In Praise of Failure: Write a Stinker
By Jenny Drummey
While Unrequited is my first published novel, it’s not the first one I wrote. I spent over a decade writing and rewriting a book called Hurricane Frank, a sprawling, ridiculous, and frustrating exercise that put me off writing for a year.
In the book, a lot of things happened. The story branched off into so many directions that a London cabbie would be challenged to keep them straight. The Tattersalls, Misty and Bud, lose everything to the storm. Bud is a clueless oaf. Misty has the power to repair broken objects by looking at them, but she can’t fix this.
They have two children: Seth, a bewildering man-child who ends up hosting a human interest program not unlike Real People, a show from the 70s that featured the bizarre and charming antics of ordinary people like you.
The Tattersalls’ other child was, at one point, told in second person and genderless. Then I rewrote the story in the first person from that character’s perspective. Then I reorganized the time line, while introducing more bizarre folks to this screwy world, such as Professor Isidore who writes an equation to predict a program’s success, Johnny Ace, a low level thug who loves Led Zeppelin, and Misty’s mother, who has a fateful encounter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr at a Frankie Avalon concert. There is a product called Liquid Lumberjack that pops up often. The plot thickens when a character peels a banana and find a human hair in the fruit.
The hurricane of the title was sentient. The book’s climax featured an interview with the storm on the Natural Disaster Channel. “The production of Hurricane Frank’s weatherography was made possible by technology, structures, and machines that stabilized Frank’s size and wind speed, and allowed it to be interviewed in a special studio, with a tube that descended from the ceiling and came to rest on an oversized chair designed by the U.S. military. The other end of the tube opened into the sky above the NDC studios, where Frank’s 100-mile diameter, greatly diminished from its peak size, spread out over the land.”
And this ain’t the half of it.
Working under the sunk-cost fallacy, I restructured and rewrote, even though it felt like trying to cram an obese dead man into a too snug coffin. When I finally decided to trash the book, I saw it as a huge failure and didn’t write for a long time.
But then, finally, came some short stories, including the one that would become Unrequited. A friend read the story and said “I want to know more about these people.” And the engine started again.
And this time, Unrequited came together in a year and a half. It was work, of course. Writing always is. But what I learned from Frank played a huge part in its relatively speedy completion. For example:
• Keep the number of characters to a minimum. If two or three people are similar, combine them.
• Odd characters are wonderful, but make them human and recognizable. Create characters that even a mother could hate.
• Decide which characters own the story. Focus on them.
• Give yourself permission to suck. Throw everything on the page. Let your most outrageous ideas and pigheaded opinions pile up into a towering pyramid of malarky. But then toss hundreds of pages if need be. It’s not wasted time. As long as you are writing, you are not wasting time.
Most people do not set out to write an awful book. Perhaps we all should. It is only when we are truly open to failure that we take the most risks.
Fail fabulously. Then, go write your good book.