Is your book an albatross?

Ancient Mariner statueI lugged around two albatross books for years without even writing them. Only after I got rid of them could I start to actually write. Check out my post on it here: How I lost my albatross and started writing

What is an albatross book? It’s a book you’ve been working on for some time and essentially is dead weight. It’s dragging you down, like the albatross hung around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

It’s usually the first novel. Or your Great Novel. Your magnum opus that will shake the literary world to its core – if you ever get around to writing it/submitting it/selling it. If you’ve got as far as writing it and even submitting it, it’s getting rejected, but you keep on editing it and keep on trying because my god twenty years of blood, sweat and tears has gone into this thing!

Albatross identification guide

1. It’s HUGE.
The albatross book is rarely a slim volume. It’s an epic. It would make George R R Martin think, “that’s a bit of a long one.” If it’s epic fantasy then it’s probably even more massive, since they get to be long anyway. Whatever, it’s way longer than books in that genre usually are. Why is it huge? Because over time it bloated as you put more and more in there. And because when you wrote it you didn’t have the skills to make it shorter. The size almost certainly damages the story, making it unfocused and episodic.

2. You’ve been planning it for many many years and have never written it.
You’ve made notes. Oh hell have you made notes! You’ve got more words in notes than would ever be in the book. You have character profiles for everyone including the taxi driver who has one line in chapter 107. You’ve got drawings of the characters, in every different outfit they wear in the book. You know the backstory of all of them. You have Gustave_Dore_Ancient_Mariner_Illustrationmaps, floor plans, designs for spaceships… You have so much stuff you have a wiki. You’ve invented a language. You make Tolkein look like a pantster who dashed off Lord of the Rings from an idea scribbled on a napkin. But you still haven’t written it. (This was my issue.)

3. It has a cast of thousands.
It’s a good job you have that wiki, because you have so many characters they need their own HR department. You have more personnel records the The Red Army. D W Griffiths would think “this could do with a smaller cast.”

4. It follows the lead characters pretty much from birth to death.
You started out with that summer, that important summer the main character fell in love. But then you had this important stuff from his teenage years, and his childhood, and then “they lived happily ever after” isn’t enough! How exactly did they live happily? Etc.

5. You first thought of it when you were a kid.
This can be tricky. If you first came up with the idea when you were a teenager there’s a good chance that the story will always betray those origins. That at its heart it will lack the maturity and sophistication you’re capable of now.

So what do you do with this giant dead bird?

The_rime_of_the_ancient_Mariner_-_Coleridge1. Dump it. This is very hard. You’ve usually been working on it for a long time and you want to see some reward for that. But it may be that you’re best to cut your losses, take what you’ve learned from it and move on.

2. Pick out just one part of it and make that the book.
It might be the very first part of it you thought of. The heart of the story. All that other stuff will help you understand the characters better, but it doesn’t have to be in the book. Find that core of the story that’s been lost under the hundred layers. Be ruthless with replanning or editing it.

3. Make it a series.
Maybe this is all good stuff, but there’s just too much of it. Maybe you do want to follow the character on the long journey of life. But if you cram it all in one book it loses focus, you don’t have a chance to milk each important part before you’re on to the next and the reader forgets about it by the end. Split it into a series! More books to sell for one thing.

4. Make it into several unrelated books.
One of my albatrosses I reckon I could have turned into about half a dozen unrelated books. There were so many people and I had so much about their past before they all came together, that there was enough to sustain several novels even before the main action of the story started! (Maybe one day I will use them.) With a first book especially you tend to want to cram everything in that you’ve ever thought of. Don’t. Save it for another book where it will have the chance to be in the limelight.

5. Strip it for parts.
Not quite the same as 3 and 4. You might not end up writing anything remotely like the original idea, but maybe there are scenes you just love, characters who still resonate. Use them! Write something else entirely different, but use that scene or that character. Alex in Ganymede Tilt comes from one of my albatrosses. So did a couple of scenes in Stowaway. Several other characters have made it into other stories before and after I went pro. They can end up in entirely new places from where they started and of course I had to be ready to adapt them to make them fit. But I know where they were “born.”

So, take a look at that book that may be weighing you down and keeping you from moving on. Step back and eye it objectively. Maybe you need to get over yourself and admit that it could be fatally flawed and will never exist or sell in the form you originally envisaged. But there may still be something you can salvage from it.

And move on!

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12 thoughts on “Is your book an albatross?

    1. It’s useful in that case I think to officially as it were decide that you aren’t working on them any more. You kind of know that you’re not, but there can still be part of you that thinks they are still in progress and you should get back to them. Once they are officially dead projects you can lose the guilt and that feeling of “I should look at these again.” Even moving them into a folder called something like “Dead projects” or “Scrapped” can help make it clear they aren’t “unfinished”, they are over – barring any bits you can salvage. It was only once I accepted I’d never write my two epic projects that I could lose the guilt about them and concentrate on the future not the past.

      1. Nothing is ever wasted 🙂 Part of the problem is that the biggest finished pieces were co-written and it feels a bit high-handed to edit someone else’s work. But I could reuse the plots and cannibalise the fun bits. Good advice 🙂 thank you

      1. This must be the plus side to not realising I wanted to be a writer lol! However, I do have one story that I used to dream about in my head, to keep the boredom at bay… maybe that is the ‘book’ I never wrote, and probably never will. It was more a movie lol!

  1. Ha! I’ve got quite a few of these in my WIP folder. I think they’re breeding while I sleep. Oh, and hello from a fellow JMS Books author (more like Queerteen Press author). I followed your link from the publisher’s mailing list.

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