Lessons From Dead Books

photo credit: alancleaver
photo credit: alancleaver

As I write this, ORISON is in the hands of my editor at Nine Muse Press. While there is still no official release date, we are officially in the home stretch, and I am as anxious as anyone to get my book in the hands of readers.

Even a year ago, this is not where I expected to be. I recently came across an unpublished interview from 2011 I did for another blogger (we mutually decided to wait until I had a book out before posting it) and I was amazed at how much had changed between the time I answered the questions and now. In said interview, I say, and I quote:

I like Orison, but it’s really just an action-adventure novella. I think it’s an entertaining read, but not what I’d call thought-provoking. It’s basically a big gumball. Fun for a little while, and then you’re done.

Ouch. I’m kind of horrified at that sentiment now, because that’s not how I feel about Orison at all these days. Shaking the book to its foundations, then rebuilding it Steve Austin-style from the wreckage, entirely changed its character and direction, and to me, it’s far from a “big gumball.” It’s now the best thing I’ve ever written, and I’m damn proud of it.

There’s something to be said about humble-bragging and self-deprecation in regards to the answer quoted above, and how it can lead us to devalue our own work, but really, re-reading my own words got me thinking about the lessons we learn from our failed projects.

Fail, Learn, Repeat

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being among other writers, it’s that everybody fails. Projects stall out. Plans fall through. Collaborations blow up in your face. Writers get exhausted, because rewrites and revisions can be an ongoing struggle. Blogs enjoy a strong start and then languish for weeks at a time. (Cough.) Sometimes, the project we think is The Big Thing turns out to be something small, or sometimes nothing at all.

But we can learn a lot from our failures. In fact, we must, if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

When I wrote the answer above, I was working on an epic fantasy called Daughters of the Moon (at the time, I had not bothered Googling to see if the title was taken; it very much is). Daughters is the story of a young woman getting revenge on the murder and kidnapping of her family by making a pact with dark gods. She learns to wield terrible destructive power that gives her the ability to rescue her family, but alienates and terrifies them in the process. The novel was set against the backdrop of an encroaching invasion by foreign powers, and had an ever-growing stable of characters and a rich, complex storyline. I liked it. The people I gave the draft to liked it. It had problems, sure, but it was a good story.

So I kept working on it. It grew in size and complexity. It grew so large it became the first book of a trilogy. I couldn’t wrap it up in the space of a single book, so after finishing and revising the first volume, I wrote a sequel (for Nanowrimo 2011, I believe).

The story grew larger and more complex still. It turned into something majestic and sweeping.

I worked on it some more.

Then I scrapped it.

It wasn’t an easy decision. It hurt like hell, in fact. But the original story had some huge, ground-level problems that I just couldn’t get past, even if my loyal beta readers could. I had written entire subplots to distract myself from my lack of a coherent ending. I had run circles around the story problems, perhaps in the hope that they would grow dizzy and fall down. And, finally, I decided that it just wasn’t Daughter‘s time.

So I put it to rest. Then I picked through its corpse and took some shiny bits for Orison, dressing my new darling up in my dead darling’s prose. Ghoulish and merciless, but that’s show biz, sweetheart. Sometimes fiction is a form of necrophilia. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

I still love Daughters of the Moon. I may revisit it someday, under a title that’s not taken. Or it may just become part of the writer’s compost heap, slowly decaying as the best bits of it float away to become part of something else.

The circle of life, or something.

Love Your Dead Books

So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes, you have to know when a project just can’t be salvaged. Even something that’s actually pretty good. Editing and revision is hard, necessary, vital work, but sometimes, a story is better off being torn apart for scrap than held together with baling wire and solder so it can limp across the finish line.

Knowing where to draw that line is a deeply personal thing, so I have no real advice for you there. I believe that inspiration is, at times, overrated; that we as writers often hope that our hearts will always sing with joy for the stories we tell, but that ain’t always the case. Some days, we’re just going to wake up, look at our manuscript, and be this far from throwing it in the trash.

And sometimes, that’s what needs to be done. But the question is, what did you learn from it?

For me, I learned that I’m an outliner, not a pantser. That I damn well better know the ending before I start, or I’ll just keep writing while I search for one. I learned that I can inflate my word count to enormous proportions while I flail about for an arc, and then later I’ll despair as I must stalk my darlings and shoot them in the back of the head, one by one. And if that sounds morbid, believe me, it is. So I learned to write a leaner cut of story from the beginning, and save those poor orphans from a terrible fate in the cemetery of prose.

