Podcast Ep. #12: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part IV

Welcome! Today is the fourth episode in my series on novel writing fails.

My third, fourth, fifth, and sixth attempts all began in 2020. I had taken three years off from writing original material at that point and had been writing pretty much exclusively fanfic except for the occasional song or poem. But finally my husband and I, after living with my parents for the first six months of our marriage, moved to our own apartment. We got more settled into our adult life, and I decided to give writing a novel another go. I should note that, at this point in time, I was really confused about what genre I wanted to try writing in the original fiction sphere.

I had been writing romance in the fanfic world for several years, but I was hesitant to try writing romance in original fiction because I had never done that before. The first time in my life that I had ever written a romantic scene was in the very first fanfic I wrote. Up to that point, I had focused solely on friendships and family relationships in my writing. So I had no clue if I was up to the task of creating original couples that people would root for. I wanted to try, but I was very unsure of myself, and I think that’s part of the reason why I ended up ping-ponging between several ideas from 2020 to 2023. I’d write a little bit on one and then stop and write a little bit on another one and then stop and work another one. There wasn’t a lot of confidence in what I was doing, and therefore, there wasn’t the same level of commitment that I would show towards my fanfics.

But anyway, moving on to the first idea I had.

At the beginning of 2020, I had an idea for a realistic fiction novel; it was a coming-of-age rom-com, set on the campus of a university. College was an amazing time for me, barring my final year. (We don’t talk about that.) I made some really wonderful friends in college that I was blessed to meet in my very first week there, and those are people I’m still friends with today. I loved my school. I loved my professors. I loved the subjects I studied. What can I say? Those will always be some of the happiest years of my life, I think. So it seemed fitting that I should write a story set in a place that held a lot of fond memories for me. So I did some character sketches and some general brainstorming on what the book could be about. I wrote a few chapters, and I liked the characters that I had come up with, and I liked the way they played off each other, but I started to feel conflicted about the story because I felt that it still had too much of me in it, and I wanted to really break out and try to write something that wasn’t too connected to my own life. I’m sure it’s debatable whether that was a good call or not. But, in any case, after those few chapters, I decided I wanted to challenge myself a bit more and try to write a young adult fantasy instead of realistic fiction.

So the second idea I had in 2020 was a vampire-human young adult romance, and that idea is where my short stories “Blood, Chocolate, and Tinsel” and “The Thing That Matters” came from. My working title for this third attempt was “If I was a Vampire, I’d Spit Out Your Blood.” I’d gotten the idea from watching the K-Drama Orange Marmalade, but the story world as I originally conceived it was darker and edgier than that, a la the tone of Riverdale, and it combined a small town murder mystery with teen romance and themes of prejudice and friendship across cultures.

I had two main problems with this story. The first one was the way I approached writing it. This was my first attempt ever at writing fantasy, so I wanted my story world to be crystal clear to me going into the writing of it. (I would later learn that a story world is discovered through the writing of the story, not by constructing an arbitrary world and forcing an idea that doesn’t even exist yet to fit in its confines. You can see how that might be problematic. Nevertheless…) In an overeager effort to be as prepared as possible, and perhaps as an excuse to procrastinate, I thought the best way to ensure that my story world made sense (and thus prevent excessive rewrites) would be to do all my research for the world up front; that meant writing all my character details out, writing notes about the important places and the history of both humans and vampires in this alternate Earth setting, etc. I had not read vampire novels growing up, so I did a lot of research on vampire lore and also on the vampire subculture in the United States. I was basing the teen culture and fashion in the novel off of 1950s teen culture in the U.S., so I did a lot of research on that time period. I did research on the racial tensions of that time period and the prejudicial laws and attitudes against African Americans; I didn’t want the book to be a direct parallel of that, but I did want to get a sense of the lived experience of a group of people whose history and culture and daily lives were oppressed in that way.

So I got all this research done, and I’d taken a bunch of notes, and then I realized I had no idea what the plot of my story was. Like, I had the world very clearly in my head just like I’d wanted, but I had no idea what my main characters wanted to do. I didn’t know the story part of my story. I had a colorful world populated by colorful characters, but that was it, and whenever I tried to come up with a plot angle, I just couldn’t find an idea that I was fully into. I think part of the problem was I had always written young adult material up to this point, but I was starting to deal with more adult concerns in my personal life, and because of that, writing about high school students had lost some of its appeal. I was in this awkward space being in my mid-twenties where I was just beginning to want to write about more mature subjects, even uncomfortable subjects, but I didn’t fully have the confidence or the experience to do so yet. Like I said, I’d just moved into my first apartment with my husband. We were essentially two kids fumbling around trying to figure out how to do everything without our parents for the first time, and that was a huge learning curve. I was old enough to be uninterested in high school drama, yet too young to feel truly knowledgeable about any adult enterprises. It was an awkward place to be in as a person, but also as a writer.

