Periscope Depth

when the words don’t come

I will never again rag on a professional writer for putting out a bad book. Not after this week.

While the second book in the Mara Cunningham series undergoes its third round of edits, I decided to tackle another project. To challenge myself, I ran with an idea that had just come to me, rather than an idea I’d been brewing for a while. I was writing without an outline, sure, but I’d done a few novels that way and it hadn’t killed me yet. And I was aiming for 5000 words a day, just to keep it moving.

Seven days into the new project and I want to claw out my own brain.

What separates this project from my other (successful) ones? I have no idea where I’m going. In those other drafts, I had a strong sense of either character or plot, two of the essential ingredients for a novel. Here, I had a compelling vision for one character – and I was trying to write three. And I was making up the plot as I went. That led to my frontal lobes seizing up and grinding to a halt at about the 25K mark.

I’m pushing forward, anyway. I’ve decided to set aside the characters I can’t figure out (for now) and plunge on with the one person I can. This may result in a markedly shorter first draft. So be it! But it’s crucial that you finish the projects you start. A completed project can be remodeled, or salvaged, or at the very least harvested for parts. But an incomplete project will rust on your front lawn and scare the neighbors.

What valuable lesson have I taken from this ordeal? Will I reduce my daily page count to a more reasonable level? Will I go back to outlining projects before I launch myself at them, skull first? Will I study my characters with greater focus? Yeah, sure, probably. But most importantly, I’ve learned to forgive traditional authors their bad novels.

As a self-published author, I get to determine the arc that my work takes. The Mara Cunningham series could be two books long, or it could be twenty-two. It’s up to me. I don’t owe Random House their advance back if I can’t manage a fourth book in the series (TOO DRUNK TO SLEEP, coming September 2016).

Traditionally published authors don’t have that option.

61 hours I have enough faith in Lee Child as a craftsman to bet that he looked at the final draft of 61 Hours and thought, “This could have been better.” But he owed Delacorte a manuscript, so what choice did he have? He got that one out of his system, then turned it around with Worth Dying For and The Affair, his next two. So I forgive him 61 Hours.

And George R.R. Martin? Never again a complaint. I may not like A Dance with Dragons as much as the other books in the series. It genuinely isn’t as good. But you’ll never hear me rag on the man for taking so long to produce something sub-par.

Why not? Because through this creative battle, as I’ve let my daily deadlines wither by the roadside, as I’ve decided to shift focus away from the literary novel I’d hoped for to a more traditional thriller, as I stood in the shower this morning and thought, “Hell, maybe there’s a short story buried in there,” only one thought has kept me sane: it’s a good thing no one’s waiting for this one.

Enjoy the freedom to suck if you have it. And pour one out for those who don’t.

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