The six warning signs that a novel idea might not pan out

40702.jpgI’ve worked on a lot of novel ideas that haven’t quite panned out, and I’ve also soldiered through on a lot of bad novel ideas and turned them into bad novels. As a result, I’ve gone through the “I’m so excited about this novel idea! Oh no now I hate it” cycle many more times than a writer ought to, and as a result I’ve noticed the six warning signs for the novel idea that possibly won’t work out.

  • ‘Good first day’ test — The novel idea is something I can get excited about as a whole, but my excitement never quite turns into a solid day of writing. Oh, I might work on it in fits and starts, but I never get to the point where I go to bed satisfied with the work I’ve done that day.
  • ‘The cold light of morning’ test — If a novel passes the first test, then it often falls apart immediately when I wake up the next day absolutely hating the book. And I’m not talking about hating what I’ve just written. I’m talking about hating the entire essence of the book.
  • ‘The good second day’ test — A novel fails this test when I can never quite get two whole days of writing to fit together. What’ll happen is that I’ll write for one day, and then on the next day I’ll delete everything I wrote on the first and start over. As a result, the whole thing never grows and takes shape.
  • ‘The first chapter’ test — If, as I proceed through the book, I find myself unable to endlessly revisit and tweak the first chapter, it’s usually because for some reason I can’t stand to look at it, and if I can’t stand to look at the first chapter it’s usually because I’ve subconsciously realized that the voice and/or concept for this book is unsalvageably bad.
  • ‘The second act’ test — A few of my books have fallen apart at the end of the first act, where I realized I simply had no idea how to proceed with the actual action of the book. The thing is, anything can happen in the first act, because it’s all setup. But at the end of the first act you usually set up some goal for the rest of the book, and quite often it’s possible to simply have no idea (or to be totally uninterested in) how your characters are going to achieve that goal.
  • ‘The midpoint’ test — This is the toughest one. Books tend to fall apart at the midpoint when I realize I have failed to capture the emotional core of the book. Really that’s ultimately the problem that lies at the bottom of all these tests. If I haven’t captured the emotional core of the book–the thing that makes it matter–then it starts to feel like it’s just words on a page. Sometimes those words are clever and sometimes they’re. When they’re very clever, I can occasionally write 30 or 40,000 of them before I realize that there’s nothing beneath them.

Now at this point I know someone is going to chime in and tell me to just soldier through and ignore these tests and write a bad first draft and go back fix it later. Please don’t. Even when books pass all of these tests, the first draft usually has major flaws. When they don’t pass them, working on the book is torture, and although I’m often able, if I try, to type ‘The End’ on the manuscript, I never afterwards feel any desire to revisit it.

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