Why My Novels Sucked — And What I Did About It

I had a problem. Readers sometimes enjoyed my short stories, giving high praise for stories I wrote in a day. Unfortunately, the novels I lovingly crafted for a year or more failed to impress anyone.

No matter how I experimented, I couldn’t write a compelling novel, and was getting frustrated over the continuous lack of progress.

If any of this sounds familiar, I want to give you hope. There isn’t a magic trick or a simple fix, but I think the secret is to discover your particular weakness.

The Breakthrough

First, let me say that this wasn’t an overnight discovery. This took me a good year to even begin to understand.

When I get nervous, I create cool scenes. Like how when a conversation turns awkward or quiet, I just start babbling, hoping to hit on something interesting. It almost never works, and neither did the scenes. While critiques revealed that people enjoyed the scenes, they didn’t contribute to the momentum of the story, and didn’t enhance the plot. So I was still not crafting compelling stories. I was writing better than ever, but my stories still sucked.

Things started to make sense when a friend told me what was missing. Structure. A plan. And it made me throw up in my mouth a little, because I hate plotting more than anything in the world.

Plotting a novel feels physically painful. It makes me sweat just thinking about it. I get nervous and panicky. Does that sound familiar? Do you have a particular facet about writing that makes you dread?

If so, that is what you need to work on in order to make your stories compelling.

Varied Weaknesses

What our stories lack will be as varied as who we are as individual writers.

For example, my best friend and I are both writers, but our problems are vastly different. As stated above, I’ve been having a damn awful time with story structure and plotting.

My best friend, on the other hand, has trouble with the interpersonal relationships and emotions of his characters. As a result, his stories sometimes lack internal conflict and emotional resonance. But we’re almost always struggling with the same kind of writerly crises, while our actual problems are on opposite ends of the writing spectrum.

For my stories to be more compelling I need a cohesive plot and stronger motivation for my character, even though she has plenty of emotional baggage and near constant internal conflict. For my friend to increase the effectiveness of his stories, he needs to consider the deeper feelings that people have, even while they’re on an adventure. If only I could ship his characters some emotional baggage and he could send me some plot. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

My Solution

It didn’t matter how much more emotional baggage and internal conflict I heaped upon my character—it wasn’t what was missing. She was already drowning in internal conflict. I was lacking other things desperately—starting with an immediate personal goal for the character to accomplish. It wasn’t that she didn’t have a goal… rather, the problem was that I didn’t take full advantage of its immediacy.

That’s when I recognized that I was cherry-picking the advice I was reading in blogs and how-to books. I thought that I was improving my stories by just adding in more of what I liked. I produced more of what came easily for me, and I ignored the things I struggle with—things like public stakes, antagonists, and linear plot. I could subplot myself into the middle of nowhere, but I couldn’t write a scene-sequel set of events to save my life.

That’s when I realized a fundamental truth of writing: we cannot write better stories by simply using more of our strengths. We must address our weaknesses head-on.

After this realization, I put my novel on hold, and became a full-time student of story structure and plotting.

If you are struggling, consider doing something similar. If there’s something you’ve been avoiding, find help. Read some how-to books or blogs, take a class, attend a workshop. Just don’t ignore the problem.

Turn Flaws Into Strengths

If you have a skill that’s lacking, there’s no time like the present. Find your flaws and turn them into strengths, one at a time. You can begin with the skill you struggle with the most (for me, it’s story structure), or a skill that’s adequate but still needs improvement.

Do an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Read advice from writers whom you admire. Here are two books that helped me to address my biggest weakness:

The secret to writing a compelling story is simple: make your readers care about what’s happening. That’s it. A story needs a protagonist that readers care about, a conflict that matters, and a concept that gets readers excited.

To reach your potential as a writer, discern which of these elements is lacking, and focus on fixing it.

It almost sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Your Turn

What’s your primary weakness as a writer? What are you doing to address it?

What blogs or books have helped you to overcome your writing woes?

Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.

A. Howitt is a fantasy author and a member of the Mythic Scribes article team. When she isn't writing, she enjoys history, fencing and designing period costumes. Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.

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19 Comments on "Why My Novels Sucked — And What I Did About It"

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Gabriella L Garlock
Guest

What your weaknesses were are mine to a T. Right down to the avoidance of Weiland, etc. (Almost taking personal affront!) Thanks for the article–and the other one after the comment.

Kim Rawks
Guest

Good post! One of the reasons I can’t quite make the transition from novellas to novels is I grow bored with my own stories. Once I no longer buy into my own work, I don’t expect others will.

Britanica
Guest

I actually struggle a lot with the middle of the story. I can easily come up with a beginning and an end, but getting both points to meet has to be my weakness. I know my first few books showed this. I would get to the middle and things would almost feel rushed. I am not sure how to work around this. Can you provide any tips on how to pace myself through the middle of the story to make the beginning and end mesh well?

Truman
Guest

I think the most common weakness I see most writers have is procrastination. If you’re dealing with something you’re not too comfortable with, such as a satisfying conclusion to your complex story, there is a natural tendency to leave it later after you complete “priority tasks”. Eventually my story strays into the wilderness as I subconsciously avoid creating a good conclusion. Tasks we are uncomfortable with need priority too or they’d never be completed.

Joy Pixley
Guest
Great article – I can totally relate! I get all kinds of positive feedback on my flash fiction and short stories, and all modesty aside, I think they’re good. They’re tight. Every word is there for a reason. But my novel? Eh, not so tight. Some of the chapters are great, some are just okay, and I’ve got plenty of Plot with a capital P. Stuff happens: stakes are raised, conflicts occur, mysteries are posed and then eventually solved. But the problem is that the chapters don’t add up to a character arc that makes sense. I keep reading that… Read more »
Woelf Dietrich
Guest
I confuse my tenses and I tend to color my descriptions too much or go into too much detail with certain things. The last one is a real problem as you need to balance tone and image with speed and tempo. Having an editor to show me these things have really highlighted them and allowed me to focus more. I also read other novels, both in my genre and outside, to get the feel for how they tackle issues of tone and pace. I’ve found that when I write the first draft I don’t focus too much on tempo and… Read more »
Rowan Murphy
Guest
Does my own novel suck because I’m telling instead of showing? In all the books and magazine articles I read in which editors and agents give advice I am exhorted to show not tell. But the novels I read tend to tell instead of show. Some have pages or even chapters of telling. There needs to be a balance. I think that showing can interrupt the flow of the narrative. And the reader’s brain has to make the effort of converting the words on the page into mental pictures. Is showing really so important? Are novels rejected out of hand… Read more »
Brian DeLeonard
Member

The style matters, and there are ways to tell effectively. But when it comes to emotions, relationships, and the motives of a character, the “guts” of the story, it’s usually much more effective to show it.

Rowan Murphy
Guest

Thanks for your response, Devor. Much appreciated.

Kenny A Chaffin
Guest

Well said and very true! Find the weaknesses and focus on improving them!

Greybeard
Guest

Very insightful article, Anita. You might as well have been writing about me. I keep trying to exploit my strengths, but have been ignoring my weaknesses. It’s time for me to give them some attention.

Jennifer Baruta
Guest
Oh man, what an awesome article! The more I learn the less I find I know 🙁 It is a vicious cycle of reading blogs, which direct me to books, which direct me to other books, which direct me to research writing topics I didn’t even know existed. There is such so much to learn and it seems like an impossible task to try to “do it all”. However, the more I focus on learning the more I find it starts to click (like for you). My biggest weakness is still getting my prose to that “professional” level. I’m still… Read more »
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