Have you ever wondered if the book you are writing is a tragic waste of time? Is it good? Does it stink? Wouldn’t it be great if the novel actually smelled, and the smell grew worse the longer you worked on it?
The other night I came home from work I noticed a horrible odor in the kitchen. My wife thought it came from the trash, I feared it might be the jalapenos I hadn’t gotten around to freezing. Like a bloodhound I sniffed every surface in the kitchen, reminded of the watermelon fiasco of last year (never leave a watermelon in a paper bag for a week unless you want to do some reupholstering). But I couldn’t find the source of the stink.
Maybe it was some pickles gone bad. I did pull aside five quarts that had gone cloudy but they still smell very vinegary. And then it happened. I heard a ‘tink’. The unmistakable sound of a mason lid giving way, the same sound it makes when it seals.
I rushed into the pantry. Okay, it’s not a pantry. In reality it’s my wife’s old office packed with old computer parts. And I didn’t ‘rush’ so much as take two steps in, but you get the gist.
Four days prior we picked and prepared enough greens to fill fourteen quarts. It was our first time canning greens and the sense of accomplishment we had was unsurpassed. The stink was coming from those jars and the myriad of unfortunate equipment underneath them. Old keyboards were filled with stagnant collard green juice, so was an old laptop, a scanner and a couple of Walkmen from the 90’s.
Up until then our canning was reserved to pickles, banana peppers and salsa. The difference with the greens was that they were cooked with smoked turkey and every jar had a generous chunk of smoked meat to flavor the greens. When you can veggies, after the jars are packed and the lids are on, you put them back in a hot bath for ten to fifteen minutes, just long enough to kill any bacteria and seal the top. Turns out, meat needs more like 100 minutes and they should be sealed in a pressure cooker.
With a heavy heart I took the fruit of our labors out to the composter, dumped the contents and covered the whole mess in three inches of old potting soil to keep critters from going for the rancid meat. The computer equipment got the heave-ho into the trash as well.
That smug sense of accomplishment we had a few days ago was replaced with the agony of defeat. Four of the jars hadn’t gone bad…yet. I still dumped them knowing it was only a matter of time before they ruptures and made a mess.
Writing novels takes a lot of work. A writer can get everything right and still end up with a stinker. You can put in months, years of effort only to find it’s no good. We get so enthralled in our own worlds that we can’t tell if it stinks, or maybe we just get accustomed to the smell. So wouldn’t it be nice to know in advance?
This is why having alpha readers are all important to novelists. More than that, an honest reader who is unafraid to tell you where your novel stinks and where it works. I count myself fortunate in that I have a group of reviewers who can let me know if something stinks before I invest time and do it in a compassionate manner.
If you don’t have a a group or even an individual – not a friend or relative – who can give you the honest truth, I urge you to seek them out. Otherwise you may end up with a shelf full of stinkers.