Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Book That Failed And What We Can Learn From It

@jamesscottbell


A number of years ago a genre author of some repute decided to write a "big, important" book. The publisher got behind him with a campaign, copious blurbs from name authors, all the trimmings. The subject matter was "ripped from the headlines." The publisher was sure it had not only a bestseller, but a mega-hit. The writer was certain to move into that rarified air of the bestselling-plus-respected author. Movie rights would surely follow, maybe with Clint Eastwood attached to direct.

But the book sank like a Mafia stoolie in cement shoes.

Despite all the best efforts of publisher, writer, and publicity department, readers simply did not buy. Word of mouth failed to issue a positive vibe.

I have two things to say about this.

First, I heartily salute this author for making the attempt to do more with his fiction. Writers need to stretch, grow, challenge themselves. That always brings the risk of failure. But as The Rock famously said, "I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive."

But, second, with this book the author seemed to throw out all the fundamentals of plot and structure, as if that was necessary for an "important" novel.  I kept thinking, Why is he doing this? Where was the editor?

The first two pages are especially tough. An attempt at heightened language, to impress with style alone, and no close POV character. It just did not work.

Too many characters are introduced too soon, and in an omniscient narrative voice. I kept wondering, Who am I supposed to care about? It wasn't until page 21 that he gave a single, close POV. I was relieved, and thought, This is where the book should have started.

But then the next chapter introduces a completely different POV. And the chapter after that yet another POV. And yes, same thing for the next chapter. I was confused about who this story was really about. 


Another barrier is that the chapters consist of long slogs of narrative summary. Big chunks of backstory bring the already minimal forward motion to a complete standstill.

And all through these chapters, more prose that seemed designed to impress rather than tell a story.

This is why the novel failed, even with all the blurbs and publicity and push. Which brings up a few lessons:

1. Readers have the final say

No matter how much marketing you do, or how much publicity and ad buys you're able to garner, readers alone will decide if the book is going to sell. Word of mouth is the great determinant of sales success. Even if critics are impressed, it's the readers who bring the food money.

2. Hey, maybe there are rules after all

Some writers are fond of saying, "There are no rules!" What they mean is that a writer should be free to go where he pleases, not feel hemmed in, and that's certainly true. But you know what? The "rule" that you should establish a POV character we care about right from the start, might not be a bad one to follow. If I was browsing in a bookstore and cracked open this book and read the first couple of pages, I would never have plunked down $24.99 for it. Or $10.99. Or even $3.99. I might have taken it home from the remainder shelf for $2.99. That's called consumer behavior. (I actually got the book for under a buck at a used bookstore.)

Likewise, the "rule" that you ought to be unfolding a story in three acts––because that's how we are wired or trained to receive drama––is ignored at your peril. This book dragged so much in the first third that I just gave up. (I have tried three times to get into this novel.)

How about the "rule" that you should have conflict, tension and present-moment action in every scene? The long bouts of narrative summary in this book violated the ├╝ber-rule of fiction: Don't bore the reader.

Or the "rule" that style should serve story, and not the other way around?

Maybe before you embrace "there are no rules" you ought to at least see what the craft teaches about what has worked over time. I bet the publisher––and hopefully, the author––now wish that had been done with the novel in question. I'm always around to help.


3. Learn from failure

The author has since moved back to more familiar genre grounds. I suspect he's better for at least having attempted to write something beyond his comfort zone. Leonard Bishop, the author of Dare to Be a Great Writer (Writer's Digest Books), said, "If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid." In this case, the book was not splendid, but if the writer learns from his bold risk and craft failure, he himself may write many more superb books in his career. And thus, this whole episode will have been to his benefit, and that of his readers.


So what have you learned from a failure? Isn't that sometimes the best teacher of all?

40 comments:

  1. Ugh. So, this captures just about every fear I have for my current WIP. It's a departure from what I've done before. Deeper, maybe. And darker. BUT--I'm reassured, too, because I know I have the fundamentals down. In short--this is exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks!!

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    1. First of all, congratulations of the fear! That shows you are going further...the fear is a sign we are stretching, going "deeper" as you say.

      And I already know you know the fundamentals. I'm excited for you, Allison.

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  2. Rising above the failure is paramount to becoming great at whatever you do. I think this is especially true for us newbies.

    An author, already successful with his writing, tries something new and it bombs. He goes back to where he is comfortable. A newbie's first book is reviewed and condemned. That second book is going to be torture, if the author even bothers to attempt one. That scenario scares the bejezus out of me.

    Is any book a failure? Not if you learned even a minuscule of anything from writing it.

    Failure is one of those words I think should be used very sparingly. Like love. And hate.

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    1. Well, I'll say it anyway: I loved your comment, Amanda. You're so right that no failure has to be without a lesson, and then it becomes an engine of our improvemen.

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  3. I always seem to get on the "this is too weird and will never ever sell" downward spiral at least once with every book. Lately it's been before I started writing it, which is for the crazy-making.