This feeling of uncertainty, of not feeling confident while navigating more ‘adult’ situations, fed into the second problem that I had with this story. Prior to 2020, I might have said, being a white southern American who had grown up in an African American school and an African American church in an African American community, that I had a fair grasp of some of the challenges that community faces in U.S. My whole childhood was steeped in African American culture, and it gave me the illusion that I knew what was going on because I had literally lived in the same spaces doing the exact same things. But then, in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement really built up steam here in the U.S., I suddenly started learning about all these other issues the community faced that I never would have considered. And I started realizing that sometimes what I think I know about something (even if I have a good reason for that) is just the tip of the iceberg. And I got super nervous that my perceptions of everything were really off—not just my perception of racial tensions in the U.S. but other issues too. What else was happening in the world, right under my nose, that I was not noticing because it didn’t affect me personally?

My confidence in my writing took a further nosedive, and I started panicking about the content of what I was writing, both in the vampire project and the college project I had started. The first one obviously had prejudice as a major theme, but the second one, although it was supposed to be a more lighthearted rom-com, had an Asian American male protagonist, and of course, in my research about the African American community, I had also been running across articles about micro-aggressions against Asian Americans. And it was just this snowball effect; the more I learned, the less I felt like I knew or understood; I went down a rabbit hole of information about prejudice against various groups, and I mean, I’m very privileged to be even complaining about this, but I got so anxious that I just couldn’t continue. I thought I would get everything wrong about these characters’ lives because clearly I didn’t even understand what I had thought I understood for years about prejudice in my own country. I couldn’t sleep. My stomach was in knots all the time. I felt guilty if I wrote. I felt guilty if I didn’t write. And this was at the peak of the pandemic, so I was doing all of this in a vacuum that I couldn’t really leave. Finally, I just put everything aside for my own well-being—and, frankly, my husband’s—and I went back to writing fanfic, where I could more calmly supply the pandemic-era world with much-needed fluff and humor.

Now, at this point, you might be thinking, if I wrote fanfics for Korean dramas, which are obviously set in an entirely different country and culture, why wasn’t I worried about cultural bias in my fanfics? Well, the short answer is, I was and had been from the beginning, but I had decided that my stories were still worth writing because I could clearly and immediately see that they were bringing people joy even if they were imperfect; it also didn’t feel like it was as big of a deal if I unintentionally got something wrong in that setting because of the nature of fanfic. Fanfic is, quite clearly, fiction written by fans—not paid professionals, fans—and many fans are not located in the same country as the source material that they are writing about. I found safety in the fact that many of the other writers and readers in my fandom were not Korean or, at least, did not live in the country of Korea; if I was getting stuff wrong, then they were probably getting stuff wrong too and might not even notice my mistakes. And since my works were being derived from another source, I could not sell them. I did not own the source material. I was not and never would be profiting from them in any legal or monetary sense, so that made me feel more free to make mistakes in general and present my stories imperfectly. Back then, I had this idea that if I asked for money or recognition for something I wrote, or if I wanted a more general audience to read it, then it had to be perfect. And, especially, if I was writing something based in my own country, I felt that I should be presenting the experiences of characters in my own country accurately, to the best of my knowledge and ability. I guess I felt that I could be more easily forgiven for screwing up something that I was so obviously not intimately familiar with and that I was mainly writing for my own enjoyment (as opposed to writing something that was so blatantly for public consumption).

But here’s the thing. Whenever I make a mistake in a fanfic, and someone points it out to me, I learn something from it. I correct it, and I try not to let it happen again. But with these two attempts, I was so worried about making mistakes that I didn’t let myself fully try, and, unfortunately, that told me nothing that would help me write better stories in the future. I learned nothing about the biases that may or may not have been in my stories because I just stopped writing them out of fear. And you can’t fix something that you don’t know is broken. So I think if I had to do it over again, it would have been better for me to write out my ideas knowing that there would be some misunderstandings in them, knowing that they would be imperfect, and then allowing myself to receive feedback on them. I would research everything I knew to research, just as I have always done, and let an editor tell me if there were other topics I needed to read up on or changes I needed to consider. I would treat the issue of cultural bias like I treat every other issue—with seriousness and respect, but also the knowledge that I’m not going to have a perfect understanding of it no matter how much research I do, and that’s okay even if it doesn’t feel okay.

