Kristen Lamb

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The Bookpocalypse–What to Do When You Realize Your Story Might Be DEAD

Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo
Original image via Wikimedia Commons, Nuclear Weapons Test Romeo

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.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 9.38.10 AM

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.

I also highly recommend workshops offered by Bob Mayer, Candace Havens, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks and Les Edgerton. Yes, it might cost money, but your time is valuable. Invest in your future.

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 novelor 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.

52 thoughts on “The Bookpocalypse–What to Do When You Realize Your Story Might Be DEAD”

  1. Damian TraslerDamian Trasler

    OOh! Another post stuffed full of good stuff to apply to my WIP! Particularly the bit that said “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).” When I reach the end of the story, I’m going to go back through with this quote pasted to the monitor!

  2. David RussellDavid Russell

    Hi Kristen and fellow and lady readers, New to your posts, but find them genuine, honest, and identify with those occasions in life when we have personal or interpersonal apocolypse that figuratively or literally bring one to their knees. Thankful for fresh starts, heart mending be it one’s self or loved ones, and darn the thought that minimizes humans being humans. Admitting we make mistakes instead of spending soooo much time trying to hide them generally endears one to others but for some reason we act otherwise as a human collective. Ugggggg. Sending cyber hug, smiles and one hearty sigh to the topic at hand. David

  3. Athena BradyAthena Brady

    A very interesting story, Its amazing when people share their own stories good and bad. It allows us to learn from where they went wrong. I dont have much time to pop over to your blog as much as I would like Kristen but when I do, I am never disappionted. Thanks for sharing both. I will pop over to Piper’s blog now to read her story.

  4. cynthiagrstaceycynthiagrstacey

    Wow that is really inspiring. Are you sure you don’t have time to mentor? or edit?…I have tough skin…I even killed off a character already at your suggestion…lol Oh well. Awesome article. I am going to reblog this one.

  5. cynthiagrstaceycynthiagrstacey

    Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
    Awesome article by Kristen Lamb author of Rise of the Machines- Human writers in a digital world!

  6. bravesmartboldbravesmartbold

    I actually have a story that I think needs to go there. The concept and some of the dialogue is good but it’s just bad. Thank you for writing this. I think I know what I need to do now.

  7. Lisa GodfreesLisa Godfrees

    Thanks, Kristen. I’m between books and was trying to determine what to read next. Just got Firebrand for my kindle (Even though I swore I wasn’t going to buy any more books until I read the 114 I already have). LOL And you’re right, writing isn’t as easy as reading. The study of craft is a must, as well as having writers who are better than you feeding into your work. Thanks!

  8. M T McGuireM T McGuire

    As a complete pantser, I still get blocked about a third of the way through every novel because as you say, my subconscious knows something’s wrong. So I usually wait until it sorts itself out. It takes me about 6 months to write a novel but because I have very little time that translates as about 2 years. Mmm… hence my being self published because the 2 year thing isn’t going to go away until junior is a lot older. 😉

    Also had a bookopalypse. My first book took 13 years to write, or at least, it took me 13 years to work out how to write a book. I wrote another book about the characters I cut out – changed names and species but they were basically the same people… mmm… yeh.



  9. EricaErica

    I had a bookpocalypse earlier this month. Why? No antagonist. After 10 years, I finally accepted that my main (and oh so adorable!) character just really wanted to get off the rose bush and go back to bed. So that’s the ending I wrote.

    Now he’s in bed and I’ve started a new story. This time with an antagonist.

  10. Elke FeuerElke Feuer

    LOL, Kristen, you sound like my bff who is also my critique buddy. She’s brutally honest, but that is why I love her.

    I had to kill off many of my earlier stories once I started learning how to properly write a story. It was hard at first, with me trying to see if I could fix them, but once I made the decision to scrap them I got a sense of freedom and ideas for other, newer, better stories flowed in. Best decision, ever!

  11. RJ CraytonRJ Crayton

    Seventy characters in 70 pages is a lot. Yikes! But, she overcame and that was great. Learning to fix a story is hard, especially when you love the characters so much. But, it’s important, and I think once people do learn, the next stories they write tend to work better. Thanks for the fun post.

  12. Ryder IslingtonRyder Islington

    I empathize with your friend. My first novel had several main characters–if I remember correctly there were ten–but worse than that, it had no ending. Absolutely none. I wrote about a thousand pages and still, everyone was just hanging there. And worse than that, there was very little tension. It was an historical about how tough it was to be a woman in those times. I stuck it in a drawer and wrote what became my first pubbed novel–a contemporary mystery–that became book one in a series. What happened to my ladies from the 1800’s? They became an ongoing serial in the local newspapers. At 500 words a week, I think it will last a while, though I still don’t know how it’s gonna end!

