top of page
  • petercstenson

Bastard Zombies: On “Failed” Novels

There's the one about a rehabilitation center for the formerly famous. Another about a weight loss drug that allows one to evaluate (and commodify) another's soul. A suburban gothic centered on a peeping Tom. One from a decade ago that has pretty much slipped my mind other than the way-too-graphic sex scenes. Some sort of horror tale centered around clubfoot. A quaint little midwestern narrative about a family that stumbles into the sex toy industry. Oh, and I think there was one about a superhero whose power was projectile chest hair.

These were novels. Like full-on, 300-page plus narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Titles, even. They had characters I’d grown to love, their obsessions and fears manifestations of my own, locales I’d come to inhabit, soundtracks and climaxes and maybe even themes, these bastard spermatozoa finding temporary life in my hard drive. Three months, six months, a year, I tended to them, nurtured them, envisioned our lives together—here’s when I give you your first bath in the sink, here's when I teach you about the coastal rap feud of my formative years, here's where I nurse you through your first heartbreak—with the hopeful delusion of all soon-to-be-parents.

But something went wrong. These beautiful bastards never saw the light of day. Maybe I realized they were shit. Maybe I told myself I’d circle back in six months with fresh eyes. Maybe I saw their foibles and shortcomings and didn’t have the mental energy for the necessary rewrites. Or maybe I knew that they were for an audience of one. The reason doesn’t really matter as the result is the same: a hard drive full of novels that never saw the light of day.


It’s hard not to think of them as anything but. After all, publication is nice. People reading my work is nice. Money is nice. So, if a novel doesn't reach this penultimate end, is it not, by definition, a failure? And by extension, wouldn’t I, the schmuck who spent a year writing a novel I never showed another person, be a failure? Like of the grandest order? A deadbeat father with a handful of bastard children with their once high hopes and cute little title pages?

Well fuck.

Cue the shame and self-flagellation and the chorus of you-are-wasting-your-goddamn-life.

Now, let me stop you there, Dear Reader, and assure you this isn’t some trite repurposing of a Tumblr post on how to cope—and even flourish—amidst literary failure. Smarter and more inspiring people have exhausted the subject. Yes, please fail better and realize the only failure is not trying and all of that. The point of this drivel is to let you know that our beautiful babies are not, in fact, rotting lifelessly in shoebox-sized coffins six feet under (well, they’re rotting, but they’re not lifelessly).

Even though we’ve attempted to toss out the baby (the bathwater, in this instance, was an unfortunate causality), we didn’t kill it. Not entirely. No, we merely killed our idealized version of what this precious entity would become. And when it didn’t live up to expectations? Pound sand, bitch. See ya! But these beautiful bastards have a pulse. Don’t believe me? Use your mirror for something other than cutting lines and put it against their decomposing noses. See that fog? That’s breath. That’s life. It’s just a life of its own.

For every writer, there’s something magical that transpires beneath the surface of her mind. While we go about our daily lives, stressing about mortgages and lettuce in our teeth and a lack of likes for our carefully constructed posts, there’s an entire Arda-like colony bustling below our traceable thoughts. The subconscious realm, that mythically powerful server that records, labels, and stores our every experience, is always working. For some reason, the verb that comes to mind is churning. Our shit is churning with desires and fears and impulses and memories of our fifth-grade gym teachers having us line up after PE, our arms raised as he took a nitrous-sized hit of our pits under the pretext of “checking if we showered.” This is where we bury our failed novels in a misguided attempt to protect ourselves from their failures.

Churn, motherfucker, churn.

A twitch here, a spasm there. Is there really any surprise when a herpes-infested hand claws its way through the graveyard topsoil? I mean shit: we literally entombed our bastards in a gelatinous wasteland with more creative energy than a nuclear reactor. Yet every time, we are shocked to see the reanimated corpses of our failures. We can’t help but fall victim to the zombie narrative trope as we stare at something we loved, our eyes squinting as we recognize its once pure essence, our minds refusing to accept our bastard in its new form, tears spilling as we finally swing our axes into its hairless skull.

But what if we didn’t react with fear? What if we didn’t resent the changes our bastards underwent as they reanimated? What if we treated them as new people? If we exercised curiosity and empathy? If we broke bread and shot the shit? What then?

Magic. Pure. Fucking. Magic.

A Girl with a Flail: A Case Study

Twenty years ago, I wrote my first novel. It was terrible, like awful, all angsty and depressed, centering on a nineteen-year-old junkie who was trying to get clean while working at a travel agency. The autofiction took a hard right into a novella about a daughter of a donkey show performer. At some point, there were demonic ninjas. The only lasting image I have of this novel is one of these demonic girls slipping a cue ball into the foot of some fishnet stockings and using it as a flail, whipping it this way and that, crushing skulls with the grace of one spinning flaming poi.