    This post is comforting, because even if things are weird or a little different than what I see in the genre currently, I can at least make sure I have the LOCK in place.

    To be clear when I say weird, I don't mean avant-garde stream of consciousness in the POV of a garden snail (not that avant-garde is bad, just really out there). It's more like the subject material, like portal fantasy mixed with steampunk or something else sort of out there on the fringe.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning LOCK, Elizabeth. That's been my own Rock of Gibraltar ever since I first got a handle on this craft of ours. I'm so glad it's helped others, too.

      And steampunk itself was a risk...but look at it now. Go ahead and put that portal fantasy in. Have fun!

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    2. It took me a moment, but I finally remembered. LOCK is from "Plot and Structure." (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knockout.) Great advice, Jim.

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    3. Sorry Eric, I was half asleep when I commented. I should have mentioned it's from Plot and Structure, since I'm shameless when it comes to promoting that book...

      Consequently, all of Jim's writing books are amazing guides. REVISION AND SELF EDITING is the touchstone of my revision process and I like to use CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE for brainstorming and then during rewriting.

      And thanks for reminding me to have fun, Jim! Sometimes we just have to do what makes the brain monkeys happy.

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  4. Funny you should mention it. I just finished a book co-authored by two superstars of Christian suspense. I remember all the hoopla surrounding it when it came out. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say, had a new author submitted this book, it never would have made it past the assistant to the assistant editor. I did learn from the mistakes, however. Plot structure matters. There needs to be clear turning points. Dialogue must be realistic to the situation. We need a clear hero to root for. Your setting, no matter how paranormal, must have rules that are consistent throughout the novel. And finally, do a little research on things unfamiliar to you. Bot these authors had apparently never held a gun in thier lives, yet wrote scenes involving guns that even a novice would know made no sense at all.

    I suspect that there was a push to get this book written from a publisher. The two authors--fantastic on their own--didn't jive whem it came to a co-author project. But it did prove that two great writing minds can lose sight of the fundamentals.

    Thanks for the post, Mr. Bell.

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    1. Yeah, sounds like a "package" idea from a publisher...but names are not enough.

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  5. I know of one book by a favorite author of mine that did not do well because he stepped outside his genre. After learning his lesson, he went back to the universe that fans loved. I liked the other book he wrote, but apparently it didn't carry weight with his majority of readers.

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    1. Yes, reader expectations figure into this, esp. if a publisher is involved. I know that Grisham always felt a bit constrained by the expectations of his publisher and fans. Only after he had commercial leverage was he "allowed" to go "literary," for one book. Then back to legal thrills...until he could try another. Well, good for him for trying. I think it's kept him sane.

      One of the nice things about self-publishing is that such restraints are not there. If you feel a need to write something totally different, you can. But craft still matters, no matter where the book comes from.

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  6. There are some very famous authors I stopped reading because they lost consistency in quality. You are so right about maintaining the basics of craft. Perhaps the ego got in the way or they lost interest & thought they could produce marginal work & get away with it. But I wonder how many books like that before readers toss in the towel for good.

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    1. Ah yes, the old "mailing it in" syndrome. I sat next to such an author at a book signing once. He boasted how he just churned out first drafts and that was that. He still sells, but not nearly as well as in his early years.

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    2. I also found that some simply got sloppy with the plot and decided they could impose anything (no matter how pathetic) on the reader...my lesson - never take a reader for granted or you lose them as a reader!

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    3. “I served the reading public. The reading public is my master.” Erle Stanley Gardner

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  7. Jim, Great story with points that hit home with me (and, I suspect, with all the other writers who read them). As for failure, I go back to the words of Theodore Roosevelt (often quoted by Tom Selleck on one of my favorite shows, Blue Bloods). It's from a speech, The Man In The Arena, and says in part, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..." Thanks for this post.

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    1. I love that Roosevelt quote, too, Doc, and quote it often. And, of course, anything Tom Selleck says is authoritative.

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  8. GAH! Get out of my head! A couple of days ago I was channeling you to explain to a friend that the reason he didn't like his first chapter is that he hadn't set POV firmly and had dribbled in too much backstory too early. (LOCK is mother. LOCK is father.)

    My failure/learning lesson? In my first trunker, I managed to ruin one of the most fantastic and torrid murder schemes I got to witness while I was interning for the prosecutor. It had it all - evil Ma Barker mother weeping on the stand, innocent victim, scheming sons, a well, and a seance.

    I forgot the fundamental truth of legal work - it's boring. Even the most awesome criminal prosecution is 99% tedium. I wrote about all those procedural ins and outs (OMG - the third paragraph of the search warrant lacked probable cause - *clutches pearls*)

    As a result, I wrote myself into a corner and died of boredom.

    I missed what made it awesome.

    a) The entire torrid sordid premise of the crime, starting with the seance.

    b) The quirks of the personalities, such as the way the too-cool-for-school murder prosecutor would stop, look back at the defense table, and throw a well-dimpled smile whenever he drew blood.

    c) The sheer stone evil of the defendants (Mom, the master-mind crying on the stand that she only went along with it because her son threatened her.)

