5 lessons from a lost novel

5 Lessons From a Lost Novel

lessons from a lost novelMistakes are unavoidable. To fear them is to fear life itself. To try to eliminate them is to waste life in a futile struggle against reality.

I daresay no one has more opportunities to learn these truths than does a writer.

As writers, our lives are a never-ending litany of mistakes. Certainly mine has been full of mistakes—everything from the opening sentences I wrote for this post, thought better of, and replaced—to literally hundreds of thousands of deleted words I’ve carefully saved from all my rough drafts—to entire story ideas (representing hundreds of hours of dedicated, hopeful work) that have proven themselves unsalvageable and earned a dusty place in a back corner of a closet shelf.

I won’t say I don’t regret these mistakes. I do. I regret the wasted time and effort. I regret the bereavement of loving and nurturing something that never came to fruition. I regret my own lack of foresight, wisdom, and understanding in failing to see pitfalls before I walked into them.

If I’m being really honest I’ll have admit that, given the chance, I’d probably take back every single one of those mistakes.

Fortunately, however, that is one mistake that the very design of life will prevent any one of us from ever making.

I can’t take back my mistaken words, ideas, and stories. And in being robbed of the chance to exercise my own foolish desire to do so, I am instead given the priceless gift of being able to learn from those retained mistakes.

Learning From Our Mistakes

Learning from mistakes is unavoidably natural. Even when we’re not consciously aware of the lessons we’ve absorbed from false starts, we have absorbed them. Whatever the mistakes we make in the future, they won’t be the same ones we’ve made in the past, whether or not we avoid them purposefully.

However, sometimes we will be able to consciously review mistakes at a later date. When this happens, we are essentially getting the chance to go back in time, revisit the cause and effect of earlier mistakes, and intentionally learn from them.

Again, I daresay no one has more opportunities to do this than does a writer—since our mistakes are recorded forever in black and white.

A few months ago when writing this post on the advanced principles of show versus tell, I was feeling too lazy to write up brand new examples of “showing,” so I mined an old failed story. In so doing, I was drawn back to re-read the whole thing.

This book, titled The Deepest Breath, was a story of vengeance and forgiveness set in post-World War I Kenya. Since the start of my career as a published author, it is the only novel I have finished and then abandoned—a decision I used as the basis for this post talking about three valid reasons for giving up on a story.

Re-reading this book after having grown and changed significantly as both a writer and a person was an eye-opening experience. The reason I gave up on the book back then was that I could sense its problems, but couldn’t quantify them in a way that would allow me to fix them. Now, five years after abandoning it, I can see both what was wrong and what was right about the book.

The mistakes I made then were made because I had not yet learned what I needed to know in order to avoid them. They were honest, earnest mistakes, born of the struggle to understand. Ultimately, they were mistakes that, however painful in their seeming fruitlessness at the time, were the very mistakes that taught me what I needed to now see clearly.

Some of these mistakes were unique to the story itself. But some are, I feel, universal mistakes that many struggling novelists make—and instinctively recoil from without yet knowing what exactly the problem is or how to fix it.

Today, I would like to look at five of the mistakes I made that ultimately contributed to The Deepest Breath becoming one of my “lost” novels, how I could have avoided those mistakes had I known then what I know now, and how you can learn from my mistakes.

5 Lessons You Can Learn From My Mistakes

Looking back, I’d almost argue that The Deepest Breath was the one novel, out of my novels, that I worked hardest on. I outlined and researched the heck out of it. It went through many iterations. In fact, to all intents and purposes, I wrote it as three separate and distinct novels along the way.

Originally, I intended it as a dual-timeline story with the three main characters’ “present-day” story in 1925 Kenya juxtaposed against their dark backstory during World War I. I initially decided to write the entirety of the war section first, with the intent of then interweaving it throughout the “main” story (an approach I would now adamantly reject, due to its inherent problems with organic flow between timelines).

After realizing that wasn’t working (based mostly on the epiphany that the backstory had some major causal issues), I decided to scrap the idea of dramatizing the backstory and instead just focus on the main story—about the fallout in the relationships among two men who had met in World War I and the woman they realized they both loved. I wrote one iteration (in the present tense), realized it was a mess, and rewrote it extensively in another draft (in past tense).

Along the way, the book improved dramatically. But despite all my years of work, I eventually realized it was still broken—and I had no idea how to fix it.

Now, looking back, I can see that it actually ended up being a pretty good story. There’s a ton I like about it. In some ways, I think it’s the best character piece I’ve ever written. The setting in Kenya is one of my best realized settings ever. The plot is quietly foreboding, the pacing moving slowly and yet with the power of a train hurtling toward an inevitable collision.

