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4 Warning Signs Your Novel Isn’t Working

by Jennifer on May 26, 2010

By Jennifer Blanchard

As writers, we tend to “fall in love” with the stuff we’re working on—whether that be our blog, a novel we’re writing, a short story, our poetry or any other number of things. I’m the first one to argue that love and passion are an extremely important part of being a writer.

But when that love and passion is being spent on a writing project that just doesn’t seem to be working, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate things.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

In 2008, I finished my first novel. The novel had been bouncing around inside my head for almost a year, and around mid-summer I finally got my shit together enough to write the first draft. Three months later, just in time for my 25th birthday, it was finished.

Then came step two, editing and rewriting the draft.

And two years later, step two is still in the half-way stages. So far, I’ve written and rewritten the first seven chapters about two or three times.

I’ve followed all of the advice in Larry Brooks’ eBook, Story Structure—Demystified. I’ve worked backwards from the draft I have and tried to figure out what all of my structure basics are (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point, Ending).  I’ve recreated my story outline a thousand different times. I even contacted Larry for some one-on-one coaching.

But no matter how much time and effort I put into it. No matter how much of my creativity and brain power I use, nothing is happening. The story is still falling short.

It’s now time for me to tell myself the one truth no writer wants to hear, let alone utter—The story isn’t working.

This realization is still a bit new for me, so the wound hasn’t quite healed. It’s hard to think that all the time and writing and work I put into this novel over the last two and a half years is amounting to nothing.

Another reason I need to take a step back from this novel is because I’ve had other ideas for novels that actually will work…but I’ve put them all on the backburner in hopes that I can still find a way to make the first novel work.

In my mind, the novel I wrote two years ago is supposed to be my first novel (meaning the first novel I finish completely). So up ‘til now, I’ve refused to even consider another novel as my “first novel.”

But now I’m starting to accept it.

I’m still not ready to accept defeat—I might be able to make this story work at some point—but for now, I’m going to set this novel on the backburner, and pull forward one of the ideas I have that actually will work.

The hardest part of this whole situation is wrapping my head around the idea of another novel being my “first” novel.

Truth be told, the first novel I ever wrote technically is and always will be my novel from 2008. But I can’t allow that novel to hold me back from writing something new any longer.

And you shouldn’t either.

If you’ve been working on a novel for a while now and it just doesn’t seem to be working out…it’s time for you to take a step back, too, and determine if this novel is really worth the time and energy you’re putting into it.

If you’re wondering—Is she talking about the novel I’m working on right now?

Here are 4 warning signs your novel isn’t working:

  • You can’t figure out the First Plot Point (FPP)—No matter how much brainstorming you do and how much plot-twisting, you still don’t know what your FPP is. This is the death of any novel. The FPP is, arguably, the most important part of a story. No FPP, no story success.This is the problem I’m having with my novel. I know all the other story structure points in the story…just not the FPP. And as far as I’m concerned, that means my story isn’t working.
  • You don’t really know your main character—Once again, this is the boat I’m currently floating in. I thought I knew my main character, especially after spending the last two years with her.But I don’t. I don’t know her. I know what she wants, but I don’t know why she wants it, why it’s important for her to get it or what would happen if she didn’t get it.

    Not knowing your main character is an automatic recipe for disaster.

  • You’re trying too hard to make it work—If you’ve rewritten the story more than two or three times and still don’t have anything you’d be willing to show off, your story is most likely not working. By the third rewrite, you should have a pretty damn good story going on.
  • You’re censoring yourself—You know your story could be better if you could really “let the beast out of its cage.” You know the story would be better if you stopped censoring yourself and just let the real story flow.But then your mom or grandma or best friend or brother or boyfriend or neighbor’s sister’s cousin might get offended. And people might judge you for what you wrote. Or they might think your main character is you and start looking at you differently.

    Censoring your story is a major no-no. The real story has to come out—no matter how crude, offensive, disgusting or downright dirty it may be. Otherwise it will never work.

