What To Do When Your Book Isn’t Very Good

badland stick trees

It is the secret terror of every author: the novel they have labored over in the solitude of their private hours is rubbish, and everyone can see it but them. It is the ultimate intellectual failure, the final frontier of the inability to protect the ego from exposure, mockery, and shame.

Sounds Pretty Bad, Doesn’t It?

Indie authors live in fear of the scathing review that reams their work up and down; unpublished authors tremble at the thought of the withering dismissal from a coveted agent, and those with representation dread the possibility that no house will ever make an offer on their book.

Gee, Victor, Hyperbole Much?

So how can you tell if your book is great, or an embarrassing mistake? I would love to jump in here and tell you that of course your particular novel is marvelous in every way, but the truth is that there are always stories for each of us that function best as a private learning process. (As in, unsuccessful books. Bad novels, if you will.) They are valuable and essential to growing your powers as an author, but they aren’t anything you want to shelve at your local library, because they’re ideologically malformed, or poorly executed, or just plain personal and myopic.

I Have (Hidden, Secret, Super Unpublished) Books Like This Myself

In fact, I have a long, long list of novel ideas that I keep tucked way, many of which are dead-end ideas, or derivative non-plots, or simply ego-boosting pet projects that would spiral into unmarketable messes if I attempted to push them any farther. How do you tell that your book is like this? I mean, to speak plainly, how do you tell if your story sucks?

This Is Where Experience Comes In

I used to struggle with recognizing quality work. I had a private art tutor a long time ago who took me through reams of photographs, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting. She finally accepted two possibilities for a study of composition. “These would be all right,” she told me.

What A Prude!

I remember being taken aback by her pickiness. Later, when I became an acting TA, and I saw student after student presenting monologues, I started to understand better. Once I started producing, perspective came into play. I was working for money, now, and once money comes into the equation of art-making, sentimentality gets peeled away. What works? Why does it work? How, exactly, does it work?

Victor Poole, You’re Full Of Hot Air!

I like Bernard Shaw, but he was not a particularly wise man. Not like Shakespeare. He was convinced, or he pretended to be in his writings, that he had far surpassed Shakespeare in both skill and artistic application. Shaw believed, or he pretended to believe, that Shakespeare was a crock who fell victim to weak-minded sentimentality.

Ah, Poor Irish Boy

Yeah, that sounds really condescending, but he was a condescending guy, Bernard Shaw. Chekhov was kind. I approve of Chekhov. (He hated Stanislavski’s work a lot more than I do, and for good reason.) To the point: you can’t find out if your book is good or bad until you give it to someone to read. And then you have to be cunning, oh, so cunning, to parse and understand the reaction of your reader. Because, and this is a topic for another day, all but one percent of your potential readers are going to react as if your book is bad, but many of their negative reactions indicate that your book is good. Context, dear reader, is the key.

It’s The Wild West Out Here In The Art World, And You’re On Your Own

Yes, writing counts as art. Okay? And let’s say you shared your book with someone, and you came to the conclusion (it’s a common one) that your book is, in fact, bad. You feel terrible. Life is bleak. You think of giving up writing for a while. You browse classes. You think about taking up an easier pastime. But, at the back of your mind is a spark of hope, and a questioning; what if you’re wrong, and the book is all right? What if the book is not the greatest work of all time, but it’s good enough? After all, there are hundreds of books in bookstores and airport corners and public libraries that are only adequate; might not yours fit in with the crowd of good-enough?

Victor, Your Blog Is So Depressing Sometimes!

Ach, it’s my fake Russian streak. Old-timey fake Russian, not contemporary (I’m not Russian). I should probably delete that part. Ahem. When you have come to the conclusion that your book is not-great, but probably better than some published books (or even many!) it is time for a dose of cold, hard, productive reality.

And It’s Time To Write Another Book!

