Podcast Ep. #14: How to Fail at Writing a Novel, Part VI

Welcome to my last episode on novel writing fails! Finally! We reached the end of this angsty saga (kind of, I’m still working on my first novel). But yes, my first novel that I am currently revising. I’m writing the second draft, not the first. Yay! How did I reach this point? What mystical magic has occurred? Let’s get right to it.

Well, in November of 2022, I decided to give NaNoWriMo another go, but this time, I did not make a novel my goal. I decided I wanted to try writing a book of short stories just to practice writing arcs in an original fiction setting. Short stories seemed less pressurizing than a novel and were works I could more easily revise and (potentially) get published. Honestly, at this point, I just wanted to finish something original. Anything original. I was not picky on the length. I just needed a win.

And I got one! My book of short stories magic/madness was self-published in March of 2023. Then I got another win! I got my first short story (“The Thing That Matters”) published in an online literary magazine. The world had opened up a little, and suddenly, it was opening up a little bit more. Though the comments I received on my short stories were few, they were very positive and encouraging. Towards the end of April/beginning of May 2023, I felt a nudge from my brain. And that nudge said, ‘You know what story you want to write, and what’s more, you know you can write it now.’ But what story was that? Was it my grim reaper story? No. Was it the vampire one? The rom-com? No, and no. We have to go back to 2020, to the other idea I got that year that I haven’t yet mentioned. Let’s talk about “Chasm.”

“Chasm” is the working title for the trilogy of books I’m currently working on, but it is also the title of a short story you can read in magic/madness about an angel and a demon who meet in a sort of limbo space between Heaven and Hell every day. I wrote the short story after I read an Olivie Blake fairytale collection and felt inspired. It had a simple setting with just two characters that could riff off each other, similar to my fanfics, but it dealt with concepts of good versus evil and Heaven versus Hell, which were major themes of my childhood.

Back in 2020, I had all these ideas for expanding that story after I’d written it, and I had written a bunch of scrap ideas for it that were all in one document, much like I had with every other novel I’d attempted. With those other novels, however, I’d been searching for the thing that would make me want to continue, but with this idea, I felt that as long as I had the confidence to write it out, I wouldn’t have to motivate myself to continue it. This was an idea that was both personal and mysterious; it was personal because of where the idea came from, yet it was mysterious because of the subject matter. I loved the characters I had come up with, and they also intrigued me and made me want to know more about them. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to give this a go, but I’m not going to call it a novel. I’m just going to say that I’m working on a longer story than my short stories, and I will finish when I finish.’ Essentially, I took all the pressure off myself and gave myself permission to just enjoy the process and let the story be whatever what it was going to be.

What I hadn’t realized until this point was that I needed to apply the mentality I had when writing fanfics to writing a novel—this belief that if I just worked on something a little bit at a time, eventually, I would build up to a complete story. For a long time, whenever I decided to try writing a novel, I would build up the idea in my head too much as this big, overwhelming thing before I ever wrote anything on paper. I would put all this pressure on myself to make it this thing or that thing instead of just writing and seeing where the story took me. I would set large, unreasonable goals such as a word count that I would not normally reach in a month. And, eventually, I would get frustrated and burn out when what I accomplished did not live up to my unreasonable expectations.

So when I decided to try my idea for expanding “Chasm,” I decided not to set any goals for myself; I simply wanted to write the story in chronological order as I would a fanfic and just keep writing it until the end. Each time I reached another 10,000 words on it, I had a mini-celebration. I didn’t even call it a novel until I finished it; I called it a long story (as opposed to a short story). I took all the pressure off of it in my mind; I told myself it didn’t have to be good; it just needed to be finished. Because having written that long fanfic I talked about in the previous episode, I knew by then that I could fix and polish a draft that was flawed, but I couldn’t polish a draft that didn’t exist. And you know what? By taking all that pressure off myself and just allowing myself to be confident in my skills, I was able to finish the first draft in less than three months.

