Podcast Ep. #11: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part III

Today is the third episode of my series on novel-writing fails. In this episode, I will still be talking about my second novel attempt because during the last episode, I only addressed the reasons behind why I wrote it. Now let’s talk about what I actually wrote. There were some big picture issues with the book that came up in the critiques I received from my professors, and while those were a little disheartening in that they made me question if I was really ready to write a book, they at least gave me a blueprint for what to focus on as I practiced getting better at writing complete stories.

By far, my biggest issue with my novella—and something I had also struggled with in my short stories—was that my novella had no clear purpose or goal. There was no arc to it, meaning there was no rising action, climax, and falling action. My novella was, essentially, a collection of random scenes from different points in the main character’s childhood and teenage years. They were organized in chronological order, and some of them were more connected to each other than others were, but there was no real sense of having arrived somewhere at the end of the book. The subject of my story could have potentially worked as a coming-of-age novella, but even though my main character grew older, there was also no real sense of character growth, meaning internal growth. Things were happening to my main character, but she was not developing as a result. And the things that were happening to her were too disconnected from each other to establish a forward plot momentum. In other words, from start to finish, you would have no idea where I was going with the book, and, quite frankly, I hadn’t known where I was going with it while I was writing it. As I mentioned in the previous episode, I had just been writing whatever I needed to get out of my system, and those were very fragmented thoughts, such as one might find in a memoir.

Since I knew I had this problem, it pushed me to start planning, from the beginning, my goals for a story or a chapter or a scene. For a long time, I had just been freely writing whatever came into my head (following a rabbit trail, essentially) without any real thought as to how each scene was contributing to a story’s big picture. That stopped. Instead, I started asking myself questions like, ‘What type of story am I writing? What are its major themes? What are its plot goals? What type of character growth needs to happen in order for those plot goals to be achieved? What other characters does my main character need to come into contact with for their internal growth to happen? Are they making decisions that will take them backwards or forwards in regards to that growth? If they are not making any decisions that will contribute to their growth, then what is the point of what I’ve written?” I don’t plan out the minutiae of every scene, but as I’m writing, I do constantly question how each scene I’m working on contributes to my big picture goals. My writing mentor in college used to say, and I’m loosely quoting, “Every part of your story needs to be doing work. It needs to be pulling its weight.” You don’t want filler; you don’t want parts that are just there and are not helping the character get from point A to point B to point C. At the beginning of your story, your character should not be ready for what awaits them at the end of your story. But as their circumstances evolve, they should also be evolving, and by the time they get to the end of the book, they should be ready to do whatever they need to do.

Another big issue with my novella, and one that relates to the problem of having little character growth, was that my main character’s motives were sometimes unclear, and her reactions did not always line up with what might be expected. I’m sure that this was partially because I was so young at the time and did not yet have the life experience to understand some of the more complex issues at play in my story, even though I’d lived through similar circumstances as a child. But it may have also been because I was thinking about how I would have personally handled a situation, and I wasn’t thinking about how the character might react differently because of her specific circumstances within the story. Whatever the reason, there were many instances where I didn’t explain why my main character was doing something; I’m sure that the character’s thought process, however flawed, was in my head, but it didn’t come across on the page in a way that the reader could understand her motivations. And I think because I wasn’t constantly writing down what the character was thinking and feeling, it was easy for me to lose track of her mental and emotional state. Which made developing that state even more difficult because I had nothing to look back at. I couldn’t track where she was in her head at different points in the story.

So now, in addition to a character’s physical circumstances, I always keep track of my character’s thoughts and feelings throughout the course of a story because that will affect their decision-making more than their physical circumstances will. I figure out how they feel about every little thing that happens to them, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, because every moment builds on the moment that came before it, and as is often the case in real life, little details can motivate a character as much as big events can. And figuring out what motivates characters to make the choices they make contributes a lot to building a solid story arc; for example, you might have a character that you need to make a critical decision at a certain point in your story; if you don’t feel like they would make that decision at the start of your story, then you need to figure out what circumstances, if any, would force them or persuade them to make that decision, and that will determine how you develop your plot.

So far I’ve been focused on the things that I messed up on in the process of writing this novella, but the third thing that I learned from writing my novella was that despite having these big picture issues, there were important things—very crucial things—that I did quite well. I received praise for my unique voice as an author; I had a well-defined writing style that stayed consistent throughout my manuscript. I had two very memorable characters in the story, my main character and her grandmother, and they both had well-developed personalities and interests. The emotional resonance that I was able to pull out of individual scenes, particularly from small details in the story, was very compelling, and I had recurring objects and themes that furthered that emotional resonance throughout the story. My use of flashbacks and my organization of scenes was generally effective, and my manuscript was very clean in terms of copy editing and readability.