I knew this novel was horrible. I also knew it revealed way too much about my fucked-up psyche. Needless to say, this puppy got buried.

Five years later, I was typing away on a short story about a guy desperate for money. He’s

brainstorming like a motherfucker yet still coming up short. Who should walk through the barroom door at the point of emotional break? A wisp of a girl with a triangle of a nose and quarter-inch bangs. It took all of a paragraph for her to commandeer the story. My lifeless protagonist followed her to a semi-affluent country club parking lot. She finally explained what they were doing: breaking into cars, stealing the GPS units (this was in the early 2000s) and the garage door openers, hitting “Home” on the units, going to the locations, and walking through the garage doors to rob the houses. And then something dropped from the sleeve of her puffy jacket. Holy shit! It was a cue ball in the foot of a pair of fishnets. She swung the improvised flail into the window of a Lexus.

I had to stop there. I could recognize some trace of the demonic ninja from my failed novel, but only the faintest vestige. She’d transformed, grown, matured, her coffin in the depth of my subconscious like an Easy Bake Oven baking her from batter into a semi-risen muffin.

This story petered out. I saved it under the folder 2008 and vowed to create more interesting protagonists.

Churn, churn, churn.

Obviously, when you’re in the realm of zombie narratives (as we are with this sloppy metaphor), you have to worry about community spread. It's a numbers game. There is tension between the exponential growth of infected and the dwindling number of healthy people. I bring up this point because our discarded children are subject to the same forces. Politely labeled as failures and safely buried, we forget about them. They, however, are doing what they do: morphing and reanimating and infecting, fracturing even, multiplying. This is precisely what happened with the demon ninja.

Three years later, I had a banger of an idea. I hammered out a paragraph describing a tweaker searching for shards of glass in the carpet. He peeks out of the curtains and sees a little girl tear open the throat of a rottweiler. He realizes he’s gone too far with the latest bender. And it is here, maybe two pages in, when the newest iteration of the girl with the cue ball stocking appears. She’s forgone the weaponry for depth and backstory, showing up as a fully formed character, instantly becoming the emotional core of what would become FIEND, my debut novel.

Cool, right? I figured this was a happy accident. I also figured I was now done with this haunting ghost.

Silly me.

We have no say in where and when our bastard zombies resurface. Even though I had given this character life, nurtured her, listened to her, loved her, given her three-hundred pages of space to tell the world who she was and what she wanted, it was only a version of the original. Think of a genealogic tree; I traced a single line down to some granddaughter. Unbeknownst to me, there were many other siblings, all stemming from the singular image of a cue ball swung in fishnet stockings and caving in a skull.

There were a hundred pages of a boy who hears the same progression of four notes over and over again, his first violent act that of a makeshift flail. Two hundred pages about a girl trying to save her little brother from a fundamental Christian encampment (you guessed her weapon of choice). Seventy pages of a comedy about a group of strangers who come together to solve an escape room in world record time (it got dark in a jiffy when the flail showed up). Several stories that started with the line, “[character name] says she wishes there’s a god and the boy comes and she climbs out of the bathtub and promises she will do better tomorrow." Some distant fourth cousin, twice removed of the weapon and caving skull, appeared in each failed narrative. Each time, this reanimation resulted in what I eventually dubbed a failure. These babies were buried. And yes, they reanimated, every limb on the genealogic tree expanding, lengthening, twisting, maturing. The results? A character from my second published novel and a scene from a forthcoming novel.

It’s here I want to circle back to the idea of failure. There is, undoubtedly, something demoralizing about spending so much time and effort writing a narrative you come to realize doesn’t have legs. I get this. I feel this every time. The Four Horsemen of Insecurity, Hopelessness, Dejection, and Shame rent out the VRBO of my mind regularly. But, like nearly everything in life, it’s a matter of perspective. These are not failed novels; they are drafts. Often, a second draft has no thematic or plot similarity to its predecessor but instead is tied to the reemergence of one of my immured children. And when I see this zombie bastard break through the ground, it is my job as a writer to sit down and learn how it has changed, grown, and matured in ways beyond the limited capability of my conscious mind.

Maybe this is, in fact, one of those inspiration posts about failure I disparaged earlier. And what would such a post be without the mandatory adherence to genre convention of including Beckett’s quote from Worstword Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Because every failure is merely an opportunity to submerge our bastard children into the pressure cooker of our subconscious. The more failures we have, the more slithering corpses we have below the surface of our minds. Like I said, it’s a numbers game. So, I say go forth, my zombie bastards of failure, fight and fuck and fracture; I eagerly await our eventual reunion.

35 views0 comments


bottom of page