The Book in the Drawer

Every author has a book in the drawer.  Most have several.  These are the books we wrote early on that generally fell short of our expectations but taught us a great deal about our craft and our limitations.  Some of them are not as bad as we think; most are far worse.  They may provide spare parts for later novels—a basic storyline, a stable of characters, some good scenes ripe for transposition—but they are rarely salvageable in their present state, no matter how many times we rewrite or polish them.

I have two drawer novels.  The first, Family Blood, was written in high school and concerns vampires.  It’s about 60,000 words long and full of big ideas and shaggy, undisciplined prose.  There’s also a lot of shooting and gunplay, along with some fast motorcycles and copious references to what hard rock or heavy metal bands the main characters listen to.  For these and many other reasons, Family Blood will never, ever see the light of day. 

My second drawer novel was my first attempt at writing a novel as an adult (okay, a college student).  Finally titled The Path of Dragons (I say finally because it had many titles while in progress) it’s epic fantasy in the Tolkein or George R. R. Martin vein.  It’s very long, shamelessly overwritten, alternately dreary and feverish, and consumed my writing life for approximately five years.  None of you will ever read this book, because, much like Family Blood, it’s the work of an apprentice and, despite some nifty ideas, some memorable characters, and some affecting imagery, it sucks.

Nonetheless, birthing and raising both of these beautiful mistakes taught me a few things, which I’d like to share with you now.  I’d like to be an optimist and think that I can help the aspiring writers among you just skip past the plodding and painful process that is the composition of a future drawer novel… but the simple fact is, nothing I can tell you can save you from this writerly rite of passage.  In order to write a good novel, you must write at least one—and sometimes two or three—bad ones.  You must fail utterly before you start to succeed.

But, at the very least, maybe I can help you not to lose hope.  You can see that someone else has been there before, and you can, hopefully, see the lessons to be learned from the bad books that will help you write good ones.    

Brevity is the soul of wit

If your first novel is over 100,000 words long, it probably sucks.  Period.  End of story.  Why so many of us start out swinging for the fences and trying to write something epic when we’re young, inexperienced, and have lived only small lives of quiet desperation full of piddly melodrama mystifies me.  It’s probably that whole hubris of youth thing.  You’re young, you’re ambitious, you’re full of ideas, you want to throw them all in the same pot and cook them up into a heady and delicious stew.

But it never really works out, does it? 

More likely than not, your 250,000 word first novel wallows in unnecessary description, cavorts in the not-so-fascinating interior lives of its main characters (and its enormous supporting cast), and pumps literary and thematic steroids into what is, at best, a 60,000 word pot-boiler.  While there is a time and place for attempting an epic, sprawling, multi-characters extravaganza, it’s probably not your first time out of the gate.  Having written a 250,000 word epic that only deserved to be a 60,000 word potboiler qualifies me to make that statement.

The antidote?  Your first time out, aim for brevity, focus and economy.  Forcibly limit yourself to telling a small story well before you try to assemble all the moving parts of a large one.  Read writers who write short, tight books and even study some good books on screenwriting—which is all about structure, focus and narrative momentum. Those lessons should serve you well.

Know the territory (that is, your genre)

Another mistake I made: trying to write in a genre which I liked, but didn’t really understand in all its breadth and complexity.  When I started The Path of Dragons, I had read The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, some Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, and Lloyd Alexander.  That was the extent of my understanding of the fantasy genre: great writers all, but, by and large, writers of a bygone age.  Moreover, my stated intention when I set out upon this quest was to write an epic fantasy enriched by the attention to character interiority and sharp, evocative prose that I found in the books that filled my college literature courses.  I would take what I had learned reading Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and translate that to a narrative with knights and swords and dragons and sorcery.  I’d blaze a new trail by writing gritty, realistic fantasy where there was no good and evil, only complex people making tough decisions in the face of troubling realities.

