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The Gift of Failure

RLF Fellow Doug Johnstone on the lessons learned from failure.

Desk. Photo credit: Peter H | Pixabay.

It’s something of a cliché to say that we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. But most clichés achieve that status because of a kernel of truth at their heart, and so it is with this one. At least, I certainly recognise it as true in my writing life.

To a certain extent, all writing is failure. I don’t mean that in a depressing, angsty, existential way, like we’re all doomed to create drivel that we hate forever so what’s the point of it all.

Iris Murdoch addressed this best when she said: ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’. Ian Rankin has that quote written on a piece of card pinned to the wall above his desk, a fact that fills me with enormous hope. If even multimillion-selling Ian Rankin thinks his books are wrecks, well, then, maybe I shouldn’t feel quite so bad about mine.

I do agree with Murdoch’s general point, but I have in mind a particular failure of mine which has taught me the most. I’ve had nine novels published over the last thirteen years, and I completely believe they are each the wreck of a perfect idea. Ideas can be perfect precisely because they are only ideas, it’s the realisation of those ideas in the form of words on the page that is the job of a writer, and the end product can never match up to the vision you have before you start. Of course, often you end up with something that bears no resemblance to the idea in the first place, but that can be interesting in all sorts of ways too.

There’s no doubt in my mind that some of my own books are more wrecked than others when they emerge into the real world. Some are reasonably intact vessels, scuppered on the rocks of mundane prose or thin characters, while others feel like barely a handful of flotsam and jetsam destined to bob around the literary seas forever.

But I want to talk here about a book that never even made it that far. A book that took me the longest to write of all my novels, and which never found a publisher. A book that was twice as long as many of my subsequent novels, but with barely a fraction of their plotting, character and theme. A book which tried far too hard to be something that it clearly wasn’t, and a book in which I tried far too hard to be a kind of writer that I just am not. This novel was called The Coalbiter and it nearly killed me, while at the same time teaching me more about the kind of writer I am and want to be than any of my other writing projects over the years.

Let’s rewind and get some context here. The year was 2008, and I was a relatively fresh-faced and newly published author. My first novel, Tombstoning, had been published by Penguin with moderate success in 2006, selling some copies and getting a few nice reviews. My second novel, The Ossians, was scheduled for publication in March of 2008. So far, so promising. As is the way with the publishing industry, The Ossians had been finished for about a year before publication, and in that time I had begun working on a much bigger novel called The Coalbiter.

At that stage in my life and my career, I wasn’t really sure what kind of writer I was. In fact, looking back at those first two novels, they almost feel like they were written by someone else, a writer who hadn’t quite found his authorial voice yet. To my mind now, those books are trying too hard to be profound, trying too hard to show off, just trying too hard all round. But at the time, I was moderately happy with them.

And I was trying to grow as a writer, trying to expand my repertoire, trying to stretch myself and write something more ambitious and daring. This was The Coalbiter. In my mind I had this idea that it took me eighteen months to write, but looking back at my notes, it was actually well over two years. It seems I have blanked some of this traumatic experience from my life.

Because it was fairly traumatic. I would never say that I enjoy the writing process generally, but my first two novels had been relatively benign experiences. The same could not be said for writing The Coalbiter. For a start, there were something like half a dozen point-of-view characters who were each to share equal billing in a family saga of a story that spread across years and shifted from Scotland to Iceland and back. 

In case you’re wondering, the ‘coalbiter’ of the title is a rather obscure character from the glorious, medieval Icelandic sagas, someone who is late to take up the mantle of the hero, preferring to sit by the fire so close that he could bite the coals. My novel was attempting to update this ancient idea for the 21st century, so really, The Coalbiter was an attempt to write a family saga about a Generation X slacker dad who eventually came good in the end.

But I wasn’t enjoying the process of writing it at all. It was like pulling teeth compared to those previous novels, but I was full of self-delusion, and blissfully unaware of my own strengths and weaknesses, both as a writer and as a person, I think.

I like to plan things, both in my life and in my writing. And I was trying to plan this novel as best I could, but it kept wriggling free from my attempts to control it. I had subfolders within subfolders on my computer desktop, a jumble of scenes and notes, characters and settings, themes and resonances, none of which I had a handle on. Eventually the first draft crawled up to something over 135,000 words.

