianne Williamson on self-destructing, and NPR on “Failure is an Option” and how companies employ failure to become better. All of those are worth your time. — Llot
The tricky thing about trying to release multiple things in one year is that you set yourself up both for great success and great failure. The solution to the trick is to learn both whether your primary strategies for joy in life are tethered to the fate of any given project AND if that success in your life is really about growth from a series of failures. The goal of every project for me is to help other people and to become a better human. I enriched the lives of some beta readers, I grew as a person and writer, and I am able to share that growth with you.
So this particular failure, by my internal scorecard, is a success: I’m a better author now than when I started this novel and I’m trying to improve the lives of other authors as I share my experience. It just happened to coincide with the recent failure of my Kickstarter, though one idled in the background for years and the other only a couple of months. Meanwhile The Joplin Photonovel started and ended successfully as well as another short film script. By my count, I’m batting .500 which is pretty good for this year, not counting short form stuff like stories, poetry, articles. That’s a lesson in itself: anyone who makes art and culture professionally has a producer’s mind at some point. You must juggle more than one project if you plan on making it work financially and in terms of big life goals.
So what happened to this novel?
I’ve started around a dozen novels and finished four in the last ten years while simultaneously writing this mess of poetry, short stories, scripts, articles, and whatnot. Sometimes I’ll publish a work I wrote after the one I’m still working on from years prior. So the chronological release order is never the same as the chronological workflow. I wish biographers of literary legends considered that more often.
The problems I have with novels, then, are unique to novels. And I think the problem connects to the way my brain’s wired to my legs. I am a natural sprinter. I did 300 hurdles and the 100 meter in track and bunted more than any of my teammates in little league because of how quickly I could get on base. It took adulthood’s slog of discipline to teach me to run long distances well, even though I technically did cross-country in grade school. Long distance has to do with teaching your body to ignore the urge to quit and to pay attention to a bigger, broader vision over and over again — letting that HUGE end goal carry you. Doubly so for marathons.
Novels are twenty-six-mile marathons.
Let me illustrate:
My last novel was 124,000 words, edited down to 115k by the time it went to my editor. For comparison, my full-length script that was recently shortlisted for the Missouri Screenwriting Fellowship clocked in under 10,000 words. Writing a novel, in other words, is kind of like writing twelve screenplays that all interconnect — especially if you have a diverse cast of characters like a George R.R. Martin novel or something like The Stand. Or, if you prefer, writing FACELESS was similar to writing, directing, and producing five Joplin Undercurrents. Mark is somewhere groaning about the editing load alone.
So when you come across an epic story by a masterful teller like War and Peace or The Way of Kings, you need to know that these guys are brilliant to be able to juggle so many moving parts. It’s incredible to me — even now — because it’s difficult to get one storyline down in a 90-page screenplay.
Some novelists like Kathryn Stockett and Pat Rothfuss make hundreds of revisions of their first novel and finally, after fifteen or twenty years, publish the thing. Others like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson write five revisions of five or seven novels before publishing their first. Why’s this the case? For the same reason it takes running several marathons before you can get a qualifying time. Few people can qualify for a big city marathon on their first try and even when they can, lightning seldom strikes twice.
Here’s a list of my four finished failures:
My first novel failed because I was trying to write a novel a 45-year-old career author would have struggled to complete.
It toyed with perspective, it employed a cast of around forty characters, it bended genres, and ultimately I crossed the finish line about as weary as my friend who ran a marathon in brand-new Vibrams without having trained — or even walked — in the shoe. He was down for weeks. So was I for lack of training. He was overjoyed for having finished and so was I — as a freshman, I literally ran down my dormitory hallway post-quiet hours, shouting, “I FINISHED MY FIRST NOVEL!”
Didn’t end well that night, but the joy lingers.
My second attempt at a novel failed because I tried still twenty characters, ten locations and two genres with two perspectives.
It failed for similar reasons, but also because I was so scared. I was scared of people who would say it was too vulgar and scared of people who would say it was too tame, scared of people who would love it and scared my closest friends would loathe it — which unanimously they did, though they tiptoed around saying so. Timidity cannot make a writer — you must tell the truth. As King said:
“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
—Stephen King, On Writing
My third and best attempt was my attempt to liberate myself and I PLANNED for this novel to fail, treating it like a sandbox.
I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted as long as it was (a) one main character, (b) in a small, knowable world, (c) with a strong goal, and (d) no pulled punches. It is the best of the bunch. I have not revised it because only one person has read it and he’s not my wife. I have not the courage to publish its content yet, but at least I wrote it. I left it alone because I was scared of what people would think if I published it and that was a fear not of them anymore, but of myself.
Which meant I needed to find my voice.
This fourth novel failed because it was the most self-indulgent of the bunch, implying all the good and all the bad that comes with that phrase.
It’s first-person perspective and reads like most of my journals. The beta readers and editor loved the world, loved the prose (generally), loved the concept, and loved the interconnectivity of the characters as well as some of the dialog, but they hated the main character and the story.
What happened was this:
I totally “pantsed” the novel. I wrote it without any planning or creative limitations, which is akin to running a marathon with zero practice like my buddy. I had a concept, a world, and an image of the final scene. This lead to characters who talked in abstractions and not out of the depth of their personal life because I didn’t know them. It led to long rambly dream sequences I ended up deleting entirely and led to pages and pages of irrelevant description — what we call “purple prose.” Pretty, but pointless. I found my voice and lost the story. I lost it because I had no plan. That was the cost of finding myself after having found my courage in the previous novel.
