10 Reasons Novels Fail

10 Reasons Novels Fail


Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: From James Earls via aarongansky.com: Is there such a thing as spending too much time reading & studying the craft & also other people’s work which seems to lend itself to less writing time?

AARON: It’s hard to say. What you define as “too much” is probably not what I would define as “too much.” Here’s the thing–anything that takes you away from writing should be evaluated and reevaluated carefully. If it’s helping your writing, keep at it. If it’s harming it (because you’re spending too much time away from your ms), then maybe it’s time to cut back. The response may seem simple, but I see it as a pretty binary response. You can’t cut it out completely, nor should you cut it back to bare bones. I think you’re looking to establish a balance.

POPS: Yes, you can over study. Some have trouble starting the writing work because of fear of failure. Reading craft books is good; studying great writers is better; but nothing beats putting words on the page until they start coming out right. Writing is like bodybuilding: no one has ever developed big muscles by reading muscle magazines. At some point, the exercise has to begin. It is not an either or thing. You learn as you grow. You learn something then apply it to your work-in-progress.

MJ: In my opinion, yes. But that’s only from my experience as a new writer and to be honest, it’s not that it takes time away from my writing, but rather I have found it’s a convenient excuse to not write. I admit I am a nervous, insecure writer (surprise!). And when I have those moments, it used to be easier to crawl inside another book and disappear under the guise of “research.” However, more recently I find that while studying and researching, it’s actually amplifying my desire to be a great writer, which propels me back to writing. With any writing-related project, I try to keep an “equal parts” schedule. That is, for every hour I spend reading a craft book or something in my genre, I spend at least an hour writing my own manuscript. Devote as much time to honing your skills as you do learning, and you’ll grow stronger in your writing.

Firsts in Fiction

10 Reasons Novels Fail

But first, in memory of Dennis Johnson, here are his “three rules for writing,” since we were not able to get to them last week.

  • Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
  • Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
  • Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Now onto our regularly schedule program.

The Top 10 Reasons Novels Fail

  1. Too lazy to rewrite.
    1. Good writing is rewriting. If you can’t get yourself into the right mindset to improve your writing with a quality second or third draft (even if it means a complete rewrite or overhaul), then you may want to reexamine your career choices.
      1. This does not mean butchering your work or constant reworking if it’s not moving forward. There does come a time when you have to let go and realize it ain’t gonna get any better. Time to let your child walk on his own.
  2. The writer is not a reader.
    1. Writers read. Period. A writer who doesn’t read is a person trying to sail the oceans but has no idea how to raise the sales. Musicians study other musicians. Public speakers study other public speakers.
    2. Not only must writers be readers, they must also ruin their reading. By this I mean, read with an analytical mind. If some really works, ask why does it work. If it is beautiful, ask why is it beautiful. If something fails, ask why. No sense repeating someone else’s blunder. Read with purpose. Read to learn. Read to experience the world of other writers.
      1. I hear it all the time, but most recently an agent told me I need to read for marketing purposes. That got my attention (sorry, Aaron). As writers, we tell the stories in our head. As a marketer, I need to know what I’m competing against. And I can’t know if I’m not reading and researching.
  3. Visions of fame instead of art fill the author’s head.
    1. There are easier ways to get famous. Why writing? Also, writing is NOT a guaranteed way to find fame (and it SURE isn’t a guaranteed way to find fortune). Don’t write to have a book on the shelf. Instead, write for the journey, not necessarily for the destination. All the bests do.
    2. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to make a living with words. It’s a great goal. Fame doesn’t come from within, it’s granted to others. Fame comes from other people. Riches are fine too, but thinking you can write a novel and retire is probably off the mark. It’s happened but no one can predict it. Lesser writers may have more success than you. Then again, your first book may be a blockbuster. Think of Tom Clancy. But remember, Clancy could not plan that. If Ronald Reagan had not quipped, “Who briefed this guy,” The Hunt for Red October might have fallen flat. There, in my (Al’s) opinion, needs to be other motivations than fame.
  4. Stilted, dull, or unrealistic dialog.
    1. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. Dialog is VERY easy to do poorly. Be sure to cut where you can. Less is more. Characters should not announce something to other characters who already know the information. Avoid using dialog as a vehicle for exposition.
    2. Dialogue comes from an alert ear. Listen to how people talk. Learn from it. But that isn’t enough. Dialogue in fiction is written for the eye and the reader’s ear. Getting that balance is difficult but it can elevate and mediocre story to lofty heights.
    3. I’m currently reading a book where part is written as an essay from a 13-year-old’s perspective. The narrator of the chapter, a reporter, keeps referencing the parents not as “Mom” and “Dad” or “his parents” but rather “Mr. So-and-So First and Last Name.” It’s very frustrating and reads poorly.
  5. Pacing—it ain’t got none.
    1. Or it’s too slow. Or too fast. Remember, it’s about the journey. Obey the speed limits. Slow down for emotional moments. Speed up for action.
    2. Lack of pacing is to fiction what monotone is to singing. A good story has highs and lows, fast paced action and slow, thoughtful thinking. Learn to increase the sense of speed or urgency by shortening sentences and paragraphs; learn to use longer sentences and lingering descriptions to slow things down at the right time. Variety is the spice of fiction.
  6. Unrealistic behavior of characters.
    1. This often stems from not knowing your characters well enough. The better you know them, the more realistically they will behave. Let them do what they would do, not what you want them to do. You can’t do that if you don’t know what motivates them.
      1. I know we’ve talked on this before, but if you’re not sure what they would say or do in a situation, ask them. Talk out loud to them. Give them time to answer you. Walk away. Take a breath. They’ll let you know what works. When writing a section of NOLA last summer I was struggling with my male protagonist and I just knew what I was writing was wrong. I finally yelled at the computer “What do you want from me?” Stood up, walked around the house twice, sat back down and had the answer.
    2. Stay true to the character. If you have a player who is intelligent, then don’t make him do dumb things. If you have an eight year old child in your story, then let her be eight years old.
  7. Doesn’t involve the reader.
    1. Novels written out of the pride or vanity of the writer neglect the point of a novel–to communicate an experience to a reader. The writer is of very little importance to the story. It is only about the reader and the story. The writer needs to get out of the way.
    2. Writing without thinking of the reader is rather selfish. Great writers never lose sight of the fact that someone is going to read their words. They never forget that. We write alone, but then touch the minds and emotions of thousands when the book is print. In writing, the reader matters more than writer. A writer without readers is stone falling in a deep, empty cave.
  8. No sense of urgency.
    1. Something or someone (or both) need to matter to your protagonist. Always ask, “What happens if my hero fails?” If there is nothing at stake, then you don’t have much of a story.
    2. Think of the ticking clock. What’s on the line? Why must it be accomplished NOW? If it’s not urgent for the characters, there is no tension for the reader. Boredom is one of the main reasons people stop reading books. You have to hook them immediately and keep them hooked until the ending.
  9. The writer is afraid to be ruthless with the work.
    1. It’s hurts to admit when our work isn’t perfect. We love it, even though we know in our hearts it needs to be changed (which is just a nice way of saying we need to cut pieces out). No matter how pretty they are, these passages may be diseases. The whole work will suffer if they’re allowed to survive.
    2. Writing is an art, it is a craft, it is a skill. This means that we need to be ruthless with our work. Can we make it better? Can we ratchet up the drama, provide more intrigue, raise the stakes? Can the writing be tighter? The pacing more compelling? The dialogue more believable? There is always a way to improve.
  10. POV, POV, POV.
    1. Make it work. Don’t be fancy. Be precise.
    2. Choose the right POV for your story and master it. Make it clear and compelling.
    3. We have a lot of podcast episodes that reference POV. Please go to Aaron’s website and type “POV” in the search engine to find them.

