Will Power


In keeping with the “Mistakes I’ve made” posts I’ve been running over the last few weeks I thought I’d root around in my Big Bag o’ Personal Screw Ups, when I realized that the one I had in mind is a bit more complex than the others. For years it was a major mistake. And then, without warning, it turned out not to be, a truth that has rung extra loud this past week.

Here’s the basic story. Twenty years or so ago I wrote fantasy novel I couldn’t sell. I managed to get an agent who liked it, but when she sent it out, everybody and his dog passed. I fretted, tinkered with the book, but it was—my shiny new agent assured me—dead in the water. So what did I do? I wrote a sequel.

Yep. It took the best part of a year during which time, needless to say, I wrote nothing else.

This was a very bad idea. Mind numbingly stupid, in fact.

I guess I was thinking that a publisher might take a harder look at the first novel if they thought the series “had legs,” as it were, that the characters would last longer than a single book, clearing the way for a long and glittering franchise, presumably involving movie deals and the like. What publishers actually saw was a second installment of something they hadn’t especially liked the first time around.

Needless to say, we couldn’t sing the duet any better than we could the solo. Since I had a bad habit of dropping everything while I waited to make a sale, this little diversion (adding writing and submission/rejection time) probably cost me two years of productivity.

Now, over the years I continued to fiddle and tweak, sometimes drastically, but the two books remained substantially the same stories over the next decade and a half, though they were definitely polished up some. When I got a new agent (who I’m still with), I coaxed her into taking the books out again, but with no more success.

More tweaking and fiddling followed, now in the background as I worked on other things, and after I started having some success as a thriller writer, I pressed the results on my long suffering agent. This time we sold them no problem. Both of them.

Act of Will came out in hardcover 18 months ago, and went into paperback in July. WILL POWER, the second of the series, came out on Tuesday as a Tor hardcover, the last stage (at least before it goes into paperback a year or so from now) of a two book deal twenty years in the making.

The new book is a self-contained adventure and need not be read after the first, though it’s probably better taken in sequence. As some of you will know, Act of Will had an irreverent tone for so-called “High Fantasy” (if there’s such a thing as Low Fantasy, Will is its spokesperson) and the second book in the series takes this a significant step further. It pushes the envelope about what fantasy fiction is, I think, and wrestles with some of its not entirely pleasant legacy. (At some point, when I am less in danger of ruining the story for readers, I’ll try to write a post about the pleasures and perils of critiquing some of the more problematic aspects of fantasy fiction from the inside!) There’s action and adventure along the way, of course, all from Will’s jaundiced and ironic perspective. The first book lived or died by its voice; the second has a core idea which, I think, actually makes it a better book.

Having written the book a long time ago meant that returning to it was a bit of a shock, like stumbling into a younger version of myself. I liked the core story, but the book needed a lot of work, even after we had sold it. Once over my horror at what I thought was weak or otherwise unacceptable in the writing, I experienced the perverse pleasure of feeling like I’d grown as a writer. The overhaul was extensive, and I sometimes wished I was starting from scratch rather than salvaging something created by that earlier version of myself. But I suspect that if I hadn’t written both books when I did, I would not have pushed so hard to get either up to speed, and there’s no doubt in my mind that my publisher did actually like having two books in hand rather than just one. So, from this vantage point, my former idiocy now looks like a shrewd business move. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Get the right angle on past failures and they seem to merely pave the way for future successes.

But what do I know?

I’m the idiot who wrote a sequel to a book he couldn’t sell. You can read an extract from it here.


16 comments to Will Power

  • AJ, the AKA did a simmilar thing twice. (Yes, I am a slow learner.) My first medical thriller, Delayed Diagnosis, took 4 or 5 years to sell, and that was long after I had my foot in the door. Unlike you, though I only finished the second book after the sell, and for that long, *in a box languishing* half a decade it was stopped at about page 100.

    But my very first book, some 20+ years old, now has a small press pub and I will have to pull it out again this winter and do a major rewrite. I am already cringing at what I will find, and know that I will have to spend an inordinate amount of time getting it right. But seeing that first book in print will be a delight!

    Thsi is something we chat about on our panel at Novello in a few weeks. AJ, I don’t have the link with me. Can you post it? Some of our near-by fans like to come out and visit with us for an hour or two.