But guess what?  I was only blazing a trail in my own mind.  In fact, a number of writers had already hacked roads through the wilderness of gritty, well-written, character-driven fantasy.  During the period when I was working on The Path of Dragons (1998 to 2003), Tad Williams completed his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, Steven Erikson published The Gardens of the Moon, and R. Scott Bakker published The Darkness That Comes Before.  All of these books were big, epic fantasies full of morally ambiguous characters moving in landscapes displaying a level of world-building worthy of Tolkien but decidedly short on dewy-eyed ooh-aah.  As I struggled to create something that I thought was ground-breaking and one-of-a-kind, I was really just floundering around on paths already beaten by my older and far more experienced contemporaries.  That they blazed trails where I hoped to follow need not have deterred me—but I would have better understood what I was up against, what was really original and what was merely re-tread, if I done more research into the cutting edge of my genre and not relied solely on my knowledge of the ‘classics.’  I also would have seen how high a bar these writers had already set, and maybe, just maybe, I would have stopped in my tracks and decided to do a little more leg work (for instance, researching what was new and groundbreaking, and engaging in more conscientious world-building) before diving into the composition of the book itself.

As it happened, I encountered a couple of these authors (Martin and Williams) when I was roughly halfway through The Path of Dragons… but by that time, it was too late.  I had written too much to turn back or throw away what I already had, even though I knew, deep down, that works like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and A Song of Ice and Fire were game-changers, and that I was late to the game.    

No matter how hard you try, it’s gonna suck

I read this, heard this, was told this a number of times.  But, I believed it didn’t apply to me.  Technically, The Path of Dragons wasn’t my first novel, after all, but my second.  Ha ha!  Victory!  Likewise, I knew—just knew—that I was the exception to the rule.  I would work so hard, craft such powerful prose and create such unforgettable characters that I would beat the odds and produce a stunning work of uncommon brilliance as a young writer—a work to be hailed by both fans and critics as epic fantasy for the ages.

But I didn’t.  Because I just couldn’t believe that my first adult attempt at writing a novel would, well, suck.  But it did. 

Oh, sure, it wasn’t a train wreck.  There are still passages of Dragons that I can read with fondness and admiration and say, “Hey!  Looky there! This kid’s not bad!”  But passages of not bad can’t save 250,000 words of ho-hum.

The lesson I learned—and that I now impart to you—is not that the first, sucky novel shouldn’t be attempted at, or even that the first (or second) sucky novel can somehow be avoided.  The lesson I learned was this: if you know the first couple novels may suck, don’t waste a lot of time on them.  Come up with a story that moves you; prepare for composition by reading in your genre and working up a solid outline (so that you know what you’re competing with and where you’re headed); then give yourself a reasonable deadline and write the book.  When that first book’s done, put it away and start another one.  With any luck, you can put a couple of sucky novels behind you and move on to doing good work in the time it took me to write a single, bloated, unsalable novel.

Your book sucks?  No worries.  Internalize its lessons, put it away, and start a new one.

Which brings me to the final lesson I learned from the bad books in my drawer: there is no shame in writing a bad book.  The shame only comes from not recognizing how bad the book is, and not learning from it once it’s complete.  If you’re doing your job right as a writer, then every book will be a struggle, and every book will teach you important lessons.  But the work is never in vain, the time spent on composition and revision never wasted, if you are sensitive to what your book is teaching you, and if you work hard to internalize those lessons and utilize them in future endeavors.

I bring up the drawer novel for a reason.  We live in an age where it is now possible for any shmo off the street to pound out a couple hundred-thousand words, run a spell check on it, then ‘publish’ their work as an e-book or a print-on-demand paperback and thus unleash a half-baked, misshapen literary homunculus upon an unsuspecting world.  While I admire the determination it takes to write a book, along with the spunk it takes to cast that book out in the world to let a cruel and indifferent marketplace decide its merits, I would also like to caution would-be self-publishers about the rush to publication. 

There’s a lot of dreck out there, folks.  Boatloads of it.  Every self-published novel that gets released before its time—without the proper editing, vetting, soul-searching and polishing—basically lowers the value of every well-wrought and carefully composed self-published novel on the market.  Just because you can ‘get it out there’ doesn’t mean you should.  So I’m asking each and every one of you who might consider the self-publishing route to also ask yourself this important question before unleashing your work upon the world.

Is this my first foray?  My second?  Is it truly ready for public consumption? 

Or does it, perhaps, belong in a drawer?

Answer that question with brutal honesty, and you may just prove yourself to be a real writer.