• Kacen Callender

WIP: Failed WIPs

Okay, so it’s been a few weeks since I actually, you know, blogged about any of my WIPs or craft. But, honestly, isn’t at least half of a writer’s time spent being wrapped up in our own thoughts and feelings, distracting us from the stories we’re actually supposed to be writing? >_>;;;

My last blog post that was about craft, What’s the Point?, ended with a question on plot: how do I take a theme and still manage to craft a plot that will make a book un-putdownable to readers? There are plenty of resources and plot beats to look at and analyze, which I’m sure I’ll eventually do, but I figured with this post I’d be a little more vulnerable than I meant to be at the start of creating this blog and do a case study on a couple of my failed WIPs.

I say the WIPs are failed because I’ve stopped actively writing them. I haven’t given up completely. I’ve learned that every single idea I ever have will never leave me fully alone until I actually write that story, so I know that in five, ten, twenty years, if I still haven’t written these books, the same ideas will still come to me, over and over again. I put failed WIPs into metaphorical drawers (folders on my laptop) knowing that I’ll likely come back to them eventually. This first WIP is for a fantasy that I’ve been writing on and off for over. Ten. YEARS.

When I first started writing 10+ years ago, it was always with the goal of being a YA fantasy author. I hadn’t even considered writing middle grade or adult or contemporary way back then. I’m so glad that I have now, that I’ve opened myself to other audiences and genres to find a voice I didn’t even know that I have—but because I still have this idea of being a YA fantasy author hovering over me, all these years later, I feel much more immense pressure to unlock the code and write a YA fantasy manuscript. I’ve written adult fantasy, but those books were intended to be critiques of our world, much more internal, and I envision my YA fantasy books to have external plots that are more mainstream and commercial. Yet in all these years, I’ve only ever written one YA fantasy from beginning to end. I always, always give up on every single first draft I attempt, because I realize that it—well—sucks.

Yes, I know: first drafts are meant to suck. But I’m also actually really glad that I’ve stopped writing instead of pushing forward on something I knew wasn’t working. It’s easier to look back at all of the many, many, many YA fantasy WIPs I ever attempted and see why they weren’t working, and to learn from those mistakes before I start working on a new one.

The first WIP I’m going to talk about was really similar to Attack on Titan. A main character focused on revenge wanted to kill the man who murdered her family, in a world overrun by monsters, and she was basically infected by these monsters, and was slowly becoming a monster, too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the theme was revenge and anger, and whether anger can be a positive to create change, as well as the question, who are the monsters in this world? Because I didn’t consciously realize these were the themes, I didn’t know how to create a plot that reflected them, and I also did a lot of second-guessing because I wasn’t keeping the point/theme in mind. I kept switching around the concept and plot and conflicts to ideas that had nothing to do with the point of the story. I wrote versions where the monsters were giant invisible ghosts, I wrote versions that focused on a civil war within the region and the main character, Marion, needing to escape a group of soldiers… I kid you not, I have so, so, so many—way too many—versions of this story. Check out these screenshots of the files I’ve kept over the years:

You can see that I’ve been working on this fantasy as recently as even last year—again, because ideas just don’t leave me alone until I find a way to write it, and also because I think I spent so many years trying to write it, so many different versions, that a part of my soul withers away at the thought of never figuring out how to tell this particular story. This is pretty much the first book I ever attempted to write, so it’s still got a special piece of my heart—but, I also think eventually giving up and trying to write something else was the best thing I could do for my writing career overall. I’d probably still be trying a million different concepts and conflicts that have nothing to do with the theme if I forced myself to stick with it.

With space and objectivity, I can also see that this manuscript might have worked out better if I’d pulled the two concepts of soldiers and monsters together somehow. In Attack on Titan (in the beginning, anyway, I haven’t seen the end), the story focused on the main character wanting revenge against the titan that killed his mom. My YA might have benefited from something similar: the main character could have wanted to kill a literal monster, maybe the same soldier that killed her family; but that soldier could’ve also had the power to morph into a monstrous creature, instead of having two separate antagonists: the soldiers and the monsters. (To be fair, I did want the monsters to give off Beasts of the Southern Wild vibes, symbolic creatures always in the background, but plot-wise I think this was a constant distraction, and it was difficult to reconcile why the monsters were only ever off in the distance without affecting the story, besides the main character’s fear that she would also become a monster herself.)

So, in the end, I think that this particular WIP failed because I wasn’t conscious enough of the theme and the point of the story, the questions I wanted to ask, and so when I wasn’t sure what the plot should be and how the conflicts could reflect those themes/questions, I panicked and began changing the concept and the plot in literally over a hundred ways, trying to throw excitement on the page without paying attention to whether that excitement would have any meaning. Without meaning, there isn’t really any tension, no stakes, and so what I’d intended as exciting was really just boring and flat.

