On Failing To Write A Book

Dear Blog,

I have done a lot of things badly in my life. I don’t remember my brief soccer career when I was a tot, but my family tells me that the coach suggested I was not really a “team player.” At age ten, I frightened off a prospective piano teacher by duct-taping the keyboard shut when he came to visit and sullenly producing a hammer and a set of screwdrivers when he asked where my piano books were. I can’t sing. I was kicked out of my jazz dance class for mutiny (or something like that – jazz dance coincided with my pirate obsession and if you got on my shit list I’d give you The Black Spot). I got average-to-terrible grades in school depending on the year. I was in the math-for-dummies class. There was a time when I was a good runner but my knees couldn’t match my stamina. In high school I was a pothead but couldn’t roll a decent joint. I can’t draw. I can’t mix cocktails. I am barely computer-literate. I still can’t cook except from a recipe. I am a bad driver. I was a bad waitress. I am a passable but not very good parent. The list goes on.

The point here is not just that I am terrible at most things. What I’m getting at is that I am moderately good at one thing. My interests and talents are narrow. Very narrow. It comes down to stories. I love stories – reading them, watching them, writing them. That’s about it.

When I began my first novel, it never occurred to me that I might not be able to pull it off. This was, after all, The One Thing I Could Do. It was a few years before I had to concede that the novel I’d written was, in fact, a failure. By the time I came to that conclusion I had moved on to YA fantasy and was having a wonderful time, so it was sort of a relief, choosing not to attempt another rewrite. I thought “finding my genre” was the answer. Then I failed to write another book. And another. And then a couple of books were published, and I wrote some things I am proud of and excited about, and I started to feel like I had this writing thing worked out. So, if you were writing this story, you’d probably decide this was a good moment for your hubris-filled protagonist to fall on her ass again, right?

***

This summer I had more time to write than I’ve had in years. We were staying with my family in Vancouver, the weather was lovely and cool, and the adult-to-child ratio was suddenly such that I had time to write in silence and solitude every day. No dinosaurs shouting “Heeeeeelp Mommyyyy,” no lego towers collapsing, no sudden shrieks of rage or distress. I was excited because I’d just finished a big revision and I was going to start something NEW for the first time in a long time. I figured I could pound a draft out over the summer. I had about twenty pages of notes / outlining done and on July 18th, I started to write. Chapter One.  Every night for three weeks, Rin has been setting herself on fire.

Almost immediately, I knew it wasn’t working. I figured it was because I’d been revising and rewriting other projects for so long. I’m in perfectionist mode, overthinking the mechanics of it, overthinking everything, and nothing kills a first draft like perfectionism. Just write the thing, I told myself. So I wrote a few chapters, and they were no good. That’s nothing unusual. I write terrible stuff all the time. I deleted the chapters and started over. I wrote six chapters this time, trying to move forwards, but as one day of crap writing followed on the next, I had to admit this approach wasn’t working. I deleted everything, started over again. I wrote, doggedly, and deleted, and wrote, and deleted, and so it went, for the rest of the summer. Then we came home, and I still can’t figure out if the problem is the idea, or me, or what.

***

I have a four year old and a two year old, which means I don’t have tons of free time for writing and really hardly any quiet, focused time. What that means, mainly, is that I can’t slog endlessly at something if I’m not feeling the love. It has to be fun. So I threw in the towel on my awesome idea, hoping I’ll figure out how to write it another time, maybe next summer, and moved on to something else (there is always something else, thankfully). So far, it’s going OK. I think.

But I realized, when I Officially Gave Up on the book I’d spent my summer failing to write, that my failure-to-success ratio is kind of alarming. For every book I finish that actually works as a novel, I have either failed to write a book or written a bad / unpublishable book. I am not sure what it means that I consistently fail at the one thing I consider myself good at, but I had the idea for a blog series about it. I thought I’d call it “Books I’ve Failed To Write,” talk about each failure, maybe what went wrong and why in cases where I think I know the answer, and if I’m feeling brave enough, offer a brief excerpt. (I don’t think brave is quite the word I’m looking for there…). Next week: my first attempt at a novel and What Went Wrong.

Lest I sound too negative here, let me assure you, blog, that I am generally a glass-half-full-of-readable-books kind of author. I might dwell on my failure rate when I am in the middle of failing to write something, but there is still nothing else I do with anything like the same success rate (if success in this case = complete book that I like and which other people might also enjoy, I’m not talking sales here, people!), and it would take a lot more than hundreds of terrible pages or the pinching of self-doubt and disappointment to outweigh the exhilaration of a story clicking and the words being the right words and the moment she slips over the wall and you know who she is and you know where she’s going and you know how it’s going to pay off.

Yours, mostly-at-peace-with-failing-at-the-only-thing-I’m-any-good-at,

Catherine

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