Novels are insanely complicated

This was one of the top image results for "sharpness"
This was one of the top image results for “sharpness”

Got thirty thousand words into the novel before realizing that I had failed to rigorously imagine one key thing (how the mother felt about something that her daughter was doing). And when I belatedly started trying to do some of that imagination work, the entire novel fell apart. Like, just completely unravelled. I realized that the novel had exactly the problem that I described in American Hustle: the characters weren’t emotionally invested in the thing that was taking up most of the screentime, so I’d had to shoehorn in a sideplot in order to give them some life.

Reimagining the character’s motivations meant reimagining her history, which meant changing the entire narrative voice of the story (which I actually hadn’t been too happy with before anyway).

It’s all connected. When one thing is wrong, it wrongs up a whole bunch of other things. In this case, I’d been worrying all through the novel that it was too dialogue-heavy. Even when I glanced at the pages they didn’t feel right: there wasn’t enough variation in paragraph size. I’d tried to fix it up by going back through and adding some descriptive details, but that looked, felt, and sounded like a jury-rigged fix.

I think, in the end, all of that shakiness was a result of my own uncertainty. I didn’t understand my novel enough to be able to know what thoughts and images and actions needed to bubble up at each moment. And I sensed that, so I left it blank, and filled up the pages with talking (which can often be a great cover for a lack of substance, since conversation passes time and feels a bit like action). I mean, I’m caricaturing those thirty thousand words a bit. Lots of interesting things happened, including many things that’re going to remain in the next draft of the novel. But, in the end, they weren’t right.

After going back and reimagining that motivation issue, I was able to write a thousand words and then stopped short. The main character’s daughter was eating ice cream, and I wasn’t sure whether or not the mom was going to scold her about it. And so I went and lay on my bed and I realized that this unsureness was tied to a whole host of other things that I was unsure about (primarily, I hadn’t yet thought about the actual mechanics of the fancy-schmancy childcare center that’s one of the centerpieces of the book). And then that required a lot of rigorous thinking too.

Anyway, I think I got that sorted out, too. As I mentioned before, I normally know that I have the right answer when I sense things becoming more specific. The right answer turns a hand-wavy notation in my outline (something like “He goes on a journey and finds himself”) into “He goes back to his old college and sees that the professor who tormented him is now extremely wealthy because he was an early-stage investor in Google and learns that there is no karmic justice in the world.”

There’s also a certain sort of elegance to the right solution. It’s hard to explain. But wrong solutions feel wrong. They contain too much doubling back and too many tortured motivations. Often I’m able to justify the most insane things to myself by saying something like, “Well, this character acts this one way in this one scene and this other way in this other scene because he’s complex! People change their mind! They act with different motivations at different times!”

Which, yeah, sounds very high and mighty and artistic, but, on an aesthetic level, it just doesn’t work. Fiction should (in my opinion) have a sharpness to it. Because none of this stuff is real, characters, settings, places, situations, need to leap off the page if the audience is going to be able to see it at all. Even when you’re writing a complex, multi-faced character, then you still don’t get to be fuzzy–you just need to make sure that all their facets are sharp.

Novels are incredibly complex. When they’re clicking, you don’t think about that. But every novel–even a realist one–is a whole world with its own rules and its own logic. And you can’t develop that logic simply by deciding “This is how things are in this world.” Writing a novel isn’t like ordering a sandwich at Subway: you don’t mix and match from a menu of discrete elements.

No, you choose each element so that it supports every other element, both on a surface level (so that the plot, character arc, and conflict are sharp) and on a thematic level. And when everything fits together like this, that’s not the mark of a great novel. No! Plenty of bad novels have the kind of cohesion that I’m struggling to reach. Actually, this sharpness is just the bare minimum thing that you need if you’re going to write something that succeeds on any level.

Most novels that I read are so competently-constructed–even the bad ones–that I forget how hard it is to achieve that kind of competence.

And I still don’t know whether this novel is eventually going to come together. I give it about a 50% chance at this point. On one level, it’s extremely disheartening when you work on something and it’s not coming together. But it’s also a bit exhilarating. Generally speaking, I walk around all day listening to a constant internal monologue that’s pretty self-important and banal. And I always agonize about that. I mean, I shouldn’t be wasting valuable brain-time worrying about a rejection or wondering what I’m going to order for dinner. No, I should be pondering important matters.

But when I’m figuring out a novel, my brain works so much harder than it ordinarily does. I can actually feel it turning things around and crunching them into place and taking up hypotheses and discarding hypotheses and framing questions to itself. It’s the kind of thinking that I, when I was young, used to assume would fill up my entire adult life.

8 thoughts on “Novels are insanely complicated

  1. Diana Peterfreund

    ” I didn’t understand my novel enough to be able to know what thoughts and images and actions needed to bubble up at each moment. And I sensed that, so I left it blank, and filled up the pages with talking (which can often be a great cover for a lack of substance, since conversation passes time and feels a bit like action).”

    This is so true. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I find I have a lot of dialogue in a given scene I go back and try to suss out if I have this dialogue because the scene needs to be quick and crackling or if i’m covering up for the fact that I have no idea what the POV character is thinking. Of course, it took me 12 years of writing and eight as a professional novelist to figure this out about myself, so good for you!

  2. J. Kathleen Cheney

    “Most novels that I read are so competently-constructed–even the bad ones–that I forget how hard it is to achieve that kind of competence”

    This part’s really true. I think that’s one reason why some novelists get defensive about their work…they’ve put so much work into it.

    (I’m doing copy edits, and it’s mind numbing how hard you have to work on continuity…particularly in a series.)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, it’s so true that it’s almost shocking when it’s not. For instance, I just finished reading _The Passage._ Which is a well-written novel that is actually pretty badly-constructed. It’s a whirlwind adventure that leaves you at the end going: “So what? What was, even theoretically, the point of what I just read?” In most novels, the takeaway might be pretty cliche and banal, but you can at least grasp that sense of cohesion. Whereas The Passage seems almost like a collection of chapters that were taken from two or three entirely different books.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          It did drive me nuts. Shame on you, Justin Cronin. I enjoyed the passage enough that I, theoretically, would probably enjoy reading the sequel, but I won’t. This sort of behavior should not be rewarded.

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