Podcast Ep. #13: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part V

Today is the fifth episode in my series on novel writing fails. Last week, I talked about a vampire story and a college rom-com that I worked on at the start of 2020. This week I will be talking about a grim reaper story I first had the idea for at the end of 2020 but mainly wrote at the end of 2021. In addition, I’ll be talking a little bit about a fanfic that I began working on in 2021 because this fanfic and some of the comments I received on it really stopped me from believing I was a lost cause and I should just stop trying to write a novel.

So this grim reaper story, whose working title was Reaper, was an idea that I wrote a few chapters for in October of 2020. In November of 2021, I decided to give it another shot from a different angle and work on it for NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. The traditional way to participate in NaNoWriMo is to write every day and complete 50,000 words of a new manuscript within the thirty-day month of November. That roughly translates to 1,667 words per day. Well, I had undergone a lot of life changes in the past year, but I decided if I was still serious about wanting to write a novel, I should pull myself up by my bootstraps and do this.

But I wanted a foolproof way to actually get work done that would lead to something publishable—spoilers: there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ writing method, just methods that may or may not work for you—so I researched different methods for writing a first draft and also for participating in NaNoWriMo. I decided to do what one writer suggested and simply open a new blank document every morning and free write to get as many words on the page as I possibly could. That meant I put no limits on the topics I was writing about or how I was structuring my thoughts so long as all the ideas were connected to my grim reaper story. I wrote partial scenes. I wrote bits of dialogue and place and character descriptions. I did historical research and wrote passages based on that information. I wrote snippets of action. I wrote notes about possible plotlines. Altogether, I wrote 30,304 words, and this was no small accomplishment, even if I hadn’t managed all 50,000. Still, I was very frustrated with myself and got deeply depressed afterwards. When I looked back at everything I had written, I realized that the method I had tried hadn’t worked for me because now I basically had the same problem that I had had with my novella. I had a lot of random scenes with the same set of characters but not much tying the scenes or the characters together. I had very vague ideas for multiple possible plots but nothing concrete for any of them.

Everything was so partial and incomplete that I couldn’t find anything to cling onto that would motivate me to keep working on the story. I felt like I didn’t know the characters well enough to feel strongly about them—to believe in them, essentially—because I had written competing versions of who they were and what they wanted on different days when I’d been word vomiting just trying to reach this arbitrary word count. And if I have learned anything about myself from writing fanfic, it is that if I truly love a character, I can motivate myself to write anything about them, no matter how difficult. But if I don’t feel a strong connection to a character, I will very quickly discard an idea. With this attempt, I had done a lot of work, but it was disjointed and surface-level. I realized I needed depth to keep myself invested in my idea because if there was no depth to the characters or the story world, then I wouldn’t care. But, in this case, I struggled to find that depth when I looked back over my notes.

Initially, since I didn’t want to view the attempt as a total waste of time—already, I could hear the clock of my own mortality ticking—I wanted to see if I could pull more meaning out of the idea if I continued working on it, but, unfortunately, because I had so many competing plot ideas and character ideas, every time I worked on it, I had a different idea of what the story should be about. And I didn’t have any confidence in my ability to choose the best direction out of all the possibilities in front of me.

It reminded me of the random scenes in my novella where I had no story arc; it reminded me of the vampire story where I actually had a solid cast of characters and a solid story world but still no idea of the story arc. There was no plot; there was no cohesion; there was just word vomit, and I started feeling like maybe my brain was too chaotic of a place to come up with a structure, and maybe I was too anxious of a writer to commit to a structure, and I thought so much about just giving up. I thought, ‘This is obviously not for me. I just wasted a month of my life for nothing. Why can’t I do what other writers can do? Why do their methods not work for me?’ I got so frustrated, and guess what? I went back to writing fanfic again.

Now…this is the part where things actually get happy. (I know you’re probably thinking, ‘About time! I’m listening to a podcast called ‘Wonderful Wednesdays,’ and there’s not a lot of wonderful things happening). But yes, we have finally arrived at the part where light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Things take a bit of a turn. It’s a very gradual turn. It happens over months and months, and it’s honestly not something that I anticipated at all, but I am so glad that I kept writing in a way that allowed this to happen.

So, at the beginning of 2021, I had begun writing a new long fanfic; at the time, I didn’t know that it was going to be long. I think, initially, I just planned for three or four chapters of what was conceived of as a crack!fic. If you don’t know, a crack!fic is basically a non-serious, haha this is hilarious and insane but aren’t you having fun reading it? fic. I had a cutesy rom-com idea for these two characters from different fandoms to meet. I couldn’t imagine how they could stay together long-term because they were so different—one was a semi-villainous supernatural being with a hatred of humans, and the other was an archetypal human good girl— but I had an idea that would lead to them going on a date, and it wouldn’t leave my brain, and of course, with ideas like that, sometimes you just have to set them free or they’ll keep annoying you while you’re trying to do other things.

Of course, crossover pairings are always challenging to pull off, but here’s the twist. The girl was not just any character; she was the second half of my OTP couple (OTP means ‘one true pairing’), meaning my first love, ride-or-die couple that I hardcore ship together forever and ever. This was the couple that I had been writing all my other fanfics for, but in order to write this new fic, I was going to have to split this couple up to pair her with this other character that wasn’t even in her original story world. I was not at all sure how this would be received by people in my fandom, so I proceeded with caution and pretty much treated this as a crack!fic in my head at first.

