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Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Novel Sucks, But Maybe Harper Lee and Robert McCammon Can Save It

This is really way too long, so I apologize in advance...

So, yes.  I know.  I've said this a lot in the past year.  

My novel sucks.

It's a mess.

Dead on arrival.

Common advice has always been that a novelist writes one or two "failures" before actually getting it right.  This is a big reason why more and more I'm against easy, POD publishing of a first novel.  Because let's be honest.  Most first novels should never see the light of day, and I'm beginning to think that's the case here.

I wrote a really bad first installment - over 178,000 words - to an even worse science fiction epic trilogy when I was 24.   Obviously, it garnered nothing but rejections.  So that was Failure #1.

I then spent the following six years re-drafting half a novel, also the first installment of an epic thriller/horror/suspense series.  That never even got finished.  So Failure #2.

I swore off novels for awhile.  Started to actually learn how to write.  Struck up the book review gig.  Wrote columns and articles for a whole year.  Finally sold my first "short" story, a novelette of 10,000 words, an okay story that won Editor's Choice in an anthology.   I then wrote a ton of bad short stories, discovered "4thluv" and "token" payment markets just weren't the way to go.

Then I sold my next "short" story, (this time only 9,000 words), which was slightly better.   I was then invited (not really solicited, yet), to write two more stories, one which turned out to be 6,000 words and the other about 3,000 words.  They were "okay" stories also, and in retrospect, I only really like one of those, because the other was just too much of me too obviously "doing the horror story thing".  But, after that, I "sold" officially my shortest story ever, a piece of flash fiction around 700 words.  I like that story and it's better than "okay", because it's very personal.

During this time period, I completed my classwork in my Creative Writing Masters at BU and attended two consecutive years of Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp.  Still doing the review thing.  Edited a Lovecraftian poetry anthology that's very likely going to be a lot better than "okay".  

Then, I wrote this Hiram Grange thingie, which turned out to be a revelation.   That turned out to be WAY more than just okay.  I mean, two years later and I still actually like it.  That's saying something.  And apparently, a bunch of other folks liked it, too.  Then, I had the extreme pleasure of editing Shroud #10

I thought I was ready to write a novel.

But now, over a year after it's initial conception, I may very well be staring at Failure #3.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky.  This novel obviously isn't what it should be.  What if I was able to somehow finish it, spruce it up enough to publish in the small press, despite its shortcomings?  Again, sometimes it's better for something NOT to get published.

I understand now why Hiram Grange turned out so well and this hasn't. First of all, Hiram was a novella in a novella series and not my creation.  I had to adhere to certain criteria, and let's be honest: I'm pretty good when it comes to following directions.  Always have been.  I've always told Abby, if you have things you need me to do, make me a list.  99% of the time, if there's a list, I'll come through.

So Hiram had a "list", if you will, laid down by Shroud.  Tim Deal was awesome and so very flexible, but still. A list.  Something I could adhere to.

This is probably why I should outline more.  Which I did with my proposal to the New York House, but the funny thing is: if they offered a contract tomorrow, I know I could bang that thing right out.  I don't want to start it, however, without an offer.  Don't know why. As passionate as I am about that series, it just feels like something I want official word on before committing myself to.


My biggest problem?

I can't plot.  At all.  Things always get too complicated and muddled.  I've gotten more and more confident in my prose and my characters, and this "big huge mess" I'm calling my novel has a lot of great prose and awesome scenes with compelling characters...

But I have NO idea what they should ultimately do.  More and more, I think I need to tear the whole thing down and start all over.

Things are not so bad.  I recently sold what might be my best short story to the highest market yet, (can't share yet but really want to), I completed a story solicited this summer, and though I'm waiting for word from that editor, I feel very proud of the job I did with it, and I just sent a story to pre-readers that has a better-than-average chance in a pro-anthology.

But I may have to face the fact that I'm poised on the brink of novel failure #3.
Why the Harper Lee and Robert McCammon mention?

It's impossible to pick a "favorite" of all the books I've read,  but two of the finest books I've ever read are To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) and Boy's Life (McCammon).  What amazes me about both works is that they are...and AREN'T, at ALL...centered around their plots.  

To Kill A Mockingbird poses three central conflicts:

1. the mystery of Boo Radley
2. Tom Robinson's trial
3. the looming vengeance of Bob Ewell

But the story surrounding these conflicts is so rich, substantial, all-consuming that you get lost in all THOSE stories too, which really become just as important as the central conflicts.  So you experience the best of both worlds: you get caught up in the lives of the characters and read simply because of them, but then the plot's conflicts eventually come back around to resolution, closing off their arcs satisfactorily (if not "happily"). 

Boy's Life does something very similar.  The novel starts with its principal mystery: whose dead body is in the car Cory Mackenson and his dad see pushed into a lake, who killed him, why - then embarks on this STUNNING journey through childhood, hitting all these small plot arcs along the way, so many I can't even name, bringing all of those - no matter how minor - to resolution, yet still looming in the background is the chilling fact that someone Cory has known his entire life is a cold blooded killer.  And, in the end, NONE of these smaller plot arcs are minor, they ALL seem to help bring about the resolution.

So. Two examples of stories with great characters, superb prose...and plots that DON'T GET IN THE WAY OF THE STORIES.

My plot keeps getting in the way.  I need to somehow get it out of the way, yet keep it in mind as a framework, to keep me from running off the page and bumping into it again, if that makes any sense.

And then we have someone I've come to think of as a master plotter, F. Paul Wilson of Repairman Jack.   From listening to him, I've learned that he needs to get the story out of the way FIRST, so he knows where everything is going, and then lets the characters reveal themselves to him in ensuing drafts, as he fleshes them out along the way. 

