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The Fail-Graceful Method: On Writing a Salvageable Novel

The publishing world is not a friendly place. I hope I've impressed this upon you by now - this is an insular, name-driven world where the major players no longer have interest in taking risks or developing new talent. To this end, I've written about some things one might do with a manuscript that's been rejected by everyone, most of which center on ways to repurpose that manuscript.

Reusing content is common practice these days. We are very much in a quantity-driven media environment right now, one in which the ability to generate large amounts of content at a steady pace is more valued than the ability to create high-quality material. There are many reasons for this, including (but by no means limited to):

  • the ease of publication on the internet;

  • the rise of data-driven marketing and the ensuing need for lots of data points;

  • the creation of a range of new platforms in various niches;

  • the widespread availability of low-cost freelancers;

  • the development of ever more sophisticated bots.

There's just no room for people to spend a lot of time painstakingly creating a novel - or an album, or a film. The market expects speed.

This has turned the media world into an arms race of sorts. Once enough people are repurposing content across a dozen platforms and flooding the market, everyone else has to do it just to avoid being drowned out. In turn, this created a need for ingenious types to come up with new techniques to spread their content far and wide.

But while there are many methods for doing this with, say, business-oriented writing or current events, it's trickier with novels. Your only real viable alternative after rejection is self-publishing, which is a losing game.

So allow me to introduce a new prototype into the arms race.

The Fail-Graceful method, as I'm calling it, is a fairly radical method for planning and writing a novel-length work of fiction. It's essentially the engineer's approach - assume that something will go wrong and thus ensure that it will go wrong in the least bad way possible. Fail-Graceful assumes you will be rejected, and thus ensures that your rejected novel will have the maximum number of post-rejection options. You can even salvage a unfinished manuscript, using pieces from a work that never made it to the query phase.

You may be able to do any of the following:

  • Sell the manuscript as short stories. I'm already doing this with This Somber Road, which is structured as a collection of short stories within a frame story; however, with Fail-Graceful, you can create a more cohesive narrative that will fall apart into as many as twenty stories (and maybe more under certain circumstances).

  • Sell the manuscript as novellas. Novellas are rare and hard to market, but they can also be career-making for a spec writer. A Fail-Graceful novel will fall apart into at least four novellas.

  • Recycle content into a new manuscript. A portion of a Fail-Graceful novel can serve as a hook for a new novel. Imagine starting your next project with the first twenty thousand words already finished - and because they came from a part of the manuscript that no agent ever saw, they'll never know that you did this.

  • Publish the manuscript as a serial. Paid serials are rare, but the internet offers many opportunities to publish serialized fiction. A Fail-Graceful novel is already in a state to be serialized, and can easily continue for a year or more depending on the release schedule.

Really, the query phase of a Fail-Graceful novel is a Hail Mary - you aren't so dependent on the provincial whims of agents, so a failed query session no longer means that you've wasted your time.

Is Fail-Graceful For Me?

This method is not going to be for every author or every project. It requires a lot of planning and is likely to result in an atypical novel. So before diving in, please consider the following:

  1. Fail-Graceful is meant for novels with loose plots. Episodic, picaresque stories and those with non-linear narratives are the best fit, and it can also work for character studies and theme- or setting-driven works. It will not work for most linear plot-driven stories or complex character drama.

  2. Since the novel needs to be so episodic, elements like foreshadowing, plot twists and continuity-driven mechanics don't work so well. You can include them, but only as Easter eggs to reward careful reading - they can't be central to the story. On the other hand, multiple POVs work very well with Fail-Graceful.

  3. I designed this method for genres I've worked in - namely speculative, adventure and mainstream realistic. Litfic is also going to be a good fit, and some historical fiction will work as well. Thrillers and romance are unlikely to work and I don't recommend trying to write Fail-Graceful novels in those genres, though it's up to you. Mystery is a non-starter as far as this method is concerned.

  4. Fail-Graceful is meant for "standard" length novels of about 70k-100k words, and my model specifically assumes an 80k target. It will work for longer or shorter works, but you'll need to adjust some of the lengths.

Most Fail-Graceful novels will have a somewhat experimental feel to them. If you're comfortable with this, and feel that you have an idea that might work, then read on.

Three Phases of Planning

Rather than planning the novel as a single unit, we will instead plan it as a series of interconnected stories. This will vaguely resemble something like a skeleton or snowflake outline, but we're not looking to increase detail in one story but rather looking to create many stories from one.

Phase 1: Four Parts, 25%

We'll first divide the overall narrative into four novella-length sections of roughly 20k-25k words each. Short novels (<65k) might only have space for three sections, but I wouldn't go over four parts unless you are anticipating a process so epic in length that these sections would be novel-length themselves.

This is probably the easiest part as many novels are already subdivided into novella-length sections; however, remember that the sections must be semi-detached from each other. There are a few ways to do this. Using a different POV for each is an easy solution. Alternately, having each section track a different group of characters will also work and will make the next step easier. Finally, varying the setting (place, time or both) across sections can work well in more setting-focused stories.

Phase 2: Twenty Parts, 5%

This part will likely be the most difficult. The goal is to further subdivide each section into five short story-length subsections, each of which is - again - loosely tied into the subsections around it. Ideally these sections should be 3k-5k words in length, which is about the best length for submissions. For novels with an overall length of under 60k or over 100k, you may wish to increase or decrease the number of subsections.

Don't sweat too much over trying to create twenty wholly separate narratives for this phase. In the name of creating a coherent whole, it is certainly acceptable to leave a few sections as solid plot that can't stand alone - if you can get 12-15 independent stories out of this phase, you're doing well. Those stories will work best as episodes, showcasing action, character drama or exploration. Focus more on making these subsections interesting and distinct than on trying to tie them all together, as you can always add continuity elements later.

Phase 3: One Hundred Parts, 1%

Amusing as the thought is, the point of this step is not to prepare the manuscript to be sold as a hundred flash pieces. This step is mainly to facilitate serialization. Conventional wisdom on digital serials is that they are best marketed with a large number (often hundreds) of very short chapters. Dividing your work into a hundred flash-length sections will allow you to easily distribute it over a span of 6-12 months, allowing you to build an audience. If you aren't interested in serialization, then this step is optional.

Unlike the previous steps, you aren't trying to turn each mini-section into an independent story. Rather, the goal is to create a rhythm of sorts. Each mini-section should be a little vignette that is interesting on its own, but should also flow neatly into the next, perhaps with the aid of gentle cliffhangers that are subtle enough to hide in the novel when it's all in one piece. I used a similar technique for All the Stars Within Our Grasp, which was likewise written as a series of around 120 flash-length segments and then edited together. Again, you may skip this part if it's not helpful to you, but those of you who struggle to finish long projects may find it handy regardless.

So This is a Joke, Right?

It's easy to read this as some sort of satire, especially in light of things I've said elsewhere about the publishing industry. However, I am deadly serious here. Given the increasingly provincial state of publishing, one would be a fool to write a novel without a contingency plan. I will never again try to write a novel without a plan to salvage it - it might not be this one exactly, but it will be something. This idea is new, and I'll certainly work on and come up with variants that might be more broadly effective - and I hope that you'll do the same.

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