Twenty years ago I published a short story called “Larsen’s Novel.” The plot was simple: A man named Larsen unexpectedly presents his best friend, Flem, with the novel he’s written. Flem spends the rest of the story crafting increasingly far-fetched excuses to avoid reading the book.
It’s hard to blame Flem. Larsen’s novel tracks the exploits of Red Lawson, “a periodontist with the soul of a bluesman.” A brief excerpt of Larsen’s opus should suffice:
“I have never been so insulted in all my life,” Rosetta Stone screeched. Her green eyes blazed like a forest fire ablaze.
“What did I do?” Red declared, his eyes like the eyes of a deer whose eyes are caught in a set of headlights.
But the only answer he received was the slamming of his door, like a crack of thunder inside the eardrum of his heart.
I had a lot of fun writing the story. But “Larsen’s Novel” was also a veiled confession. In the three years preceding its composition, I myself had written a novel nearly as wretched as Larsen’s. I, too, had foisted this monstrosity upon a host of unlucky friends, as well as an agent who took six months to read what she could before informing me (in forty seconds) that we were best to part ways.
I wish I could report that this was my first failed novel. It was my third. I’d written one in my late twenties, before shipping off to an MFA program, where I hacked through a second. In all, I’ve written five novels that remain, mercifully, unpublished.
I may be an extreme example of the genus but I suspect that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other writers whose desk drawers and hard drives harbor a Larsen’s Novel or three. We’re essentially the biggest secret society in the literary world.
Despite having published a dozen other books, I’ve spent most of my career defining myself as a failed novelist.
I certainly don’t recommend this self-appraisal to others, as it manages to combine masochism with a strain of self-pity that is often narcissism’s tenant twin. But I do want to share the insight it took me three decades to grasp: The failed novels have been central to my success as a writer.
I am not advocating that writers spend years blithely pounding away at futile projects. I’m saying that for too long I assumed the commercial fate of my novels was the only measure of their worth.
This is the prevalent tendency in the world of publishing, which is intensely and publicly competitive. I often think of us writers as a legion of insecure siblings, all battling for the attention of a few distracted parents, most of whom live in New York City and won’t return our e-mails.
When one author enjoys success, the rest of us get to watch them ascending through the fog of obscurity. Social media has made these triumphs that much easier to broadcast. We are exhorted to build our platforms, burnish our brands. The net result is a zeitgeist that simultaneously compels us to silence any mention of our failures while amplifying the shame we feel about them, as we watch our peers bathed in buzz.
But in calmer moments I’ve been able to look beyond my regret. To riff on a phrase from Thomas Edison: I didn’t fail at writing a novel; I just dis-covered a thousand ways to not write a novel.
My initial lesson was that writing an “autobiographical” novel requires a capacity for deep self-reflection.
My first two novels were about, respectively, an inept young newspaper reporter and an inept adjunct professor. Both books sought to mine the absurdities of the only professional worlds I knew.
But as often happens with writers early in their careers, the bromide “write what you know” becomes a trap. I hadn’t conceived of my protagonists as separate and apart from me. They were the products of my infatuation with language, not my imagination.
My narrative strategy, if you can call it that, was to leap into the heads of these heroes and get stuck there, as they bumbled from one scene to the next, spouting smart-aleck commentary. The novels had no sub-text. Or rather the subtext was: Aren’t I clever?
There’s nothing wrong with writing autofiction, of course. Some of my favorite novels—Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984), for instance, or Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019)—are precisely that. But Duras’s and Vuong’s prose soars because their narrators are engaged in an urgent search for the meaning of what they’ve lived through. I simply wasn’t ready to do that emotional work, to face the unrequited desire and desperation beneath all my clowning. Instead I besieged the reader with what I took to be charm, which, as Saul Bellow reminds us, “is always a bit of a racket.”
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of this in the years I was excreting those first two novels. I only knew that the books felt claustrophobic and muddled. Thus, for my third effort, I decided to write…a historical epic.
In college I had come across the story of Shabbatai Zvi, the most famous false messiah in Jewish history. I saw his tumultuous life as the ideal substrate for a novel. Here was a can’t-miss plot, just waiting for my sparkling prose.
I can see now that I was trying to create a protagonist who was nothing like me. I buried myself in research, so as to recreate the world Zvi inhabited with a fidelity sure to dazzle the modern reader.
But novels can only succeed if authors are able to dramatize the chaos inside their characters. And I had no idea how Zvi—a devout Jew whose tortured psyche was shaped by arcane forms of mysticism—viewed the world.
And thus I was left to push the poor guy around the Levant for three years and 850 pages, hoping he might bump into the big-ticket items: love, loss, inner conflict, epiphany. He did not.
In the wake of each unsold manuscript, I would pick myself up and—after the requisite gnashing of teeth—return to my first love, short stories, as well as nonfiction projects.
The lesson for me was that it’s important to accept your limitations as a writer while pushing to expand them. Just because I struggled with the novel form didn’t mean I couldn’t write other sorts of books.
After the Zvi debacle I launched into a manuscript that was the opposite of the grandiose novel I’d envisioned: a journalistic romp through the world of candy, my childhood obsession.At the time, I viewed the book as evidence of my fecklessness; I lacked the patience and self-belief (they may be the same thing in the end) to become a novelist.