  13. HeatherHeather

    Funny enough, I just had lunch with a friend who asked why I had certain characters. And I had already merged some! But his asking got me to say he’s the counterpoint to this other character, and they take the opposing stands on one of the core topics of the book, which help illustrate to the characters what it means. It triggered all sorts of restructuring and depth for my main characters and I can see where it will go now!

  14. S EarlS Earl

    I recently got a rare jolt of creative inspiration and started a little bit of work on my Second Novel. I like my First Novel a lot, but I know it needs tons of work if it ever wants to get published. After some preliminary stuff, I sat down and wrote a few pages of the Second Novel and it’s *good.* Or, at least, it’s way better than the First Novel is. Not quite willing to blow up the First Novel yet, at least not until I get a first draft done and some feedback, but your post helped me recognize that at some point dynamite may be the best solution.

  15. Dennis LangleyDennis Langley

    That had to be very painful for both of you. Thank fully,It sounds like a happy ending. Firelands does sound interesting.

  16. eightdecadeseightdecades

    To think I feel bad because my children’s book has been started over 4 times now, 32 pages-16 of text comprised of only a couple lines each, and I fall into a bookpocalypse. Arrrg!
    The core of your story point—be willing to start over! Loved your post, it reflects how many paintings I must stop trying to save.
    To me the book writing thing is like eating chocolate — It is not getting the eating part done, it is getting the tasting part done, don’t swallow too soon or you get really fat trying to get something from it, and never satisfy your hunger. So if it takes a bit of time to do the book, do the time, do it again taste some more, that is the real pleasure anyway. (selling books who needs that anyway)? Oh wait, I do!
    Loved your post, got a lot from it thanks.

  17. sharonhughsonsharonhughson

    Been there. Done that. Got the pink binder with 300 pages of mush to prove it.
    I’m afraid for my WIP but I have faith that your class is going to help me sort out my antagonist (who is causing problems through his agents but do my readers really know it?) They don’t since I’m still working out what his overall drive and motivation is.
    I NEED your class. See you tomorrow!

  18. catherinelumbcatherinelumb

    This is not really a story I wanted to read, but it’s definitely one I needed to know about. I’m beginning to feel a lot like this – that my novel is great, but at the same time could do with some structure and scaffolding to help support the key story problem and the necessary characters.
    I still have a lot of work to do and your post today has made me believe that, with hard graft and dedication, it can be done. Let’s hope it doesn’t take me another seven years ( I’m already 2 yrs in).
    Thanks, Cat

  19. kimterrykimterry

    Can one character be antagonistic and another be villainous?

  20. ravenlawravenlaw

    I remember my first story. I still have it. Heh. The best thing I salvaged out of the wreckage was the discovery I had other stories and other characters waiting in my head. 🙂 That said, I’ve been struggling through my novel. I don’t think that’s because it’s a bomb. I think it’s because as I progress I find out how much there is to learn about writing a novel. I’ve stopped along the way to pick up classes and find mentors. It can be disheartening because that slows down the whole process, however, I’ve learned so much from my teachers. Sometimes, it’s just about have the patience to stop and learn about an element that has stumped you. Great article!

    Laurel W.

  21. A. B. HarmsA. B. Harms

    I’m not sure whether this post gives me hope or confirmation it’s time to bury the dead…maybe some of both. I know that I’m close to having the right foundation- asking and answering the right questions, but I’m not there yet. I feel like I can’t put the pieces in the right places. Perhaps your antagonist course would help…

  22. Daniel Escurel OccenoDaniel Escurel Occeno

    Bestselling author was not in my thought process. I just wanted the money, a source of income, since I was mostly unemployed and I had the time to write. I did not care about my grades in high school English classes because I wanted to take more classes in English grammar. Back when I first started writing to submit, I found out that the high school had ADULT BASIC EDUCATION teaching English Grammar and Creative Writing and they discontinued the classes after I found out and wanted to enroll. But I am glad that I was able to take classes on Windows and the Internet or I would still be writing on paper hoping for a miracle to have money. To deal with the Bookpocalypse, I plan on writing as many as I can and throw it against the wall to see if at least one sticks to the wall of an editor where I can have a year salary, even at $6 an hour of 8 hours a day in 5 days a week, with future royalties. I do not have the money to self-publish.

  23. markneumarkneu

    If only a bookapocalypse was as easy to recognize as the real-world ones.
    Is your backyard full of flesh-eating zombies? It’s an apocalypse and it is pretty simple to see the cause of your troubles.
    Is your book, which you poured your heart and soul into, not selling well? Not so easy for us beginning writers to figure out the cause. Bad cover? Stupid blurb? I know something needs fixing, I just don’t know what.

    Breaking off on a tangent – Kristin, I know you are very pro-Facebook but is there any chance you’ll be starting some official WANA-haven for those of us on Google+?

