Friday, September 10, 2010

The Death of a Story by Smoky Trudeau

I’ve been working on a novel for the past couple years, my third novel. It was an idea I was really excited about when I set out, an idea I thought held great promise. I started out great guns, eager to explore my characters’ personalities, learn where their adventures would lead them, find out how their conflict would resolve.

And then … it died.

I have page after page of beautifully written prose that goes absolutely nowhere. And it has nowhere to go, because (a) the conflict isn’t very strong, and neither protagonist really cares that much about it, and (b) the timeline doesn’t work. There are too many years between the characters for their stories to converge the way I imagined.

Please, don’t post well-meaning comments with suggestions on how to revive the story. I’m not interested in reviving it. I’ve tried, believe me. Some stories are best tucked away in a drawer. Every novelist has such manuscripts, and if they don’t, well, some day, they will. Not every idea turns out to be brilliant.

And that’s okay. I can’t stress that enough. It is okay to let a story die. Trying to revive a story that doesn’t really exist, invent a conflict that isn’t there, bend time in a manner that isn’t plausible, is akin to trying to save the life of an end-stage cancer patient. Sometimes, the compassionate thing is to let it die.

I am relieved. I’ve spent a good part of the last six months trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I can do to “fix it.” It’s caused me more stress, more sleepless nights, more migraines and stomachaches, than you can imagine.

But more importantly, it kept me from being able to let other ideas that were sprouting in my fertile mind to develop. I kept pushing them down, because I felt obligated to finish The Storyteller’s Bracelet first. I didn’t feel it was possible to be working on two novels at once. And I was afraid the demons that plagued me with the dying book would affect my writing anything new.

Then, Vanilla Heart’s managing editor, Kimberlee Williams, asked me to submit a short story for the soon-to-be-released Passionate Hearts anthology. I had an idea—a short story had been floating around in my head for months—but it was one of those ideas I suppressed. How could I write a short story when there was an unfinished novel on my computer, nagging at me, calling to me, creating so much guilt I was almost paralyzed with fear at the thought of writing something different?

Kimberlee was lovingly insistent. And because she is such a fabulous publisher, such a champion for my work—for all the VHP authors’ work—I didn’t want to let her down. So on my recent vacation to the Midwest, I sat down one morning and began to write.

And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And I wrote the best short story of my life. Breakfast at the Laundromat.

And something wonderful happened. The demons that were preventing me from letting new stories come to the surface were chased away by an unnamed man who is raw from a failed marriage and the middle-aged hippie who charms him in the most unlikely of places. And with those demons in flight, I was finally able to recognize that The Storyteller’s Bracelet was meant to be my unfinished novel, the one in the bottom drawer that no one will read until someone discovers it upon my death.

Turns out, once I finally admitted this to Kimberlee, she said she’d suspected the novel was dead for months now. She realized it before I did, or at least, she realized it before I was able to admit it. And she is 100 percent behind me in letting it go.

Not every venture in life works out as planned. Not every business succeeds; not every invention catches on with the public; not every trip leads to its expected destination, and not every story is worth telling. And, I repeat, that’s okay. What’s important is that we give our all to every venture we set out on, and recognize that to lay a “failed” venture to rest is, in fact, not failure.

Rather, it’s an opportunity to begin again, with a new destination in mind. And what is more exciting than beginning a new adventure?

Smoky Trudeau is the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, and two nonfiction books especially for writers: Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish; and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises to Free Your Creative Spirit, Awaken Your Muse, And Challenge Your Skills Every Day of the Year, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. She has published short stories and poetry in literary journals such as CALYX and online e-zines such as Smashed Ink, and was a 2003 Pushcart Prize nominee.

An ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature, Smoky’s newly released book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is a collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating the fragile beauty of our planet. She is currently writing her third novel.

Finally succumbing to her bohemian spirit and need to live near the mountains and the ocean, Smoky moved to Southern California in 2008, where she lives with her husband and daughter in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and fighting the urge to speak in haiku.


  1. I think an author is a better writer when they can honestly look at their own work and see it, really see it.

    I too have a "novel" that will most probably never see publication and that is alright with me - the characters I created are mine and help encourage me in my "now" manuscripts. They became a part of my life that helped teach me how to let ideas form and grow.

    Thank you for sharing this Smoky.

  2. Thank you, Chelle. What made me persist long after I should have shut the door on this novel was the fact that every piece of fiction I've written has been published. I've batted 100 percent. Having something lower that percentage just ate at the OCD personality in me. But I learned a valuable lesson, and I hope my writing about it helps other writers learn it, too.

  3. I wrote one off years ago. Had to. It was too broke to fix. It's better to move on.


  4. I have several novels that are going nowhere three or four because I've been away from nursing too long to be totally up to date on them. Another has a lot of pages but I've made the plot too complicated. Putting a started work aside and moving ahead is always good. Once in a while what you've written years ago and put aside suddenly gels. I have one of those that was published after I changed the main characters a great deal.

  5. I have 200 pages of a novel that died in my file cabinet right now. I started it four or five years ago, very excited about it and the more I wrote, the more it unraveled. I pulled it out of the envelope a couple of months ago and almost shredded it. How I thought that plot was ever going to make a coherent novel is beyond me. Great post, Smoky. I still live by Faulkner's advice to "kill your darlings."

  6. Thanks for all the comments, you all. "Killing your darlings," as Collin reminds us Faulkner once said, is very, very hard! But in the end, it is a mercy killing...

  7. What if doing the Hokey Pokey IS what it's all about?

    Thanks for the thought, Jimmy Buffet. I suggest we all put our right foot out and put our right foot back. . . You get the idea.

    Now the air is clear. Let's write somethin'.

    Love from me all the way across the country to you.


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