This might not seem huge to other writers, and indeed many published novels are far bigger, but my previous books had been 80,000 words more or less on the nose, and I was losing focus in The Coalbiter, losing momentum in the narrative and losing faith in myself. And just as I was getting towards the end of this monster my editor was sacked by Penguin, in one of those standard restructurings that happen within huge corporations every now and then. So now I didn’t even have an editor. 

I showed the novel to my agent. Looking back now, she was very diplomatic. In fact, she was far too diplomatic, when I really needed someone to tell me it was a total bunch of crap. I think, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was crap, but that’s easy to say with hindsight. I certainly felt uneasy about the book, but we writers don’t always know what’s best, and it can be incredibly hard to get any distance from your own work sometimes. Maybe this was a masterpiece, and I just couldn’t see it?

It wasn’t a masterpiece. My agent showed it to another editor at Penguin, who politely declined it. She showed it to a couple more editors who I knew, and they didn’t like it either. Again, with hindsight, the fact we only sent it to about four editors in total is blindingly obvious evidence that my agent thought it was rubbish, but was just too polite to say so.

With the benefit of a decade of distance from this debacle, I can see now, I think, what I was trying to do. To put it very simply, I think I was trying to write The Crow Road by Iain Banks. Banks is one of my favourite-ever authors, and I was clearly ripping him off with The Coalbiter. But the problem is, Iain had already written The Crow Road, and it was pretty near perfect, so the world didn’t need a terrible knock-off version.

But I learnt so much from that whole experience. The tone of the prose in The Coalbiter was striving too hard for profundity, and the result was that there was a rather joyless and self-important feel to the story. There was an emphasis on character over plot, to the extent that the book ambled along for hundreds of pages going nowhere. That might work for some readers and writers, but it’s not for me. And the nature of the split narrative didn’t work either. Where other writers might revel in the breadth and depth this can lend to a story, I found that it all lacked focus and energy. I dreaded re-reading the manuscript when editing it, and if I couldn’t be bothered to read it, how could I expect anyone else to persevere?

Before The Coalbiter had even been rejected by that handful of editors, I had determined to write something completely different immediately afterwards. The experience of writing that big beast had been like wading through quicksand, so I wanted to reacquaint myself with the relative joys of writing again. 

I decided to write something completely different in every way. I wanted to write the nastiest, funniest, stupidest thriller I could think of. I wanted it to be short, with only a single point of view, and full of action from start to finish. And most of all, I didn’t want it to be profound at all, just fun and scary for the reader.

So I did. Between January and March 2009 I wrote the first draft of Smokeheads, a thriller set on the island of Islay and soaked in whisky. It took less than three months, and that first draft clocked in at a measly 50,000 words. But I had an absolute ball writing it. Not only did I enjoy writing Smokeheads more than The Coalbiter, which wouldn’t have been hard, I also enjoyed it much more than writing my first two novels as well.

I had found my voice, and I knew it. Smokeheads felt right when I was writing it in a way that none of my previous novels had. The plotting was tighter, the characters were better drawn, the setting was properly evoked, and as I redrafted the book, adding in backstory and other bits and bobs, taking it up to 60,000 words, the resonances and themes that I had strived far too hard for in other stories just seemed to emerge from the process naturally. It was, quite frankly, something of a revelation.

When I had a draft in good-enough shape, I showed it to my agent. She hummed and hawed and asked if I had anything else to show her. She had done this with The Coalbiter too, and I had accepted it then because I knew that book was rubbish. But I knew Smokeheads was better, somehow I had an inner core of belief in that book, so I also knew that if she wasn’t in love with it, then I’d have to look for another agent.

Which is what I did. An author friend of mine also worked as an agent, and when I showed him the manuscript of Smokeheads, he immediately said he’d love to represent me. A couple of weeks later, we had offers from several publishers. I was right, Smokeheads was better, it was written by a writer who had found his voice, and that was evident in every line.

But it never would’ve happened without The Coalbiter. When I think of that manuscript still sitting on a shelf in my office, I cringe. And I also thank my lucky stars that it never got published. If it had, by some weird fluke, caught the attention of a publisher, I might never have realised the kind of writer I am and I might never have found my voice. The Coalbiter was a failure that has made me who I am today, and I am forever thankful for that experience, which genuinely taught me more than a successful novel ever could’ve.

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