And yet… it didn’t work because at the time I wrote it, I didn’t understand enough about the fundamental principles of story to be able to ask myself the five following questions.

1. Who Is the Protagonist?

The Problem: The one unavoidably massive issue with this book was its pervasive lack of focus. Ultimately, it’s a story of a complicated love triangle. Each of the three main characters were equally important, and I chose to equally balance the story amongst their three POVs.

Nothing inherently wrong with that. But at the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet fully understand how story structure guides and creates a story’s focus. This showed up in several areas of this story, but most obviously in the fact that I clearly didn’t understand who this book’s protagonist was. And if I, as the author, didn’t know, then how were readers supposed to know?

But… couldn’t all three main characters be the protagonist?

That’s actually a question I’m asked frequently by writers in regard to their own stories.

What I understand now (and didn’t back then) was that the answer is an unequivocal no.

The Fix: A story’s structural unity is bound up in the relationship of important plot points to the protagonist. However prominent other characters may be, the protagonist is the one who ultimately defines the story.

How?

By providing a strong, consistent throughline. The structural beats tell us what a story is about. If the First Plot Point is about one character, the Midpoint about another character, and the Third Plot Point about still another—then this is a story that doesn’t know what it’s about.

So, in a story in which multiple characters are prominently important to the story, how do you decide which is the protagonist?

The best way of identifying your story’s “throughline” character or protagonist is by examining the Climactic Moment. Which character is the agent of action in the Climactic Moment? Which character definitively ends and/or comments upon the plot’s primary conflict? This character is the character who defines the story. This is the protagonist. This is the story’s linchpin. That must be reflected at every major structural point throughout the story. Otherwise, your story will fall into the same category as mine—a beautiful mess.

2. What Is the Essence of This Story?

The Problem: Too often, when a story’s structure is left undefined by a strong central character, the result is a correspondingly wobbly theme.

In my case, The Deepest Breath was actually a deeply thematic novel. What interested me most about it was its theme: of undeserved forgiveness. The title itself was a quote from the story’s climactic line when one character finally acted out that forgiveness on behalf of another.

So you’d think the theme would have been the one thing I got right.

Not so much.

At the time of writing that book, I was neck deep in learning how to grapple with the principles of structure. I hadn’t yet even begun to understand how to consciously actuate theme by purposefully creating cohesion between plot and theme at every important structural moment.

The result was a well-intentioned story that, although it may have had some great thematic moments and ideas, didn’t actually execute its theme on every page. Actually, it was kinda hard to tell what the story was really about. Was it about forgiveness? Was it about PTSD and fear? Was it about trust in relationships? Was it about striving against the confines of social class? Was it about love? Was it about friendship? Was it about justice versus mercy?

If I’d possessed a better understanding of how to create a cohesive thematic Truth against which to measure every aspect of my characters’ struggles, I could very well have written a story that unified all these ideas by pointing them toward the same end goal. Instead, I ended up with a story full of half-baked notions that seemed to be pointing in a dozen directions at once.

The Fix: Were I writing this story again today, I would start by forming my thematic idea about forgiveness into a definitive Lie/Truth for all three of my main characters. With so many prominent characters, I would have had the opportunity to explore multiple facets of my topic, but in a way that tied all their journeys into the tapestry of a larger picture.

This, in turn, would have given me a guideline against which to choose which subplots supported this thematic idea—and its ultimate realization in the Climactic Moment—and which distracted from the unified premise I was trying to create.

3. Is the Backstory Pertinent?

The Problem: Something I’ve noticed as I’ve grown up as a novelist is that when a writer doesn’t fully understand her story (or story in general), backstory has a way of trying to take over.

In the days before I understood how the structure of plot, character, and theme worked, I often spent an unwonted amount of time amassing huge backstories designed to help me try to understand what the main story—and the characters’ motivations within it—was really about.

Nothing inherently wrong with huge backstories. Indeed, they’re the deep wells from which complex novels draw their subtext. But backstory, like the main story, must always be focused and pertinent.

As I said before, I originally intended The Deepest Breath to present dual timelines that alternated between the characters’ past and present. Looking back, I realize this idea was mostly a crutch designed to try to help me flesh out character motivations I didn’t yet fully understand. The reason I eventually rejected this approach and axed the novel-length backstory section I’d already written, was that the backstory was a crazy mess of boring trench scenes and unrealistic spy thriller stuff that had very little to do with the main story.

The Fix: Backstory is always important. Even when it is not shared outright with readers, it will always influence the author’s understanding of the characters and their story. Therefore, it must be pertinent. It can’t be a fun, rambling romp through ancillary adventures. It must be the staging ground for the character’s journey through the main story.

