Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Failing Up

So, I was supposed to have a book by now.

I haven't sold my novel yet. The one it took way too long to write. It’s the first book in a genre that I always wanted to write. That first book that would be about everything--my mother's death, corporate excess, the confusion we sometimes have between liberty and license. And PTSD, towns that run on exploitation, and a few other things. Because, you know, you have to put EVERYTHING in your first novel.

From the start, the beginning of this novel was just impossible. That poor beast of a manuscript has lived through at least five different starting places. No matter where it starts, or how, it's dissatisfying. I've managed the somewhat impressive feat of writing a beginning that is both confusing and too full of exposition. Talented, published friends have critiqued it, even given me the gift of “hey, you know that line on page 30? It’s a perfect opening line!” But still, the beginning is a mess.

Now, I know I can write. Twelve thousand customers can't be wrong. Nor the thousands of developers who've read my software documentation. And the dozens of people who read my short stories. Can they all be wrong? Plus, the end of this book rocks. But nobody cares about the end of a book they can’t get to, because the beginning was just too…not great.
Some stories are inherently problematic. Let's take someone else's story as an example. In the movie, The Sixth Sense, the core of the story--

Bruce Willis, knocking it out of the park with Haley Joel Osment

--is that a little boy has attracted the ghost of a cruelly slain psychiatrist, only the psychiatrist, and the audience, don't know he's dead. So the storyteller, the director M. Night Shyamalan, has some serious problems. He has to show a character, the shrink, that no one interacts with but the boy--and that lack of interaction can't arouse our viewerly notice. 

The writer did everything within his power to hide what was going on, hide it in plain sight. He did it so successfully, in fact, that I had grown bored with the static psychiatrist character, and so wasn't paying attention when he visited his grieving wife at the climax of the movie, revealing his surprisingly dead state. 

That some members of the audience would grow disinterested in such a passive character was a risk the writer had to take--and it paid off. 99% of the planet responded as expected. The writer couldn't change the fact of that story having a serious problem, all he could do was write the hell out of it, hide it, turn the problem into its core strength. Easy, right?

Back to me. I'm writing about financial fraud, which I find fascinating but which many people find dull or inaccessible. So I tried to “explain” things, instead of dramatizing them, a failure that’s epically ironic since I am a well-trained screenwriter and should know how to show instead of tell!

The solution for how to help my readers understand just what they need to know, just when they need to know it, has proved quite elusive up until this point.  That story is tellable, I know it in my bones. But it’s going to have to wait for a while. I can’t keep writing that first book forever.

Number two is well begun, and I can see that it’s going to be better than the first one, which means by the end of number two, I should have the novelistic chops to go fix the first one with a minimum of fuss.  After all, M. Night Shyamalan rewrote The Sixth Sense ten times. And I’m only on version number five!

I’m not going to stop writing just because things didn’t turn out the way I planned. That’s arrogance of the first order.  Life doesn’t always tell you the order of problems you need to solve.  Staying flexible, trying new things, taking risks—it’s all part of being a writer or artist. It’d be nice to have a roadmap, but I’m pretty sure all we get, if we’re lucky, is the occasional clue. So what if I don’t have a book published already? 

That was just Plan A.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mysti,

I've had quite a few books published but you've probably never heard of me. Still, I think I can offer you some helpful suggestions. First, put this novel aside for a couple of months and start on an entirely different project. Write a new short story and submit it. In a few months, pick up your novel and put on your editor's hat. You are now an editor. Do a rewrite in that mode. Check out the suggestions on today's Author Expression blog. They will prove helpful: It sounds to me as if you have wonderful raw material. Good luck!

Jan Christensen said...

So many of us have gone through this, Mysti--just saying so you'll know you're not alone. My first novel is still unpublishable. But, like you, I started on another one, and another one, and have now written a total of nine. I keep thinking I'll get back to the first one, but maybe not. It seems easier to write a whole new one than to try to fix one that has already had four or five new beginnings and I don't remember how many edits. Good luck with your next book, and all the rest to come.

Mysti Berry said...

Jan and Jacqueline, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments! Happy writing!!!!!!

Lisa Hughey said...

Mysti--Put it aside and write a few more. You may decide after having written several more that you can successfully tackle the problems in the first book. Or you may decide that it is better left as a story to gather dust under the bed (metaphorically speaking :) ). Honestly. I loved the first book I wrote. There were some kick ass scenes in that book, but ultimately, trying to re-write it was too difficult a task and I was ready to move on to the other stories in my head. :) The most important thing to do is keep writing. :)