Between these two examples lies the answer for me, I think.  Because somewhere along the way, even as I study writers and stories I love, I still need to find MY OWN VOICE.

And even as I've been writing this post, I've gotten more comfortable with the idea of tearing the whole thing down and starting all over.  I'm 37.  I can wait a few more years for the novel, if that's what it takes (assuming neither the world nor the publishing industry blows itself to hell in that time). 

An early guide and associate (I'd love to call him 'friend', but I don't want to make that presumption), T. L. Hines didn't see his first novel published until he turned 40, and I've come to view him as one of the most careful AND innovative storytellers I've ever read (I personally think his Faces in the Fire is brilliant). 

So I can wait.  I've embarked on this whole journey of re-discovering some of the greats: Charles L. Grant, T. M. Wright, Karl Edward Wagner, J. N. Williamson, the Whispers and Shadows collections, so I'd like to just settle into reading those, soaking it all up.  And, I think it was either fellow writers Kelli Owen or Maurice Broaddus who said "You never get back your first novel." That rings so true.  A crappy short story can go away and fade pretty quickly.  A crappy first novel, however...

Like it or not, I've always dreamed big.  Maybe I just need the patience to allow my handle of the craft time to catch up with my dreams.


  1. Great post, Kevin. I had to write four novels before I had learned enough to sell one. And I'm still learning. I am so inept. LOl. Keep your chin up. Copy a whole novel by hand to learn the intricacies of a well-developed plot. Do whatever you have to do, but don't give up.

  2. I know where you are coming from. I work a lot like F. Paul Wilson. If I don't know the story I sort of just get lost in the story, and not in the good way. I think a lot of that has to do with a significant portion of my early story crafting coming for RPG games I held during college. I was in charge of the story and was responsible for all secondary characters, but the main characters were completely out of my hands. So I had to think of as many possible ways the story could go and even then, the players will thin of something I never would. Because of that, I can now let my main characters grow within the story through.

    I have had my two failures as well, luckily both have been for school in order to graduate and so it was a little more lenient than New York editors. But Even with my next novel, "Project 10," I'm taking the time to get the story thought out, especially with the complexity that I have in mind for it. If I didn't, It would just be another failure in about 3-4 months time. That also doesn't mean that I'll give up on those two failures either. Every story can be told, the writer just has to be prepared to tell it.

  3. And see, I get carried away, sometimes, thinking, "Wow, I've had a few short stories and novella published, time for the BIG THING because I've "arrived", time for the novel...and at first, it was depressing to see so much work fall apart... but when of how many other false starts far more accomplished people than I have gone through, it seems pretty pretentious for me to think I'd knock it out of the park on the first try.

    Thanks for the words of encouragement...

  4. "when I think of how many other false starts"

  5. Hi Kevin,

    I really enjoyed the post, and can relate to much of it. To Kill A Mockingbird and Boy's Life are two of my all-time favorites as well, and have been very inspiring to me. At 43, I have written four "novels", and I am currently working on the fifth. I put "novels" in quotes because they are more novellas than novels. They start as novels, but for some reason 85,000 words has been the longest so far. The story gets told at that length.

    My first two novels had their moments, but overall weren't very good. I was very happy with my third, but at around 80,000 words publishers weren't interested. My fourth came in at 45,000 and I was extremely happy with it, and my current project will probably be about that length as well.

    I finally decided to publish the third novel as an ebook on Amazon's Kindle as an experiment. I decided I would see how that went and then make a decision about my fourth and fifth. The jury's still's only been available for a couple of months, but I have been selling copies on and off. That may be an option for you with some of your work.

    Best wishes,


  6. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Kevin. I'm at the threshold of plotting a debut trilogy and find the launching pad an intimidating place. I know I have a lot to learn, but I'm happy for the knowledge gained whenever I find a new foothold or take a spill. Remember this:Writing is a life sentence.
    Good luck to you!

  7. Thanks for the comments, guys. David, I'm not really upset that I have to wait. I see this is all part of the process. I had just hoped this one would be the "one" I could submit somewhere. And though I think digital formats are certainly something to experiment with in the future - when and IF I have draw a following - I'm pretty much a traditional publishing kinda guy.

    Captain, I guess the best advice I could give is this: start learning and getting used to outlining now. I used to lift my nose and sorta sniff disdainfully at all the "plotters", but am now wishing I'd made myself do it earlier....

  8. Hey, Kevin, I have to say that in spite of your own frustration, it's encouraging to me to see that you have these frustrations. That's kinda twisted, I know, but what I mean is that I've been frustrated about my own writing, and here you are, determined to stick with it in spite of everything. It says to me, "Hey, if he can do it, so can I." Thanks for that.

  9. Not a problem. Just remember the old saying: "What do you call a writer who never quits? Published."

    My biggest problem is letting things get too complicated. I always want to write this big,
    "The Stand", "IT" type thing. That, and I really can't seem to make up my mind. Do I want to write something that is very OBVIOUSLY genre/horror fiction, or do I want to be more subtle?

    I THINK I want to be more subtle, but as I've gone through this most recent draft, I've very obviously veered into the land of "way too obviously genre."

    Someday I'll get it sorted out.

  10. My first novel sucked big time too. I've still got it and half of another novel that sucked.

    My second novel is in a total rewrite now.

    I got my third novel contracted. Hope that helps.
    Burning Hearts (arson/murder and romance) comes out in May and I'm very excited, natch. :)

  11. "I got my third novel contracted."

    Nike, that seems to be the common thread I've noticed amongst most authors, so let's hope the third time's the charm....