When a baby actor (of any age) starts to chase their dream, they are full of hot air (just like I am right now! It’s a natural part of the artistic metamorphosis!). They have an unrealistic belief in themselves, and they know in their bones that the rules are going to be different for them. As the crushing anonymity of their position begins, bit by bit, to bear in on them, they get a little, um, pulverized inside. Because whatever you look like, and however special you are, there are at least five hundred more that can pass as your twin at a stretch, and with a little makeup.

That Sucks!

The vast majority of baby actors immediately give up on really making it, and they embrace their automatic relegation to amateur status. Those who continue to dream get a little harsher, and leaner, and angrier. They edge into the all-mankind-is-my-enemy territory, and most of them become somewhat depressed. Clinically, usually, because the stakes are just so completely stacked against success. And that’s demoralizing. As soon as these last holdouts, these die-hard dreamers, cross the road into bitterness, their ability to succeed plummets, and they become second-rate chorus members (metaphorically speaking, or literally), and sometimes-extras for film and very low-budget productions. The few who don’t get bitter realize that they had better get far more serious about every aspect of their lives, because what they thought they were getting into is not what they find.

Politics, Personality Management, And Renting Out Your Soul

Gosh, I sound so pessimistic, don’t I? Luckily for you, we’re talking about your book, and not your hypothetical acting career (cheers!). If your book is not very good, you’re going to make one choice: is it worth publishing for the experience, or is it for the personal archives? Only you can answer this question, and if you don’t feel very confident, remember that you can always clean it up and publish it later when you have more experience. I recommend this option (it took me years to publish my third good-enough-to-publish book, and I am still sitting on two others I wrote earlier).

And Then, You Write Another One

Nothing teaches you to write a book like writing a book. Your first one is not going to be your best one, because when you are working on your second one, you’ve learned things. And when you start your third one, you’re ready to think more seriously about pacing. By the time you get to book six, you find yourself able to make more discerning choices about scene transitions and dialogue tags.

Channel Your Inner Dory, People, And Just Keep Writing!

In the big picture it really doesn’t matter much if the book you’re working on right now is “good enough.” What matters a lot more is whether or not you’re pressing your energy up and forward, and growing. Only you know if you’re growing upwards, or sinking into yourself. Don’t get bitter. Make yourself better.


Bad Writing:

The young man who filled up the boat had a bad-tempered expression on his lips, and even his eyes made a scowl in his well-fed demeanor. Here, you thought, was an angry juvenile. His mien of irritation was added to by the very expensive vehicle that he drove down the flower-carpeted avenue.

One immediately thought he had lost his job, or had a tiff with his mother, but the truth was much worse. The plump lad had been scorned by a lady friend, and he resolved, as the morning dew melted from the faces of the daisies below, to do something vicious about it. His first thought was to damage something, and as the curb presented a ready surface to pulverize, he steered his airborne vessel slightly to the left, and scratched up the curb. This exercise relieved a few of his hard feelings, but, as he soon found, his relief was short lived, for the enforcement of the law appeared in short order, and escorted him with furious expressions of disapproval to the local retainery for such louts as saw fit to damage public roads.

Good Writing:

Devan had no patience left, not even for the shiny chrome speedboat that spun down the avenue of flowers under his command. He was angry at the universe, for his dear friend Rosabud Curtleve had informed him breezily that morning that she had no time for his advances.

Marrying a banker! The injustice infuriated him, and he began, without much fuss, to knock his vessel against the left-hand side of the steel-coated curb. Bump, bump went the florid side of the boat, and crunch, crunch, went the curb, which scratched and dented under his reinforced hull.

It was only later, in the privacy of a municipal jail, that he told himself he ought to have gone and socked that filthy banker, Gerkins Dakly, right in the nose, instead of relieving his anger on the property of New Cilderbund’s city council.

You’re reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Here are my books. Remember, nobody’s on your side, but you can make it anyway, and once you build enough momentum you will find yourself able to assemble a team of support staff.