When Your Novels Sucks And You Stick it in a Drawer

By Lisa Alber

I happened to see this question posted on Facebook recently:

For those of you who have novel manuscripts that you put away because they weren’t working (i.e. they sucked), what were the problems that you noticed in those drafts?

Normally, I don’t go in for pseudo-survey conversational gambits like this. My interest that day might have had something to do with the drawer novel that I periodically pull out and then shove back in the drawer. It might also have had something to do with my work-in-progress, which almost landed in the same drawer a dozen times last year.

Interestingly, most of the responses fell into the following categories:

  • Not enough plot: Lack of forward momentum. Episodic scenes with protagonists on the road to nowhere. (Thank you, Talking Heads.) Conflict and goals and obstacles and stakes apparently sidelined.
  • Passive protagonist (often linked to plotlessness): Characters with not enough to do. Too much rumination and thinking, not enough movement. Reactive rather than proactive.
  • Too much plot: Bigger plot than you know what to do with. Situation so complex you can’t write your way out of it. Too many subplots.
  • You don’t know but it’s off: No matter what you do, it doesn’t feel right. (This one’s a toughy.)

The responses got me thinking about my drawer novel and my novel in progress.

My drawer novel is a case of too much plot and my inability to let some of it go. I know! I drive myself nuts sometimes. I’ve noodled every which way with the parallel plot line (I love a good parallel plot line), but it’s too much. The entire thing’s gotta be re-jiggered into one storyline … Next time. Or maybe never. Maybe that was my practice novel … (but I can’t quite let it go!)

My work-in-progress also contains a parallel plot line — heh — but I’m more skilled than I was when I wrote the drawer novel. Nevertheless, something was off.

Head. Wall. Ouch. Repeat.

I was suffering from a case of I-don’t-know-but-it’s-off. My solution was to think bigger picture: voice and perspective. I engaged in a thought experiment in which I imagined the story from some other character’s point of view, and imagined it told in first person instead of third (or vice versa). In my case, this was enough to rock my world and a-ha myself out of my stuckness.

Whew! Massive rewrite, to be sure, however, at long last I’m back to having fun with the story. Which, it seems to me, is the ultimate barometer. If, no matter what you do, you keep not having fun with a novel, let it go.

The last pattern I noticed in the Facebook responses was that the bullish attitudes about manuscript problems tended to come from the more experienced writers; these were problems they’d yet to solve, that was all. Most stories are salvageable, but it may take a few (or more, probably more) years of craft experience to learn the art of the salvage.

Oh, and don’t forget your friendly neighborhood beta readers and brainstorming partners. They save me all the time.