Failure is Sometimes an Option

lightbulbsFrom May of 2013 to the end of August 2015, I completed thirteen books. It wasn’t so much that I had a system, or anything like that; I just had plenty of time on my hands and a burning drive to use that time for writing. The point here is not to brag, because fast writing is not a guarantee of quality writing. The point is I had reached a state where I was confident in my ability to finish what I started.

Then things changed. In August of 2015, I was having trouble with the middle of the Willow North novel (which will probably be a trilogy, in the end), so I decided to work on something else for a while. I’ve done that before, writing an entire novel while giving my subconscious time to work out problems with a different one. And I’d had plenty of people ask me what happened to Zara after the end of Servant of the Crown. So I thought it would be interesting to tell that story. I worked out the bones of a plot, created a new culture for the continent south of Tremontane, and dug in.

It fought me the whole way. I made it to about 85,000 words before realizing it was a really stupid book. There were some great characters, but Zara herself was dull. My husband insisted that she didn’t read like an 86-year-old woman, which I think now is true–at the time I resisted that feedback because I couldn’t face the fact that the problem was with the whole book. But the 85K mark represents the point where, having written the same chapter three different ways, I realized the book was a dud. That none of the endings I’d forced into existence–and it took force–had any resonance.

Thirteen novels is enough to make you feel invincible. I was incredibly demoralized by this setback, not least because I had no idea what had gone wrong. Later analysis suggested that I’d written myself into a corner and that Jacob was right about Zara not behaving like an old woman, but at the time it was just frustrating. And I admit to being prideful. Most authors have at least one trunk novel–the kind you finish and lock away in a trunk because for whatever reason, it’s not good enough to see the light of day–and there was no reason I should be different. So I locked Voyager of the Crown in its own file (I am too superstitious to just delete it) and went on to write the four interrelated short stories that became Exile of the Crown.

But I couldn’t get the idea of a Zara novel out of my head. Willow was still giving me trouble, the only other idea I had was stalled out, and I got to a point where I hadn’t written anything in weeks, which was a nightmare. So in January of 2016 I started planning a new book. It was an exciting opportunity to explore Veribold and to finally allow Zara to reunite with her family, and I was looking forward to it.

It was worse than the first one. At 47,000 words I had to admit it was another failure. Once again Zara didn’t behave like an old woman, and the plot was just stupid. This time I was quicker to realize the problem, but it was every bit as demoralizing. I wanted to tell this story and it was clear it wasn’t working out.

At this point, there should probably be some kind of revelation. After all, if I wanted it badly enough, I should be able to figure out the problem, right? Problems are just opportunities in disguise, right?

In this case–no.

For someone who depends heavily on outlines, I’m also remarkably dependent on instinct. I can feel when the shape of a story is working and when it isn’t. And I could tell these were not books I was going to be able to save, no matter how much I wanted to, because they were fundamentally broken. I had to admit to failure. And then I had to move on.

So what makes the difference between a total loss and a temporary setback? I’m still not sure. Wondering Sight, my alternate-Regency-era fantasy with psionics, had a very rocky start where I was working with the wrong plot, but I fixed that and the book turned out fine. Willow North’s book, which I’m currently working on, turned out to have trouble related to the balance between the three plotlines–also fixable. So it’s not as if a problem with writing is always a sign that you should give up. With Zara’s books, I eventually realized that a major part of the problem was that Zara was never intended to be a POV character. When I created her, I was experimenting with ways to make side characters powerful, and part of that experiment was not letting any of the story be told from her perspective. The final story in Servant of the Crown, “Long Live the Queen,” was a departure from that, as were the stories in Exile of the Crown, but Zara was not meant to carry the weight of a novel.

The other problem was that much as I liked Zara, I didn’t actually want to write her story. I was doing it because I felt it would be popular. And that’s not the best reason for writing–trying to game the system. There’s a fine line between having an audience in mind when you write and writing not because you love something, but because you think it will sell. The latter is perfectly acceptable if you’re that kind of writer. Turns out I’m not.

