There comes a time when every writer has to face the awful thought that they may have to kill their manuscript.
“Often when I sat down to work,” wrote Michael Chabon about a novel he ditched after five years of work. “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”
It's hard to be sure for a while, then when it becomes clear, axing that book feels like a release.
Nothing is ever lost. You learn, you get better. Sometimes, as with the plot a novel, you have to go through a few ordeals to learn to turn and face the enemy. The enemy, in novels and life, is so often internal. But usually, there's a blind spot. Clarity, vision, can come a little later than you'd like.
If you have more than a niggling feeling that something's wrong with your novel, if you're worried it's not showing any signs of life, here are some clues as to what has caused the sickness and how to tell if your novel is dead or alive.
1. It's My Life
Symptom; you feel embarrassed or unable to express the novel concept in one line when talking to others about it, especially people you know well.
The novel was conceived for personal reasons and tells a personal story, inadequately concealed, contrived as fiction. You have used your novel as therapy. If you can't describe it in one line without blushing because the person you're speaking to knows it's partly your story, you have a terminal manuscript illness that won't get better no matter how many shocks you administer in draft after draft. You have to kill it sooner rather than later.
Tell yourself you've worked out a lot of things which you can now put aside to tell a real story, and in the craft of that story you will find more relief ironically through creative fiction than you have found through writing so close to the bone. Heal others to heal yourself. Can't find anyone worse or worse off than you? Make 'em up.
Of course, many writers write auto-fiction and fictionalise their memoirs, and that's fine. The test here is if you can talk about it and own up to it. If you can you probably have sufficient psychic distance to create a story from your experience. if you're squeamish, you don't.
Medical opinion; if the core concept of your novel makes you nauseous, declare life extinct.
2. The Stiff Peaked Meringue
Symptom: the romance is over, you feel sick to death of your novel and just want someone to buy the damn manuscript but it keeps getting rejected and you've come to hate it.
It's draft number 44 and you've worked and worked that novel until the words appear before you with all the charm of blocks of Lego.
Writing a novel like making a Pavlova, you can beat those egg whites many times, but one time too many and it's stiff without any of the delicious goo. A novel needs a little goo; that sentimental, yearning, longing, magic and mysticism which logic can't quite configure. It needs air too.
Air is the space between apparently unconnected thoughts. It's in the gaps between suggestion, intrigue and fact which allow the reader to enter into the story.
A novel can become a deflated punchbag, but you can pump air back into it.
Medical opinion; apply treatments as follows.
For less severe cases; cut, cut, cut. Everything not strictly necessary MUST go. Enjoy the artistry of creating shape and giving new life by cutting dead wood.
For more serious cases; set your material aside, print it out if you feel happier having it close by, and rewrite the first chapter through the eyes of a different narrator. Try a smaller character as observer-narrator. Try the first person voice or the third. Try present tense or past. Try a reflective tone of voice or a defeated humourous tone. Change location. Change ages. Change the genders.
Think about which character really does it for you...the one you wish you could include in every scene then bring him or her upfront as the torch-bearer. Let them issue a warning early on, get the reader on his or her toes, and include the reader early door in your love affair with that character. When you both fancy the same player, you can be more complicit.
The first chapter is the template for all that follows and sets the bar, so you have to get it right and once the head is out, the body will follow. Check out last week's blog to see how Scott Fitzgerald did it with Gatsby.
You can rescue the novel if you can bear to beat the eggs again. The novel may not be dead. Many novels are saved by a change of perspective at the whisk end!
3. Cardboard Cut-Outs
Symptom; you think you have writer's block, you just can't write the next scene. You're stuck.
I usually diagnose this ailment quite quickly with my writers as a defect in the main character. You've either assumed they look like you and think like you so you've written them blandly, without mannerisms, tics or redeeming qualities, or you've not seen them at all, and you still can't see them.
Medical opinion; resuscitation by mouth.
You need to go back to the beginning and rework your manuscript and this time do the homework and create real people. This is where the Ninety Day Novel ® course kicks off for our writers, just after we crack the one-sentence viable idea, we go straight to casting it to prove the theme with just the right - and oh-so-wrong - choice of people. There is plenty of material on how to pastiche using one aspect of yourself and other characteristics robbed from people you know on this that should help you nail the key cast members.
Once you've nailed the characters, and know their moral range, their flaws and qualities, writing any scene is a joy. You just open the door and let them in. In my favourite scenes, the cast surprise me by throwing the script out the door, behaving deplorably or acting with surprising compassion.
How to be Sure of Your Next Novel? Get A Hero!
I wrote two manuscripts before my first novel was published. I'm damned glad now they're not published. Last month, I wrote to Penguin and withdrew a novel from their consideration. I have never regretted a novel I didn't publish.
It's easy really, you have to admire the thing. If you admire it, you're in good shape. How do you admire your own novel? Simple. Because you admire the hell out of at least one character. He or she has your heart, and you owe it to them to hang on in there and see what the pair of you can make of things. If there's no one you admire in your novel -nif there's no one in it you'd give your life for, no one you'd say - let him or her have 90 days, 9 months, 9 years of my life because they deserve it - then you'd better start making that person. Often that 'hero' or 'heroine' starts off as not so admirable, but by the end of your novel, we have had a glimpse of their utter greatness.
In an age without heroes, we need fiction more than ever, as a lightning rod.
Go get a hero.
“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” He killed “Fountain City” in 1992, five and a half years of work wasted.
That’s why you’ve never read “Fountain City,” just as you’ve never read John Updike’s “Willow,” Junot Díaz’s “Dark America” or Jennifer Egan’s “Inland Souls” — all abandoned by their authors after years of toil and piles of pages.
In 1925 Evelyn Waugh burned his unpublished first novel, “The Temple at Thatch,” and attempted to drown himself in the sea. Saul Bellow was well into “The Butterfly and the Crab,” a novel about two patients in adjoining hospital beds, when he dropped it in 1949 to write “The Adventures of Augie March.”
Elizabeth McCracken spent four and a half years on what was to be her third novel, “Marvelous,” before giving it up in 2005.
“Oh my heavens!” she said. “It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.”
(Kill it. Feel better. Get better.)
If you’re just starting out, you’d be wise to start with The Classic Course which will help you nail the big idea here. If you would like guidance all the way from an idea through to completing a book to publishing standard then our Book in a Year plan is best for you here. If you’d like to get stuck in and start writing an idea you have, then our Ninety Day Novel course would be the jumpstart for you here. You’ll be able to choose your own tutor from our award-winning and bestselling authors, and as a member you’ll have access to our regular writing classes. You’ll enjoy the worldwide community of writers like you in every time zone. It’s a happy place and you’ll find a warm welcome whether you're an old hand or a complete beginner. Discover why so many writers describe The Novelry as 'life-changing' (it's the phrase we hear most!) Happy writing starts here.