    This murder (and several others) will show up again and hopefully I can do justice to it this time.

    Terri

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    1. Terri, first of al, it's fun being in your head. There's a lot of material there.

      And anyway, you did learn valuable lessons. Your plot material sounds awesome, and Mr. and Mrs. LOCK will, I'm sure, be pleased.

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  9. James,
    The only trouble I have with this post is the assumption that not having readers equals schlock. Don't we all know this business is like playing the lottery? Or, am I missing "the rule" that it isn't?
    As a reviewer/reader I've seen many books that deserve many more readers. I've also seen many that do well and truly are schlock. As I writer, this is what keeps me going, i.e. hoping I'm NOT a schlockmeister and that one day I'll win the lottery. After fifteen books I think I can say that each one is better, but my number of readers don't reflect that. Maybe we're talking saturation here, that there are many deserving books that just don't get noticed?
    Random thoughts on a Sunday waiting for another storm....
    Steve

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    1. Steve, I did not argue that "no readers = schlock." I am arguing that "no craft = few readers."

      It is a given that some good books go unnoticed, and some poorly written books make bucks. But those are always the exceptions.

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  10. Each time I make a mistake, I'm reminded that I learned from such mistakes. They're necessary for growth. Thanks so much for another great post.

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  11. So what was the book? I'd like to look at it for myself.

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    1. Don't want to make it public, as I don't like to criticize authors by name on a forum like this.

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  12. James,
    My bad, but "no craft" doesn't imply "no readers" either. A certain trilogy ostensibly about a lack of a color palette is the counterexample. Who knows what spells success in this business?
    I do agree that ideally good craft should resonate, but I return to my question: are we seeing a saturation effect here?
    r/Steve

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    1. I guess I would say, Steve, that "saturation" is not anything we can control. If we are writers, we write, despite the odds, despite the "saturation."

      As Gretzky said, we miss 100% of the shots we don't take.

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  13. My first thought at just reading the title was, define failed. My books right now sell more than 2 a month but both of them rarely reach double digits in a month. I think they are good stories and they have good reviews, so those could be seen as failures but whats a guy to do. I too have a book coming out that is out of my genre, but I'm pretty sure its a good story.

    I have no idea where I'm going with this comment. Nice line about sinking faster than a mafia stoolie in concrete shoes and you gotta like a guy who quotes The Rock

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    1. Lorne, my definition of "fail" is in the content of the post. The book did not do the things that a good, compelling story needs to do.

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  14. Thanks, Jim. I needed to hear this today. I looked at my 50,000+ words from NaNoWriMo and thought, "Yeah, but what's the STORY?"

    I'm wondering whether the new serial stories being released by some writers (done by episode and later packaged into "Season 1", "Season 2" like a TV series) are following the traditional 3-act structure or something slightly different. I so enjoy the series approach.

    Meanwhile, I pulled out Plot & Structure and was about to flip through it again to get my head on straight. Planning to log back into Hiveword and go through that process again, too.

    You've provided some excellent tools to keep us on track when we get lost in the story woods.

    Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for the good word, Teddi. That's one of the fun things about NaNo...finding the story trying to get out. Usually it becomes apparent around January.

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  15. Things I have learned from failure:

    1. Nose hair is best removed with something other than a lighter.

    2. When your wife says, "Why did you smile at that young woman in the mall." Feign ignorance.

    3. Just because it comes in a tube like toothpaste, does not mean it is. Make sure to get a good translation of all labels in foreign countries.

    4. Hemorrhoid Cream tastes as nasty as you might think, especially when brushing one's teeth with it.

    6. Always make sure you proofread your lists, and don't skip numbers. You look silly.

    7. Yes, farts light. No don't try it again.

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    1. Remarkably, Basil, I have this exact same list. Except for #5.

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  16. Why did I find this? LOL. My new WIP is a story from multiple POV'S...so yeah. At least I can actually learn from his mistakes and hopefully avoid the same pitfalls. Yeah...after restructuring said book just hours ago, this was definitely meant for my eyes. LOL

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    1. Let me be clear on something: Multiple POVs CAN work, if the same care about bonding reader with character is observed. The problem here was all the narrative summary and backstory.

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  17. Jim, I just finished Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It." This classic story does many things well, but it seems to break many of the standard rules about plot. I'm curious if you agree and, if so, why you think it has succeeded so well.

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    1. As I recall, A River Runs Through It is a novella and written in the style of a memoir. Thus, the structure of it is going to be different than a full length novel. The lyrical language is a big part of its popularity. That, and the fact that Redford made the move.

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    2. Thanks. You remember correctly. I've got the movie on my Netflix list. I watched it years ago but can't remember much. I'm curious to see what the screenwriter did.

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  18. What I've learned from writing fiction (and reading same) is that I will never learn enough.

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