  • Thanks, Faith. Our panel at Novello is Oct 2nd. Here’s the press release: http://www.plcmc.org/about_us/in_the_news/releaseDetails.asp?id=471

  • Thanks, AJ. That gives me some hope.

    I have a story that I’ve rewritten at least six times between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. It had some promise, in that the last revision was asked for a rewrite by a small publisher, but it was only after I received that rejection that I realized that the story and I needed a break. I want to return to it someday, but I’d like to get published with something else, too. It was a great learning piece for developing my skills. It just needs several years away while I work on other things and learn some more (and actually get published, of course). After spending so much of my life in that world, the least I can do for it is to write it well, even if it takes me another seventeen years (because three has just not been enough).

    Part of me is grateful that this happened. If I’d succeeded before, I don’t know if I’d have been able to try new things with my writing.

    *runs back to Act of Will, the first book I’ve been able to read in almost four months*

  • I think most authors have a novel hidden away that they hope, someday, to revive. I have one (or two) that are written poorly — they were my initial training novels — but the ideas in them are cool and I still have a fondness for some of the characters. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back and fix those old relics, but I have salvaged bits from other failed works to use successfully in newer work. Seeing those bits survive, especially in a published piece, is always satisfying.

    Gotta finish Faith’s Bloodcross and then it’s on to Will Power!

  • Moira,
    yes, as with a lot of the things I’ve been reflecting on about my long apprenticeship as a writer (which is how I’ve come to think of it) there are a lot of things which can be both depressing and inspiring depending on your perspective. They seem bleak when you consider how long it all took, but the up-note is in the conclusion, so I hope most people take heart from the saga, albeit agonizingly slow. I have other books–and this speaks to Stuart’s comment too–still sitting around. A couple are, I think unpublishable because they just aren’t good enough and probably not worth the effort of reworking. Others I still have private hope for, though I’m not doing anything with them right now. In some cases they need crucial rethinking. In others they seem to need some kind of shift in the reading culture that might make them marketable. Whether that will ever happen, or whether I’ll do teh work to make them sellable, I don’t know: but they don’t vanish because tehy didn’t sell, and I may one day return to them. For now, I am too driven by new ideas and already have enough on my plate! Hope you guys enjoy the books.

  • This is inspiring, A.J. I have a book that I have struggled with for ages. It’s been reworked, rewritten, reconceived, and rewritten again, and it’s still not right. But I’m getting closer, and I refuse to give up. That said, I’m not sure I’m ready to write the sequel….

  • Thanks, David. There are, as you know, so many factors that determine the sale of book beyond its own merits. You never know when something (decent) which got passed over once has found its time. To quote Galaxy Quest: Never give up! Never surrender!

  • Deb S

    OMG, Galaxy Quest is hysterical. Love it.

  • Thsi is something we chat about on our panel at Novello in a few weeks.

    Despite having to find out on her own, your intrepid schedule keeper-upper has already posted it on the “Where We’ll Be” page. 😀

    I, too, have a novel that I want to eventually get right and sell. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I have about 320 pages done. I have no excuse for not finishing…oh wait, I’ve been so busy finishing Kestrel’s Dance and keeping up with the MW schedule! Yeah, that’s it! It’s all y’all’s fault!

    *laughs and runs away before they all smack her*

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks, this is comforting. Publishing sounds a lot harder now thatI’ve actually done research. When I started in fifth grade, I thought I could get my novel published. Reading it now- it’s painful. We’ll just leave it at that.

  • Sarah

    Oy. Emily and I have had something similar, though without the happy ending yet. We wrote a novel together. We revised the novel. We got some positive feedback and requests for rewrite. We rewrote again. (Wash, Rinse, Repeat.) But it didn’t sell. Almost, but not quite. Then at ConCarolinas a couple years back we both heard David compared a book to a house – when do you renovate a novel and and when do you tear it down to the foundations and building a new book? Or burn it and walk away? It was at a panel where people were asking “When do you give up and move on?” We took the hint and did just that. I think the only thing that didn’t change was a few character names. We also agreed to give each other space to work on our own individual novel ideas instead of putting them on hold.

    In my mind we’re on Draft #9 (or so – I’ve lost count.) In Emily’s mind, we’re on Brand New Novel #3. It’s changed that much. But either way, and even if it doesn’t sell, it was worth it. Our skill levels and creativity made some serious development in the process of 1)stepping away, 2) letting go of the unpublishable, and 3) working on multiple projects. I think it made us both more hopeful too. I was raised not to ever give up. But sometimes that’s the most productive thing to do.