From a structural vantage point, the backstory’s single most important job is that of setting up the character’s motivation for investing in the Lie/Truth that will be explored in the main part of the story.

did understand this when I wrote Deepest. In fact, the whole point of the backstory was to create the Ghosts that would drive my characters in the main part of their story ten years later. Unfortunately, I got distracted and created a whole rambling mess of a backstory that detracted from the main story’s focus far more than it contributed. Had I this book to do over again, I would vastly simplify the backstory, focusing it less on all the stuff I’d researched about World War I, and more on the needs of the main story’s plot and theme.

4. Are You Clinging to “Ugly Darlings”?

The Problem: We write stories because at some point we fell in love with some beautiful kernel of inspiration. It’s only natural we wouldn’t want to relinquish that special kernel. And yet… sometimes as a story evolves, it evolves past its early inspirations.

Deepest got its start as a dream—the only story I’ve ever written based on a dream. I woke up one morning with a vivid memory of a man dressed in early 20th-century clothes, escaping with his injured wife on a passenger liner.

I loved that scene. I still love it. It’s incredibly evocative to me on both a sensory and an emotional level.

But I tried way too hard to keep that scene, exactly as I’d dreamed it, in the story.

The Fix: Perhaps the hardest part of being a writer is realizing that just because an idea is wonderful doesn’t mean it deserves to be written. The mark of all great stories is their cohesion and focus. Any element—no matter how organically beautiful–that detracts from the larger picture is an element that must be eliminated.

This principle gets harder and harder to enforce the more time and effort we spend on an idea. Axing an imagined idea is one thing; axing an idea you’ve spent perhaps years writing and rewriting and tweaking and fixing is a thousand times more difficult—not least because familiarity and propinquity cause us to lose perspective.

When I wrote this book, I had a hard time cutting elements that, at the time, felt like the whole point. Today, from a more distant perspective, I could dispassionately identify, chop, and rearrange for the story’s greater benefit.

5. Do You Truly Understand the Story You’re Trying to Tell?

The Problem: Stories are strange beasts. Sometimes the story we think we’re telling isn’t the story at all. Other times, we may understand what we’re trying to do, but get hung up on habitual techniques and approaches that don’t serve the art as well as they might.

Five years later, I recognize The Deepest Breath is an entirely different type of story from anything else I’ve ever written. It’s more character-focused, less plot-driven. It’s darker. It’s quieter. It’s more realistic, more literary.

I knew all of that, on some level, when I wrote it. And yet—I still tried to shoehorn it into my own familiar tropes of the heroic action-adventure genre. The story’s Climax, in particular, suffers from my mistaken attempt to take a hitherto subdued character story and funnel it into a shoot-’em-up finale.

The Fix: It often takes time and experience to recognize, but an author’s two greatest commandments are:

1. Know Your Story.

2. Trust Your Story.

Looking back, I didn’t trust my story—or myself—enough to let it be what it wanted to be. I feared its quietness, feeling it was too slow or too boring. However, in re-reading it, I was surprised to realize how strong and compelling the tension is throughout the book. Had I just trusted that in the beginning, I might have written a much better Third Act.

Again, this principle returns to the idea of cohesion. The point of any piece of art is the creation of an effect. We wish to have an effect on our readers, to leave them with a specific feeling or thought. To do this, we must consciously craft that effect at every stage of the story—bringing plot, character, theme, tone, setting, and pacing together into a unified whole, with each piece trusting the other to support it.

***

I know what you’re thinking. Now that I think I’m all old and wise and have figured out all of my book’s problems, I should go back and rewrite it, right?

Maybe.

Honestly, I’m just happy to have returned to what has been a somewhat painful memory and discover that, after all, I had not betrayed or been betrayed by this dear friend from whom I had parted on less than genial terms.

The Deepest Breath is not, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever written. But perhaps for that very reason, I do think of it as my greatest mistake. I doubt I will ever return to fix it; there are just too many new stories to write. Happily, however, every one of those new stories will benefit from the many, many mistakes I made when writing that particular novel.

So maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you have any “lost stories”? What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from them? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Katie,

    Having followed you over the years since your early days on YouTube, I am more than a little impressed with how you have matured as a teacher over the span of time you’ve been online. Today’s post is characteristic of that maturity as you demonstrate an experienced and analytic grasp of the lessons you’ve accumulated over the years. All that hard work is paying off.

    Even more, I believe your experience (and willingness to discuss it) will benefit a generation of writers who follow you. Well done and I wish you all the best in the future. May it be long and prolific.

    rick

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Rick! It’s been a wild eleven years since I started all this! I know I’m the one who has learned the most from it.

