On November 1st 2012 I started writing a novel: ‘Dex and the Broken Heart’. It was the story of Dex a redhead barista/bartender who dropped out of college over a bad break up and ended up working for Madame V the Goddess of the Broken Hearted. For three years and nearly three months I worked on Dex almost every day. He had three completed drafts, one of which was over 300 single spaced pages, the longest story I ever wrote. And his was the first novel I shared with anyone who asked in an attempt to get as much feedback as possible. Dex was going to be my novel, the one I finally finished and shared with the world. I didn’t even care if his story was good, or if anyone paid me for it, I just needed him to be done and know I could do it.
In late March of this year after taking a break from Dex to work on other projects, I frantically reread what I had dubbed ‘draft four’. I read over scenes I had been working on for years and they were joyless to me, words on the page that barely made sense any more. I felt numb and halfway through work that day I locked myself in my car to cry. Dex was over. My latest failed novel.
My long career in failed novels began early. In third grade my teacher submitted a short story I wrote to an annual UConn literary magazine for writers K-12. I didn’t get in, but I received an honorable mention in the back of the book. And since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a published author.
My first failed novel started a year later in fourth grade. I wrote it in red spiral notebook in between classes. It was about a knight who got to pal around with dragons. I never gave it an ending, but after I was given computer privileges in fourth grade I started working on a new draft. I made it to 100 pages before quitting.
From middle school through high school I had a diverse literary career in failed novels. There was the retro sci-fi novel about knight looking mecha and sky cities fighting for control of their gas giant homeworld; each city styled after a different Italian Renaissance state; 1 draft, fifty pages. The supernatural horror story that took place in a rural town in Connecticut where monsters lived in the woods and there was a portal to a shadowy dimension in an abandoned church (went through a bit of an emo phase in high school); at least three drafts that I remember, and got to between 100-200 pages. ‘Vashkin’s Secret’, a fantasy story set in a world heavily based on Slavic myth with pre WWI technology, that one had between three and four attempts, none more than 100 pages.
Most of these projects ended with a whimper. I got bored and stopped or I lost the thread and didn’t know where to go, or it took them fifty pages just to get their butts out of the castle and start the stupid adventure. I started to view the failures as a defeat, some sort of character defect that I and others had. You didn’t finish your novel? You simply lacked resolve. I swore that wasn’t going to be me anymore. I was going to work on Dex every day until he was done. And in a way I did. I didn’t stop writing Dex because of a lack of resolve, but for something I was completely unprepared for; change.
Dex was a very intimate story, but one that ended up belonging to a very different me. As the years went on and I worked on Dex I changed, but he didn’t get to, not in the same way. His problems stayed the same: he was obsessed with an Ex and depressed and I wasn’t. I was moving my life forward in part by writing him. When I finally sat down to really start draft four I realized that there were a mess of themes and ideas in Dex that a dozen different Matts had contributed to. I had pulled him in different directions and sorting him out was going to take another three years, and in that moment I couldn’t go on.
When I stopped writing Dex I felt lost. I started to think back on all that time I spent on my failed novels. As a writer they’re pretty much all I have, so what is their value? Why did I keep trying? Why did I keep failing?
In truth I realized that every novel is a failure. A story is only perfect until it is written. The second we bring it out from the safety of our thoughts it starts to decay, the imperfections creep in and the possibility for ‘failure’ grows. You realize you have too many characters, or there’s a gaping plot hole, or just don’t believe in it anymore. It happens, it’s okay that it happens.
There are many layers of failure and I have far more complex and damning ways yet to fail. But failure is not necessarily the same as defeat. Each failure earned from trying is really just a different result than the one I intended, an opportunity in itself. With each failed novel I saw my knowledge of writing grow and improve. I realized I didn’t need to describe the intricate detail of every piece of armor, or that I had bad habit of repeating similar scenes or lines. Thanks to my failures I started to find my own writing style, the tricks and ticks that defined me.
And Dex in particular gave me gifts I never realized a novel could. Not only did I learn from him, I was able to let go thanks to him. Writing all the stuff about relationships and depression, helped me to confront it, to stare at it and analyze it and move beyond it. I didn’t know if Dex was ever going to be a good novel, but he was definitely going to be a novel that I needed to write.
In the end Dex is like all my failed novels; as complete as he is incomplete, works that never leave me. Their ideas and concepts morph into new questions and challenges, and their heroes and worlds shift and expand into new creations. They have led me forward to this point and will lead me again; each resting, waiting for me to return and change them as they have changed me.
So maybe one day you’ll read Dex’s story. But until then I promise I have a lot more beautiful failures to share with you.