When Nuking the Draft of Your Novel is the Only Rational Choice
|That feeling when you've blown your vaudeville act|
and need to retool.
I have written a draft of a good novel on a terrible foundation. It is almost like I must get the "well written bad novel" out of my system before I can sit down and do serious work on a good sequel to JUDGING ANGELS.
So, now I'm poking through a 93,000-word pile of rubble, salvaging what isn't bent beyond hope, and holding to the vision of a chronologically straightforward, snappy novel like JUDGING ANGELS is. It will be a much better version than the 1.0 of the sequel.
I think it will also be better than JUDGING ANGELS. I hope I learned something at my first rodeo.
It will also be the stand-aloneish novel the original version of the sequel was never going to be. It is a sequel, but I want it to be enjoyable for people who haven't read the first one. (They are meant to be read in order, though, and JUDGING ANGELS clearly begs for a sequel. JUDGING ANGELS can also be read on its own, in the sense that the story is told and the characters reach the natural destination of their trajectories, although questions remain.)
How had I screwed up the first version of the sequel?
It wasn't through bad writing, or flat characters, or uninteresting, twisty plots. All that stuff I can do with confidence. No, it was through imposing a clever "concept" that did not respect the reader. Yes, it is painful to admit to mistakes. Especially ones like, "I crashed my airplane into a swamp because I was changing a tiny light bulb and didn't notice I was in a shallow dive for thirty minutes."
At least my confession will explain why an October 1st submission is not happening and perhaps be an instructive bad example to some other writer.
I had decided to ignore almost all the original characters from JUDGING ANGELS during the first third of the sequel. I wrote about mostly new characters in a new (all right, much-expanded previous minor) setting. And I looked upon these new characters and this new story and the expanded setting and saw that it was good.
The second third was a flashback to the original JUDGING ANGELS timeline, but revealing other new characters in a loosely related, but separate story running concurrent with the original. And I looked upon the characters imbued with depth and personality, and the intriguing, even exciting, action of the second third, and saw that it was good.
It was my intention to bring the JUDGING ANGELS characters and story line back in the final third, in a mighty collision with the previous two thirds. Everything would then proceed with all characters and story lines as a single tale in the same timeline.
I regained my sanity before then, but I'm sure it, too, would have been good.
Good writing is worth a bucket of warm spit.
In other words, I had been possessed by the writers of LOST. It was cool, with flashbacks, flashforwords and flashsideways, but it was not the sequel I knew my readers legitimately expected.
Any idiot can write well. A real writer (which I hope to be someday) knows how to press every word into service of the novel. A real writer (I admit I have no qualifications to be pontificating about what a real writer does or doesn't do) respects the reader. Defeating reader expectations by overturning tropes, head fakes, shocking deaths, unreliable narrators, etc. is one thing. JUDGING ANGELS has been recently reviewed as a violently entertaining corkscrew of a roller coaster ride that also manages to be thoughtful, and so it is.
But having a reader skipping pages to find the sequel, rather than a different novel that happens to share a couple of characters and a setting, is not respecting the reader. I wouldn't blame a such reader for getting frustrated, then disgusted, then ripping the pages apart and feeding them to his goats, then venting with a bad review on Amazon. ("FIT ONLY FOR GOAT TREETS AND MAKE MY GOAT SICK.")
(By the way, my good friend, if you have read JUDGING ANGELS and have not yet reviewed it, those reviews are ridiculously important. I feel I am close to unlocking new Amazonian powers such as recommendations. Please, pretty please, do a new author a favor and add your review to the nice JUDGING ANGELS collection. And if you haven't read it, maybe you will want to after reading all those yummy five-star reviews.)
Getting back to my original scheme, I can still see the appeal - to me. I can also so how unappealing it would be to anyone who had read the first book.
A reader comment brought me to my senses.
"Please don't kill Joe." (Not the character's real name, so I don't spoil anything for anyone.)
History has shown I don't have a problem killing off any or all characters, main or minor. Hell, I killed off one major character twice, just for the fun of it. But the comment made me realize that people care about the original characters. They want to read about their friends. They do not want to be dumped into a different setting populated with new characters with different problems.
They want to pick up the sequel to JUDGING ANGELS and began where they left off, more or less.
And so shall it be. And it will be not only good, but better.
And delayed. It was the same way with JUDGING ANGELS, as my publisher never tires of reminding me. And yet, I cringe at the thought of that original draft ever seeing the light of day. I worked hard turning a sow's ear into a silk purse chock full of candy and spiders. I am very proud of JUDGING ANGELS as it is.
When you're half-way through writing a novel and you realize you're lost in the swamp like when Eastern Flight 401 went down in the Everglades in '72, it may be time to admit you've not only crashed, but managed to crash into a bunch of alligators. For the last three months, you have confused running from alligators with flying, because the alternative - that you have crashed into an alligator swamp - is unthinkable.
It happens to every pilot. And writer.
When a writer knows in his heart that he is spending his time covering his mistakes rather than writing a novel, it is time find that Big Red Button and think about rebooting the whole project. Especially if he or she has gotten cute. If there is much to salvage, great! If it all gets moved into your "background" folders, that's not too bad, either. But sticking with a design in which you have truly and understandably lost confidence runs the risk of submitting, or, worse, publishing, a bad novel.
A writer can survive a delay. I'm not so sure a new writer can survive a bad second novel.
I don't think there is any such thing as wasted writing, although I have heard of blown deadlines. Not that they are like Bears, who actually kill people, but not as many as hippos. (Writers exist outside of calendar time.)
Nothing says everything you write has to get submitted, let alone published. Perhaps you have bravely executed an interesting concept, and etched finely detailed characters with whom readers will fall in love. Bravo! Or maybe your prose soars to celestial heights of beauty, yet with a hoof planted on the sod, and somehow all without getting in the way of the sweaty brick-and-mortar work of novel writing. You go girl!
Perhaps your writing is mature, skilled, and engaging, but does not serve the novel you are supposed to be writing. There is no shame in that. St. Paul says to "take every thought captive to Christ." The image is perfect for the novelist: "take every word captive to the novel."
Eventually. After rewrites, and - just maybe - nuking the damned beautiful thing and rebuilding outside the radioactive wind patterns of your previous ideas.
You are writing a novel, not characters. You are writing a novel, not scenes. You are writing a novel, not dialogue. You are writing a novel, not a story. You can do a lot of good writing of novel length, and still not have written a novel, or, at any rate, a decent one.
Admiral Nelson said a captain can do worse than putting his ship alongside the enemy and blowing Hell out of it. Baron von Richthofen said a pilot can do worse than pointing his airplane at the nose of an enemy airplane and blowing Hell out of it. I think a writer can do worse than a simple, straightforward chronological story. (Although I like to alternate scenes and chapters to keep things rolling. Original? No. You saw where original got me.)
That is the way I always presented cases in court, because that is how people naturally follow complicated things like murder trials and novels.
I may or may not kill Joe.
Live or die, however, he can take pride that it will be as a character in a well-written novel. Not surrounded by good writing wasted on a lost cause.