  2. It always hurts to have to put aside a story, but this post shows that maybe some good can come out of it.

    Who Is Your Protagonist? is something I often try to apply to books I read. Have you read The Lord of the Rings, and if so, is Frodo the protagonist? I tend to have trouble figuring this out in more omniscient stories but it’s seemed to me that when it comes down to it, Frodo is the one the plot depends upon most.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve yet to read the trilogy, unfortunately, so am not certain, although everything I’ve seen about the story, points to Frodo as the underlying protagonist.

      • Rebecca L. says

        Yes, having read the books, I’d say Frodo is the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings. Other characters get very important roles and viewpoints, but he’s still the main character of the story.

  3. #1 what about Game of Thrones? (at least the series, because i haven’t read the books) there are lots of important characters, and i really don’t see George R.R. Martin setting it into one, fixed protagonist. they all mobilize the stories, one way or another

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t read/seen that, but it does seem like Jon Snow/Daenerys are the throughline characters. I suppose it depends what happens in the Climactic Moment with whoever ends up on the throne. 😉

    • I’ve read the books(as far as he’s condescended to get with them) but not seen the series. At the beginning, it seems one character is the protagonist, then he/she gets killed or lost and another takes over. So far, Jon Snow and Daenerys seem to be the ones most likely. It is confusing from that point of view. Does this suggest that, with clever writing we can make a successful story and keep our readers guessing who it’s about? It takes a clever and brilliant writer to do that, of course.

  4. Elle Middaugh says

    I like this article! and I have a question that (I hope) goes along with it lol
    If your first series is not up to par with your current writing skill, SHOULD you go back and re-write it? or something along those lines? Is it better to fix it (for the sake of future readers) or leave it as a lesson learned, and move on, spending your precious time on bigger and better things? I’ve gotten a LOT of different answers, and I’d love to have your professional opinion on the matter! Thank you!

  5. Good advice. Number four was the best for me. Thank you.

    Why don’t you publish the novel under a pen name, if you think it will hurt your image? If there is something in the novel you like, there is something somebody else will like.

    I have a photography hobby. I struggle with technique. I’m not very disciplined. I do occasionally get out the lights, remote triggers, tripod, etc.

    I’ve learned subject matter trumps technique. People prefer “bad” photos (technically imperfect) to good ones, if the subject matter of the “bad” photo is interesting.

    Nobody wants to see a technically perfect photo of my cat, except me. Maybe I could sell it for $25, to use in a magazine ad or something. But what if I had a photo of a mountain lion menacing a child in a Chicago backyard? It might be blurry, with swingsets and tree branches and all kinds of other distractions. People want to see it. I can sell it to the newspaper.

    As a writer, I have mixed feelings about technical analysis. I never cared about technique as a reader. I realize now that writers cared about technique, which was good. But it’s possible to go overboard, too. What matters at heart is a good story, an interesting idea, even if flawed.

    Imagine listening to a record with a sound engineer. They ruin everything. “Did you hear that? Incredible! They had such and such a setup of microphones around the drum kit in that four-second solo, and the walls were covered with quilts to minimize feedback. I can tell by listening. Expert technique.” I mean, OK, but that’s not what most people look for in songs.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The amount of effort and time necessary to publish a book isn’t something I want to put into this particular book. I’d rather focus that effort on the books I am proud of.

      • Not even as a matter of record? In a few hundred years (or next week) somebody will be interested in your thoughts, and who you are or were. On a non-technical level, writing is just information. I find it interesting to browse old newspapers and find out what people thought a hundred years ago. They were really florid writers a lot of the time. We’d criticize their wordiness today. I don’t care.

        You matter as a person first and foremost, before taking into account your technical writing skills. The description of your novel sounds interesting. I think readers are sophisticated enough to overlook flaws and judge what you tried to say and what you meant. But it’s your book! Best

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Maybe someday. You never know. I *have* thought about making it available for free to any of my readers who are interested. But we’ll just have to see how motivated I get in the future.

    • Strangely, I was only thinking, today, that what the reading public wants is a good story. They aren’t too bothered with passive voice, removing adverbs, show don’t tell etc. just look at the top selling books on Amazon. Many are well-written, of course, but I’ve read many poorly written that do well.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Story trumps all. Although, of course, it’s best when everything about a book is done well.

  6. “I doubt I will never return to fix it; there are just too many new stories to write.”

    A little typo, “never” for “ever,” hints that you might get back to it after all.

  7. Eric Troyer says

    Good post, Katie. I think “The Deepest Breath” is a big part of YOUR backstory!

  8. Katie, number five resonated with me all the way down to my toes. If I could learn to trust myself and realize I have a story to tell (good or bad, that’s what rewrites are for), I could possibly finish it. It’s taken you five years to pull your finished manuscript out and analyze it, but it’s taken me five years to admit that maybe this story isn’t enough and I should just scrap it. Your post certainly has opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I should put my “little darling” to sleep forever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Forever is a long time. 🙂 Maybe you’ll look back on it in five years and come to peace with it as well.

