Podcast Ep. #9: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part I

I have seriously tried to write a novel six times in my life, and I failed the first five times. I’d like to believe that I have learned something from those failed attempts, however, and that they were not a total waste of my time. Since I am currently on my sixth attempt, working on my second draft, I thought I would reflect on those past attempts and share them here. Hopefully, you or I or both of us can learn something from my mistakes or at least we can have a good laugh and commiserate if you also struggle with writing long form fiction. This episode is going to be part one of six, with the sixth episode being about what I did differently on my sixth attempt. Let’s get right to it.

So I attempted to write a novel for the first time when I was twelve years old. I was in sixth grade when I started it, and I worked on it pretty consistently, just writing a little bit every day after school, from the last half of my sixth grade year to the first maybe two months of my eighth grade year—including summers, just to give you an idea of how committed I was to it. I was super into historical fiction at the time, and my book was set during the Great Depression, which I was curious about because of the movie Seabiscuit, which I loved, and also because it was the time period that my grandmother had grown up in. I did a significant amount of research on the time period for a middle schooler. I had documents full of notes on what people wore back then and how people traveled and how people survived when the banks failed. I was writing about horse racing, specifically, so I did a lot of research on that sport and the culture surrounding it and the lifestyles of the jockeys. I wrote outlines. I wrote character sketches. I wrote chapter after chapter after chapter. It was my hobby, but I took it very seriously; but, of course, it was also fun and stress-relieving, and it was escapism because let’s be honest: middle school is brutal.

Well, all of this was great, but over the summer before my eighth grade year, I decided to show the first few chapters of my book to my dad, who was so proud of the story that he then showed it to a few family members. And that was initially fine. Those family members were super supportive; they gave me a lot of compliments, and that boosted my confidence. But then my dad decided to show the first two chapters to my eighth grade English teacher, who then decided to share with my entire English class that I was writing a book, and she made me tell the class what the book was about. And because she knew about it, I also ended up getting interviewed about my story in the school newspaper. Of course, then, all my friends wanted to read the chapters I had written so far, and there ended up being all this hype about it for two or three weeks. Well, I didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ and I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so of course, I shared it with whoever asked. Now, no one made fun of me for it; all the reactions were super positive; the people who read my story said it was really cool. But I started dreading going to school every day and having to talk about my book. Maybe another person would have eaten the attention up, but it was a nightmare for me because I was such an introverted and private person. To this day, I hate having the spotlight on me in social situations. So whether it was positive or not, I hated all this attention.

But even more so, I hated having to share that book with people in my everyday life because that book was my escape from reality, and having all those people I had to interact with in reality read it and learn about it and ask me questions about it just made it feel tainted. And because I knew that all of these people knew about it and they all seemed to have different expectations for what the story should include and what it should turn into, I got totally overwhelmed and paralyzed, and I couldn’t write another word on it. Every time I sat down to write, I would just keep thinking, ‘This person wouldn’t like this’ or ‘This person wouldn’t like that.’ It felt like my book wasn’t mine anymore. There were too many voices in my head competing with my own, so after all that work, I just stopped. And I felt horrible for stopping, and I felt like my book had been stolen from me, and I tried so hard to get back to the headspace I had been in when I was just working on it by myself and no one knew about it, but I couldn’t get back there. And that made me feel like this colossal failure at fourteen years old, and a public failure at that because people knew about it and would ask me how it was going from time to time.

I don’t share this because I think that book was objectively good from a technical standpoint. I share this because feeling so defeated over that project after having put so much work into it was a painful experience; it really put a dent in my confidence, and it made me believe, at that young age, that I was incapable of finishing a book. And even though I kept writing other things, I didn’t show my work to hardly anyone for years after that. I became totally terrified that if I showed my work to people, I wouldn’t be able to write anymore. I was scared I would get blocked again. And when I was younger, writing was such a form of escapism and therapy for me that I couldn’t afford to lose that ability. So this incident really affected the writing journey that I went on from that point and probably the number of times that I’ve attempted to write a book since then.