Now before you start feeling guilty, stop. Guilting yourself into finishing a novel that isn’t working is an even bigger waste of time.

Here are my thoughts on why it’s OK to set the non-working novel aside (for now):

  • You can always go back to it later—If at some point in the future an idea strikes you that makes the story work, by all means go back and finish it. But as of right now, if the story isn’t working, it’s time to move on.
  • Starting a new project can help you get ideas for your other novel projects—It’s true that working on several things at once does spread you a little thin, but it’s also true that working on one project will give you ideas for your other projects, and vice-versa.
  • There’s no reason to allow a single novel to hold you back from writing other novels—Unless you’re a writer who only has one novel in you, there’s no reason you should spend so much time focusing on one story. Especially if it’s not working.

I think what often happens is we get so obsessed with “making it work” or we are so in love with the story idea or one of the characters that we just can’t see past the fact that the story isn’t working.

This is another part of the problem for me (man, this novel is just full of problems!).

I am so in love with my novel’s title that I am literally standing on my head and doing back-flips trying to make this sucker work. I’ve been adjusting the story so that I can still use the title. Huge, HUGE problem.

So I’m taking the next week to allow this shift in my focus to happen. I’m taking the next week to mourn the end of my work on my first novel (for now). I’m taking the next week to get my mind used to the idea of another novel possibly being my “first” novel.

Then I’m going full-steam-ahead on one of the awesome ideas I have written down and planned out that actually has a future.

Are you floating in my boat? Is the novel you’re working on right now (or have been working on) not going to happen? Do you have any additional warning signs to add to my list?

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is founder of Procrastinating Writers. For more great writing tips, articles and information, follow her on Twitter.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paulo Campos May 26, 2010 at 12:04 pm

This is exactly what happened to me three years ago. I had a draft complete and was thrilled. Then found all kinds of problems when I returned six months later to revise it.

I realized it wasn’t working when I came to the conclusion I was trying so hard to keep it together I hadn’t gone to bed satisfied with my work for quite a while. (I like to assess a day’s work while I’m going to sleep. If I have a long stretch of gloomy nights, something’s wrong).

I was pretty depressed for a while, but eventually got interested in other ideas and began writing energetically again. A year later, one of the ideas I began working on was missing something and I realized that the part of my abandoned novel that had really captured my imagination fit perfectly.

The two together lead me to the complete novel I’m revising now. This revision is coming along better, but is still an up and down experience. Fresh ideas are occurring to me all the time and it’s kind of infuriating not being able to do more than jot them down for later.

I took solace when I left that novel knowing that many writers who I admire shelved their first novels as well.

2 jennifer blanchard May 26, 2010 at 1:06 pm

@Paulo Campos Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’m really glad to hear that you ended up being able to go back to your novel and finish it. Bravo. And I think you made a really great point–many writers shelve their first novels. I think the first novel is a learning experience, and sometimes it’s better for it not to see the light of day. We can’t all be Stephanie Meyer 🙂

3 Lou Riddell May 26, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Great article! I particularly took note about not censoring yourself. I had that problem with my first ms…started out writing it as a YA fantasy novel, but it just didn’t work, so I took it up several levels and ended up with a couple of spicy scenes here and there (but they fit the story). Part of me still worries about what certain people will think if they read it, but another part of me doesn’t care, because it’s a good story (my agent thinks so too, luckily for me). I’ve since stopped censoring myself and it’s working out very well.

4 Suzannah May 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm

This is a fantastic article. I was in a similar boat with the novel I wrote a couple of years back. Fortunately, I realized it wasn’t working before I hit the major revisions, and decided to abandon it in favour of something else.

The difference between that and my current WIP is I have so much more knowledge now. Things are going according to plan, and I hope to be finished by the end of this year.

I still love my first book (and the title, like you!), but now that I’m more experienced, I can see returning to the same story in the future, only completely rewriting it. By that, I mean not even looking at the original.