Nobody sets out to fail. I’d rather either one of those books had worked out. But if the alternative was ending up with an awful but completed book, I’d rather take the failure.

Nobody likes a critic…

…especially writers who are, as I was yesterday, facing one final round of line edits on a manuscript that’s been through four beta readers and two line edits by different people. Taking criticism is hard, which is why I rarely read my own reviews. Reviews are for readers, not authors, and a reader’s criticism comes too late to make a change to the book. I find that deeply frustrating, hence the policy.

But criticism in the early, pre-publication stages is essential, and it’s not something you should simply ignore. The problem is finding critical readers who share your vision. There’s a sometimes fine line between someone who points out flaws in what you’ve done and someone who wishes you’d told a different story and gives you feedback accordingly. Having a thick skin when it comes to listening to criticism is key to telling the difference. It’s also important how someone gives criticism. In one of my previous critique groups, there was a person who positively delighted in telling people what they’d done wrong, laughing like it was funny that they’d made mistakes. It never mattered whether that person’s points were correct; the net effect was humiliating to the writer on the receiving end. Some beta readers do the same thing, but in a vicious, cruel way, trying to tear you down. Neither of these are worth wasting time on. The critique process ought to be uplifting, centered not only on making a manuscript better, but on helping a writer learn and improve her craft.

My own problem with criticism isn’t taking it so much as taking it too well. I have a very bad habit of, when presented with a correction to the text, immediately rethinking everything surrounding that part of the story and believing that the correction is right just because someone else thought so. Not all corrections are good ones. Not all changes are an improvement. Whether because a reader missed something elsewhere, or didn’t understand what you were doing, or simply didn’t know enough about the historical background of the book, corrections can be wrong. While it’s important not to reject comments out of hand, it’s also important to remember that this is your book and you’re the one who’s going to live or die by whatever’s in its pages. Sometimes you really do know best.

I have between four and five beta readers, each of whom brings a different viewpoint to the manuscript. These are people I trust to be both clear and accurate in their comments, even when they’re telling me things I don’t like. I don’t take all their suggestions, though I do consider every one of them. Sometimes a comment on a specific passage leads me to consider the issue more globally; sometimes I can tell one of my readers missed something important and I go back and fix the other thing instead. But I think I’ve been lucky in never having had a beta reader who was a clear mismatch for my book, or who didn’t understand what exactly a beta reader’s supposed to do.

Line edits are different. In the case of the manuscript I was working on yesterday, the two line editors were assigned by my publisher. I’ve met one of them online; I have no idea who the second one was. And I immediately saw a difference between the two. The first could tell what I wanted for this book and was very good about suggesting changes that brought it closer to that ideal. She lacked a knowledge of the historical period I’m writing in, but was aware of her lack of knowledge. In fact, that made the book stronger because she asked questions that someone not familiar with the English Regency period would ask, pointing out places where the story would be opaque to such readers. And she made a lot of changes that made me squirm, but I was forced to admit she was right.

The second one wasn’t nearly so pleasant. Some of his or her changes were good, and one change in particular made me look at the manuscript differently. Unfortunately, this person also introduced errors into the text, made corrections that showed they didn’t know much about the time period, and had a very strange theory of paragraphing. I found myself feeling very hostile toward this unknown person, angry over the errors, angrier (because I have contrarian tendencies) when they were right about something or made a change that was better than what I’d come up with.

I have sole control over the final version. It would have been easy to just reject every one of those edits on the grounds that some of them were bad and I was angry over this person’s presumption. But this is part of criticism too–not letting personal irritation get in the way of making the book better. So I groused a lot about it to my husband, and I accepted the places where that reader was right, and rejected the things that were wrong. And then I moved on.

Write. But don’t write in a vacuum. Someone is going to criticize your writing. It’s so much better to receive that criticism when you’re still in a position to do something about it.