The Graveyard of Stories

Photo by Chris Liu,

I have at least once before mentioned in passing how what we see with respect to a published novel — or for that matter, any work of art — is but the tip of the spear, the polished, honed, and sharpened result of a whole lot of effort. I happened across something recently that everyone who labors in the arts to whatever degree of success needs to read over and over about again about getting to that tip. 

You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now. 

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

It doesn’t just happen with books.  Music? It happens all the time. I personally know of one band that was huge in the 1980s and labored for seven months on their fifth album. They spent well into six figures while doing so. There was a change of personnel at their record label and the new sheriff decided to pull the plug on the new record on the theory that the label wasn’t going to chase good money after bad. The band was informed of this in the middle of a tour. The same thing happens in the film industry. At least with books you can sometimes and to some extent control that portion of your destiny, as John has.

My best advice? Be like John. Confront the failure, embrace the suck, and try again. Oh, and you might pick up a book or five of his to see what he is striving for and will no doubt achieve once again. You won’t be sorry.

That is all I have for today. How is your summer going? Are things humming along or are you turning a project into compost and trying again? Good luck and best wishes either way. 


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

28 thoughts on “The Graveyard of Stories

  1. I’ve finished the draft of the current WIP. About halfway through, I had doubts as to whether or not it was worth finishing. But finish I did, and now I’m evaluating the things that gave me pause en route so I can address and fix them. I thing the bones are there; they might need a few pins and screws and some time to heal.

  2. Terry, that sounds like the perfect plan. Thanks for sharing. And good luck!

  3. Thanks so much, Harvey! I also have a hotlink to the post in my blog at the words “brief dissertation” as well as a hotlink to my prior post at the word “mention.” If anyone has a problem with the link(s) being broken please let me know.

    • Joe, thanks for the link back to the Steve and Tabitha story (and the “good fairy”). Well worth the re-read. Sometimes a good deed does go unpunished.

      • Awww…you’re welcome, Eric, and thanks for the kind words. And you’re 100% right about good deeds.

  4. Great post, Joe. Thanks for the link to John Clarkson’s blog post.

    Starting over “from scratch.” That’s brave. I liked his analogies to software and construction.I don’t have his bravery. I think I would have to try to “remodel” before tearing down the whole structure and starting over. But we need to be reminded that sometimes drastic measures are called for.

    Thanks for the post. Have a great weekend!

  5. Good morning, Steve, and thank you. I don’t have John’s bravery either. Or fortitude. Or work ethic. I probably would have turned on Netflix and let it guide me through three weeks of occasionally worthwhile entertainment.

    You have a great weekend as well!

  6. I had the misfortune of trashing 50K words once (while on deadline!). It wasn’t an easy decision, but the book born from those ashes remains as one of my favorites. Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug. The day I trashed those words I was definitely the bug. 😉

    My summer’s going great!!! I’m working on an exciting new project. The news of which I’ll share in Monday’s post. How’s your summer going, Joe?

    • Thanks for sharing, Sue! You may have been the bug that day but your vignette indicates that you left the windshield in pieces. I like stories like that.

      My summer has been terrific, thank you for asking. My 50 year high school reunion is next week. This should be interesting, as my emotional development was arrested at age eighteen and given a life sentence. It might be like sitting in God’s waiting room. We’ll see. Hope yours has been terrific as well…we’ll all be reading Monday when you share what’s going on!

        • So, Terry, are you going to the 55th? I talked to an older friend of mine recently who, when talking with a friend who was yet older, was told that they didn’t have enough of a graduating class left for a card game. I hope he was kidding.

  7. Joe, have a great time at your reunion! This year would be my 50th also except I’m on their “missing” list and plan to stay that way–high school was not my favorite time of life.

    Summer projects: Working on publishing books #2 (STALKING MIDAS) and 3 (EYES IN THE SKY) in my series…coming soon!

    #4 (WIP) is a change of pace where the major antagonist is not a person but a hurricane–Irma in 2017 that left 6+ million Floridians w/o power for days and caused many deaths, directly and indirectly. A character disappears in the storm and the heroes search for him. But there are also crimes involved so it’s hot potato juggling with Irma, good guys, bad guys, and questionable guys.

    How’s your “dream” novel progressing?

    Wishing you a great summer and productive writing!

    • HEY EVERYBODY! LOOKING FOR DEBBIE?! HERE SHE IS! (I’m sorry, Debbie, I couldn’t resist!).