During the first few years of my twenties, a lot of the things I thought I knew about the world in general, and the specific world that I inhabited, got successively knocked down like a line of dominoes. By the time I was twenty-five, I felt like I didn’t know my religion anymore; I didn’t know my family anymore; I didn’t know the culture I had grown up in; I wasn’t sure what my career goals were; I had had this really rigid idea of who I was for a long time, and once that got ripped out from under me, I really struggled to form some type of identity outside of the person I had been growing up. And I struggled particularly because I didn’t trust my own judgement anymore. I didn’t want to give an opinion or even form an opinion about anything because I felt like I would be wrong no matter what I chose to believe, no matter which direction I went in. I felt like my reasoning skills must be incurably flawed if I had been wrong about certain things for such a long time. And not just wrong—vocally wrong. Wrong in a really loud, noticeable way. So I was afraid to make decisions; I was afraid to commit to anything in particular; I was definitely afraid to tell anyone what I thought or what my plans were. It shook me—this realization that I had changed my mind about so many things. And I thought, ‘My gosh, what else am I going to change my mind about during the course of my life? How do I do or say anything under those circumstances? How am I supposed to exist?”

There’s a parable in the Bible where Jesus talks about a man who builds his house on rock and another man who builds his house on sand. When the rain and the winds and the floods come, they batter both of the houses, and, of course, the house on the sand collapses, but the house built on the rock stands firm. When I was young, I thought it was good not to have any doubts about anything because then my house would be built on the rock. And for a long time, I thought my house was built on a rock, but when all these life-altering, perspective-altering events were happening, I started feeling like I had unwittingly built my house on the sand instead. While I was growing and changing, I thought what I was feeling was my house collapsing. But what I was actually feeling was the house that others had built around me collapsing, and that wasn’t a bad thing even though it was difficult to live through.

See, in the parable, the man builds his own house. But this metaphorical house I had lived in—I didn’t build that house. It was built for me by the beliefs and opinions of everyone around me when I was young. And it took some time, but I found that what made me me had never gone away. In fact, once everything quieted down, I found I could hear myself far more clearly without the noise of everyone else’s beliefs and opinions. When you’re growing up, there are always people to tell you exactly what to think and what to do and where to go and how to behave and what you should feel is important. But, if you’re fortunate, when you get older, you get to decide those things for yourself. Not so you can build a perfect house or never have any doubts—I do think a healthy dose of skepticism is, well, healthy when dealing with an imperfect world—but so you can know why you believe something or why you feel strongly about it.

Here’s the thing. There are so many things that, as a human being on this planet, I can’t know. And I know that no matter how much I learn, I will never know everything. And I know that as open-minded as I try to be, I will never not be biased. Having biases, in itself, is not something to feel guilty about; it’s a totally normal human experience. There’s no point in judging yourself for not growing up in someone else’s shoes; everyone has to grow up in their own shoes. I will always have some type of bias because everyone does. Because everyone lives in very specific circumstances that are unique to them. The only thing I can really do is always be open to learning about other people’s experiences and researching topics that I think I might not understand. But my whole life will be a series of having preconceived notions and being wrong about things. That’s just called being alive. It’s not going to stop with one issue or another. We all start out in the bubble of our own little worlds, and then, if we’re open to it, and we’re fortunate enough, our worlds will expand exponentially as we get older. But it’s kind of like when we say the universe is always expanding. You’re never going to be able to know the whole universe. It’s just impossible to learn all of that during your lifetime. Only if you had infinite time would you be able to comprehend something that’s infinite, and maybe not even then.

The good news is that putting pressure on yourself to be perfect in any aspect is a pointless endeavor—no one ever is. And this is good news because once you realize you will never be perfect, you no longer need to worry about being perfect. You can allow yourself to make mistakes, which means you can allow yourself to learn from your mistakes, which means you can allow yourself to grow, both as a writer and as a human being. The good news is the grading system used in school is totally fake; it’s useless when applied to real life situations. It is entirely possible to get a one hundred on paper, but there is no such thing as getting a one hundred in life, and that is because everyone who judges you or who judges something you do…all of those people will judge you or your work based on different criteria. It is impossible to cater to everyone’s tastes and desires because everyone who is looking at anything is seeing something different from the person right next to them. Everyone is looking for something different, and therefore, they will judge whatever they are seeing according to what they are looking for and how their needs are being met. What you have to figure out as a creative person is: what are you looking for? What do you desire to see in your own work? What criteria would you judge your work by? What is important to you to write about? What is important to you to say? What do you enjoy? What do you fantasize about? That is the only question you need to ask yourself because that is the only question you can answer, and that is the only standard you can judge yourself by. Did I do what I set out to do in this story? If I didn’t, how can I make it better next time? Not perfect, just better.

You don’t want the thing you’re currently working on to be the best thing you will ever write. You want to see continuous improvement with each project you put out. The goal isn’t to write some mind-blowing masterpiece your first shot out of the gate or even your tenth shot out of the gate. The goal is to finish each project so that you can move on to an even better one where you take the information that you learned in writing the first project and you apply it to the next one and then the next one and then the next one.

In other words, the goal isn’t to be a perfect version of yourself, just an improved one. But more on that next time when I discuss my fifth attempt at writing a novel and the fanfic that convinced me to keep going after that failure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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.