So yes, I had some serious issues with my writing, and that initially felt disheartening, but when I looked at the list of things I had done well and put that up next to the list of things that went wrong, I actually had a much longer list of things I’d done well. On the surface, the things I struggled with might have seemed world-ending (or book-ending, as it were), but they didn’t make me a hopeless writer or a writer who should just give up. They made me an imperfect writer who was still learning her craft.

So back then, after I received this feedback, I made two lists. One list was the strengths of my novella, and the second was the weaknesses of my novella. And I decided from that point on, I was not going to become overwhelmed by the big picture of becoming a writer. I was no longer going to obsess over or question any of the issues that were on my strengths list. If someone didn’t like my writing style, at that point, that was just their opinion, and I wasn’t going to pay attention. I would trust my judgement on the things I did well, like organizing scenes and making stylistic choices. Up to that point, I had been overwhelmed by every single decision I made as a writer, but that list gave me the confidence to trust at least some of my decisions automatically. To have faith in my instincts. And this freed me up to focus on my weaknesses list.

My weaknesses list. Or, I should say, my goals list. These were the things I started working on improving in each subsequent story I wrote and have continued to work on for the past seven years, ticking them off one by one. This list included things like: writing characters I couldn’t personally identify with; developing a character’s thoughts and emotions over the course of a story or over the course of a single scene; pinpointing the goals of my stories; doing more research to ensure I didn’t blunder my way through complex issues just because I was young and ignorant, etc. These were all big issues to tackle, but I didn’t try to tackle them all at once. The very first issue I worked on was writing characters I couldn’t personally identify with; this was something I initially did by writing very brief scenes, and it was something I practiced a lot while writing fan fiction because there were pre-set characters I could work with that fit this purpose, and I knew I would be held accountable for screwing up their characterization if I got it wrong. I still work on these things every time I write a story; even though I’ve gotten better at them, I’m sure I will always be learning how to improve these aspects—and every aspect, really—of my writing. But with enough time and elbow grease, I am pleased to say that some of these issues have been moved over to my strengths list, where they can now be polished up as opposed to slaved over. And that was my goal—not to become a ‘perfect’ writer but to eventually turn the items on my weaknesses list into items on my strengths list.

So writers, right now, I want you to make a list of things you know you do well. Congratulations! You don’t have to worry about those things. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be aware of them or that you shouldn’t polish them up, but you don’t need to agonize over them. And, I promise you, no matter how early you are in your writing journey, there are things that you do well. If you don’t know what those things are, find someone you trust to give you an honest opinion on your work, and let them tell you what they are. Make a list of those things, and stick it somewhere you can see it. That’s a list of things that you have accomplished as a writer. And that list is going to make you keep writing. Because I promise, if you have done anything well as a writer, you can learn how to do other things well. This list is proof of that. It is proof that the time and commitment you put into writing has not been for nothing; it is proof that you are a better writer now than you were at one point; and it is also proof that you have a talent that is worth refining.

This list is also the list of things that you can trust yourself to do well. As someone who struggled to trust myself to make any type of decision when I was younger, I know there are so many things that can break down your confidence as a creative person, but it does you no good to not trust any of the decisions you are making. It doesn’t do you any good in any aspect of life, frankly, to just completely disregard your own opinions. Obviously, no one’s judgement is perfect, but no one’s judgement is completely flawed either. There are things you have knowledge of. There are things you do well. Repeat after me: ‘There are things I have knowledge of. There are things I do well.’

Writers, you should also make a weaknesses list. It’s not as exciting as a strengths list, but it will tell you where to focus your time and energy and what to pay extra attention to in your work. Don’t try to tackle all of your issues at one time; that’s a good way to get overwhelmed and fall into despair. Pick the easiest thing for you to implement and practice multiple times, and start with that. If it’s an issue you can easily get feedback on, even better. I promise if you just work on those things one at a time and really practice, you will eventually start moving those weaknesses over to your strengths list too.

My second attempt at writing a novel did not produce the novel I was hoping for, but it did give me some well-needed feedback on what I was doing right and what I still needed to work on. And that was valuable information that helped me work on my skills as I moved forward. So even though, technically, it could be considered a failure, when I think about all the things I learned from it, it was probably one of the most valuable experiences I have had as a writer. Never underestimate what you can learn from your 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.