5 Vicky May 26, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Oh My God! My novel is doomed!
I mean, yes, it’s been put aside for almost six months now and I haven’t been able to write a single line since them, but I just love the idea so much. Problem is I can’t figure out what to do with it. It’s awesome in my head, but once I write it it’s bulshit.
I have at least two other stories going on that have been put aside more than a year ago. I think one of those might actually work if I change a few things.
One of the things about ‘stuck’ novels is that sometimes the whole story is not working beacuse of one thing you wrote and if you’d just change that, it would all be fine again. But sometimes it seems that once you wrote something you can not change it back, I kinda feel like I’m betraying my story if I change something, but that’s what we were supposed to do, right? Write the best for the story even if it wasn’t your first idea?
Well, this was very useful, thank you. I guess I’ll put my novel to rest in peace for a while and start working on something else.

6 Monica Rodriguez May 27, 2010 at 9:58 am

Great post, Jennifer. I fear I may be headed in your direction, but I’m not there quite yet. I’m only on the first pass of revisions on my first novel, but I’m making a LOT of changes. My FPP is firmly planted (thank you, Larry!), and my second plot point is just as clear. Midpoint… not so much. What I did change (entirely) were the pinch points. Now my trouble is working in everything in between. And making sure the character arcs complete themselves. At this point, I still have one character disappearing entirely!

So, a lot of work ahead of me, and I feel I could end up in your camp, and I’m not giving up yet. But thank you for letting me know that, if I do find myself faced with that decision, I’m not the only one and not a total failure!

7 jennifer blanchard May 27, 2010 at 11:34 am

@Lou Riddell Stay posted–I have an article coming next Wednesday about not censoring your writing.

@Suzannah You’re so right. I feel that same way–like I know a lot more now (thanks to Larry!) and so I can proceed on my new novel idea knowing that I have all the tools to make it happen this time. And yea, if I do go back to my first novel, I’m going to rewrite the entire story. Glad to hear your novel is going so well!

@Vicky Yes, that is unfortunately something that’s very difficult to deal with. When we are so in love with an idea (or in my case, a title), it can be like getting rid of your child or something. It’s that personal. But if we want to be successful writers, we have to learn how to “kill our darlings” as Holly Lisle says. We have to learn how to look at our story unbiased and decide if it will work or if it needs to be changed. I think once you can find a way to move away from the attachment you have to your story, that will help. A shift in mindset has to happen. You’ll get there. 🙂

@Monica Rodriguez Just the fact that you’re attempting a novel makes you a success, even if the novel doesn’t end up being. Writing a novel is hard work. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. (Or probably has never actually written one.) I’m glad to hear your FPP is in place thou. That’s the most important part. If you have that, you’ll figure out the rest. Good luck and keep me posted on your progress!

8 Lisahgolden May 27, 2010 at 3:02 pm

This post could not have come at a better time. I’m on my second rewrite and have taken out a character who was complicating the story (not in a good way). He and his plot need their own story. Anyway, I’ve been determined to muddle through the original, putting this new character and his story on that backburner. Maybe it’s time to switch priorities for a bit. Thank you.

9 jennifer blanchard May 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm

@lisahgolden You’re welcome. I’m glad this post was useful for you. Thanks for commenting.

10 Christine H May 28, 2010 at 5:49 am

I am in exactly the same situation and I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know that I am not alone. (I found this post via a link from the South Jersey Writer’s Group, btw.)

However, I am still working on my story, unwilling to give up. I feel like in the past week or so I’ve had a major breakthrough. Part of the reason I haven’t given up is that, unlike many writers, I don’t have dozens of stories banging around in my head waiting to be written. This is pretty much it. I’ve been developing it further and further in my mind while being a mom, teacher, etc. for the past three years. If anything, the problem is that I have too much material. (It’s a fantasy, so there are a lot of world-building details involved, including a language I created for it.)

