Posted by: oneyearbook | June 22, 2009

Seven lessons to learn from my failure, Part I

We’re supposed to learn lessons from our failures. I mean, that’s what people always say when they want someone to feel better about something going wrong – ‘you’ll know for next time,’ that sort of thing. So I’ve been thinking it over. I talked about some of the reasons my first manuscript wasn’t working when I made the decision to shuck it off like a bad skin, but this week, every day, I’ll share one of seven lessons I think I can take away from the experience.

Character - you know it when you see it

Character - you know it when you see it


Here’s some top-notch advice that I’ve seen in many writing books and classes: story comes from character. An idea does not a story make – except in rare cases in the genre world, books where the science in the fiction is what makes things tick, or the thrills in the thriller. But in literary fiction, if you don’t have a character to hang things off of, you can’t get the story dressed.

When I began, I had an idea, a theoretical concept, around which I intended to build my novel. It was a large enough idea that it produced a thoroughly-outline plot – and, eventually, a 400-page manuscript.   Unfortunately, somewhere in there I failed to do the work of connecting a character with said idea.

Then, when I came to the point of reading over the manuscript, I found that I didn’t care about the main character at all. How could I? She didn’t exist. She was a cipher; and not even an interesting cipher. I had taken a name and a basic history and unleashed this marginal creation into the book. She was a collection of words, never animated.

The second problem was that the character had no stake in the plot. As a result, when reading, I also didn’t give a damn for the plot or for the idea that was meant to be its engine. So, due to the lack of a character, the idea died.

Looking back, I think I can pinpoint an issue that might have tipped me off to the problem, if I’d been paying attention: when asked what the book was about, I couldn’t quite say. I fumbled about with summing up the idea in one sentence; generally I murmured something like, “oh it’s a historical thing, with museums,” which didn’t quite get at it. In the future I’m not going to go forward with a plot until I can answer that question within the following structure: “It’s about a person who X, Y, and Z.” XYZ are interchangeable. The person should not be.

Lesson learned: the story must flow from the character, and not vice versa.


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