Writing is not easy. Its a lot of bumpy roads, windy paths, and in my case, rickety plummets. My first novel was among the latter of these voyages. As a young writer, I had a lot to learn, and fortunately, I had the opportunity to do just that. But no matter how much we may learn from our mistakes, failures still feel like failures. However, I’ve recently been encouraged by the stories of others who failed many times before they ever succeeded.
Walt Disney, undoubtedly one of the most inspiring and imaginative entrepreneurs America has ever seen, was once fired from a newspaper who believed he lacked imagination. Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr.Suess), who is one of the best selling children’s author in history, was rejected twenty-seven times before his first novel was published by Vanguard Press. Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most well-remembered presidents, lost over a half dozen elections before he was nominated president of the United States in 1860. And let’s not forget Thomas Edison who, when asked about his failed attempts at inventing the electric light bulb, said this:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I conceived the idea for my first novel while I was a sophomore in high school. It was inspired by a short story I read in one of my English classes, written by Stephen Vincent Benét called “By the Waters of Babylon.” It is a futuristic story chronicling a group of people living after the fall of a powerful civilization. I had never read a post-apocalyptic story before and I was immediately engrossed by the idea.
Its no new idea. For decades people have been anticipating the adverse implications advanced technology will have on our society. But, as a sixteen year old back in 2007— before the main stream post-apocalyptic craze was ushered in by young adult series like “The Maze Runner,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Divergent” series—the idea of an entire culture being entirely ignorant to its predecessors and their mistakes was wildly fascinating.
It wasn’t long after I read that short story by Benét that Tahynain came into being. It was a primitive, yet beautiful land tucked between mountains, hills, and river, thriving as a self-sustaining, secluded society. The story follows a group of multi-generational Rolmanons, people inhabiting the city of Rolmanon who believe they are the only society in all of Tahynain. One child, consumed by curiosity, journeys outside the city’s boundaries on multiple occasions where he finds desolate patches of land, black and copper snakes (power lines), a circular glass trinket with silvery wings (a watch), and heavy sheets of strange material (fallen plane debris). The older generation is forced to tell them the truth and reveals the dark world that came before Rolmanon.
Not long after, scouts find evidence of another city nearby. The leaders of Rolmanon journey to see the new city, Dovynthyre, which they discover carries on the old values from the Dark Ages before the wide-spread wars. Rolmanon leaders decide to go to war with Dovynthyre to preserve and ensure peace and innocence for their younger generation. After a gruesome battle, the Rolmanons overtake Dovythyre, but their victory is short-lived as something much more sinister, something beyond the Rolmanon’s wildest dreams, threatens their entire way of life.
What I left out of the above description, besides the riveting ending, are a number of elements that compromised my story’s potential. For starters, the elder generation once had superpowers, like comic book superpowers, which you see in a five chapter flashback. Flashbacks? Yikes. And once the lions are introduced in present time, to help defend and warn the Rolmanon’s (because yes, the lions talk) against the Corpsetters (zombie-like creatures), the younger generation start getting super powers as well. I forgot to mention in the flashback there’s also a flash-sideways. And no, I had never seen Lost at this point. I couldn’t decide on the narrative type, so my story implements two of them. And if talking animals, super-powers, and time jumps don’t do it for you, perhaps the cyborgs and radioactive canines will.
It would suffice to say I didn’t have much of a direction with my story. I bit off a lot, and I practically choked on it. But I still stand firm on a few things. I had a conviction, that small voice in a writer’s head that tells them there just may be something worth writing about. Warnings against our society’s imminent doom must have been mine. Looking back on it, I’ve actually grown fairly fond of some of the characters, creatures, and plot progressions. Unfortunately, no matter how enthralling the plot, or how believable the character, it’s nearly impossible to write a book that people will want to read without a clear understanding of two things: target audience and genre.
When I started writing this novel, I was moved by a big idea in an exciting world. I never stopped to ask questions. The language I used could be fitting for a young adult novel, but some of the content was not. Philosophical questions about the meaning of life, sinful nature, and the existence of God are probably not the most welcomed components in a young adult fantasy novel. While the post-apocalyptic genre would have been right on for young adults (which I take some mild pride on being among authors who were onto that genre before it went mainstream, however unaware I was of it at the time), I also incorporated some elements of science fiction and high fantasy. So, it got pretty messy.
Thankfully, I had some help. My creative writing professor helped me work through my novel. He read the entirety of my 350 page manuscript, bless his heart, and responded by applauding me for my discipline in finishing it. It was all over the place and we both knew it. He helped me to better understanding readership. He helped me see there are genres for a reason. It helps people determine whether or not they want to be a part of something. But most importantly, it helps you gain your readers’ trust and keep it. Determining who you want to reach and how is just as important as determining what you want to say. It took me a novel to figure this out, but I’m grateful to have learned from my mistakes. If you want more tips and advice on taking better care of your readers, check out this piece on genre by Kristen Lamb.
Writing within the confines of an audience and genre can actually be very liberating. This time around, I have chosen to focus on writing a young adult, high fantasy novel. I’m finding my journey of writing and exploration to be much richer. Boundaries can be a very healthy thing. So, I guess you could say I never really failed at writing a novel, I just found a few ways that didn’t work. Thanks Mr. Edison, you’re quite the inspiration.
Have any of you taken risks and failed at something? What has it taught you, and where did you allow it to take you? Please comment and share any thoughts or encouragement through your stories of growth.