4 thoughts on “10 Reasons Novels Fail”

  • I think your blog explained a lot of becoming an experienced author, I still have a lot to work on as the student learning from his master.

  • I like the details of the conversation to this topic because I have been struggling about this a lot while writing my Asylum story about meeting victor vazquez. My fear was always failing due to writing too much or too less and causing me to waste time. Thank you Mr. Gansky

  • The most often complaint about pacing I’ve heard over the course of my life (and never in reference to my own work) is that it is too slow. Obvious example: fight scene that lasts what would be 8 seconds in real life takes 5 pages to relate to the reader. Anyway, in this post the opposite gets mentioned: a pace that is too fast. And thank you for mentioning it 🙂

    I have heard so little about this that it’s good to finally see it mentioned…somewhere, anywhere. Pacing is important. You don’t want a fight or car chase scene that’s an entire chapter by itself and you don’t want to spend the entire book leading up to one character finally telling the other that they love them only to have the entire scene be 3 sentences.

    However, there is another side effect that happens when the pacing is too fast that is almost never discussed. That’s when the pacing covers so much information so quickly that the reader becomes in effect “dizzy”. If you have an entire scene that should take 2 hours to happen in real life and you relate it in half a page in an “every event during that time is mentioned in some way” style then this may be too much for the reader to handle all at once and then they may become “dizzy.” Does the scene have multiple (even if only 2) POVs (even if you only switch once)? Does the scene switch locations (even if only from one to another and never back)? How many people are in the scene (even if only one POV exists)? What’s the dialogue to action ratio? Basically, the more you expect the reader to remember to make a scene work, the harder it’s going to be for them to follow. The faster the pace is, naturally, the more there is to remember. You don’t want to get to the end of the scene and have forgotten the most important details and thus be confused as to where the banana came from. Wait? What banana…I thought he was holding a gun!!!

    The pacing should be right for the scene. If the pacing is set and cannot be changed (for creative reasons, etc), but the scene doesn’t work (assuming it’s too fast) then you need to rework the scene so less is happening or stretch out the scene so that the reader has some breathing room. Add in some lows (even if they don’t get that low) so that the reader can collect themselves and then BAM! Here we go again. But if it’s a burst of action type of thing (short block of high intensity action with no lows) don’t expect the reader to remember every single little detail 100% so write in a way that does not require them to.

    Remember, reading shouldn’t be about memorizing key details so that the ending isn’t confusing. It should be about enjoying the key details so that they’ll make it to the ending.

    • What an incredibly thorough, well-thought-out response! I appreciate it. Are you a writer? If so, would you care to mention where our listeners can find some of your work? Thanks!

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