When to listen to your fear and when to ignore it

Keep_Calm_Big_ThinkSomething about writing novels brings out fear in the way that no other writing task seems to. They’re so big and there are so many variables and so many decisions. And the price of failure is so high. When you walk away from the wreck of a novel, you lose something–a sense of your own invulnerability–and start wondering, “How could I have worked, for so long, on something that was so bad.”

When I talk about failed novels, I’m not talking about ones that were merely not very good. I’ve written those too. A not-very-good novel still has something to it: a story, some characters, an arc, and maybe a spark of something new. Just, for whatever reason, it’s not very good. But I’ve also written failed novels. And that is the worst. I’ve now written three novels that were so abysmal that I found it difficult to reread them. Once they were done and finished, the thing I realized about these books is that there simply wasn’t any story: they were ninety-five thousand words of smoke and mirrors. Events happened, but they didn’t add up. The books didn’t have that emotional core.

Lots of published books and even more published short stories have this problem. There are three main ways that a work of fiction can fail to be a story. The first is that it can be trivial. If there’s nothing in the work that matters or really resonates with the reader, then it doesn’t matter what happens. The second is that it can be rote: if the novel never deviates from what’s expected of it and offers nothing new, then it barely exists–it’s merely a shadowy something that’s cobbled together out of bits of what’s come before. And the third (which is the problem that I usually grappel with) is that it can be incoherent. If the story doesn’t know what it’s about, then the selection of elements will be governed by whim instead of by its own internal logic. The different parts of the story will work at counter-purposes to each other and dilute or destroy any possible effect (two recent movies that suffered from incoherency: American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street).

In an incoherent book, the failure is a lack of vision. Elements are thrown in because they’re “cool” or because they’re simply the sort of thing that happens in books.

I have never written a book that didn’t start off as an incoherent mess. And it’s always the same. I’ll start writing the book, and I’ll get five or ten or fifteen thousand words in and then I’ll suddenly be terrified. I simply won’t want to write another word. The problem is not that I don’t know what’s coming next. I’ll know. I’ll have a plan. I can tell a person exactly what the next scene will be. But I simply won’t want to write it.

In situations like this, the common advice is to face down your fear and press onwards. And I’ve done that: I’ve ignored that feeling and gone forward and written that scene. And then the next scene. And the scene after that.

In one other case–my first YA book, This Beautiful Fever–the ship, somewhat miraculously, managed to right itself. The result was certainly incoherent, but at least the narrator’s story was fairly clear. A huge number of subsequent revisions managed to at least partially clear up the incoherent elements. And, in the end, it came out as something fairly readable.

But in those three cases (and in at least two other novels that I never completed), I never found my bearings. I just piled scene on top of scene until I’d finally written so many that I felt like the novel could end.

Since the last of these failures (which occurred just this last summer), I’ve learned to listen to my fear. I’ve learned to draw back and say, “Why am I afraid to write this next scene? What is missing here?” And I literally write down lists of questions for myself. And I spend hours in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what it is that I’m not seeing. This isn’t about finding the answer. It’s about finding the right question. And when I do, the question always reveals some fundamental problem with the central narrative of the story. For instance: “The way I’ve written her, would this character even care about being a good mother?” or “If God is really talking to her, then why is she questioning it?”

When I find the right question, the temptation is always to gloss it over with some irrelevant bullshit like, “Oh, she needs to pretend to be a good mother in order to stay with her boyfriend” or “She’s still not really sure if the voice actually is God.” That’s all stuff that sounds fine on paper. I mean, you can tell it to people and they’ll nod their heads and say, “Oh, that makes sense.” But writing a novel is not an exercise in bullshitting. It’s not about finding a plausible answer; it’s about finding the right answer.

The problem with the bullshit answers is that they cripple the emotional heart of the story. If she’s not sure that the voice is really God, then the story becomes a weird detective story, where she’s trying to figure out who’s talking to her. And then, when she finally does, then she’s still subject to the same core problem! And then, because there’s no emotion in the main story, I need to insert some through side-story: some drama with her friends or whatever. And the result of the whole thing is a whole lot of flash and glitz, but not a lot of movement. This is exactly the problem with American Hustle. Christian Bale and Amy Adams aren’t really at all invested in the scam that they’re being forced to perpetrate, so the writers had to force the love triangle to bear all the emotional weight of the story.

Luckily, the bullshit answer doesn’t make the fear go away. Whenever I come up with one, I’ll go back to the story and try to write it and will feel like I’m tangling up everything in knots. And I still won’t want to write further.

Trying to come up with the right answer is very frustrating. Sometimes it ends up being an easy fix (“Just excise my chatty voice of God, and turn it into a single mysterious oracular command”) and sometimes it ends up being really hard (“The character I’ve written is not one that can carry the weight of a novel like this; I need to delete everything and then write her in a way that’s fundamentally different”).

In general, I can tell that I’ve come up with a good answer when the answer is something that makes my novel less complicated and more specific. When you’re operating off a bad conception of the novel, then lots of things about it remain stubbornly vague (“Oh, and at this point she has an argument with God”). But when you have the right answer, those things pop into focus (“At this point, she stops an angel of death from murdering the kindly, but irreligious, studio head”). Basically, a good answer makes your novel easier to write.

But that answer could just as easily never come. Or you could get so tired and frustrated that you convince yourself that a bad solution is actually a good one.

Because at some point, the good fear–the fear that lets you know you’re making a mistake–turns into the bad fear. The bad fear actually gets stronger as the novel gets better. For me, the bad fear is mostly a voice that says, “You’re gonna fuck this up. You’re gonna lose this.”

And it can be overpowering.

The bad fear is the reason why, when I’m on the threshold of really getting into a project, I’ll sometimes spend days (or even weeks) not working on it. Because if you don’t work on something, you can’t fuck it up.

The truth is that the bad fear isn’t wrong. Sometimes I do screw it up. And sometimes I’m feeling really confident about a project but then, the moment I start to work on it, I realize that it everything has evaporated. But, unlike the good fear, the bad fear is unproductive.

The good fear stops me from making mistakes; the bad fear stops me from doing anything. The way I’ve written this blog post, it sounds like the two fears are very separate. But that’s not really the case. They feel very similar. And oftentimes they coexist. The differences between them are very subtle. Generally speaking, the bad fear tends to abate the moment I begin writing. Conversely, the good fear builds and builds as I write, until it eventually ejects me from the story.

That’s why I can’t really outline stories. The bad fear loves outlines, because they feel like work but, on the other hand, you can’t really screw up an outline. And the good fear doesn’t even seem to operate on outlines. I can cheerfully draw up the most incoherent outline in the world without getting even a twinge of the good fear. Basically none of my instincts really come into effect until I start writing actual words.

Anyway, this has been your monthly dose of semi-mystical writing advice. I wouldn’t advise putting too much stock in it. After all, I’ve written a bunch of novels, but none of them have been published. It’s entirely possible that the difference between my “good” novels and my “bad” novels is something that’s apparent only to me.