Hit or Miss

How can you tell if the novel you’re working on is dynamite, or if it’s a dud? I wish I knew.

Not long ago I finished the third (!) draft of a 110,000-word whodunit. I had earlier joined Sisters in Crime, a jolly group of mystery writers, so I engaged in a manuscript swap. I read the unpublished novel of another author, and she read mine.

As a piece of writing, my manuscript was certainly more polished than hers, but that’s not the issue. As a reader, she was able to spot a couple of basic plot problems that, in my lumbering progress toward the finish line, I had entirely failed to notice. Because I felt (and still feel) a deep affection for my lead character, I cheerfully let her off the hook on the fact that she had not only committed a serious crime but also dragged several other innocent people into a criminal conspiracy. On top of which, the incident that forms the pivot on which the entire plot revolves — and which in consequence can’t realistically be changed — requires three characters to behave like idiots.

The question for today is, why didn’t I notice that?

I did notice it, more or less. I added supporting motivations and factors to try to cover it. What I failed to grasp is that nothing I added actually fixed the underlying problems.

I don’t write by the seat of my pants. I outline. I take notes. I routinely challenge myself not to cut corners but to get it right. And yet, here I am, with a book that I’ve been working on, off and on, for several years, that I would not want to publish, that I don’t know how to fix, and that may not be fixable at all.

To be brutally honest, this is not the first time this has happened to me. I’ve written seven or eight novels. Three of them (The Wall at the Edge of the World, While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and the Leafstone saga, which is in four volumes but tells one story) are good, and I’m proud of them. The others have serious problems of one sort or another.

The first version of the Leafstone story was bad too, though at the time I thought it was wonderful. I set it aside for a few years and ended up rewriting it from the ground up. It’s a whole lot better now. In that case, fortunately, the story premise didn’t need to be torn apart or tossed aside. The problems were elsewhere, so they were fixable.

The way I usually describe my situation is to say that I’m a perfectly decent professional writer, but I’m not a natural storyteller. I don’t necessarily know, at a gut level, what will make a good story. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t — and while I’m in the process of writing, I don’t know the difference. The story feels interesting and fun and engaging to me, so I dig into it, and then … it’s a dud, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with my initial burst of enthusiasm.

I suppose I need a mentor, but I’ve never figured out where to find one. A developmental editor wouldn’t be able to do the job, because a developmental editor works with the manuscript you actually have, not the one you haven’t started writing yet.

The larger question is, if I have an idea for a new book (and yes, I have several), what assurance do I have that the next one won’t be another dud? No matter how excited may feel about a given idea — a character, a setting, a dramatic incident — my excitement is simply not a reliable indicator as to the viability of the project. And that insight, while important, is rather discouraging.

Maybe I should just publish the damn thing and hope nobody notices. Maybe I should rewrite it as a darkly satirical story in which everybody is evil and does nasty things for dumb reasons. Or as a meta-fiction in which the author steps forward from time to time and explains to the reader exactly what’s wrong with the story. Maybe I should shelve it for a few years and work on something else; maybe at some point the light will dawn, and I’ll see how to fix it. But what should I do in the meantime? Can I really summon up the sustained enthusiasm needed to write another book while dismally aware that it may not be viable, and that I won’t know?

Somehow I don’t think Dickens ever had this problem. Probably it’s something in my own character. If it was just this one book, I’d be willing to assume that my first reader was being too critical. But this is the fourth one that hasn’t worked. Maybe sometime I’ll write about those other books, with details. Maybe in the course of explaining (to myself) what didn’t work, I’ll learn something. Or not.

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