  9. I would LOVE to read the Deepest Breath! It sounds AMAZING! 🙂 I’ve been intrigued by it since you started talking about it way back when. Maybe it’s not a “mistake.” Maybe it needed more percolating. Maybe its time is yet to come. Maybe it could turn out to be your greatest work yet! I’m so excited you have re-classified it from “lost” and “discarded” to “maybe.” There’s hope! And congrats!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wow, you remember it? :p Who knows. It’s a novel that has an important place in my heart. At this point, it’s more a matter of summoning the energy and motivation to tackle major rewrites.

      • I should go back and rewrite it, right?

        Yes!! Give it life; let it breath… Dance with it under the moon light, caress it in the darkness. On those off days, dink some wine and take a moment to explore an old friend – Find its heart & begin again.

  10. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness, passion, and wisdom that go into your posts, and this one is no different! This topic hit spot-on for me, as I’ve recently looked back at my one finished (epic-length) story, and tried to identify what could be changed to make it worthy of being published. The list was extensive, and the time and effort it would take to re-work it just not something I’m willing to invest, at the expense of derailing my current project. I will learn from my mistakes, and commit to being a stronger writer for them. Thank you for sharing your lessons with us.

    “The point of any piece of art is the creation of an effect.” – YES.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m a huge proponent of “finishing” stories, of not giving up on them. But in reality, there does come a moment when it just makes more sense to cut some projects loose in favor of new ones. But nothing is ever wasted. Even if a story will never be read by anyone else, it will still provide the fertilizer to enrich the soil of later works.

  11. I have enough problem already with paper clutter, and sometimes with too many computer files/names that I can’t find my WIP. Does one *really* have to keep drafts and old projects? If so, WHY? and what can I do to archive things effectively without messing up the WIP?

  12. That was the most amazing post. Thank you so much for everything you put into it.

  13. Thank you for the insight into your failed book. A pity you decided not to revisit it. It sounds fascinating.

  14. Tom Youngjohn says

    She’s such a honey.

  15. Thanks for sharing that story. Of your lost story. Okay, now Im going to risk embarrassment by telling you that I’ve been on and off over the years resurrecting and revising and updating a novel that I started,… ahem… 25 years ago! And I still think it’s going to work. Am I crazy? This novel is like an old friend. And in the end, if all is in vain, I’ve convinced myself that if only my son takes the time to read this story, it will have been worth it. Sometimes I think that this is the only way for me to produce a work of art — to work at it that long. I guess we’ll see.

  16. Thanks for another really helpful (and timely for me) post. I’ve been struggling with a sci-fi book for a long time and just last week came to the conclusion that I had not really identified the protagonist. I also had not narrowed the theme down sufficiently to create a story which the reader could follow to a satisfactory ending.
    Thanks!

  17. My first completed novel is permanently hidden away despite several years of rewrites and revisions. Its fatal flaw is an unsympathetic protagonist. She’s wimpy and feels defeated by the obstacles she encounters throughout the story. Even when she overcomes at the end, the journey has been too depressing!

    It’s a problem I’ve recognized in subsequent writing, too. Even as my protagonists have become stronger, I’m not confident they’re truly likeable…or likeable enough for readers to want to follow them through the story. Always something to challenge me; always something to learn. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Learning to write likable characters can surprisingly be one of the hardest things to do in the beginning.

  18. USVALDO DELEON says

    Write it as a script! I’m thinking Ryan Gosling, Joe Gordon Levitt and Anne Hathaway.

    But leaving that aside, I liked the piece, particularly understanding the story. It can take me a long time to wrangle the story into place, but once I understand the story, everything falls into place.

  19. Katie, Thanks for sharing all your advice and all that you do! Just wanted to drop in and tell you thank you!

  20. I wrote a novel and abandoned it. I am sure I made worse mistakes than you writing it. I keep saying I will come back to it. On the meantime, there are other stories begging to be written. Perhaps we need to make a writing mess before we can get good.

  21. What a great post, Katie. Thank you very much.

    Oh gosh! This seriously describes my work in progress – a double time-lined (1915 and 1946) espionage novel. I do have a definite protagonist, driven by idealisation of her ruthless father, a rogue spy. Her disillusion devolves from the espionage work she is undertaking, but the mission itself? She is not that interested, only wants to succeed to survive/thrive as a woman passing as a man and to win the respect of the father.

    I have two finished novels unpublished and which will never be – novels I learnt a lot from. Their structures would be fixable. But this one? I have worked on it for a very long time and really, really want to finish and publish it.