I feel that if I can’t make this one work, what makes me think the next one would be better? I need to push past these issues. The learning curve is huge, but every revision gets better. I keep reading blogs and writing books, talking to other writers, giving and getting critiques, and so on.

The key, for me, is realizing that there is a difference between *writing* and *storytelling*. You *write* your first draft, but the revision process is *storytelling*. I think Stephen King said something about taking out everything that isn’t “story.” I had to make some changes as to the starting point to bring the central conflict into the very first scene. I had to shift the focus away from my characters and their environment and find the PLOT. Once I did that, I’m finding that not only is the revision process being streamlined, but my characters are coming to life in ways I never imagined before. (One of them was kissing someone in the corner the other day and I had to rein that in pretty quickly. Hello, this is not a romance novel, okay?)

So I think it depends on the story you have, how much conflict is there to work with, and how committed you are to finding the thread of your plot among all the other stuff.

11 jennifer blanchard May 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

@Christine H. Maybe you can help me! Because I’ve been having a hell of a time trying to figure out what my central plot truly is. 🙂

I think you make a good point–if you feel like you can make your story work, then you do have to push through. You have to do whatever it takes to get the story done. But if, in a case like mine, you’re finding that the story just won’t work no matter how much you twist it, change it, simplify it, etc…then I’d say put it away, for now.

That’s the other thing… I’m not telling writers to put their novels away completely. I’m simply suggesting if the one you’re working on just is not working and the blood is starting to form on your forehead, then maybe it’s time to give this story a breather and work on something else.

As always, every writer has to do what works for them.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

12 Mark May 30, 2010 at 10:10 am

Let me offer the alternative argument. Your book is a wild animal. It came from the shadows of your subconscious, and you managed to let it free on the page. But then, in your edits, you attempt to cage it in a ‘plot by numbers structure’ offered by someone who is profiting from turning an art into an equation. Why not re-examine it from your characters’ points of view, explore every possible conflict (internal/external) that drives them, and then hone it into a tightly woven story. I for one wouldn’t be so quick to toss it.

13 Sandra May 31, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Great article, Jennifer!

I have ideas for novels but I’m yet to try writing any of them. Part of what has me procrastinating is simply being overwhelmed by all the rules and “don’ts” that I’ve been learning over the last year and a half since starting my writing course and beginning to look deeper into writing.

Some of it I can’t even seem to understand.

I will ask, how do you know your other ideas of yours will work? How can you tell before you even start writing that an idea will be workable? That could really be of help to me. At this point I’ve got to where I don’t think any ideas I have will work, so it could be handy to know what you are seeing in the ideas that you know will be workable.

Thanks again for these insights!

Sandra

14 jennifer blanchard June 1, 2010 at 5:30 pm

@Mark How would you suggest a writer learn more about what their characters want? I often hear writers say their characters “wrote” the story for them. My writing doesn’t unfold like that. I come up with everything–not my characters. I’d be interested to hear how you suggest someone allow their characters to take the lead.

@Sandra For me, I know my other ideas will work because just by thinking about them, I already know what all my major story milestones will be. Whereas with the book I’m setting aside for now, I have no freaking clue what my story milestones are, and especially my first plot point, which is the most important point.

For example, in the novel I referenced in the post above, like I said, I have no idea what my FPP is. However, in the novel I want to start working on…I know my FPP is when the main character gets passed over for the promotion she worked hard for and deserved. This changes everything for her–it changes the whole story. So I know it’s my FPP.

15 jennifer blanchard June 2, 2010 at 11:49 am

I came across this article via @Paulo Campos…. worth checking it out: http://www.yingleyangle.com/2010/04/5-tips-to-keep-revising-when-youre-not.html

16 Andrew Toynbee June 10, 2010 at 7:17 am

Looks like a lot of us have the same kind of problems!