Why did I succeed this time? You know, all along, I had been searching for the perfect writing method or the perfect structure or the perfect timeline or the perfect idea that would enable me to finish a story, but I think what I needed the most was the confidence that I could figure anything out. I needed to be able to be frustrated during the process of drafting and yet not feel out of control and not feel like I didn’t know how to continue the story or like I was headed in the wrong direction and should just start over. I needed to be able to say to myself that if I kept going, I could unravel all the knots in my ideas. I didn’t need to be smarter or wiser or have a better idea. I just needed to keep going, and I would figure everything out even it didn’t feel like I would in each and every moment.

Looking back, I think the most important thing I did during all this time was that I simply kept writing and building that confidence. I kept in touch with the act of writing by writing almost every day for the past six years. Even if I wasn’t working on original material, I still built up my skills and kept my mental muscles in shape. And I did this while I came out of a deep depression, changed jobs, got married, moved four times, and hosted in-laws. I did this throughout the pandemic. I did this while transitioning to new places and taking on new responsibilities. Even if I could only write for ten minutes a day, I wrote for those ten minutes. Even if I could only write gibberish, I still wrote it down. I made the act of writing as much a habit for me as eating, drinking, and sleeping. If I couldn’t find time to write, I would just wake up earlier and make time. Because I truly felt that if I made writing a top priority and kept at it on a consistent basis despite anything that was happening around me, eventually, I would have to write something worth reading. You simply cannot put a skill in front of you every day and work on it and not learn something new about it and not have that knowledge stick in your head.

I’ve done a lot of things wrong in trying to write a novel, but I know that I will eventually succeed because I keep that dream in front of me. I don’t put it behind me. I don’t put it way off in the future somewhere. I keep it right in front of me. I never shelve it. I never table it. I never say ‘well, once this passes’ or ‘once I have more time’ or ‘once I’m in a better situation’ or ‘once I’m smart enough to do this’ or ‘once I feel better.’ No, this is the thing I think about from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I don’t let people tell me that my dream can’t be important to me because it’s not important to them. I don’t let people tell me that my dream can’t be important to me because it’s not important to society. I don’t let people tell me that my dream can’t be important to me because I’m already too old and I’ve been working on it for too long and if I haven’t accomplished anything with it by now then I should just try something else.

To be honest, as the years have gone by, I’ve only gotten more stubborn about sticking with my dream because I know how much time and effort I’ve already put into it, and I know how much I’ve grown from that effort even if it’s not readily apparent to others. At a certain point, if something’s that important to you, you’ve just got to grow a backbone about it. You’ve got to say to yourself that no matter what happens in your life or what people say to you, you are going to be persistent and tireless in your pursuit of that thing, whatever that thing is for you. Learning to be anything takes work, and learning to be a writer takes work too. A lot of it is monotonous, frustrating, exhausting work. Some of it is fun—when it is fun, it is very fun—but those days are few and far between sometimes. But I think if you have the passion to sustain it, if you strongly feel that you have something worth saying inside of you, then that will keep you going through any setback.

If you’re struggling to finish your own stories, I hope something I’ve said here has resonated with you or helped you figure out which direction to go next or what you need to work on in your own writing. Definitely, don’t feel that you’re a bad writer if you haven’t succeeded at a particular type of writing so far, especially something as lengthy and complex as a novel. I think in the process of trying to write a novel, sometimes it was easy for me to lose sight of the fact that I had written a lot of other things and had succeeded at those other things. Obviously, a novel is the goal for a lot of writers, but it really wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I became a master of short stories instead. There are so many varied types of writing that you can be good at, and not necessarily every type of writing is for every person. But, of course, if there’s something you strongly feel that you want to learn how to do, keep at it. And be confident that you can learn to do that thing; it just might take you a few attempts to get it right, and that’s normal.

If I think of writing a novel like I would anything else, of course it makes sense that I couldn’t do it the first couple of times I tried. That I stumbled around and felt lost and clumsy and overwhelmed for a bit. I feel much less anxious when I think about that being a normal phase of writing and of life rather than a sign that I should stop trying. So I would say to you, do try. Try, try, try. Every time you try and fail, you will learn something, and eventually all those somethings will add up to the skills you need to finally do it right. I feel like I say this all the time, but everything really does take practice. Everything takes practice, but especially writing a novel.

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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.