When the Novel Fails, Listen to Your Muse

So it’s been a while since I last posted, mostly because I’ve been working hard on the next novel while my agent is still trying to sell the other one. However, things have gone less than smoothly this time around and thought it might make an interesting blog post.

I started working on this second novel while I was shopping for an agent, though I didn’t pick up any significant momentum on it until well into summer of last year. I’d outlined it, just as I’d done for previous novels, so I knew where I was going, but pretty much I was letting the muse guide me. After finishing a section, I decided that I’d started the novel too late into the narrative and so went back and added another section at the beginning. It was working out to be a piecemeal of several different stories I’d written and either failed to sell or never made an effort to sell to magazines. I wanted to write a book in the same universe as “The Hearts of Men” but decided I didn’t want to use Mextli as a POV character. I’d written a novelette that I kind of liked from the POV of Xolotl, the servant of Lord Death, which revealed how Mextli and the other gods came to be reborn and I thought that he would make an interesting POV character. I also wanted to take a step back from my comfort zone and try using 3rd person this time rather than 1st. I did start off writing it in 1st, but halfway through I realized that certain plot elements required the use of 3rd, so I switched.

So I worked on this for most of the year, and I set multiple deadlines for getting the first draft done, but each one came and went and I still wasn’t finished. I often felt as if writing this story was really work and not any fun; with the previous novel, despite taking as long as it did, I never had the feeling that I was doing a job I had to do, but rather I was doing something I love and had a lot fun doing it, even when the critiques came back with frustrating results. I never felt the desire to give up on that book (or the second part, which I haven’t rewritten yet, but will if I can sell the first book). This one, however, I felt often that I would rather be doing something else; the days spent working on it felt tedious and often the narrative wandered away from the close 3rd with Xolotl to a more general omniscient. My impulse was to follow Mextli–who was an important but secondary character–and not Xolotl, and I kept having to wrangle myself back on track. I knew where I wanted to be at the end of it, but getting there turned into a meandering, disjointed mess, with me throwing in any new idea that seemed cool. I added in sub-plots that came out of nowhere and really contributed nothing, and introduced characters that became a drag on the plot events. Even after doing a rewrite that cut 20k words of plot, I still had a tremendous mess on my hands, but wanted to believe that it wasn’t as terrible as I thought.

Having finally made a deadline, I turned it in for critique. I also sent the draft to my agent, to get her feedback on what I’d done, in hopes of avoiding an extra draft between my post-crit draft and the final. And she actually got back to me before the crit group did, and the news wasn’t good. But on the other hand, all those doubts I’d been pushing aside to get this thing done were completely vindicated now: this book sucked.

I spent a couple hour depressed about it, but then told myself to knock it off and start thinking about fixes; a bit difficult without having heard back from my crit buddies yet, but by the end of the day, I started thinking of every difficulty I had with the book, and the one that stuck out the most for me was the fact that I’d kept wanting to write more and more about Mextli, and I’d have to remind myself that this wasn’t his story. And when I thought about switching to his POV for the story, that excitement came on strong for the first time. It would mean completely ripping apart the story and reworking it, but if I’m enthusiastic, it could significantly easier than trying to squeeze some blood from this stone I already have.

Still, I held off on committing to anything until I heard back from the crit group. They pretty much reconfirmed all my suspicions about things and backed up my agent’s concerns about the protagonist and offered multiple suggestions on what I could go from there. In the end it was obvious that the book I’d written wasn’t anywhere near good enough, and I didn’t know enough about Xolotl to understand what makes him tick, so I decided to trunk the novel and start all over again, switching to Mextli for the POV and to tell his story.

I know, that sounds depressing, all those months of work gone to waste, but actually, I feel the exact opposite. I’d lost the passion for that novel long ago, probably long before I was even halfway through it, but I made myself go on. The lesson learned here: listen to my muse. He knows what’s going on and I ignore him at my peril. I had new ideas and they made me excited to get to work.

But I was a little gun-shy now and did not want to end up with a jumbled mess again. I typically do general outlining and leave the scene by scene stuff to when I do the actual writing, but this time I decided to plot the whole thing out, character motivations and all. But first, I decided to do something I’ve never done before: character interviews. My biggest issue last time was that I didn’t know my protag very well at all and as a result he seemed to have no compass guiding his actions; he just did stuff to meet the plot rather than his actions moving the plot along. I was determined to not let that happen this time around, and though I think I know Mextli pretty well, I wasn’t too sure about his primary adversary. I downloaded a sheet of questions for a fantasy character interview and used that as a basis to figure out all my primary and secondary characters. I started out with the characters I knew best and found out some interesting–and in some cases very surprising–things about them. But when I came to the villain, whom I knew so little about beyond basics, as soon as I started answering the questions, I started hearing her voice very clearly in my head, and I was really quite taken by her. Her backstory blossomed and it was far more nuanced and intriguing than I’d ever imagined before, and by the time I finished all the character interviews, I knew I wanted to write about her too, since Mextli’s story is so closely interwoven with her own, so I decided a dual narrative was how I wanted to go. I also discovered something new about another character I thought I knew really well and this changed everything on multiple levels. The overall story arc of the universe as I’d envisioned it in the previous draft was no longer viable.

From there I started into a detailed outline, pretty much scene by scene, working out the whole plotline and making sure that things that happened happened because someone made them happen rather than them just happening (my friend Janice Hardy shared this link with me, which is a little discussion from the makers of South Park, about how if you’re saying, “And then this happens”, then you’ve made a wrong turn.). I worked on this outline for about 2 weeks, slowing down and reading some references when I got stuck. When I got to the end, the book turned out way different than I first envisioned it, but it feels fuller and more connected than the previous draft felt at any time.

I don’t know at this point if the plot as I have it worked out right now is a success, for I’m getting feedback on that before starting, so my road map is completely clear, but this time I have the definitely feeling that I’m onto something far better and I’m eager to get started on the actual writing.

So my second novel was a complete failure, but hopefully I can take the lessons from that and make something much better this time around.

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