    I guess I need to find some way of disentangling the issues, of zooming out and isolating the elements. I need to forensically analyse and ruthlessly discard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dual timelines are tough no matter how you slice them. Actually *single* timelines are tough. Doubling them just doubles the trouble. :p

  22. Excellent lesson. Thanks for sharing.
    I have a couple stories like that and feel it would be really difficult for me to go back and rewrite them. Moving on sounds good.

  23. K.M.,

    This is my first time writing but I have read many of your articles and would like to ask a two-part question about minor characters.

    Two things in particular that you’ve mentioned about minor characters is that they should

    1. Reflect the protagonist’s various fates

    2. Explore themes that are variations of the main theme.

    My two-part question therefore is, Should my minor characters’ arcs be accomplishing both of these things? If so, how?

    Also, it’s useful how the first point about defining the protagonist among main characters, gives focus no matter how complex the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Optimally, yes, the minor characters’ arcs will fulfill both of the aspects you’ve mentioned. “How” really depends on the themes you’re exploring and how your plot interacts with it.

  24. First novel blues — Focus has been my bane. I wrote half the novel and didn’t know what the story was. I threw most of it out and rewrote. I wrote seventy-five percent of the story and realized that I was chasing the story down rabbit holes of no return. I threw most of it out and rewrote. I’d finished the first draft when I realized that I’d misunderstood some of the critical character motivations and was focusing on side issues. I threw big chunks out and rewrote. I was almost at the climax when I realized was still writing about things extreneous to the story. I threw huge chunks out and rewrote. Lather, rinse, and repeat. I’m now at v12.6 and the goal line is in sight, To get my 100k words, I will have written 400k+. The next one will have the structure baked in the initial design instead of being added in a redesign.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Being a writer is a case study in how evolving perspectives are constantly changing everything we think we know.

  25. Thank you for another great post. I learned al lot from it!

    In my current WIP, I realised halfway that I didn’t understand the story. At all. The characters were right, but I wasn’t telling their story, like you explain in number five. Thanks to your books and blog, I am able to figure it out and I think now I found the right story. So thank you again!

    A couple of weeks ago I reread on of my first stories. It was six years ago that I abandened it. Honestly, it is a total mess, all the fantasy cliches are there, and I will never finish it. Yet, I am very, very fond of it. For me, it was the beginning of writing again after a almost 20 years hiatus. Writing this story also helped me a lot in a difficult time in my life. I can see now that it was a way of mourning. And it also shows me how much I have learned if I compare it to writing to my current writing. I will always keep it for these reasons.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think it’s awesome when we’re able to revisit old stories–recognize their problems–and still come away with the old fondness for them.

      • michael jordan says

        I wish you would finish that story. It sounds like something that would be worthwhile completing. This reminds me of a supernatural novel I completed two years ago, after much work.The main challenge was understanding the motivations of the supernatural entity, which was bent on revenge

  26. Hi, K.M. Weiland, thank you for your very interesting and helpful articles, including this one!

    I have a question regarding this article, rule numer 1, Who is the protagonist:

    Who is the protagonist in Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t read it (as I mention in an earlier) comment, so can’t say for sure. From what I’ve heard, Jon Snow and Daenerys seem to be the primary characters.

      • Thanks for your reply!

      • Hi,
        A comment on Game of Thrones. Remember that it isn’t one book, it’s a series of half a dozen or so. In different bits, there are definitely different protagonists and I also suspect that he breaks your rule by having multiple key characters along the way as well. Sure, Jon and Daenerys emerge in the end (of the TV show, BTW) as being important, but you could argue along the way for five or six others including nearly all the Starks and Tyrion Lannister.

  27. I finish so many of your posts/books thinking–That Ms. Weiland is just really smart. Thanks for sharing all of your work.

  28. A very fine post. I’ll have to come back and study it in greater detail. What strikes me immediately is the contra-rational theme, undeserved forgiveness, forcing characters to act irrationally. Can this end in anything but tragedy? I’m not sure it can.

  29. Don’t know who the protagonist is? Yes, that was the main flaw of my first — now drawer– novel. I wanted to explore a mentor/mentee relationship. The protégé was supposed to be the main character, but the mentor was much more interesting and kept hogging the limelight. I’d still like to explore that type of relationship if I can ever figure out a way to overcome that issue.

    Thank you for the insight on how you keep track of drafts.

  30. I abandoned my first novel, Dante, Son of Lucifer, after querying it and even having it professionally edited. It was an absolute mess, lacking cohesion and a narrow focus. It was also way too long( 185,000 words) had too many plot holes, alternated between multiple POV’s and even past and present tense.
    Fortunately, it wasn’t a total bust because it forms the basis for the current series I’m writing and I have many of the same characters.
    Yes, it was quite flawed but many of the same ideals and themes carried over into the new series.