      High school was not my favorite time either. This is, in fact, the first formal reunion I’ve gone to. I attended the annual mini-reunion last year, had a good time, went to a weekly coffee gathering they have a few months ago, and am giving it a shot. In a way, I’m sorry I didn’t stay in better touch during the intervening years. There are a bunch of interesting stories out there.

      Speaking of interesting stories…it sounds as if you have a bunch of them coming down the pipeline! Congratulations! Good luck with all, particularly that WIP starring Hurricane Irma.

      Thanks for asking about my own WIP which is progressing swimmingly while it keeps me busy and out of trouble!

      • Joe, remind me not to tell you any more secrets–you’ll spread them all over the net. LOL. Good thing I don’t use my maiden name–they’ll never find me!

        Keep swimming with that WIP. Look forward to reading it!

  8. I was working on a novel a few years back where I wrote three chapters, erased them, wrote them again and erased them. Then I trashed the unfinished manuscript. I have at least six trashed manuscripts, but I have yet to rewrite one.

    I have no problem trashing, but in no way do I have the work ethics to write 33,000 words in so little time.

    • Thanks for sharing, AZAli. I take your point on that 33,000 words in so little time, which is quite an accomplishment. I think that John might have been motivated, in part, by a deadline, which, like Samuel Johnson’s gallows, will concentrate the mind wonderfully.

  9. Some authors don’t think they use a specific theme, but they eventually figure out that they were because all of us do. That theme, particularly if we don’t write series, can change over time, too.

    As the evil queen of book dissections, I have noticed book disasters involving tone. The ditzy heroine of a comic cozy series loses her mentor/adoptive mother so the author decides to insert tasteless physical comedy to lighten the tone. Or mixing in other genre elements, a cozy paranormal heroine whose vision of a young family trapped in a mine without food and water (suspense) is treated as if time isn’t of the essence while she sightsees the Old West town instead of trying to make someone believe her that young children are starving to death. That one I wanted to beat the author to death with her stupid heroine.

    Books are like a cake. You have to have the right theme, tone, voice, and genre elements, or that cake is going to be flat or taste dreadful.

    • Thanks for sharing those insights, Marilynn. I’ve seen that “time is of the essence” mood wander off on shopping trips, dinners, etc. I’m reading a book right now that gets it right. It’s SHAMED by Linda Castillo, where everything takes a back seat to locating a kidnapped child. The level of suspense is maintained at a stratospheric level and I’m appreciating it consciously after reading your comments. Thanks again.

  10. That’s interesting because, having read what he described as the gist of his first version of the book, I would’ve been very interested to read it. However, I have not read the other books so the keeping of the theme wouldn’t have mattered to me. But what’s important is he recognized what matters to him and had the guts to pull it and start over.

    More than one person has told me I dally over my stories too long–should take my chances and let it fly out there. And there’s definitely a point at which re-visiting a story becomes non-productive & I don’t recommend it as a matter of course. However, what matters to me most is writing a story I’d like to read. Publishing is secondary to that point.

    I don’t have any written stories I’ve consigned to the trash heap. I do have one that I put away for a while because I think time & distance will help me come back and clarify the sticking points. There are a few story concepts that I thankfully had not fleshed out into thousands of words yet that I came back to and said “What a stupid idea! Drop that!” LOL! And I did, and haven’t looked back.

    It’s tough making those calls day to day with our manuscripts, but in the end, we have to write what’s right for us. Now I’m off to go learn how to paint a gourd. Have a good weekend, all!

    • It’s really, really tough to let go sometimes, BK. That’s one way in which deadlines are beneficial if you’ve got ’em. Thanks for the reminder. And enjoy your gourd painting!

  11. I threw away 95,000 words. After a few false starts, I committed to finishing it, even though I knew it had problems. However, I felt pretty good at actually writing an entire novel-length manuscript. I’d ticked a goal. I kept chapter one and started again – only the premise was the same. I’ve finished it again and I’m more inclined to call it Book 2 rather than Draft 2. Either way, I’m happy with the decision to start all over again, rather than trying to fix it.
    So I can relate to this. Thankyou Joe!

    • You’e welcome, Linda. And thank you for sharing. The attitude which you bring to the game is inspiring.

  12. The book I’m releasing next Saturday required a lot of revisions, because I changed horses in the middle of the stream—significant portions of the book went from 3rd person to 1st. As you might imagine, this caused a virtual tornado of personal pronoun issues, many of which escaped my attention until the fifth (and final) pass through the manuscript, with deadline looming. No doubt one or two are still lurking in there somewhere. But I hope it was worth the effort. Readers are invited to check out “The Heights of Valor” at my website, Thanks!

  13. Looking forward to it, David. Good luck! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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