I now view the matter more generously. My inability to write a publish-able novel actually helped me to cast off a certain writerly vanity that was holding me back. Rather than asking What sort of book should I be writing? I was able to ask a much more useful question: What sort of book do I want to write?
My fourth novel was set in a world that was more familiar to me: sports talk radio. I was trying to draw a link between the culture of fandom—with its restless aggression, entitlement, and grievance—and the larger American project of militarism. The novel had plenty going for it: a sense of purpose, a comic tone, a compelling world. It also had a passive leading man.
I overcorrected in my next novel, writing from the perspective of a hedonistic demagogue who decides to run for president. This was five years before the 2016 election, but even then it was clear that a shameless loudmouth would thrive in our attention economy. My new hero was a man of action, hurling himself into erotic and professional entanglements at warp speed.
But velocity isn’t the same thing as direction. Rereading these two books recently, I recognized the flaw they shared: a meandering plot. They contained a multitude of set pieces and precious little rising action.
This is the most intricate, and therefore elusive, aspect of novel writing: sustaining forward momentum. It’s especially tricky for short story writers. We’re used to working with a much simpler template: fewer characters to track, a shorter timeline, setup and payoff within five thousand words.
The architecture of a novel requires the creation of stakes for all your major characters, as well as intersecting (and interdependent) trajectories. Style and voice may fuel a strong start, but novelists need both a blueprint and a sense of urgency.
It’s not enough for scenes to entertain; they must escalate tension and instigate further action. This happens, therefore that happens. Without a clear chain of consequence, the reader is left adrift in an unmediated sea of…meandering.
The second problem with these books was more fundamental: While I came to each project with a clear idea of what I wanted to say, I didn’t know my protagonists deeply enough. I had a sense of what they wanted from the world (mostly acclaim), but I hadn’t identified the internal conflicts that plagued them before they arrived on the page. Nor did I understand these conflicts as the true subject of my novels. It took me a few more years to discern that these two flaws were intertwined, that the novelist’s charge is to construct a plot that peels away the ploys by which characters conceal their inner doubt. When I reexamined my scenes, I saw that too often I was indulging, rather than exposing, their failures of self-recognition. My central job, it turned out, wasn’t just to engineer mayhem, but to impel my people, tenderly and ruthlessly, toward the truth of themselves.
Heading into my fifties, I was still fixated on the idea that I would never be a true writer until I produced a novel.
Some of this had to do with the commercial and critical expectations that all short story writers face. Some of it had to do with my family history. (I’m an insecure younger sibling; both my parents worshipped novelists.) Whatever the reasons, the pressure manifested as a crushing anxiety.
When a friend suggested that I didn’t really want to write a novel, I fumed for months. But he was right. I didn’t want to write a novel. I wanted to be a novelist. My ego was sucking up the attention my characters deserved.
And so, about five years ago, I gave up. I didn’t stop writing. But I accepted that I might never write a novel worthy of publication.
Almost at once, I set to work on a story about two families—one rich, one poor—bound together by an alleged murder. The more I wrote, the more secrets my characters revealed, the wider their story sprawled, until it grew to encompass everything from sexual predation to illegal immigration to scorpion biology.
Most important, I thought long and hard about the private schisms that tormented each character and how the story might push these out into the open. My central protagonist, for instance, was a fiercely intelligent teenage girl who had been told all her life to remain invisible. Yet she ached to be seen, recognized, even desired—and these yearnings cast her world into disequilibrium and placed her family in peril.
I got stuck a lot. But I didn’t panic because I was generally able to diagnose the problem from a previous effort. When the plot began to wander, I cut scenes. When I felt myself rushing through perilous moments, settling for flickering moments of anguish, I slowed down till I felt the sting of self-revelation.
I deployed a strong narrator to preside over the action and to offer reflection. Later, when it became clear that the narrator’s commentary was intrusive, I ditched nearly all of it. What remained was the essence of every social novel: the doomed collision of those who possess power with those who don’t.
As hokey as this might sound, I wrote until I understood all my characters, even the ones whose behaviors were despicable, and I longed each day to return to their world. The resulting book was far from perfect. But for the first time in my life, I was able to experience it as a success, regardless of its commercial fate.
When I ponder my evolving relationship to my unpublished novels, what comes to mind is a silly internet video I’ve watched a hundred times or so, usually to avoid working on a novel.
It shows a cat attempting to leap up onto a nearby roof. Someone has drawn a set of equations above the cat’s head, so that it appears to be calculating its precise angle and acceleration. Then it jumps and misses the roof by a mile and plummets out of the frame.
As a novelist I feel like that cat all the time. The reason I finally reached the roof wasn’t because I got any stronger, or improved my math. It was because I had become humbler before the immensity of my task, and thus more patient and self-forgiving, able to recognize my missteps with-out succumbing to t he opera of self-doubt. In short, I reached the roof—after three long decades—because I leaped from atop a mountain of my own failures.
Steve Almond is the author (at last) of a debut novel. All the Secrets of the World will be published by Zando in April. His other books include the New York Times best-sellers Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Algonquin Books, 2004) and Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto (Melville House, 2014).