I learned that sometimes you have to walk away, instead of continuing to tinker.

And that sometimes, that can be a beautiful thing.

 

  • Anna Loy

    Fantastic article, Daniel. Though it may be selfish of me, I’m rather glad Daughters of the Moon turned into Orison. 🙂

  • I loved the big themes and sprawling environment of Daughters, and was a little bitter about it being put out to pasture. It had the promise of being another door-stop trilogy you see on the shelves next to G.R.R. Martin’s work.

    But I see what you mean about the lack of focus in Daughters, and the lessons learned for Orison should be amazing to see.

    You’re the artist however, and as much as I enjoyed that book, I’m sure your choices for Orison will be just as good, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

    • I am hoping the people who read the first draft of Orison will be happy with the new version. It is a very different book.

      And it was not at all easy to set Daughters aside. I loved those characters — still do! I’m not ruling out returning to those big themes and sprawling storyline, but I think that I, as a writer, just wasn’t ready to make them everything they could be.

  • Cameron McLeod

    Great article, Dan.

  • Lisa V. Tomecek

    Great post! Your ‘Daughters of the Moon’ sounds like the ever-more-bloatsome Sword & Sorcery duology I mentioned in my last blog post (which you so kindly linked–thanks!). It was endlessly tangled, and it might have even been good if I had had a better grip on structure then, but in its current form, I can’t begin to salvage it. I may never. Probably I will never, at least not until my craft is up to dealing with longer works.

    And there are whole swaths of my first draft of Oath that were unusable. They were well written enough, but they didn’t belong in the story, so even in my current project I see the value of this quite clearly. Whatever Orison will be for you, and whatever my debut work will be for me, the behind-the-scenes lessons learned are far from the least of what we’ll get from them, I think.

    • Thanks, Lisa. Yeah, that’s how I felt about Daughters. Convoluted, and grew even more so from my attempts to “fix” it. The tragic part was, it was perfectly readable and enjoyable, but it just wasn’t up to the standard I wanted. Sometimes that’s the hardest place to draw a line in the sand; the work that’s not BAD but it’s also not good enough.

      • Lisa V. Tomecek

        Totally. And that internal guide, I think, is always the hardest to please, because we know what it *could* be rather than just what it is. And we also know that the market has very high standards and that we’ll be up against heavyweights whose skill and craft are things of wonder. That’s a hard thing to swallow.

        As an interesting side note, I’ve found that among my favorite writers from the pulp era, if you go back to their early work, often, it stinks on ice. It wouldn’t sell to a mainstream print house today. Endings are anticlimactic or almost nonexistent, plots are convoluted and confusing, characters are cardboard-flat. Yet they were published.

        In one interview with Leigh Brackett, she remarks (while admitting how atrocious her early stuff was) that the pulps were more forgiving because they were prolific and that they gave her the chance to learn and grow. In that same interview, she said that if she’d started then (the mid-70s), she’d never have been able to break in because you have to *start* good.

        For whatever it might be worth, I think that’s the real value of Indie now. It’s certainly not an excuse for publishing unvetted crap or rough drafts or the like, but cultivating a small audience with the best work we *can* do at any given time is a means to learn and grow, or at least I think so.

        • That’s an interesting insight. I hadn’t thought of indies as being akin to the pulps in terms of audience-building and a low bar to entry, but I think you’re absolutely right. We even have the stigma and the disagreement about what “indie” actually means!

          • Lisa V. Tomecek

            Yup: “Oh, you’re *indie.* Is it because you’re not good enough for a real publisher?” But as with pulps way back when, there are niche markets the mainstream fails to cover, and there are not so many markets for smaller works or works that aren’t “what’s selling right now.” I doubt the Saturday Evening Post would have published Lovecraft, for instance. 😉

            I think of eBooks especially as a kind of new pulp in that they can be produced cheaply and with relative speed and independence, then sold cheaply and consumed quickly. And not all of them will be good, but somewhere in all of it there’s a place and a chance.

  • Missy Ames

    Awesome article. Any other art takes practice, and many tries that really are no good. Why is it that writers are much more critical of their failure? I’m able to see traditional artists and singers who see their past work and realize it was just the beginning, and don’t try to salvage a song or a painting that’s long gone. It’s harder to let go of written work.