  31. Thanks KM for this blog. I’ve written five nonfiction books but always wanted to try a fiction piece for fun. There is also no doubt that I cling to some darlings. Its amazing to me how a character can take over. He doesn’t exist but in my imagination, and pretty much does what I tell him to. But sometimes he gets outta hand. LOL. Just recently I broke out my outline to revamp because of my MC and a great idea he had. I think I have good grip on the other three. However, I WILL go over all your points and see if there is someplace I can improve what I am writing. I enjoy your blog and thanks for sharing your knowledge for all us fledgling authors out here. Do you edit manuscripts? I’m close to starting the second act of my story. I’m retired and pretty much write all day. I love to write. Thanks again

    Jim Warren

    I write under my deceased mom’s maiden name if you wondered.

  32. Hi KM. I just saw your lost stories question. I wrote a nonfiction book once and sent it to a professional editor. She wrote back to me and the first three chapters looked like a road map. LOL NP. I have thick skin but what she said next was awesome. She said there was no continuity to the first three chapters. So she began asking me a series of six questions. When I answered them, I had a rough idea of the book I REALLY wanted to write. My second attempt at this book is now in paperback. So much for me being a pantser. LOL. Like yourself, I make extensive outlines now. If I have a journey to take, how will I know if I’ve arrived without a road map (outline). No more rabbit holes for me. This may go along with your number five, and knowing your story. So I guess I can add that to darlings and pertinent backstory (which I neglected to put in last comment. LOL) This 75 year old brain has made its share of mistakes. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Do remember the six questions? If they were general (rather than specific to your particular book), I bet they’d be helpful to a lot of readers here.

      • I have them written down someplace on my computer. I will find them and post them here. Thanks for the link. I understand that time thing. It would be nice if there were 36 hours in a day.

      • I am a believer but a person can apply this method to any book title, any genre. If you’d like how I answered other questions you can email me and I’d be more than happy to send you a doc file. (She did ask me a couple other questions but they were plot driven and wouldn’t apply to any other title.)

        Six Steps

        Q1: Why do you want to write book title?
        Q2: What do you hope to accomplish with book title?
        Q2.1: From questions one and two above, discover and list true purpose of “Book title.” This will be the essence of the story taken from highlights and key points of the first two questions.
        Q3: What is the premise/theme of book title? Subject, verb phrase, and object format. You will create the premise from the essence of book title. (The subject is the premise. All three are the theme.)
        Q4: Write a linear summary of about 100 words or less of book title. This will be the logical cause and effect of book title.
        Q5: From question four, with the essence, premise, and linear outline in mind; create the first rough outline using the cause and effect elements.
        Q6: Create one to five proof arguments and support questions for each point in the outline. Preferably, three, but no more than five points each, unless the narrative requires it and that all do not have more than five. If your goal is a 1500 page epic, then by all means, go for the gusto.

        This my answer to Q2.1
        There are many on which man travels, but if we , we can find , and share the to a dying world so they can .

        The carrots are the key points taken from my answers 1 and 2. Sorry, I couldn’t underline.

        Answer to Q3
        Christ’s road of death to the Cross(Subject), leads to our road of life(Verb phrase) in Christ(Object).

        I think she called it the Meredith method. I have used the method in two of my nonfiction titles.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Hope this all helps somebody. GBY KM Enjoy your new home.

  33. Do you think that, if one could strip a failed book down to the basic premise, it could be redeemed, or that the ideas and plans for the original would be too ingrained in a person’s mind? My WIP is going great (since I discovered tools for structuring) but I have had issues with previous projects that I eventually had to send down the figurative drain, and I’m curious as to whether I could pursue them again in a different form.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve wondered that myself. I think it’s harder, once an idea has found a concrete form, but still doable.

  34. Okay, I’ve spent a while digesting the post. It’s every bit as good as I said. My thoughts: Multi-protagonist books are challenging. Films are even worse. E.g., see “Monuments Men,” which has not only multiple protagonists, but multiple McGuffins. Still, it just missed being great.

    Another relevant movie is “Girl Interrupted.” A film or book depends on an intact logical chain of cause and effect. At every fork in the plot path, characters must act rationally. If they don’t, the chain is broken and any suspended disbelief will fall like a uranium kite. An insane antagonist can work; a JPN main character, not so much. A theme that has irrational elements is very similar to the latter.

    On the question of whether this old work should be resuscitated, I could dance around the pros and cons for a half hour, but it’s already 1 a.m. here. To be brief, I’m pretty sure you could turn it into a silk purse, having learned a lot in the meantime. But there are much easier concepts to develop, and in my opinion, the result here would most likely be a too-literary tragic masterpiece that nobody really likes. I wouldn’t touch the concept with any length pole.

