Dear Writers: Suppose your novel sucks?

A novel has to breathe.  If you’ve got every scene charted out, you’re suffocating the baby.
Photo: Writing a novel

NEW YORK, February 26, 2013 - All things considered, it could have been much worse. Some writers put 10 years into a book, and only after giving it all that blood, discover that it was all in vain. I only put in a month of sweat, or thereabouts, and woke up one morning with something of an epiphany, like this: hey, this novel sucks!

This would have been my 11th published book and my ninth novel and I had it figured from beginning to end, which is mistake number one. If you’ve got it all figured out so perfectly then surely you can never surprise yourself, and if you can’t surprise yourself, how can you expect to amaze the reader?

A novel has to breathe and if you’ve got every scene charted out, you’re suffocating the baby.

Besides, a novel should never be perfect.  It is usually the imperfect ones that are the great ones, like James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, which is full of bad writing, but incredibly alive. Like Hemingway said of Dostoyevsky, “How can someone write so poorly and make you feel so deeply?”  

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was full of mistakes, he thought so himself, and yet it turned out to be his preeminent triumph.

Hemingway thought his Across the River and into the Trees would be his finest work. He was thrilled about the progress he was making. He kept reminding A.E. Hotchner that passage for passage, chapter for chapter, he had never written so well — and what happened? The book turned out to be about some grumpy old colonel, which nobody liked. (Well, some did and some do.)

I stopped the bleeding before it was too late. Each morning when I’d start back to work on it, I found that no matter how many pages I’d written the day before, I was still on page 66. This was inexplicable and entirely weird. How can I still be on page 66 after hours of writing?

But it proved that I wasn’t skipping along as I usually do for the works that succeed, and I have had successes and failures, and haven’t we all?

I even went back to those novels of mine that did succeed (I number them at nine) and in them tried to figure out what worked before against what wasn’t working out now. In all my novels from before, something got turned on, something clicked. The secret was simple (especially for Indecent Proposal): in one place my heart was in it, I was aflame, full of passion, and in this place, this new place, I was simply writing to conform to plot.

The characters never talked back to me, never argued with me, never stood up for themselves, and when none of that happens, you’re writing cardboard.

I found this attempt at a new novel to be drudgery, and no matter how many times I told myself to keep going, that I will find the people, I will find the passion, I will find the excitement, I will find the voice, the novel refused to give itself up and refused to move. Still page 66. Nothing was happening.

(By the way, the working title for the novel that will never happen was “Welcome to Sogora.” If you ever see a novel by that name, it wasn’t mine, or my fault.)

Lesson number two on writing: If you can change the names of your characters midway, you’ve got nothing going. You are inventing, not creating. You are faking it, and with this discovery I went to bed that night. In the morning I glanced over a few pages and declared them to be officially dreck. I announced myself done with this project. I actually felt good.

I actually felt creative for making such a decision. Yes, knowing when a thing isn’t working, and being done with it, that too is part of the creative process.

I talked to the primo novelist John W. Cassell about this.

“Didn’t we agree?” he said, “that it’s on page one hundred that we can tell if a novel is working or not?”

Eureka! That’s how it was when Joan insisted, against my wishes, that she was going to take up the sultan on his million dollar offer, even as I kept saying no, and she kept saying yes. She kept saying yes and I could not stop her. She won, as did the novel. All that happened on page 100, when I stopped typing and began channeling, or rather when I gave in, stopped being in control and judgmental, and instead, let people behave as people behave.

Inspiration can’t be the moment of clarity that happens only at the start. Inspiration, if it’s real, has to keep moving you page to page.

I’ve already got a new novel started. I will let you know when I get past page 66.


Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba DeadlineThe Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and  Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.

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Jack Engelhard

Jack Engelhard enjoys international fame as a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, which was turned into film starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His memoir Escape From Mount Moriah has been acclaimed for excellence and a movie version was an official selection at CANNES. Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer. Engelhard’s journalism covers all topics, with special focus on  the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe. He can be contacted at


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