A Hard Lesson to Learn

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This has been another fun-filled week of learning to be a writer! This week’s lesson: Accepting failure and not giving into major depression when you realize you have to scrap your first-ever completed manuscript and start over again. 

Surprised? Don’t be. It’s my first ever completed draft, after all. If the first full-length novel-thing I ever wrote was a masterpiece, I’d either have to be some kind of writerly savant or lucky beyond imagining. And as my PowerBall ticket ended up in the trashcan, and I am not $750,000,000 richer since my last post, obviously, it’s not the latter. As for the former, well, I think I’ve posted enough excerpts in previous posts to make that self-evidently untrue.

Before you start admiring me for my sagely wisdom and zen acceptance, you should know that I’ve had a couple days to process. That first hour, I was a lot less Zen Sage and a lot more Steve Carell during that waxing scene in 40 Year Old Virgin.  No matter how hard I wanted to try and pretend I could handle it, and make it work, and fix it, ultimately I had to accept the painful reality: No amount of bodywork can make a car built without an engine run.

Hint: The engine is a metaphor for good characters. Because they propel your story! Get it?

That’s right! I made the same flipping mistake as I did with Sinnia and Rafe. Infuriating, isn’t it? I figured out one superficial trait for my MC, patted myself on the back, and then tried to write a whole book around it without ever digging deeper to figure out what made that person tick or what he was really about. For Rafe, it was his “bipolar” ego-and-id schitck. For Graham, it was his superficial judginess of artsy people. Real shocker, lemme tell you, that these personality quirks were not enough to hinge a complete story upon.

Of course, both times, I convinced myself I had more than that. I told myself I’d done my outlining and my planning. I knew where they were headed and why. But in reality, it was only once I was knee-deep with Rafe, and fully neck-deep with Graham, that I discovered that while I knew where they were headed, I actually had no idea about the why. The only why I had was “because that’s what my outline says.”

That is not a good why, for the record.

The truth is, I was impatient and lazy. I didn’t do my pre-work, my character development. And yes, I realize the irony here after numerous posts going on at length about how important good characters are and how I want to focus on really getting that part right more than anything else. Har har.

I wrote BeYo super fast, sticking to a pretty simplistic outline (by my standards). Logically, it flowed. Cause and effect were in place. But! That’s really all it was. The characters were no more than automatons like the ones you see at Epcot, following the track someone else placed before them. It was boring. And shallow. And unsurprising. So, yeah, about as enjoyable to read as that Epcot ride is to sit through.

To write a good story, there has to be doubt and uncertainty, satisfaction and disappointment. And the only way to get those emotions is to make your characters feel them. Automatons don’t feel emotions. Duh. They’re automatons.

So I scrapped it. All if it. There may be a few little exchanges of dialogue, some snippets of description here and there I can poach and use in the new version. But revisions wouldn’t be enough to change my automatons into real characters. Doing so means taking them off their neatly laid tracks and giving them autonomy. And there goes my whole outline.

I’m not going to lie, this decision hurt. After all, I’d put a lot of effort and time into that draft. I thought I’d succeeded, finally, in the biggest goal I’d set for myself. And I guess I still get to hold onto that trophy, since I did finish a full-length story. It being a good story was not in the requirements. But I wanted it to be good. I wanted to be able to turn it into a novel I could maybe publish one day. Discovering it was not only bad, but completely irredeemable felt . . . not great.

Which brings us back to the lesson of the week. Recognizing the problem with my characters was a lesson, but not the lesson. Not the one I’m most proud of or the one that will make the biggest difference in my career as an author. Sure, it will ensure that my next attempt at BeYo will have stronger, better characters. It might even result in a manuscript that’s good enough to one day publish.

I’d never find out, though, if not for the real lesson: Learning to recognize failure, accept it, and find the motivation to try again. 

It’s probably possible to become a successful author even if you never quite nail the perfect character. It is absolutely 100% IMPOSSIBLE to become a successful author if you don’t learn when to scrap what’s not working and have the drive to try again. Hitting such an impasse in your writing is inevitable. It’s even common, judging from what I’ve read and by my own personal experience. I’ve never before done it with a 70K word completed draft, obviously, but I’ve done it with incomplete drafts. Hell, I did it with this blog post. The first version was a thousand words that focused on the character thing, which I decided wasn’t the point so I deleted it and rewrote it. I end up doing that about every other blog post.

You can find all kinds of joke pie charts on Google about what the actual make-up of the writing process is, but in all seriousness, a huge chunk of the pie will go towards pain and effort that ultimately will end up in your Trash folder. They probably shouldn’t even call it “Writing.” They should call it “Selective Deleting and Revising.”

This was not a fun lesson to learn, but it’s actually given me a lot of confidence. You know, after I got over the initial crushing defeat. Because the sense of defeat didn’t linger for very long at all before I felt excited again. I wanted to fix it. I couldn’t wait to fix it. I’ve been working on my character designs and a new outline practically non-stop since I accepted my failure. The next version may still not be good enough for publication, but I know it will better. And the next try after that, better still.

Not long ago, I saw an interesting quote that stuck with me. To paraphrase words that I don’t exactly remember from a source I sadly can’t cite: “If you can not write, don’t be an author.” Being an author is brutal and self-punishing, when you think about it. It’s not writing just when writing is easy, and then moving on to something else when it becomes too hard. It’s a sometimes-fun, sometimes-nauseating roller coaster that never stops with the ups and down or levels out. If you can bear getting off the ride and are able to turn off the obsession, you totally should do that. Because statistically speaking, it’s not likely to pay you back for all your hard work and mood-swings. Most published authors barely make enough to live off of, if that.

But if you can’t stop . . . if all you think about day after day is getting back in line for the roller coaster, chances are you’re not doing it for the money. And you can feel pretty good that you’ve made the correct career choice.

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