4 Warning Signs Your Novel Isn’t Working

By Jennifer Blanchard

As writers, we tend to “fall in love” with the stuff we’re working on—whether that be our blog, a novel we’re writing, a short story, our poetry or any other number of things. I’m the first one to argue that love and passion are an extremely important part of being a writer.

But when that love and passion is being spent on a writing project that just doesn’t seem to be working, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate things.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

In 2008, I finished my first novel. The novel had been bouncing around inside my head for almost a year, and around mid-summer I finally got my shit together enough to write the first draft. Three months later, just in time for my 25th birthday, it was finished.

Then came step two, editing and rewriting the draft.

And two years later, step two is still in the half-way stages. So far, I’ve written and rewritten the first seven chapters about two or three times.

I’ve followed all of the advice in Larry Brooks’ eBook, Story Structure—Demystified. I’ve worked backwards from the draft I have and tried to figure out what all of my structure basics are (First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point, Ending).  I’ve recreated my story outline a thousand different times. I even contacted Larry for some one-on-one coaching.

But no matter how much time and effort I put into it. No matter how much of my creativity and brain power I use, nothing is happening. The story is still falling short.

It’s now time for me to tell myself the one truth no writer wants to hear, let alone utter—The story isn’t working.

This realization is still a bit new for me, so the wound hasn’t quite healed. It’s hard to think that all the time and writing and work I put into this novel over the last two and a half years is amounting to nothing.

Another reason I need to take a step back from this novel is because I’ve had other ideas for novels that actually will work…but I’ve put them all on the backburner in hopes that I can still find a way to make the first novel work.

In my mind, the novel I wrote two years ago is supposed to be my first novel (meaning the first novel I finish completely). So up ‘til now, I’ve refused to even consider another novel as my “first novel.”

But now I’m starting to accept it.

I’m still not ready to accept defeat—I might be able to make this story work at some point—but for now, I’m going to set this novel on the backburner, and pull forward one of the ideas I have that actually will work.

The hardest part of this whole situation is wrapping my head around the idea of another novel being my “first” novel.

Truth be told, the first novel I ever wrote technically is and always will be my novel from 2008. But I can’t allow that novel to hold me back from writing something new any longer.

And you shouldn’t either.

If you’ve been working on a novel for a while now and it just doesn’t seem to be working out…it’s time for you to take a step back, too, and determine if this novel is really worth the time and energy you’re putting into it.

If you’re wondering—Is she talking about the novel I’m working on right now?

Here are 4 warning signs your novel isn’t working:

  • You can’t figure out the First Plot Point (FPP)—No matter how much brainstorming you do and how much plot-twisting, you still don’t know what your FPP is. This is the death of any novel. The FPP is, arguably, the most important part of a story. No FPP, no story success.This is the problem I’m having with my novel. I know all the other story structure points in the story…just not the FPP. And as far as I’m concerned, that means my story isn’t working.
  • You don’t really know your main character—Once again, this is the boat I’m currently floating in. I thought I knew my main character, especially after spending the last two years with her.But I don’t. I don’t know her. I know what she wants, but I don’t know why she wants it, why it’s important for her to get it or what would happen if she didn’t get it.

    Not knowing your main character is an automatic recipe for disaster.

  • You’re trying too hard to make it work—If you’ve rewritten the story more than two or three times and still don’t have anything you’d be willing to show off, your story is most likely not working. By the third rewrite, you should have a pretty damn good story going on.
  • You’re censoring yourself—You know your story could be better if you could really “let the beast out of its cage.” You know the story would be better if you stopped censoring yourself and just let the real story flow.But then your mom or grandma or best friend or brother or boyfriend or neighbor’s sister’s cousin might get offended. And people might judge you for what you wrote. Or they might think your main character is you and start looking at you differently.

    Censoring your story is a major no-no. The real story has to come out—no matter how crude, offensive, disgusting or downright dirty it may be. Otherwise it will never work.

Now before you start feeling guilty, stop. Guilting yourself into finishing a novel that isn’t working is an even bigger waste of time.

Here are my thoughts on why it’s OK to set the non-working novel aside (for now):

  • You can always go back to it later—If at some point in the future an idea strikes you that makes the story work, by all means go back and finish it. But as of right now, if the story isn’t working, it’s time to move on.
  • Starting a new project can help you get ideas for your other novel projects—It’s true that working on several things at once does spread you a little thin, but it’s also true that working on one project will give you ideas for your other projects, and vice-versa.
  • There’s no reason to allow a single novel to hold you back from writing other novels—Unless you’re a writer who only has one novel in you, there’s no reason you should spend so much time focusing on one story. Especially if it’s not working.

I think what often happens is we get so obsessed with “making it work” or we are so in love with the story idea or one of the characters that we just can’t see past the fact that the story isn’t working.

This is another part of the problem for me (man, this novel is just full of problems!).

I am so in love with my novel’s title that I am literally standing on my head and doing back-flips trying to make this sucker work. I’ve been adjusting the story so that I can still use the title. Huge, HUGE problem.

So I’m taking the next week to allow this shift in my focus to happen. I’m taking the next week to mourn the end of my work on my first novel (for now). I’m taking the next week to get my mind used to the idea of another novel possibly being my “first” novel.

Then I’m going full-steam-ahead on one of the awesome ideas I have written down and planned out that actually has a future.

Are you floating in my boat? Is the novel you’re working on right now (or have been working on) not going to happen? Do you have any additional warning signs to add to my list?

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is founder of Procrastinating Writers. For more great writing tips, articles and information, follow her on Twitter.

Note: The links to Larry’s eBooks are affiliate links. I appreciate your support.
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6 Replies to “4 Warning Signs Your Novel Isn’t Working”

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  4. “You’re censoring yourself” was such a great tip that I had to comment. This was a major insight for me. I’m an excessive planner. I’ve been struggling with different pieces of the story, working out which direction to take, and it seems that whenever I get a decent idea going that works with the other pieces of the story, it’s not very long until a new piece comes up that completely invalidates my older ideas. It might not be true that the pieces don’t work together. It might be that I’m simply censoring myself.

    1. Hey Satou! Yes, you could definitely be censoring yourself! The other thing to consider is maybe the new pieces aren’t invalidating the other stuff so much as it’s an evolution of the story. Sometimes initial ideas are just a jumping-off point!

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