Failing Stories: Shelve or Rebuild?
Through the years, I’ve tried to be pretty upfront about my respective projects, pulling back the veil on how writing works as much as possible. Part of that requires being honest about the fact that not all books that are started get finished. Much as I am a big proponent of seeing projects through, with enough experience you begin to recognize signs of a wilting story early on. You can try to keep going and fix it, shelve it, or re-write the entire thing, but there’s not much point in staying the course once you recognize an issue. Ah, but how to know if you really need to shake up the book, or if it is just the mid-manuscript doldrums? Well, only you’ll be able to answer that question, but today I’m going to touch on some of the occasions when I had to take books back to their conception phase in hopes that my experience will give you a little more clarity on your own decisions.
Forging Hephaestus: 2 Failed Attempts, Eventual Publication
I’ve made no secret about the fact that it took me a few tries to get FH right. It was always going to be an ambitious project, those who’ve read the final version know how big the cast is; now realize that I had to cut an entire group of characters that were originally planned to be in it (don’t worry, you’ll meet them in Villains’ Code #2). Trimming the size down was just part of it, however. The wall I kept hitting with FH was that the story felt too limited. This was me wanting to play with a world akin to the settings of comic books, yet everything kept coming out feeling strangely… mundane.
The first attempt went down in flames just past 50k, it needed major retooling from the ground up. The second attempt was better, closer to what you eventually saw on the page, but even it died after 60k. Finally, on the third try, I understood what the problem was. Even though I’d been envisioning a comic world, I’d been writing with the same mindset as Super Powereds, with an eye on realism. That works for SP, but this story was supposed to be something different, so I decided to embrace that. Everything was on the table: magic, aliens, AI, all of it. The wildest shit from the comic worlds was established precedent in the Villains’ Code setting. And that was it, I was off running on attempt #3 and I never looked back. I had to find the right approach and tone to make the book work, even if the plot changed minimally.
Blades & Barriers: 1 Failed Attempt; No Published Version (yet)
This is a more interesting case study, as it’s the only time you’ve all gotten to see a version of a story that I ultimately decided to take back to the drawing board. As a side note, for those who have asked about work on this title, I try to rotate my attention between series so that no group of fans has to wait too long between releases. Since Year 4 just came out, I need to do entries in all the other series before I can consider it for the schedule, so don’t expect movement on this for at least a year or so.
So then, what was wrong with B&B? I’m sure plenty of readers have their own opinions, however from my point of view all smaller issues stemmed from a major flaw in the story set-up: I was trying to mesh two different types of story into one and it wasn’t working. B&B tried to be too ambitious, at its core. It was an attempt to widen the scope of the world onto both daily Hero life, and what was happening beyond one nation’s borders. Now, that’s a lot to deal with, but we all know my books run long so excess content wouldn’t be an issue.
The problem was that those two types of tales needed to function on different time-tables. Daily Hero life is a slow-build kind of story, where we can really take our time getting to know and fleshing out the characters, seeing them grow bit-by-bit, akin to the pace of Super Powereds. The United Avalon stuff, conversely, had a clock built into the story and a sense of urgency. When it all smashed together, we ended up with characters that hadn’t been fleshed and developed enough entering a high stakes situation before making readers feel invested. It had more brisk plot than character depth, and I know myself well enough to realize that’s a story I’m not going to tell as well. I don’t know the eventual shape B&B will take, only that I need to get the plots on one timetable and make sure the characters are developed enough to care for.
Crestfallen Lane: 2 Attempts; No Plans to Publish
For our final example of the day, let’s look at one that got put on the shelf for good. Crestfallen Lane was my second attempt at writing an urban fantasy after my horrendous first attempt at a book that thank god exists only on an old jump drive. It was a steep improvement from the original effort, low a bar as that was, but I still ended up putting it away.
This one got dropped for a variety of reasons, one of the most fundamental being that I simply cannot seem to write mystery books in a way that satisfies me. Now I know, there are running mysteries through most of my books, but that’s not the same as writing an actual mystery novel. There are different expectations of the genre and stylistic elements that are expected, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to hit them. As I keep working and my craft improves, I hope that will change one day, but just like admitting I was shitty at self-editing allowed me to overcome the issue by hiring more editors, acknowledging a weakness is an essential part of working past it, and I suck at writing mystery books currently.
The other issue with this one was that it wasn’t especially… unique. My usual style of humor was in there, yet it still all felt rather generic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it harder to feel compelled to finish a project. If I’m working on something it feels like only I can write, there’s more urgency to get it into the world; so the absence of that unique factor can become a heavy anchor on a project.
As I have said many, many times before: There’s nothing wrong with failure. Especially not in this job, where you’ll have to cope with a ton of it. You will have projects that don’t come together, you will have to strip your manuscript down for parts, you will shelve things that represent hours and hours of work. That’s part of the process, part of learning to be better. Just make sure you take the time to recognize what made something fail to come together, learn the lessons that failure is here to teach. That’s how you avoid hitting those same pitfalls in the future.