I didn’t have much confidence in myself as a writer going into my early twenties, so I rarely finished anything. And because I rarely showed my work to people, I didn’t realize how flawed my perception of my writing was until I was forced to receive critical feedback on it in college. Obviously, if you are not finishing your work, as I’ve discussed in a previous episode, you’re not learning how to finish your work. And if you’re not showing your work to anyone, you might be missing valuable feedback that you need in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your writing. Looking back, I can see how these two issues probably hindered me from growing as a writer for a lot of years. So if I could share some lessons from this experience, they would be these:

You do not have to show your writing to everyone who requests it; you can say ‘no’; it is your work, and you have a right to do whatever you want to do with it. No one is entitled to see your work, no matter how supportive they may appear or how close they might be to you otherwise. Writing is often a very personal act, and it is perfectly legitimate to not want to bare your soul to people you have to see every day, especially if you feel that they’ll criticize your work out of a judgmental or ignorant frame of mind.

However, do show your work to someone. Either someone you trust to give you honest editorial feedback on it or people who are already interested in the subject that you write about. Truthfully, a lot of your family and friends might not understand or be interested in what you write about, and that’s fine. Because guess what? Unless you’re writing a family history, they are not your audience. But you do want feedback from the audience you want to write for, so once you have figured out what you want to write, figure out where your audience is, and get your work in front of them.

Think of being a writer like you would any other career. My husband is a software engineer; I’m not entitled to know what tech projects he’s working on for his company, nor do I really understand the language he uses when he talks about them. Likewise, I keep my own projects under wraps until I’m ready to share them. Which means I don’t let my husband read my rough drafts because I know he won’t understand, at that stage, what I’m trying to do, and it’s just going to mess with my creative process. And if I’m thinking of myself as a company, I want to protect my own interests. I want to protect my ability to keep creating in the most efficient, effective way possible. So I have some rules for myself; one is I don’t talk about what I’m writing with people in my personal life. It screws with me; I don’t do it. I also only share what I’m comfortable sharing on social media, regardless of what the trends are or what the advice is on how much I should be sharing. I’ve learned over the years that social media stresses me out in a way that makes me really unproductive, and my number one goal is always to be as productive as I can. If that means less online engagement, so be it.

Only you can figure out what your limits are—what hinders your writing process and what helps it. But whatever your limits are, don’t apologize for them. Don’t feel like you owe people any part of your writing process or any part of your growth process as a creator or an entrepreneur because you don’t. I am a people-pleaser by nature, so it’s hard for me to set limits and keep them, but I’ve just had to toughen up in that regard since my dream means more to me than satisfying someone’s temporary curiosity about my life. Likewise, if something helps your process, don’t apologize for it either. Maybe you’re an extrovert, unlike me, and you get energy and motivation from sharing details about your work-in-progress; if that’s the case, then go for it, and don’t let anybody silence you. Because you know what? People who only have negative things to say about your work could never do what you do.

Well, that was my blast to the past. It’s just the end of the beginning of my rollercoaster ride. In the next two episodes, I will discuss my second attempt at writing a novel when I was in my early twenties and what I learned from that experience. Writing a novel has not gotten easier since I was twelve, but I certainly feel more prepared and confident now to meet the challenge. Thank you for joining me as I revisit all my previous mistakes so that, hopefully, you don’t have to make those same mistakes!

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About Me

JodiMarie Meyer enjoys toeing the line between the mundane and the magical and exploring the dichotomies of good and evil; she primarily writes love stories, but not always. Definitely someone who got in trouble for daydreaming in class. Definitely someone who scribbles frantic story notes while stirring pasta. She makes her home in the Maryland countryside with her husband, dog, and rabbit. She is the author of one short story collection: magic/madness. Currently, she is writing her debut novel, Luc & Lila.