Sorry that I haven’t been around much lately. No newsletters since last year, not many Facebook posts. Basically, I’ve been pretty busy failing at writing my next book.
One key rule of writing is that your character has to fail. In fact, she usually has to be a pretty huge failure. Great plots are driven by failure. If Scarlet wooed Ashley before the war, we’d never have Gone with the Wind. If Mr. Darcy clicked with Elizabeth Bennett right on the spot, the world would be bereft of Pride and Prejudice.
Heck, if Voldemort could have just ended a baby, Harry Potter would have never been…literally.
Failing is a not only crucial to a story’s plot, it also drives character growth and change. Failure, in other words, is necessary…it just kind of sucks when it happens to you…or to be precise, me.
Anatomy of a Failure
When I finished FLYING, the final book in my Girl With Broken Wings series, I was faced with a pretty daunting task. It was time to leave the world I’d lived in for seven years and dive into a brand new story with new characters. I was excited but also appropriately terrified.
Being a normal person, I am naturally plagued with self-doubt on virtually every aspect of my life. My writing is not immune. I worried that despite the fact that I finished five books and two novellas in the Girl With Broken Wings series, those were all flukes. Now, cut free from the safety of that series, I would revert back to my pre-GWBW days when I couldn’t finish a novel for all the cupcakes in the world.
I squished all those fears down, womaned up, and started writing a new story that had been swishing around in my head for a few months. This story intrigued me, because it had a really captivating premise and a clear genre, which I thought would make it easier to categorize and sell.
All gung-ho and with doubts securely stowed, I set sail on creating the outline. This is when I hit a little stumbling block that should have been a major red flag. Even as I began to plot out my story, I felt that I wasn’t really connecting with the characters.
I made excuses. It was a new series. Of course the characters aren’t going to feel real like Maya, Tarren, Gabe. I told myself that I just needed to do more outlining, fill out more character sheets.
Boy, did I complete a lot of character sheets. I tried to talk to my characters, interview them, write scenes of their everyday lives, but the whole time they mumbled short answers to my questions, sagged through their scenes, and avoided eye contact with me…because we both were kind of embarrassed by the whole charade. This felt so different than when I wrote FALLING. In that book, Gabe couldn’t wait to chatter in my ear, telling me his whole life story. I would imagine quiet scenes of Tarren while I did my weekend runs. I felt Maya’s rage and her need for vengeance.
I am a character-centric author. The characters lead the story. They are the story. And I somehow found myself writing a book where my characters didn’t want to come out and play.
But, I kept writing, kept making excuses. The first draft was going badly. I didn’t feel inspired to write in the morning. It was more punishment than passionate toil. That was wrong, but by that time I’d put in too much work. Three months and an entire 70,000-word first draft. I couldn’t give up on it now!
After completing the novel’s first draft, I gave myself a break to “let it breathe.” Secretly, I hoped that the manuscript would somehow age and turn into something different and beautiful, like a mellow red wine. In the interim, I did more (yes, even more) character interviews and research.
The week before I planned to jump into the second draft, I left town for my sister’s wedding. During that trip, something started happening. Deep in the pit of my stomach, I felt a seed of dread growing every time I thought of working on the novel again. In the quiet moments before bed, I would close my eyes and try to watch my characters live their lives. I’d knock on their doors, but they were never home.
The wedding was great. The bride and groom showed up, and I didn’t fall into the cake. Success! Even as I danced with my 89-year-old grandpa (whoo-hoo good genes!), a decision was forming in my mind. It was a decision that I think had already been made, but I’d been fighting tooth and nail. It was time to admit defeat.
The next day, I faced an exciting eight hours in the airport. My iPad was loaded up with old episodes of Battlestar Galactica to get me through the ordeal, but instead of hanging out with my favorite band of survivors, I gave myself a little challenge.
I thought, hey brain, let’s do a little experiment. Let’s say you were going to write a totally different book – and not saying that you are, but just imagine – what would that book look like. No pressure. Doesn’t mean anything. You’re still totally going to write that crappy book you hate, but if you weeeere going to write a different book…
I had a notebook with me, because, uh, duh, writer, but it only had two clean pages left. On my first flight, I began to think. Wonder. Imagine. An idea sparked. My heart picked up some beats. My pen began to scribble. The crying baby two seats behind me faded. Suddenly, I was in the woods, riding on a great adventure to find a princess. My pen kept going, scribble, scribble. Characters formed. I needed a prince. Was he an arrogant, foppish prince? No, the prince told me. There’s so much more to me. I don’t want to be on this adventure, but I have to go because of who I am. I have to always be strong, even though I feel so weak and unsure inside. Even while I listened to the prince, a little maid was jumping up and down impatient for her turn. I am cleverer than them all, she insisted. And I’m in love. I’m going to marry the prince. It’s what the stars say. Let anyone try and stop me.
As the plane landed, I was furiously writing on the cardboard back of the notebook. As soon as I walked off the plane for my two-hour layover, I went straight to a small bookstore in the airport. (Okay, bathroom break first, then straight to the bookstore.)
I bought a notepad and two pens, because there’s no way in hell I was letting my last pen give up the ghost in the middle of my next flight. Alas, Starbuck and Apollo had to play alone, because I kept writing and writing from wheels up in Denver to wheels down in San Diego.
Now, a week after I touched down, that new notebook is almost full. My characters have so much to say and they are rearing and ready to go on their adventure. And that other book? After four months and a full draft, I’m stuffing it in a drawer. (Well, a metaphorical drawer. In reality, it’s just hanging on my computer.)
A little ways up the coast from me is a mythical place called Silicon Valley. Some of the coolest, greatest things come from this strange place. Silicon Valley is unique, because it is a place where failure is a badge of honor. It is a stepping stone to success. The people of Silicon Value believe that failure helps define your character, gives you valuable experience, and lessons to learn.
Looking back, I don’t think those four months were a waste, and I don’t regret the draft that is now wallowing on my computer. (Hey, who knows, maybe those characters are just waiting to find their voice.) I am sorry that my readers will have to wait a little longer for my next novel, but I promise, it’s going to be something that I will be proud and excited to share with you. You deserve that.
All I ask is for a little more patience.
I know this sounds super dorky, but a failure is only a failure if you give up. After all, we are all characters in our own stories, defined by our failures and how we address them; defined by whether we keep striving for our secret dreams.
Fail on, my friends,
P.S. Yes, I have purposefully be super vague on the plots of both books. I’m holding out some hope that the bad scifi book may one day become a good, awesome scifi book. My new project is only in the early stages, so I need to keep it close to the vest until I can at least get through a first draft and see its bones.