It’s often noted that in baseball, making an out 70 percent of the time is considered all-star play(1). Although every writer’s experience will be different, writing often seems to offer a similar success ratio in terms of failed stories. Sometimes that failure also comes fast, which gives you the opportunity to start over, but when a novel or other work collapses much deeper into the process, it can be brutal. You wake up in a cold sweat one night and realize the grim truth: The book can’t be saved. You’ve revised, re-worked, and re-imagined. You’ve rounded it through your beta readers and covered an entire wall of your house in post-its and notecards like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but the book simply doesn’t work(2).
A failed book stings, but the healthiest thing you can do is to see failure for what it truly is: an opportunity. There’s probably a lot of good material that can be salvaged if you know how. Here are five strategies you can try on any failed story.
Extract a short story
Okay, so your planned fifteen-volume epic fantasy has a million words, a hundred named characters, and nothing even closely resembling a coherent plot. You’ve already lost your youth and some of your sanity to this project, so consider carving out some of the best scenes and character moments and shaping them into short stories. There’s a thriving market for short fiction in almost every genre, so if you can pull a few particularly sharp sections out and polish them up, you’ll at least have something to show for your efforts—and perhaps a few more publishing credits to your name.
Trim to a novella
Sometimes a novel starts off hot and you write a terrific early section, and then you fall off a creative cliff and the rest of the novel is a terrifying process of grabbing at every conceptual branch that swoops up towards you(3). An obvious strategy is to surgically remove that first section and see if you can revise it into a novella(4). The key here is to ensure that your novella has a shape to it, that it has a real ending and doesn’t read as the first part of a longer story.
Mine it for the basis of another, better novel
Failed novels aren’t monolithic slabs of bad writing. They’re a complex mix of good and bad writing. If your story launched with an exciting buzz of this might be genius and is currently hovering at this might be the worst thing I’ve ever written(5), take a breath and go through the story to identify the good stuff—the ideas that make you excited all over again—and reconceptualize them.
Link to the rest at SWFA