  • Tom G

    I can be a little anal…I mean OCD. After I finished the first draft of my first UF novel, I proceeded to write the next four in the series before starting to work on getting the first one ready for submission. While writing the sequels, I kept thinking “I’m wasting my time if the first one doesn’t sell” but then I’d think, but I’m having SO MUCH FUN writing them. Fun won. BUT I’ve refrained from writing more, and I do have ideas. Ideas eating at my soul. Toying with me. Taunting me. But I’m not going to write them. Yet.

  • Thanks, guys. As usual, you want a balance between the pursuit of projects you find interesting for their own sake, and those you think you can sell. Publishers vary in how compelling they find whole sequences of books by unknown authors and, as David recently pointed out, there’s a big difference between stand-alone books with continuing characters and extended-arc books whcih finally only work as a complete unit. Publishers are understandably skeptical of the latter because they are unwilling to commit to multiple books when they have no idea how the first will sell.

    And yes, books that don’t get published are still useful, as exercises and experience that make you a better writer, but they also can be more directly helpful, and not only if the market alters and they finally sell. They can be reworked, broken up and borrowed from. You can pillage ideas, plot points, characters or favorite phrases in your later work. For writers, nothing is ever completely wasted. Even if it’s no good, you should at least learn why it’s no good and avoid that error in the future!

  • I’ve lurked on MW for a while now, and I really value all the great advice and the friendly attitude of its members. After reading A.J.’s post I felt compelled to finally write. I have an unfinished novel I started 20 years ago that’s about 200 pages deep (I’ve written 400 pages-plus, I’m sure) and gave up on it more than once. Because of my affinity for the characters and the fact that it was my first, I return to it every year or so and end up spending hours tweaking and revising. I often surprise myself when I crack it open. Through various re-workings, I’ve moved beyond the point where I laugh embarrassingly at it and instead think, “Wow, I wrote that? Not bad.”

    Still, the problem is, I’m a total pantser, and the book’s general plot is somewhat hackneyed now considering I started it around 1990: village boy/commoner embarks on quest, discovers he has a greater destiny. For whatever reason though, I can’t bring myself to completely abandon it. I guess part of it is nostalgia, and the other part is probably because I feel obligated considering the countless hours I’ve already put into it, and then there’s that third part where I’ll read a passage and admit to myself that the overall style of the writing is very good (at the risk of self-aggrandizement, sorry!). I know, however, that unless I land a deal like A.J. did and sell something “better” first and establish more authorial cred, this book doesn’t have a flipping chance of seeing publication.

    Maybe this is a cry for help. Maybe I need some of you folks at MW to talk me down from the ledge.

    Ahhh, *sigh* it also feels good to get my first post out of the way!

  • Welcome, JM. Glad to hear a new voice (esp from a “lurker”!). I think yours is a concern we all have over languishing manuscripts which either never got finished or didn’t meet with success when first written. It sounds like you have a healthy sense of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, which is a plus. I think the hardest thing about long-standing work is realizing that you sometimes have to abandon it, or make significant changes. If you think there’s good stuff there, it may well be worth trying to save. But you identify a genuine problem in the familiarity of the plot. Now, it’s true that familiarity often comes from stories that people want to keep reading, but you have to find a way to make it feel original and refreshing. My own fantasy stuff follows fairly conventional story lines. What amde it marketable, I think is the protagonist and the voice that comes with it. You might be able to do something similar. Yes, the core idea of an everyman village boy is a familiar one but there are probably ways you can tweak it to make it less obviously familiar. Consider altering the character in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever that will make the story feel more contemporary. Or something. Whatever you choose will necessitate some fairly serious rewriting, and you need to be prepared to do that, but if you know that the framing concept of the book is going to say “been there, done that” to editors, it’s probably worth the work. Either that or be prepared for a lot of rejection along the lines of “I’ve read this before.” However good your sentence level writing, it’s tough to make an idea feel fresh if teh story is one we’ve grown accustomed to. I would either try to rethink the project with a real “grabber” of an idea that will show up in the first sentence or two of you query to agents/editors, or I’d leave it and work on something new. Just my 2 cents, of course…

  • AJ, thanks for the pointers! Honestly, I have about ten WIPs, but you’ve given me something to think about with this one. How might I change it up by turning my male protagonist female? Hmmm! Food for thought, that’s for certain.