  24. Margaret TaylorMargaret Taylor

    Yes Kristen, I too have had my Bookpacalypse! As a matter of fact, the very book I released this week was the product of the ashes…*laughs*

    Thanks very much for your insight. I always love your posts…and I’m devouring Rise of the Machines my dear. So, thanks for that too!

  25. MaryMary

    One advantage of having a metier of short stories and only slowly mastering the art of the novel is that I had plenty of time to learn that stories can be unsaleable.

  26. Kessie CarrollKessie Carroll

    I’ve been tearing through a bunch of rewrites using all those great techniques–scenes and sequels, strong antagonists, all that jazz. The one I’m almost done with is the best one yet. The trouble is I keep trying bigger and harder things. This romance subtext has me flummoxed. Romance is hard!

  27. ontyrepassagesontyrepassages

    My original novel was big enough to throw off the earth’s rotation, but I learned a lot writing it.

  28. jcollyerjcollyer

    I’d love to be an editor 🙂 When working in workshops I found it so much fun going through scripts with a red pen. It might make me seem cruel but the truth of it is I revelled in the potential of the work and wanted to bring it to the surface in teh strongest way possible. I still don’t know whether it’s actually because I’m good at editing or I just know my taste. Hopefully one day I might find out and be able to do it for a living 🙂

  29. jcollyerjcollyer

    PS you did for Piper what my workshops did for me – you’re right, it’s next to impossible to learn on your own. It is a credit to Piper and her dedication to her craft that she was willing to go on this journey, and look how amazingly it was worth it 🙂 It must be so satisfying for you too

    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      I just helped her tear apart the old, grieve, and swatted the Little Darlings out of her hand accordingly, LOL.

      • jcollyerjcollyer

        Tough love! It’s sometimes the only way!

  30. Pirkko RytkonenPirkko Rytkonen

    I would like to attend your Antagonist webinar, but cannot do it on this date. Will you have this at a another date again?


    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      Since this is such a critical class for writers (and due to response) yes. If writers don’t get this fundamental we can waste years trying to figure it out. Will probably offer it in September, so stay tuned :D.

  31. DebbieDebbie

    I wrote, I spell-checked, I had two beta readers, and I know I enjoyed the ride. The problem…the characters…they keep asking, ‘Have you forgotton us?’ I’ve never tried to rewrite because the task is enormous. So have I given up or grown up?

  32. Brandon Butler (@bbutler1975)Brandon Butler (@bbutler1975)

    Sounds like a familiar story to me. I wrote a novel when I was about 16 that, in retrospect, was worse than Sharknado. That one isn’t coming back in any form or fashion! Even the novel I just finished went through a complete re-thinking (or two) before I was happy with the plot and characters. I approach my writing with the mindset that I need to be ruthless when revising and editing. If something isn’t working right, it’s got to go. No matter how drastic the change may be, it has to happen. My final copy looks almost nothing like the initial concept, but I believe it’s a much stronger work than it would have been had I stuck to the initial idea.

  33. Richard LeonardRichard Leonard

    Once again, brilliant advice. I read somewhere that if you have more than 6 named characters, it’s too many. Not sure if that number is a little low but there needs to be a limit or you risk losing your readers who will have lost track of your story!

  34. Richard LeonardRichard Leonard

    Reblogged this on Richard's Ramblings and commented:
    Some more great advice by Kristen Lamb. Too many characters? The Bookpocalypse: Knowing when your story is dead. A must-read.

  35. donnajeanmcdunndonnajeanmcdunn

    Loved this post Kristen. I wrote my first book, Nightmares, and I was proud of it, but I still held back submitting it to anyone. Oh, I had a couple of friends read it and they loved it, but there were a few things I felt I should change but didn’t know how. I took an online novel writing course and used the manuscript as my project. The first time the instructor told me I needed to rewrite an entire chapter, I was so angry, I cried. But I did it using her advice and instructions to the best of my abilities and she loved it. As it turned out there were a lot of chapters that had to be rewritten and one had to be eliminated and another was added together with another chapter. The result is that manuscript is now a book and was accepted by a small publisher. So yes I had to learn the hard way, but at least I was able to save it.

  36. brickhousechickbrickhousechick

    Wonderful advice. I am a rookie and in need of much instruction. Great story about Piper. 🙂

  37. krysalis8krysalis8

    I’ve reblogged your post. I’ve been working on my YA book for 5 yrs and you make me feel that all this time spent has not gone to waste. Thank you, Kristen.

  38. WordsFallFromMyEyesWordsFallFromMyEyes

    Love this. You’re great to support your friend.

    I thought that about getting As in English too!! Oh, what a tale – and what a magnificent contest!

    This is your best post! 🙂

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