As my blog-readers may know, I’ve been struggling to write a children’s novel for the past 10-12 weeks and I’ve been putting an epic amount of time and effort into it. And I had several points at which I’d written 15+k of a novel and outlined the rest of it and knew exactly what was going to happen and where and then…I just wasn’t feeling it. For some reason, I couldn’t go through and write the rest. Now, the standard advice in these situations is to just push through and complete the book. That’s probably good advice for lots of people since there are many people who are just overly critical of themselves and need to be given permission to write something that is below their standards, but I don’t follow it because I feel like I am generally pretty rosy about my work, so if something is below my standards, that’s probably because it really is bad.
So each time, I’d go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to make the novel work. And each time, I’d move along some path. And each time, I’d come to the same place. The characters just didn’t resonate with me. For some reason, I didn’t feel like they were alive.
About ten days ago, I finally sat down and thought, what am I doing wrong here? And then I started tracing my way through all my attempts to write this thing. In my first conception of the book, it was about a boy who gets summoned into a Narnia-like world and reigns as a king and then comes back to deal with his high school (where the twist, it turns out, is that everyone else at his school also, at some point, got summoned into their own Narnia-like worlds). Then it became a story about a boy who refused to go to the Narnia-like world that kept trying to summon him. And then, at some point, it became something about a town full of heroes who believed their job was to save the world from some future Ragnarok. And at one point it was about a summer camp for heroes. And then it was about a girl who dies and haunts her (magic) school as a ghost and tries to get the headmaster to bring her back to life.
And I realized that the problem with all of these ideas is that they were way too concept-driven.
In general, I’m a pretty high-concept writer. Virginia Woolf might be about to write a novel about the day that Mrs. Dalloway throws a party, but I can’t do that (although I wish I could). I’ve got to have some kind of intriguing premise in there.
But lately I’ve been writing a lot of realist stories and novels, which has, I think, helped my writing a lot. Because in realism, even the highest concept probably contains some hint of character in it. For instance, Enter Title Here is about a girl who’s writing a book about her own life that requires her to go out and be carefree and fun, even though, at heart, she is manipulative and callous. That’s pretty high-concept, but it’s also character-driven.
Where I was having trouble with the children’s book was, I think, that it was my first non-realist work in awhile, and I was falling back into what I now realize were bad habits: I was creating a big sprawling concept and then trying to figure out what stories fit into it, which is pretty much how I composed all my SF stories for a long time.
But now that I am a better writer and I have written more character-driven books, my sense of aesthetics wouldn’t allow that sloppiness to pass. Thus, I was caught in a quandary. All my habits and instincts were pushing me in a direction that my sense of aesthetics wouldn’t allow.
My solution was to just throw up my arms and write a realist book. I closed the old scrivener file and opened a new one (its title is literally NoMagic.scriv) and spent a few hours tossing around realist ideas and when I found one that I liked (kid has to figure out which kids at his birthday party are conspiring to ruin his life), I ran with it.
And I finished the book in five days
I still haven’t figured out exactly where this puts me vis a vis science fiction and fantasy. I think that I’m going to need to reorganize my brainstorming process a little bit and retrain myself to produce more character-driven SF.