I’ve left two stories (they can’t really be called novels yet) on the back burner and they remain alive in my mind rather than shelved or forgotten. The first was a 43,000 words long sci-fi story – the first I had ever plotted out from start to finish, but not my first ever story.
It was hard letting go of it, but I knew it needed time to marinate. I wasn’t doing it justice, just like Vicky said above – it wasn’t emerging as a good story.
I’ve had to let a second story go too – this one had much more time invested into it and was consequently even more difficult to walk away from.
234,000 words and three years is a significant chunk of a writer’s life.
But it freed me up to storm ahead with my Fantasy Romance novel (people kissing in the corner? Maybe.) that has grown from First Draft to 24,000 words in a relatively short space of time (I only conceived the idea in February!). I plan to have it completed before the end of the summer, in front of an Agent and hopefully a publisher before the end of the year.
If I hadn’t walked away from the previous two stories this would never have been possible. I would still be tweaking, editing and self-censoring the second story even now.
I know it.
So let them go – like growing children. If you love them and they are still are a part of you, they’ll come back and be part of your life once more.

17 Andrew Toynbee June 10, 2010 at 7:35 am

Oh, Jennifer. My characters often take over scenes and need frequent reining in.
I know many writers don’t believe this can happen (I admit that it does sound a bit daft! But it happens.) but I believe it might stem from having created strong characters (or at least well-established ones) with clear motives.

When I’m in Muse mode, writing dialogue, a character can leave the well-chosen track and head down a different road altogether. By the time my fingers have stopped moving, the new conversation is already underway. I am then faced with a choice; Hit Delete or go with the new coversation and see where the chat leads. If it’s relevant, or new and exciting, I stay with it. If it leads me down a dead-end, I won’t scrap it entirely, but Cut and Paste it into my Recycling area – from where I may retrieve it later. That bit of dialogue might even inspire a new chapter, idea or complete novel.

So allow your characters some freedom within the story and they might just surprise you by doing something unexpected – something you’d never normally have plotted. Whatever they do, it’ll be within character (it has to be for this theory to be valid)

18 jennifer blanchard June 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

@Andrew Toynbee A “Recycling Area?” What a cool idea! Especially for writers who are afraid to toss anything for fear that they might need it later. I’m going to try that one for sure!

19 Rin August 4, 2010 at 1:47 am

I think it’s ok to rewrite a lot. You should be able to admit if the story will work or not, though, but rewriting a ton isn’t necessarily bad. Just don’t edit to death. But remember, even Ernest Hemingway edited 7 times before he was satisfied.

20 K.L. Cain November 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I am on my fourth re-write of my second-and-a-half novel (I consider my first unpublished novel something from my past that will stay there, and my second sort of evolved into this one, though I acknowledge they’re not the same book).

My first two re-writes didn’t work, but then I set it in a different time period for the third re-write and it worked. Most of these revisions are acknowledging problems that come with writing the skeleton of the story and not fleshing it out in the first draft (I was afraid I’d lose my thunder if I spent too much time getting everything perfect) and the fact that I come up with more believable ideas when I think about it.

My other issues aren’t that the book doensn’t work, but that I am a perfectionist with a serious lack of self-confidence. I’m young, still in my teens, and I’m writing fantasy. My characters come from poverty (like myself) and feel like outcasts from society (like myself), however they’re from major cities (I live in Appalachia), and are going through experiences I have yet to have, or that are impossible for anyone to have. I always feel like I can’t make it believable or convincing and I have no compulsion to write about where I came from.

Everyone tells me that I have a real talent for portraying the human experience no matter what circumstances I set up, but they’re never good enough. I find plotholes and I can’t leave them be. I find slight inconsistencies in dialogue and the whole thing has to change. I’m satisfied with one chain of events and then it seems dumb or inadequate.

I have all of my plot points in perfect order, I know my characters inside and out, I’m proud of what I have even if it isn’t good enough, and it’s not at all censored.

I guess I just want to write something that is not only publishable and sellable, but great. It’s like the news stories I write for the college paper: my last story got all kinds of praise and it impressed everyone but I didn’t think it was good enough. I’m starting to wonder if ambition can make a novel not work.

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