The Bookpocalypse–What to Do When You Realize Your Story Might Be DEAD
Since I am dedicating this week to the apocalypse to support my friend, Piper Bayard, I thought we’d take a day to look at the Bookpocalypse. What IS a Bookpocalypse? The Bookpocalypse is when you realize that first book you’ve been working, reworking, taking to critique, etc. is a train wreck and, for all intents and purposes, unsalvageable.
I went through this, too. Back in the 90s, when I began my tome, I mistakenly believed that making As in English naturally qualified me to be a best-selling author.
Yeah, um. NO.
And there comes that point that we need to be honest why our book is being rejected (or, in the new paradigm, not selling). This can be a very depressing low for any artist. I still remember the day it dawned on me my first book was mess and it was time to pull the plug. This is why I coined the phrase, Persistence can look a lot like stupid.
If we don’t have a basic understanding of some key fundamentals, more work or harder work is wasted effort. We need to work smarter, not harder.
Sometimes we need professional help. This help can come from reading craft books, dissecting fiction similar to what we want to write, studying movies, attending conferences and workshops. But sometimes it can come through having a strong editor.
A Story of Seeds
Piper won’t mind me telling you this story since we laugh about it now. Of course we weren’t really laughing through the process, and it did seem a strange request that Piper requested a lock of hair part-way through edits.
But, the story goes like this.
Piper met me at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference. She met me at a fortuitous point because I believed that antagonists were key to plotting and had spent the previous year studying all the masters with the hopes of creating a program to help writers (especially new writers) be able to create a core story problem, a solid plot, and dimensional characters quickly.
I’d been part of critique groups for years and watched writers all around who kept working on the same novel and getting rejected year after year. I knew there had to be a better way. What if these authors did land the Magical Three-Book Deal? NY wasn’t going to give them fifteen years to write the next books.
There had to be a way to teach new writers how to ramp up the creative process and generate solid books at a professional pace.
When I met Piper, she was shopping a completed manuscript called Seeds. Though I was no longer taking on editing work at this point, I gave in when it came to Piper because she is cute and fun to hang out with. I agreed to edit the first hundred pages because Piper was headed to another conference the next month and a big-time editor had expressed interest in her story idea.
Piper sends me the document and…
Kill. Me. Now.
Three pages in, I sensed we needed to call Literary FEMA. All the rookie mistakes. ALL OF THEM. I remember hitting about page 65 and calling her.
Me: Um, Piper, you, uh, have a lot of characters.
Piper: There aren’t that many.
Me: Are they all relevant to the story?
Piper: Well, maybe not in this book, but it’s going to be a series.
Me: *head desk* Okay, but still you have A LOT of characters.
Piper: Not really.
Me: I counted. I am at page 65 and you have almost 70 named characters. When you name them, that is a cue we need to care. It’s impossible to care about 70 people in less than 70 pages.
She still didn’t believe me, so I went back through the manuscript and not only highlighted all the named characters (which included pets and extended family) but I wrote the names in a list.
Piper: Oh, wow. I guess I do have too many characters.
Me: Ya think?
I continued my edits and notes and this is how I earned the name The Death Star. By the end of the tortuous hundred pages, I told Piper that her book was all over the place.
There were scenes that were irrelevant because she’d missed her core antagonist and core story problem. Because of this, the rest was just filler. She was “playing Literary Barbies” as I like to say.
Characters were talking to each other with no conflict, no scene goal. Melodrama filled in the gaps. Characters were psychologically inconsistent and half I would have recommended seek therapy and get medication. Their emotions were all over, namely to manufacture tension that couldn’t be created any other way (because no core story problem/antagonist).
I could tell she had a great storytelling voice (and a great idea for a novel), she just didn’t understand basic fundamentals, and that was derailing what she’d been trying to accomplish the past nine years.
I recommended we start a new book so she could learn the basics with a bit of guidance and then she’d have the skills to fix Seeds. But, Piper was determined to finish what she started and I knew this would mean a mass genocide of Little Darlings.
I only agreed to help for two reasons. First, Piper was a former lawyer so I knew she had a fabulous work ethic and tough skin. Secondly, I’d never tried to resurrect a novel from the dead and wondered if it was even possible. I knew it would stretch my skills and teach me just as much as it would teach Piper.
I stripped everything she’d written down to a single story problem then made her develop her core antagonist. Then we plotted from there, keeping and developing only the characters salient to the plot. I’d love to say this was easy for Piper, but I am pretty sure she was plotting her book and my death at a number of points along this journey.
At first, we would argue over characters or scenes she wanted to keep. Then, over time, I’d hear her starting to defend, and my response was, Have fun storming the castle.
Eventually, Piper learned to laugh and give in when I said this, namely because every time I recommended something be changed, moved or removed and she didn’t do it? She’d go back and read and see what I was talking about and just end up doing what I advised anyway.
A lot of working with an editor is developing trust, btw ;).
But, after all of this, I am happy we took the hard road. Piper endured her Bookpocalypse and came out stronger in the end. Seeds was burned and buried, and what grew from the ashes was Firelands.
Not only did Piper get a traditional deal, this book has become a best-selling dystopian that has received glowing AP reviews and was blurbed by numerous New York Times best-selling authors. She wrote a funny blog post about this same journey we’re discussing today in her post, The Nine-Year Baby.
Piper is now a WAY faster, cleaner, stronger writer.
Her second book took less than seven months to complete and she’s now writing her third and has plotted her fourth (those books being an entirely new series). When I read her second book, I raced through it in less than six hours and loved it. Amazingly enough, I only had minor suggestions and corrections to offer.
My Baby Writer’s all grown up! *sniff*
Remember I mentioned some writer’s block might not be laziness or fear, rather lack of a foundation. The subconscious senses what’s lacking and slams on the breaks.
But this experience proved what I’d believed all along. There are some great new storytellers out there who just need some basics and tough love. Not all of us are able to learn by reading books. Some of us are kinesthetic learners and learn by doing. This can mean writing a drawer full of sucky books, or it can mean seeking guidance from someone who is a skilled teacher.
Yet, none of this learning can happen if we don’t experience our Bookpocalypse. I am not going to sugarcoat the experience. It SUCKS. When you have written and rewritten over and over, the characters and experiences become very real. It very much does feel like burying friends. I’ve been through it, too.
But we can’t move forward until we admit we have a disaster on our hands. And if we don’t learn why we wrote a disaster, this can be a formula for writing even more disasters.
This is why I am offering the Antagonist class tomorrow (use WANA15 for 15% off) and more classes that compliment this one next month. I no longer have the time to mentor the way I did with Piper, but I was able to create curriculum that can help reproduce the same effect.
Have you had a Bookpocalypse? Did you mourn the loss of your characters? Was it hard letting go? Are you happy you did?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.