But a few chapters in, I started getting all these ideas for how these two characters might actually work really well together—like, as in, they could be an actual couple and complement each other. And I realized that I wanted to try to put them together in a more invested sense. And this scared the crap out of me because I felt like it would be really difficult to pull off. I had never written a villain as a romantic protagonist before, and this character had so many toxic issues, like, coming out of his ears. At the same time, I felt like their worldviews clashed too much; I’m one hundred percent certain they were not the people that they would have chosen as partners at all. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get a choice; in the end, I just flung them together, and said ‘Hey, deal with this.’ In spite of all the potential red flags I saw looming in the distance, I decided if I was going to do this, then I was going to do this so well that when I finished the story, no one would want the girl to be with her original guy in the context of that story. I wanted to really hone in on two things: character growth and relationship growth. I wanted to see what characteristics these two very different characters could pull out of each other that would help them grow as individuals and also as partners. And I had never really attempted anything like that before, certainly not to the depth that I attempted it with that fic.

So why am I going on and on about this fanfic? It’s because over the course of writing this fic—of trying to make this seemingly impossible scenario fit reality—I started writing arcs, both character arcs and relationship arcs. And, shockingly, those arcs were so clear to me. I started understanding what was happening and why it was happening and what needed to happen from that point in order to get the story where I wanted it to go. This breakthrough was huge for me. I cannot overstate how huge it was. Whenever I had tried to write story arcs before, I had always felt like my thoughts were out of control, and I was desperately trying to corral them, and I didn’t know what would contribute to the building of an arc and what would not, so I just kept all of my thoughts because I didn’t know what to discard. But in the course of writing this particular story, I found myself suddenly able to make those hard decisions of saying ‘I need this, but I don’t need this.’ Or ‘the characters need this experience but not that experience.’ Before, I hadn’t known the best way to get from Point A to Point Z, so I would try all the letters of the alphabet on my way there, which led to a sense of confusion about where I was headed. But suddenly, in the writing of this story, I knew, instinctively, what direction would work best. Sometimes, I would only know that after I wrote out a chapter and felt weird about it, but at least I would know at that point, and I could change the chapter before I posted it.

With my other long fanfics, I had been writing and posting them more or less in a first draft form; essentially, whenever I finished the chapter, I would just do a grammar check and post it right away. With this one, I went through several iterations of each chapter before I posted it. I would not post the chapter just because I could or because I wanted to move on to the next one. I really spent a lot of time on revision—making sure each chapter was the best it could be—and I paid extra attention to how each chapter built on the themes and goals of the ones before it and how it would contribute to my goals for future chapters. Like I said, I was focusing on character growth and relationship growth in this fic, which is something that happens slowly over time, so I needed a bunch of stepping stones in place so that when I reached the top of the hill—when I reached the climax—readers would understand how the characters got there. For that reason, I tried not to write filler; I tried not to detour off the path; I tried to only write things that would contribute directly to my goals for the story.

Since I realized that I had started seeing my story in these big picture, structural terms versus just writing a chapter for the sake of the chapter, and I also had begun noticing what wasn’t working and knowing how to fix it, I began to feel more confident in my abilities as I wrote each chapter of this fic, and I started attempting more difficult scenes. Suddenly I was being bombarded with so many beautiful, amazing, deeply thoughtful comments on my work. I mean, people started writing reviews on my fic that still make me cry even though I’ve read them dozens of times. And they were largely comments on the character growth and relationship growth in my fic and how I was building up the story little by little and how everything was making sense with everything came before it, and I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that this thing that had eluded me for so long—like, the shape of it had eluded me—was now something I was succeeding at. I was even writing about mature subjects that had always intimidated me, and I was succeeding at that too. I mean, it just felt so crazy and wonderful. And now I want to cry again.

So what did I learn from this? Well, obviously, I now had a blueprint for how I wanted to continue writing character arcs and relationship arcs in the future. But what I also had, on a deeper level, was proof that I had, in fact, improved as a writer since that failed novella in college.

Why had I improved? Well, I did not suddenly become smarter. I had just been writing long enough by that point to have witnessed things that worked well in my writing and things that did not work well. I had also been reading some really good writers that focused on character growth in their stories and watching shows with both good and bad character development, and I internalized all that information and tried to apply it to my stories. I didn’t always succeed, but I tried and I tried and I tried, and in the end, it was the accumulation of my experiences, not any sort of natural talent I had, that enabled me to see my stories more clearly and improve them. And this told me that as long as I continued writing and adding to my experience, I could continue to improve, and eventually, I would write my novel. It was only a question of when. Finally, I began to have a degree of confidence in my skills that I had not previously.

I had not believed that I would succeed at writing that fanfic; at certain points, I thought the execution—and reception!—of my ideas would go horribly, but my worst fears did not come true at all. And this made me realize how ridiculous it was that I listened to my fears so much—I listened to this evil minion voice in my head that said if I hadn’t done it before, then I just couldn’t do it—when I should have been listening to this new voice of confidence that had slowly taken root in me. This confidence that would enable me to write a book of short stories and the first draft of the novel I am currently revising. But more on that in next week’s episode!

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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.