I’m probably still learning from my mistakes with the second WIP, to be honest—I only stopped writing it a few months ago, so it’s possible I’m still feeling emotionally tied and not seeing the project as objectively as possible. I started writing it maybe a few years ago now, and I made the same mistake as I have with other WIPs in the past—I wasn’t too sure of what the point of the story was yet, but I was incredibly excited about the concept, the characters, the queerness, the scenes that’d started to play out in my head. To figure out the plot, I decided to rely on some common tropes in fantasy, just to try to string together a formula that seems to always work in some of the commercial bestsellers: competition, loved one is captured and must be saved, a race of sorts, etc.

Unsurprisingly, the plot fell flat because it was, again, boring without any meaning or theme. I paused, read up on my craft, realized this was the main issue, and decided to figure out the point of the story. I still think the question I asked was interesting enough: should we be willing to sacrifice ourselves, our happiness, for the greater good? To have the plot reflect this, I created a character who is literally a sacrifice—someone who is expected to sacrifice herself to the gods for the sake of her people. I wanted her to learn that, no, she should not be willing to sacrifice herself—not her happiness, and certainly not her life.

I wanted to write about a character who’d fight against the idea of sacrificing herself, who wanted to live—but if this story had a traditional story arc, then it would require a character changing into the opposite of how she began. She would have to change into someone who decides it actually is better to sacrifice herself for the sake of the greater good, and that’s not something I believe, and wasn’t a lesson I wanted to teach. (Now that I think of it, I could have a non-traditional story arc where the character refuses to change, but this would make the story a tragedy, and the lesson would likely end with everyone she knows and loves dying because she didn’t sacrifice herself—which is still a lesson I don’t want told. If there’s a non-traditional story arc where she doesn’t change, and there are no consequences—well, then, there’s not much of a story, either.)

So, I went with the opposite to end up with the lesson that you should not sacrifice yourself, your happiness, for others. The issue? I now had a passive character: I wanted her to grow, to become someone who is willing to fight for her life, but for her to change into this person, this meant that in the beginning, she would need to be the opposite, and go along with the idea of sacrificing herself. I didn’t like this passiveness, so I decided to try to create more tension: she’s expected to sacrifice herself by the gods themselves, but her family and fiancé don’t want her to, and beg her to fight back. She asks them whether they think her one life is worth the lives of almost forty villagers. Okay, that’s an interesting question and conflict (to me, anyway)—but still, her character just felt so gray. Because she believes in duty, she also agrees to everything in her life that she doesn’t truly want: she agrees to marry a man she does not love, she agrees to be the clan leader even though she wants to escape the village. Even as I tried to insert a stronger desire to live—a curiosity for the world, a wish that she did not have to sacrifice herself, to create more tension in the fact that she thinks it’s her responsibility and duty to give up her life, her character was just… to be honest, boring.

I was bored writing about her! I wanted to write about a character who was angry, who was willing to fight to the death, who wanted to throw herself as a mortal against the gods, even knowing that she would die trying. A character like that would be so much more active and engaging. I wanted to see fire, rage, passion, a thirst for revenge against the gods who expected her to die for them.

As soon as I figured out why I was bored, I started to write that story, that character—and heck yeah, she was exciting AF. She was cursing out gods left and right, she was plotting to see one-thousand-year-old beings burn. Her character didn’t fit the theme of willingness to sacrifice oneself anymore—no way in hell was she going to do something like that—so I borrowed from the very same WIP I wrote about above: I began to ask if anger is something that can help us create change that we want to see in the world.

But, as I kept writing, the story just felt… off. The concept basically remained the same, and I tried to twist and turn the plot to depend on whether this character’s anger was hurting or helping her and her cast of allies. But I eventually realized that this question, this theme, didn’t necessarily match the concept anymore. It worked in the previous WIP: the main character’s rage was slowly turning her into a monster; the angrier she was, the more the monster within her spread, and she lost control of herself, forcing her to harm everyone around her, even people she loved. This theme had nothing to do with the concept of gods, not in the same way that the theme of self-sacrifice did. It wasn’t fitting. It wasn’t working.

I tried to work around the concept—tried introducing monsters—but I could see that I was slowly headed down the same path of before, with hundreds of different files, all with different concepts for one idea. So, I paused. I’m really glad that I did.

I have another YA fantasy that I’m excited to try out now. I’m not ready to say much about it, but the idea started with a theme, which perfectly matches a concept, and is filled with the fiery, active characters that I want to write about, rather than passive, boring characters. Hopefully this is the right recipe, and I can actually write from beginning to end this time, without stopping with the sudden realization that something fundamental about the WIP just isn’t working. This is what I hope, but I’m also happily realizing that it might actually be okay to stop writing and to learn from mistakes before I spend months, years, however long on WIPs that just aren’t the stories I really intended to tell. Maybe the YA fantasy I finally write from beginning to end will be worth the 10+ years of lessons and unfinished drafts. And, who knows—maybe with enough space, I’ll be able to return to my two previous WIPs and finally finish those stories, too.

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