Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Novel Sucks, But Maybe Harper Lee and Robert McCammon Can Save It

This is really way too long, so I apologize in advance...

So, yes.  I know.  I've said this a lot in the past year.  

My novel sucks.

It's a mess.

Dead on arrival.

Common advice has always been that a novelist writes one or two "failures" before actually getting it right.  This is a big reason why more and more I'm against easy, POD publishing of a first novel.  Because let's be honest.  Most first novels should never see the light of day, and I'm beginning to think that's the case here.

I wrote a really bad first installment - over 178,000 words - to an even worse science fiction epic trilogy when I was 24.   Obviously, it garnered nothing but rejections.  So that was Failure #1.

I then spent the following six years re-drafting half a novel, also the first installment of an epic thriller/horror/suspense series.  That never even got finished.  So Failure #2.

I swore off novels for awhile.  Started to actually learn how to write.  Struck up the book review gig.  Wrote columns and articles for a whole year.  Finally sold my first "short" story, a novelette of 10,000 words, an okay story that won Editor's Choice in an anthology.   I then wrote a ton of bad short stories, discovered "4thluv" and "token" payment markets just weren't the way to go.

Then I sold my next "short" story, (this time only 9,000 words), which was slightly better.   I was then invited (not really solicited, yet), to write two more stories, one which turned out to be 6,000 words and the other about 3,000 words.  They were "okay" stories also, and in retrospect, I only really like one of those, because the other was just too much of me too obviously "doing the horror story thing".  But, after that, I "sold" officially my shortest story ever, a piece of flash fiction around 700 words.  I like that story and it's better than "okay", because it's very personal.

During this time period, I completed my classwork in my Creative Writing Masters at BU and attended two consecutive years of Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp.  Still doing the review thing.  Edited a Lovecraftian poetry anthology that's very likely going to be a lot better than "okay".  

Then, I wrote this Hiram Grange thingie, which turned out to be a revelation.   That turned out to be WAY more than just okay.  I mean, two years later and I still actually like it.  That's saying something.  And apparently, a bunch of other folks liked it, too.  Then, I had the extreme pleasure of editing Shroud #10

I thought I was ready to write a novel.

But now, over a year after it's initial conception, I may very well be staring at Failure #3.

In some ways, I consider myself lucky.  This novel obviously isn't what it should be.  What if I was able to somehow finish it, spruce it up enough to publish in the small press, despite its shortcomings?  Again, sometimes it's better for something NOT to get published.

I understand now why Hiram Grange turned out so well and this hasn't. First of all, Hiram was a novella in a novella series and not my creation.  I had to adhere to certain criteria, and let's be honest: I'm pretty good when it comes to following directions.  Always have been.  I've always told Abby, if you have things you need me to do, make me a list.  99% of the time, if there's a list, I'll come through.

So Hiram had a "list", if you will, laid down by Shroud.  Tim Deal was awesome and so very flexible, but still. A list.  Something I could adhere to.

This is probably why I should outline more.  Which I did with my proposal to the New York House, but the funny thing is: if they offered a contract tomorrow, I know I could bang that thing right out.  I don't want to start it, however, without an offer.  Don't know why. As passionate as I am about that series, it just feels like something I want official word on before committing myself to.


My biggest problem?

I can't plot.  At all.  Things always get too complicated and muddled.  I've gotten more and more confident in my prose and my characters, and this "big huge mess" I'm calling my novel has a lot of great prose and awesome scenes with compelling characters...

But I have NO idea what they should ultimately do.  More and more, I think I need to tear the whole thing down and start all over.

Things are not so bad.  I recently sold what might be my best short story to the highest market yet, (can't share yet but really want to), I completed a story solicited this summer, and though I'm waiting for word from that editor, I feel very proud of the job I did with it, and I just sent a story to pre-readers that has a better-than-average chance in a pro-anthology.

But I may have to face the fact that I'm poised on the brink of novel failure #3.
Why the Harper Lee and Robert McCammon mention?

It's impossible to pick a "favorite" of all the books I've read,  but two of the finest books I've ever read are To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) and Boy's Life (McCammon).  What amazes me about both works is that they are...and AREN'T, at ALL...centered around their plots.  

To Kill A Mockingbird poses three central conflicts:

1. the mystery of Boo Radley
2. Tom Robinson's trial
3. the looming vengeance of Bob Ewell

But the story surrounding these conflicts is so rich, substantial, all-consuming that you get lost in all THOSE stories too, which really become just as important as the central conflicts.  So you experience the best of both worlds: you get caught up in the lives of the characters and read simply because of them, but then the plot's conflicts eventually come back around to resolution, closing off their arcs satisfactorily (if not "happily"). 

Boy's Life does something very similar.  The novel starts with its principal mystery: whose dead body is in the car Cory Mackenson and his dad see pushed into a lake, who killed him, why - then embarks on this STUNNING journey through childhood, hitting all these small plot arcs along the way, so many I can't even name, bringing all of those - no matter how minor - to resolution, yet still looming in the background is the chilling fact that someone Cory has known his entire life is a cold blooded killer.  And, in the end, NONE of these smaller plot arcs are minor, they ALL seem to help bring about the resolution.

So. Two examples of stories with great characters, superb prose...and plots that DON'T GET IN THE WAY OF THE STORIES.

My plot keeps getting in the way.  I need to somehow get it out of the way, yet keep it in mind as a framework, to keep me from running off the page and bumping into it again, if that makes any sense.

And then we have someone I've come to think of as a master plotter, F. Paul Wilson of Repairman Jack.   From listening to him, I've learned that he needs to get the story out of the way FIRST, so he knows where everything is going, and then lets the characters reveal themselves to him in ensuing drafts, as he fleshes them out along the way. 

Between these two examples lies the answer for me, I think.  Because somewhere along the way, even as I study writers and stories I love, I still need to find MY OWN VOICE.

And even as I've been writing this post, I've gotten more comfortable with the idea of tearing the whole thing down and starting all over.  I'm 37.  I can wait a few more years for the novel, if that's what it takes (assuming neither the world nor the publishing industry blows itself to hell in that time). 

An early guide and associate (I'd love to call him 'friend', but I don't want to make that presumption), T. L. Hines didn't see his first novel published until he turned 40, and I've come to view him as one of the most careful AND innovative storytellers I've ever read (I personally think his Faces in the Fire is brilliant). 

So I can wait.  I've embarked on this whole journey of re-discovering some of the greats: Charles L. Grant, T. M. Wright, Karl Edward Wagner, J. N. Williamson, the Whispers and Shadows collections, so I'd like to just settle into reading those, soaking it all up.  And, I think it was either fellow writers Kelli Owen or Maurice Broaddus who said "You never get back your first novel." That rings so true.  A crappy short story can go away and fade pretty quickly.  A crappy first novel, however...

Like it or not, I've always dreamed big.  Maybe I just need the patience to allow my handle of the craft time to catch up with my dreams.