Monday, February 1, 2010

Throwing in the towel

Well, after a long talk with my literary agent, I've decided to take grandpa off the respirator. Wait, no, not grandpa--the novel I've been working on for the past year. It's not awful, but it isn't all that great, either, and I think I'd be better off spending the next year working on something new, rather than trying to beat this thing into shape. As I said to my agent, I don't want to have produced the literary equivalent of the health care bill--I want to have written something that is obviously good.

I suspect this happens a lot more often, even to the best published writers, than is commonly known. It's happened to me before, in fact. But this time around, it took me about half an hour to decide to put it out of its misery, rather than the months it took last time.

So how is it that I could have expended that much energy on something so easy to condemn to the scrap heap? Well, it isn't all bad--parts of it were a blast to write, and even held up to repeated drafts. But some of it is certainly bad. I think that, as with personal relationships, we often make poor artistic decisions based on misguided notions of our strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes there's stuff that we need to write, for whatever reason, that is not really fit for outside consumption. This is why I get a little leery whenever I hear someone refer to a manuscript I'm about to read as "therapy."

This one wasn't therapy for me, but I suspect I'd end up needing some if I had to tease a successful narrative out of it. For now, though, I've got another idea, and an empty calendar, and the sense that a great weight has been lifted. It's hard to complain about that!

17 comments:

ed skoog said...

RIP

Do me a favor, though, and keep it in a drawer. No barbecues.

christianbauman said...

It's a great feeling of relief that comes along with it, though, isn't there? I remember that. As well as promise. (And, in fact, 1 to 5 years down the line, you may discover that what you killed today isn't actually dead anyway, just needed 1 to 5 years to stew in your brain to find the solution.)

Still...always a hard day, when you make these decisions. You can rest assured, though, not as hard as a possible future day when you realized that you fought for and published something you're not happy with.

Meantime, though: happy clean slate day, JRL!

rmellis said...

You know, there's nothing bad about that book at all, and, in most ways, it's a lot better than all the novels I pick up and skim through at the bookstore. But I'm coming to see that being good or bad is irrelevant... what matters is what the book does. Many crummily written books happen to do something effectively.

Your novel just doesn't do what you need it to do. I still kinda love it.

jrlennon said...

Thanks, R! I do think that's the main problem...it doesn't do anything much at all, and the protagonist is kind of irritating. It was more of an excuse for me to do some fun riffing. Maybe some of the material will make its way into other stuff sometime...

Nancy said...

sounds like a noble decision to me

5 Red Pandas said...

Was this the one that had something to do with photography?

Good luck on the next one!

jrlennon said...

Yeah, that was the one...

Hope said...

I think it's very brave to share this. It reminds me of a writing teacher who shared draft material from her then just-published, lauded new novel. The drafts were nothing like the finished product, and I think it takes courage to show students that vulnerability. What you have done is that kind of lesson. Thanks for sharing. I know it must be hard.

jrlennon said...

Erm...well, it's neither brave nor noble, but...I considered not posting this, for fear it would seem like I was trolling for sympathy. In the end, I posted it because of how ordinary it is, and I think this is hard to accept when you're really young and just starting out. Most of writing is failure. Most of my short stories are certainly failures...and taken together represent several novels' worth of "wasted" effort.

Of course none of it is wasted--it is all instructive, and all goes into creating the good work. But it is a bit of a blow to realize that your primary efforts of a solid year won't see the light of day. Less of a blow than you might think, though.

Sung said...

If this happened to me, I don't know what I'd do. Just go to bed and whimper, probably. I mean you almost sound upbeat!

But then again, I've been working on book #2 for two years now, and if I'm really being technical, since 2002 (when I wrote the first three chapters). I probably won't be done with it until the end of the year, and the idea that I can just chuck this thing...egads...I think I might run under the covers and whimper right now, just thinking about this.

There's that quote about how you have to "kill your children" during the editorial process. Is killing an entire book akin to genocide? I know you're not looking for sympathy, but my heart goes out to you, John.

Gary said...

Just the same happened to me...I wrote a novel that was experimental (for me) and it was turned down by my agent. I wept and put it aside. It was as you say probably due to a misguided idea of my own strengths. I would add this: now, when I look at it, I feel a sense of shame for its badness, which in turn I feel bad about because it seems like betrayal - of the novel itself, as if it were a living thing I had once nurtured and cherished and now cruelly abandoned. These projects tend to a be a repository of negative emotions - I know of other cases. But there are positives too, and relief - at pushing the disgusting thing into a corner and leaving it there - is probably also common.

Stephen said...

Congratulations on the honesty and boldness. In my end of the trade we don't get that luxury. Out of the twenty two episodes of my show last season about a quarter of the scripts were deeply bad, but the wheels of production turn without mercy, and so out they went into the world and there they remain on Hulu and DVD's and syndication, echoing out in broadcast waves to the ends of the universe forever. And I have the snarky blog entries and user reviews to prove that the finished episodes are as bad as the scripts.

jrlennon said...

Every writer wants a career where people can't wait for the next thing to come out...but sometimes there's nothing worse than everybody paying attention...

rmellis said...

Okay, that post above is spam, correct? They're getting so sneaky...

jrlennon said...

Deleted!

John said...

Just in case you didn't see it, Ward Six is a blog of note in the Third Coast blog:

http://www.thirdcoastmagazine.com/blog/

Their blog notes your "Throwing in the towel" post.

jrlennon said...

Ah, excellent! Thanks...