1 year 4 months ago, my first novel-length manuscript burned me out. Ever since, writing fiction just churned me up, spawning anxiety and doubt instead of stories I enjoyed.
Two days ago, Lauren smooshed the boil under her verbal thumb ’til it all gooshed out — starting by mentioning that I hadn’t ever let her read the manuscript.
“Of course I haven’t,” I replied. “It’s not done.”
“A year and four months is an awful long break.”
I blustered some tripe about other projects, that I’d learned a lot of lessons, you know, the pretentious writer yarn. But my newer long-form projects caught the same plague, until I doubted if I’d ever write fiction that’s actually good. So instead of continuing down that defeated line of argument, I switched to listing all the ways the plague blemished my baby.
After I’d finished, she just said, “Sounds like you know what’s wrong.”
My eardrums are still aching from the implicit “so fix it!” But before I do just that, here’s my ugly baby list so I can avoid making another one.
9. Too much pressure.
I started Snowraven under the delusion that my only escape from a low-paying job doing Games QA was to write the breakout novel.
Most poor people spend a few bucks on a lottery ticket, I spent six months of nights and weekends — I’m not a smart man.
In my defense, I chose the best concept from a slew of amazing choices, and I loved Snowraven the best. I knew that if any story I wrote could make it out of the rejection pile, it’d be Snowraven. But all that faith came with a Tiger Mom’s high expectations. Compound that with my self-imposed deadline of fucking yesterday, I broke the story’s spirit before I’d finished the prologue. I punished myself throughout the process too, writing in a hysterical caffeine-driven rush of discarded ideas and half-formed scenes.
It was the first time I’d abused myself and the story just to have it out and it set a precedent for my relationship with fiction-writing as a day job office-worker:
“Sorry kids, Daddy’s too busy to play, but you can help! Here, just knit these clothes so we can sell them for rent.”
“But Daddy, look at this horsey I made!”
“Shut the fuck up and make scarves. Why the fuck do you get to play with crayons while Daddy slaves away on his Xbox?”
8. Writing it wasn’t fun.
Quick! What’s your first thought when you hear “Kung Fu and Vikings”?
“Fun!” might come to mind, but “That’s ridiculous!” is equally valid. That’s Snowraven‘s elevator pitch because it still makes me say, “Fucking sweet, sign me up!”
But I’d boarded this flight with too much baggage. The extra drag caused the plane to crash before I could reach Oz. The scar-tissue from previous writing workshops would creak and snap every time I flexed my writing muscles.
“It’s gotta have literary merit!” the scar tissue creaked, and so I focused on the protagonist’s family drama and emotional damage instead of the adventure the readers and I signed up for.
And then there’s the 10,000 words stint the protagonist spends in a cell. Riveting as fuck.
7. Wait, was I writing light fantasy or dark fantasy? I can’t tell!
The manuscript’s tone seesawed between weighty/”literary” and just goddamn cheeky fantasy fun. What should have been about an exiled citizen doing her best to fit into a new culture and have adventures (like The Hobbit), instead comes out like a schizophrenic Lord of the Rings focusing on a PTS’d female Legolas.
This first installment, I just wanted popcorn writing. Instead, the protagonist’s backstory (which should have remained mysterious!) leaked ink and smeared mascara all over my white bedsheets. That’s the last time I put up a homeless goth in the guest room!
6. My story had no hook.
Speaking of backstory, what’s the most interesting thing about a protagonist-in-exile? If you said the exile, you get a cookie for recognizing that the word “exile” modifies the generic term protagonist — something I didn’t get.
I took four stabs at writing a prologue; 5,000, 7,322, 10,050, and 2,522 respectively. Every one of them explained the fucking hooks that should have kept people reading. Besides: Kung Fu and Vikings? Maybe the dystopian blend of Imperial Beijing and Menzoberranzan isn’t the best place to start your book. Maybe you should start where the Vikings live.
Worse than all that, none of the prologues replaced the mangled hooks with new ones. And the whole time, the protagonist screamed out of the screen: “THIS ISN’T THE RIGHT BEGINNING YET!”
But I told her to shut the hell up, because…
5. I told my characters what to do and they obeyed.
Nothing takes the piss out of a story like an obedient cast. I knew this, but every time a character lingered in a longhouse, or got too thoughtful about that grove of larch over yonder, I’d speed that shit up to get to the good part.
A novel packed with “useful” things like action, incredibly direct and impersonal dialogue, and characters arguing with me about motivation, like good actors laboring under a prima donna director. If they bitched too much, I’d stick my hand up their ass and play sock puppets instead of trusting their input. That’ll show you, Character I Find Interesting. Try arguing back when I’m elbows-deep up your ass. NOW SAY THE FUCKING LINE!
4. I rushed.
My words outsped the story. Although time spent lingering on imagery, or exploring characters and their relationships seemed like a waste, now I realize that the “fluff” added to ambiance, controlled pacing, increased immersion and gave my brain time to work out what happens next. The manuscript didn’t develop fully because with my characters cowed, I had no opposing voice to say, “Yeah, guy, this doesn’t work.”
So I kept on, the whole time saying, “This is the most awesome shit ever!” mauling the story’s pacing into a bleeding mess of nonstop meaningless action.
A more careful eye, the eye of someone who writes by inches, would have realized the problem paragraphs in, but not me! I was too good for the time-tested processes I’d used to develop high-quality content in the past.
My dad told me to stack the firewood right the first time, because I’ll hate fixing the wreckage even more.
So yeah, Dad, you were right.
And hey Dad! Why are you on the internet? You should be out duck-hunting and wrestling grizzly bears and shit, shouldn’t you?
3. I didn’t know when the story ended.
Or rather, I had an ending in mind that wasn’t the ending.
The original manuscript focused on the protagonist’s backstory and her Trouble, not on the place that she liked enough to get settled into. And that’d be fine, except that in the manuscript, her adopted country’s people are so dumb, trusting, and naive that it’d break a Scientologist’s willing suspension of disbelief. One reviewer, commenting on the community’s ready acceptance of this outsider, quipped, “Is she hot?”
Probably. I mean, I never explicitly say she is, but judging from how she weasels her way into high circles of two cultures very different from her own, yeah, I’m thinking she is.
Exploring Hrothden will take a full book on its own, and in the original manuscript I didn’t even give it five chapters. The whole time, I didn’t realize that those five chapters (rewritten, expanded) are really my book.
2. I left sequel hooks out.
My sequel hook at the end of the original manuscript was pretty much: “They’ll have more rad adventures. Hurray!”
I already knew the events that’d happen after the end, so why I didn’t add hooks just flat-out baffles me.
1. I didn’t edit at all until I’d finished the rough copy.
I mentioned yesterday about how my first edit comes just as soon as I’ve written a discrete unit of text.
For the original manuscript of Snowraven, the first draft of Ephemeral, and several short stories, I didn’t. I’ll have to rewrite those too, by the way, because I like the concepts and because you don’t go finding more work when your firewood stack falls over… You rebuild it.
But first you have to clear away the rubble your crap work made.
I realize now though, that this project isn’t over, it’s not a failure, it’s just not finished. It’s finished when I make it something to be proud of.
So now that I’ve said all this shit, it’s time to go and write Snowraven properly…
…I’ll be in my study (kitchen table)