Literarily speaking, after ten years I have now finished four marathons while crossing the finish line on these other minor races, so I think I can speak into this scenario. If you are a beginning novelist, you can certainly revise your ONE IDEA into your first novel, but it’ll take three times as long. You can also do what I did and write several novels until you finally submit to creative limitations and run a simple race, but it’ll take twice as long.
…you can actually submit to gravity now and write a novel that submits to the following limitations:
Your first, second, and fifth ideas are too big for your chops.
They’re meant for 45-year-old you. So unless you plan to revise them dozens and dozens of times, DON’T TOUCH.
Write a first-person perspective novel.
If it’s limited enough, just about everyone can write one of these because just about everyone can journal or write a letter. Everyone can run a marathon if there’s no qualifying time and no time limit to finishing: i.e. if there are no competing voices. This could either be narrated like The Hunger Games or Catcher in the Rye or a letter like Gilead. You can only get ONE character’s first-person perspective, so don’t try writing The Help — I guarantee getting three voices down was Stockett’s biggest revision problem all of those years. And you only get first person. Not first person plus third. So don’t trying writing The Name of the Wind. That comes later.
You get no more than seven characters TOTAL and preferably five or less.
Everyone else is background, mentioned in passing. This number includes the main character, the antagonist, the foil, the love interest — any person. Combine them. Mix roles.
Create a small, knowable world with three locations or less.
You can trade in a location for an extra character if you wish:
2 locales = 8 characters
1 locale = 9 characters
…because of the nature of French scenes of which 12 Angry Men is exemplar. Of course, it has 3 too many characters so don’t try to write that either. 3 locations will generally play out something like (1) a place of comfort for your beginning and ending, (2) an unfamiliar place, (3) a dangerous place within the unfamiliar place.
You give your main character a STRONG goal that stems from a misbelief he has, a misbelief that grows out of an event in his past.
For instance, in the mystery short story I am currently working on, the main character believes he needs to tame himself because his wife left him when she decided he was too wild and undomesticated. Really, he needs — and deep down wants — to embrace the wild side of manhood like the walkabouts of old. See Lisa Cron for more on this.
You raise up forces of antagonism to oppose that goal first as a contrast to challenge his body, then as a contrary action to challenge his will and mind, and finally as a contradictory double-negative to challenge his core, his spirit: to look not at the outward appearance, but the heart.
So in the case of my mystery short story, I am first having him meet easy-going people who try to get him to chill out when he really needs more untamed zeal in his life. Then he comes across people who actively try to tame him and his environ, which is contrary to his deep desire to be wild. Finally he will encounter someone who acts wild, but isn’t really wild — they’re only using wildness as a foil by which to tame him still. After stripping away all of these, he will either succeed or fail in becoming a wild and untamed man and the change in him will be irrevocable. See McKee for more on this account.
Which brings me to my own path forward:
Novel #5 will be smaller. I will limit characters like in novel #3. It will shrink perspectives like novel #4. It will be smaller by being about a tiny, tiny town in Southern Illinois. It will be honest like novel #3. It will have my voice like novel #4. And unlike novel #4, I will plan the whole blasted thing out.
See, I thought I could pants this thing but I can’t. It’s not easy for me to outline, but it’s also not easy for me to use a day planner. Organization is not a bad thing — it’s a type of creative, generative act. Creative people balk at it and creative restrictions because it’s our job to buck the status quo. Really, good organization in my life has always followed a deep learning about the basic principles behind a type of order and then a requisite building up of a new system from that foundation of principles. For instance, my calendar was a mess recently and it took my wife buying a paper planner for me to realize that my most organized years were senior year of highschool and freshman year of college when I built a paper system that worked for me (rather than merely for the organizers who lectured me). So last month I wrote down what I needed in my new system and Tara found me a paper calendar that included all of this — an 18-month moleskin, which is always my journal of choice. My bride, the former administrator for executives, is now annoyed with me for planning TOO MUCH, ha! We’ve been syncing calendars every Sunday and I have our lives planned down to the minute some days. Feels pretty good.
Well this same thing happened recently as my fourth novel went into hibernation. I realized that Microsoft Word, though powerful, would never allow me to outline a large document well. I leafed through all my old notes and writing textbooks to see where I had gone wrong, to figure out why I had tried to superimpose a skeletal structure on a finished novel. And once I had an idea of what was going wrong, John Lusk Babbott came into my life.
John wrote I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs, which was recently optioned for a short film and which I recommend in my 50 Reads for Writers. John found me through that post and wanted to meet up and since I was judging the Brooklyn Film Festival that week, I bought him an extra ticket. We did pizza and a random hodgepodge of Whole30 snacks afterwards and talked writing — he’s working on a 400,000-word behemoth of a novel that I’m very anxious to read.
In that conversation, I told John what I wanted to do with organization kind of like I had done with Tara and my calendar.
And then John Babbott did what professional authors and long-form writers have been doing for years. He told me to buy Scrivener.
Now as much as I critique the hipster fallacy, I cannot deny that the technological anarchist in me sometimes rejects something simply because everyone else likes it. But because I know that’s a fallacy in myself, I grilled John with questions like I do when I learn anything. Does it allow for multiple character arcs? Step outlines? Keywords? Metadata? Screenwriting mode? Focus mode? Nested Outlines? Selective compilation? Nested links to the above? Can I export to .mobi and .epub? Yes. Yes. Yes. And more.
So I caved and bought Scrivener.
And am applying everything I know about outlining to this beautiful new tool.
And I’m about to write my best short story yet.
And when I’m finished, I’m going to start prewriting my fifth novel. Because no one who runs marathons professionally can start planning the day of the race. None of us are exempt from limits, not the amateurs and not the pros.
“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”
cover image by Tudre