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So I'm facing an issue after many years of writing, and several unsuccessful novels. In my own estimation, all my books contain a "handful of gems" --wonderful scenes that really come to life. But they aren't enough to make the books as a whole work, and neither are they "extractable," meaning they don't function the same outside of their original context. So basically, I have a few wonderful scenes scattered across several books no one will ever read.

So where do I go from here? I'd just chalk it up to learning, but after 20 years of writing, I don't know that this is a pattern I know how to move forward from.

  • I wouldn't want to say anything out of context but here I go : Perhaps you are really good at building those scenes, but the "building time" isn't entertaining enough ? Meaning, you could work on the swiftness at which you build them. I know books who solely rely on building one single gem, and the readers follow them because they know this scene will be up to their taste. – Sasugasm Dec 13 '18 at 14:07
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    "But they aren't enough to make the books as a whole work" There's an author by the name of George R. R. Martin who apparently disagrees with you. He seems to be doing rather well for himself, too. – corsiKa Dec 13 '18 at 21:30
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It seems like if you're good at constructing isolated, very good scenes, the field you need to focus on is short stories, where one can quickly construct contexts that allow gems to shine, and take up their rightful place as the focal point (without being shrouded by a novel). Perhaps a good end goal would be to construct an anthology.

Yes, you'll have to discard your current gems and make new ones to fit into your new short stories, but if you can write a bunch of gems in the past, you no doubt have the capability to make new ones.

That's my advice, though I can't say if it'll be useful.

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    I feel like this is the best solution, and there may even be a possibility to "rescue" the current gems, give them just enough context to make them work (unless the entire book is essential for context for that one scene, which I find unlikely). – S. M. Dec 13 '18 at 17:14
  • @S.M. That's what I assumed OP meant when he said 'extractable'. – Matthew Dave Dec 13 '18 at 19:11
  • You're not discarding your current gems. You're placing them in the trunk, to be retrieved at a later point when you're experienced enough to fill in the story around them (or tweak them to stand on their own). – Arcanist Lupus Dec 14 '18 at 21:21
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For starters, even the finest novels are not end to end deathless prose, all books have high points and highlights, so don't beat yourself up if not every page is crammed with shimmering gems.

It is probably time for you to sit down with these gems and with some comparable non-shimmering scenes from your novels and give both some rigorous analysis, the same as you might do is you were critiquing anyone else's work. In fact, it might be that spending some time critiquing other writers work is what you need to do to exercise your critiquing muscles before you set about addressing your own, that way you can practice objectivity.

Consider joining a writing group of some sort if you are not already in one, that will give you access to people willing to read some of your work and you in turn get practice at reading theirs. Even if you don't do that, there is noting to stop you picking up any published novel and critiquing either the entire book and its structure, or cherry picking scenes to focus on.

And it is worth remembering that whole book structure, it may be that what contributes to the perfection of your handful of gems is the mounting your have set them in, the supporting structure. It is possible for a scene to shine brighter because of the way the supporting book directs the light onto them.

So I recommend taking time, practice critiquing but remember to look at your scenes in context rather than isolation. Once you have some working theories as to where the gems work and the non gems don't you will be well placed to start polishing the rest. But don't be afraid to be brutal with the scenes that aren't so good, it might be that multiple scene-ectomies are required. Sometimes you can take out several flabby scenes and replace them with fewer tighter one.

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I was wondering what you meant by Struggling with the number of themes in my work

Because I think of themes as coming up organically and not being something you explicitly write.

But now I wonder if you simply have too many ideas. No such thing, right? Unless you get bored and move on to the next idea before the first one has reached fruition.

If your scenes are truly that good, then you know you can write. The problem is sustaining it over the course of a novel. I know from writing my own novel that sometimes you get to a point where it is tedious and you feel like you're slogging through with no end. I'm at a place myself where I've been stuck for a couple of months figuring out family structures, names, and ages of a group of people. This was easy and fun when they were contemporary and done from scratch. It's been hellish doing it with this different group for a historical time period using an existing work and adding to it. I have to make myself push through it and finish it already.

I could just keep writing and finish the book. I have it all in my head. But without the part I'm struggling with, it won't be grounded. It will always be off and I might not even know why.

If you've written several books in 20 years (and wow, most people never complete one book so yay you!) that have a couple of good scenes and the rest is meh, it makes me wonder how much of the boring stuff you've waded through and how many rewrites you've done. Maybe I'm off here. Maybe the issue is structural. That you can write good scenes but have trouble tethering them.

Either way, it's time for outside help. A writing workshop (the kind where you spend 2 weeks on a farm or something), a novel writing class (full semester), a professional editor who's not going to pull punches. Somebody who can figure out exactly what's wrong and how to fix it.

Maybe one or more of your existing books can be pulled apart and re-written. Or maybe you need to start over with new skills. I don't know.

If you've been doing this for 20 years without success, I think it's beyond what some good introspection and online advice can do. The only analogy I can think of is therapy. If you were struggling with a deep-seated personality issue based on past events, introspection and the occasional support group sometimes helps but can only take you so far. It's time to hit the couch and find out what makes you tick. Only in this case, the therapy is for your writing, not your mind.

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What I would do:

  1. Allow yourself to put your writing (as you have done it until today) on hold for a year or so.

  2. Use this time to try to approach writing differently.

  3. First, take a month or so to learn what characterizes bestselling novels and movies.

    a. Which topics sell well? Look at the New York Times bestseller lists for the past year and make a list of what those books are about.

    b. What are the bestselling plot structures? See the first part (Structure) of this answer.

    c. What kind of characters and character development do readers love?

    d. What other characteristics do bestsellers have in common that non-bestsellers don't? Simple language, probably. What else?

  4. Construct an outline according to these principles.

  5. Write that book. Think of it as a writing assignment or job.

  6. When you are done, evaluate your experience.

    a. How did you like writing a book that aims to emulate the stereotypical bestseller instead of expressing yourself through writing?

    b. What in your own writing corresponds to these "bestselling" principles?

  7. Try to write "a bestseller" using your own interests. That is, use the "bestseller code" you have identified and fill it with what you like to write about. That is, force your own writing into the bestseller format.

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Figure out what's wrong with the lumps of coal and try to fix it.

I try to provide a counterpoint answer, because if it was obvious you would have seen it by now, and often what we need to see is in the things we don't want to look at.

I'll point out that your question doesn't even acknowledge that there is apparently a lot of material written that does not meet your standards. I strongly suggest you include failures in your analysis of "what works".

Failure are how we learn.

Ok, here comes an awkward metaphor:

You have examples of "gems". It's true! You are a good writer.

But sometimes editing is learning how to feature those gems by removing anything that doesn't feature the gems. It's not so much that you need to surround those gems with a lot of smaller gems like a Russian tiara, maybe you need to take away the distractions, and see if the frame can better service the gems.

There is the saying: "No movie is worth a scene, no scene is worth a line", but sometimes a backup chorus is simplified so a soloist can shine.

I suggest taking an old writing example (safe emotional distance), and ruthlessly attacking it as a critic and editor. Become your own antagonist and heckler. Ignore the gems and get mean about what goes wrong during the supporting narrative.

Maybe you need to trim the distractions, maybe you need to beef up a subplot. Maybe it needs heart or conflict.

It might be easier to "fix" the the lumps of coal than it is to consistently produce gemstones.

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