    A great analysis, however, very instructional. I’ll be discussing it today with my workshop. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “In my opinion, the result here would most likely be a too-literary tragic masterpiece that nobody really likes.”

      Hah. Yes. Totally. That is another reason I hesitate to bring it back, actually. It’s very different from what I’ve established so far in all my other fiction to date.

  35. Thanks for sharing your costly, yet profitable mistake with us! I’ve certainly appreciated hearing what you learned from it and I’m sure your following stories have been all the better for having written that story.

    Oddly enough, I recently posted about my experience watching someone play through an old game I had worked on, me cringing all the while. However, I was surprised to find that all the readable parts I’d written for the game weren’t half bad, albeit much too lengthy.

    Hard and painful as it can be, I think the lessons learned and the growth realized from looking back are more than worth it. Here’s the post if you’re interested:
    https://creativeandbeyond.com/blog/2018/9/24/looking-back

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love those moments when you returning to something old, cringing, only to discover that, hey, it’s not as bad as you thought!

  36. Truly awesome post, K.M.! Glad to hear this message time and time again: mistakes are just *part* of the creative process, as is a part of life! We can’t avoid it in our writing any more than we can avoid them in our own lives. I think writing proves such a great metaphor for moving forward with life even at its messiest times. Growth is key 🙂

  37. So… I wrote my first draft and I had no clue about structure points. When I learned it, I realized I had to rewrite everything. And it was what I did! But the second draft it’s still not working. After 2 years (6 days a week), it is still not working. I did’nt cry (lying :p ), but I spent a time away from this work, and I realized that:
    1- The MC is different from what I planned in the first version.
    2- After two years working on this story, I still don’t know anything about my MC and doesn’t matter how many “interviews” I make. I’m not emotionally connect with my MC.
    3- The structure is correct, but the lie my chacater believe is not enough to give emotion.
    4- There’s no emotion! No high stakes! No cliffhanger!
    I just need take a break to rewrite from beginning!

  38. Kris Corbett says

    Great insight.
    My first MS is languishing after I put my pen down and stopped trying to make it work. I have written into the fabric of the story such major flaws that I can’t ‘fix’ them. I have in the past 2 years I kept revisiting the story but kept finding that the ‘fixes’ were leading me away from the story that I originally wanted to tell.
    I lost heart. And I lost confidence. I eventually parked the MS in a drawer and got on with writing a new story – but the sting of failure stayed.
    Reading your post allowed me to get a much healthier perspective on the whole process. I am so grateful that you are willing to share your journey. Thank you. Kris

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s the thing about writing novels when our own understanding of story is still flawed: the fixes are just quickies. They’re usually bone deep.

  39. Fascinating post. I think it would be a public service to publish a Kindle version of The Deepest Breath for your subscribers so that we can understand a little better what you’re saying here. Why not? You could caveat it as much as you needed to avoid ruining your reputation (you could use your mother’s maiden name if you wanted to). We all read more than enough badly written books, but it’s not often that anyone bothers to explain how they could be fixed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Maybe someday. As I mentioned elsewhere in the thread, even publishing something rough is a little more work than I want to tackle right now, when there are more legitimate projects to focus on.

  40. Martha Muiru says

    Hey, out of curiosity, do you mean Kenya the country? if so, that is so interesting to me because I am from there. Anyway, thanks for the post, it so informative. I realized I have also made some of the mistakes you mention, only I did not know how to fix them. Now I do.

    Like someone else said, I hope you consider publishing the book in the future or even offering it on this website for those who are interested.

  41. Molly Stegmeier says

    My current WIP is technically still the same one that I started 3 years ago, but no one would recognize it as such.

    When someone pointed out a really big problem (I’d unintentionally copied the villain and finale from one of my favorite series) I did a complete overhaul of that aspect of it. I remember it feeling like a breakup- mourning the relationship, and even going on the rebound, trying frantically to find an idea to replace the old one RIGHT NOW! But I calmed down and eventually came up with something that I liked even better.

    But then as I kept working, I started realizing how cliche all the parts of my original story were. I ended up scrapping most of that and coming up with a new story to suit my new awesome villain. In the end, the only part of my original story that remains is a few character names I particularly liked. But I don’t really regret any of it, because the road to this story that I’m really excited about had to pass through all those stops. I wouldn’t have this story if it weren’t for the terrible cliched rip-off that I started out with! 🙂

  42. This post resonated with me, particularly your points on the backstory and on having a consistent through-line for the protagonist. (I have a protagonist who is meandering, possibly his way of avoiding something, but most likely my way of avoiding something…) Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned. And I believe that a mistake isn’t a mistake if you learned something from it.

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