I avoided this one, even though I got several thoughtful emails (and one FB message – thanks, EH) suggesting I tackle it. I’ve ducked it for days, occupying myself with working on the next book, translating Facebook ads into Italian (really), re-rendering a bunch of the trailers in HD now that Barnes & Noble has finally put Reswyt up on its Nook Store proper. I played my daughter some improvised Irish Christmas carols on the violin. I’ve wrapped presents. I’ve put in a skillion hours at my regular job.
Anything to avoid writing this post.
But it’s time.
The question, on the heels of the last post, was – and I’m summarizing – “fine, that was a lovely laundry list of the ways you’ll know if you’re a success at this. How will you know if you’re a failure?”
I could sugar-coat that one, or try for some hand-wavy comment about there’s no failure if your creation brings you joy, or another selection from the Happy Horseshit tray, but the reality is that there’s a very real definition of failure for me
Short preface. I tend to divide writers into premise writers, people writers, and prose writers. Premise writers do concepts well, and huff and puff to develop characters and write attractive prose. People writers flesh out characters so real, we feel like we know them, but struggle to put them into engaging and well-rounded stories. Prose writers craft the language beautifully, but wrestle with concepts and characters. Some (and I hate you) are all three. Some are two; some are really just one. (And some, I’d argue, are none).
In the end, writing’s a decathlon of these disparate parts, premise and people and prose; no matter how good a runner you are, or how high you can pole-vault, you’re going to have to throw the discus at some point, even if you’re awful at throwing heavy objects. It’s part of the decathlon. And you try to do your best at it; you hope to keep pace with the leaders while you wait for your strong events. Oh, and you practice throwing a discus like you’re possessed…because you need to get better at it.
Me? I’m a premise writer, meaning that 99% of the ideas I come up with fall squarely into the what-if category. What if your alternate-reality self arrived via a wormhole one day and tried to take over your life? What if the Norden bombsight had been stolen by the Nazis? What if the Anasazi moved deep underground using alien technology? (Have I started books at one point or another with these as premise points? I have.) The point being, I’m not going to write four friends reunite for a weekend on the Outer Banks, but one has a terrible secret. I’m going to write four friends reunite for a weekend on the Outer Banks…but one’s an alien, one’s a transsexual, one’s secretly been a zombie for months but is using heavy foundation to hide it, and one’s a komodo dragon in disguise. That’s just who I am. I’m more Outer Limits than Outer Banks.
I work hard on my people and my prose (and my plots and my pacing, the other two of my five P’s). But premises? They come thick and fast. They’re my strong event. I have no problem generating book concepts – and when one strikes me (as the concept behind Reswyt did) I get writing. But in the back of my head is a nagging fear that I’m a sprinter, not a decathlete; that I’ve got ideas and little in the way of the craft necessary to build them into working books. I fear that I’m underserving the premise – in other words, that I’ve hiked to some remote and heretofore unreachable point in the wild, paints and canvas in hand, and rendered a heartbreaking scene of beauty in primary colors with kindergarten brushstrokes.
I’ll know I’ve failed at this if the concept could have been better executed by someone else…if I’ve wasted a beautiful premise because I could not control it.
Do I think I have? I don’t know. I pushed myself as hard as I was capable of to execute the premise with well-rounded characters and in a manner that’s pleasing to read, but I’m aware of my shortcomings. There are sections I’d love to redo, but there’s no end to my desire to sharpen and resharpen a scene, so I’m not sure where that process would end. There’s no limit to how much better any page of a given book can be made, so without infinite time to craft, I have to put a stop to the process when I feel like I’ve reached the ceiling of my abilities in a given area. How close that asymptotic line approaches my desired state for any particular scene varies from scene to scene; the ones most closely related to the premise are, by and large, where I’d like them to be, but others make me wish I simply had a more evolved skillset in that particular area of writing. I see all the same challenges as I’m working on the second book, and it’s caused me to rethink how I approach some things, but in the end, I have to write with the skillset I have – and work daily to improve it.
Ultimately, I’ll be told, at some point, whether I’ve failed or not; if enough reviews pile up suggesting that I’ve underserved the premise, then I’ll know it’s time to consider another venue for creative expression. Until then, I’ll keep trying my best to throw the fucking discus.
Thanks for listening.