Friday, August 21, 2009

A Dog’s Breakfast

© Linwood Barclay 2009 all rights reserved

My agent said it happens to every writer eventually.

I wrote a novel last year that didn’t work. To use a favorite phrase of my wife’s, it was “a dog’s breakfast.” I should have known. I wrote the first seventy pages three times. Shifted back and forth between first and third person. Couldn’t get a handle on it. A little voice in the back of my head had been telling me to abort.

It was like when you hear a funny noise coming from under the hood. You think maybe it will go away. You crank up the radio so you don’t have to listen to it. Next thing you know, three fire trucks are pumping water all over your ride.

That voice in my head was saying, “Pull over! For the love of God!”

I didn’t listen. I thought, keep going, get to the end, fix whatever’s wrong during the revisions. So that’s what I did, and by time I finally pulled over, the book was a write-off. Nothing really worked. It was fundamentally flawed. Reluctantly, I accepted my agent’s verdict that I could write another book from scratch in less time than it would take for me to fix everything that was wrong with this book.

I felt sick. This hadn’t happened to me before. While my six previous novels had needed varying degrees of work after the first draft, they’d all been in more or less good shape from the get go. I’d never faced the prospect of ditching an entire novel and starting over.
It was not a good feeling.

I didn’t know it then, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

At the time, I felt like stepping in front of a bus. I’d spent about four months on this book. I was contracted to deliver a new thriller before the end of the year. The clock was ticking. I did have an idea for another book – a missing daughter story, with a twist – but that was the one I was expecting to start next year.

I set aside five days to feel sorry for myself. My kids – now both in their twenties – have a word for a mopey friend. A “hurtsack.” That was me. A hurtsack.

But then I made myself get down to work. I took about ten days to make notes, then started writing. Something wonderful happened. I couldn’t write the thing fast enough. Those first seventy pages were a dream. Seven weeks later, I had the first draft of FEAR THE WORST. And not once during that time did I hear a voice saying, “Pull over!”

Believe me, I was listening for it.

FEAR THE WORST took another couple of write-throughs to get it into shape. The characters needed sharpening. A subplot was added. But that first draft felt pretty solid to me. Now that the book’s finally coming out, I feel better about it than any of my others. I think this book turned out well because the other one turned out so badly.

That first book wasn’t quite the failure I thought it was. It was my Apollo 13. It seemed like a disaster at the time, but it turned into a learning experience.

Here’s what that book taught me:

1. Listen to that voice. If it’s telling you the book isn’t working, stop. Regroup. Try to figure out what the problem is. How bad is it? Is it something that can be fixed? Do you have to start again? Would it be better to cut your losses and walk away?

2. Don’t be too proud to get some other opinions along the way. When I was working on that book, I didn’t want to show it to anyone until it was finished. Not my agent, not my editor, nobody. Looking back, I think this is because I knew, in my heart, that it was not working, and I didn’t want to hear that from anyone. But it’s better to get an early diagnosis so you can start treatment early. A lot of writers are too proud to take advice from agents or editors or friends. The only opinion they value is their own. That’s a mistake. You can get so close to your own work that you lose perspective.

3. Suck it up and move on. The time you spend sulking is time that could be spent writing. I spent more than thirty years in newspapers and writing to me is a job. The best job in the world, but still a job. If you had a contractor into your house to put on an addition, and the walls were all crooked and the windows fell out, you wouldn’t put up with him moping about for several weeks about all the time he’d spent doing a bad job. You’d expect him to tear down what he’d done and start over.

I suppose, when I say it took me seven weeks to write the first draft of FEAR THE WORST, that’s not true. I need to count all that time spent on the other book.

All well spent, as it turns out.

About the author:

Linwood Barclay is a former columnist for the Toronto Star. He is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Too Close to Home and No Time for Goodbye, a #1 bestseller in Britain. He lives near Toronto with his wife and has two grown children. His website is


Kim Smith said...

Oh wow, Linwood. You are gonna hear from a lot of folks on this one. I think if we are honest, ALL authors have had this problem. I know *authors anonymous here* I have.

It's so hard to say no to a story we've had to work so hard on though. But again, if we are honest, we probably should cut our losses as you have said.

GREAT post, and thanks so much!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Linwood, it's a pleasure to have you here today! Fascinating account of an all-too real problem we all face during our careers. Wonderful insight into your process, and how great to hear that the most recent book basically flew out of you! Kudos! I'll check out your links right now. Thanks again for joining us today, and come back often if you can.

Sheila Deeth said...

Okay, I'll be listening more for that voice now, and maybe not feel like such a hopeless failure when I hear it. Thanks.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, so sad but true. I've been there - had to throw away an entire book that didn't work, and it was third in a series, so I had to rewrite it from scratch. It sucked!