Sometimes the key to writing a novel is situating yourself at the right point in your protagonist’s emotional journey

Monarch Changing to Chrysalis 5Actually managed to get to chapter 2 today!!!

Not sure that I’ll stay there. I’ll probably end up getting two or three chapters in and then find myself back at chapter one.

It’s very strange, because I know pretty much what the world is like and the emotional journey is going to be and what’s going to happen and all of that seems to work pretty well (at least in my mind), but I haven’t quite ironed out the voice. There’s no point in writing a book unless every sentence is, in some way, fun to write. A character needs to shock and surprise you. I know it sounds silly, but I do feel like the characters ought to feel, when you’re writing them, as if they’re alive. I don’t think that anything mystical is necessarily happening, I think that’s just a sign of the unconscious taking over.

Writing is primarily an unconscious activity. No one can properly answer the question: “What should the character do right now?” And that’s why you need to rely on the unconscious mind to provide those answers.

However, I’ve gotten better and better at rejecting the false answers that sometimes crop up. And, sometimes, one of those false answers is when the character has too much voice and too much personality and is too sure of themselves. Sometimes you can write a character who spits and cackles and moves across the page, but…to no end. They’re static; they already know who they are.

In my last workshop, one of my MFA classmates gave me a really insightful comment. He said that my characters already seem to know exactly who they are and what they want, and that meant that there didn’t really seem to be enough growing for them to do within the story. He recommended that maybe I ought to pull back a little bit and try to explore what my characters are like when they’re still in the process of becoming their final selves.

Anyway, in the more recent versions of Chapter 1, I’ve been pulling back and trying to write a version that’s more muted, more uncertain, and more human. I’m not sure whether it’s completely working yet (because as soon as one aspect of the book starts to get stronger, then some weakness in another aspect is revealed), but I think I’m starting to get there.

That part of the novel-writing process where you find ways to avoid writing the stuff that you don’t yet understand

This book is so goddamn whimsical.
This book is so goddamn whimsical.

Sometimes, when I get to a point where (but not all) of a novel is working well, I’ll experience a curious sort of circularity in the writing process. Things will really be clicking for awhile, and then the whole thing will go slack. And then I’ll make a titanic effort and sort of figure out something to do, and then the novel will click for a little bit longer before going slack again. And I can continue this for as long as I want, and the stuff I write will all be sort of good, but the whole thing won’t have any sort of coherence. It’ll just never really come together.

I’ve come to realize that this is basically avoidance behavior. Sometimes my mental conception of a novel is lopsided. I’ll have a really good idea of what’s going on in one part of the novel (one setting or milieu or plotline or family), but haven’t really thought out what’s going on in the other one. So every time I get to the other part, everything will feel off and I’ll wonder why the book isn’t clicking anymore.

Since the human instinct is to avoid discomfort, I’ll do my best to avoid actually thinking about the problem (which would entail admitting that part of my novel is–at least at the moment–conceptually flawed) and instead I’ll concoct some cockamamie way of circling the book back around to the part where I do understand what’s going. And that sort of works for awhile, except eventually the book gets so lopsided–so unable to paper over the absence of part of what was supposed to make it work–that I literally cannot go on with it any further.

At that point, I usually take to my bed with many tears and self-recriminations, and say to myself, “But everything I’ve written is so good! And it all makes perfect sense! I don’t understand what the problem is!”

And then, over the course of several days, I’ll realize that the problem is in what I haven’t written. And then I’ll need to go back and think it through, and–although I’ll usually manage to save most of what I’ve already written–I’ll inevitably find out that you can’t actually write one plotline of a novel without knowing what’s going on in the other plotline, so I’ll have to throw some stuff out.

But eventually it’ll all come together.

Actually, it often poses an interesting creative problem: trying to create something in one half of the novel that justifies something I’ve already created in the other half of the novel. It’s shocking the sort of interesting solutions that your imagination will hand you if you back it into a corner.

Which is another way of saying that Whimsical Children’s Novell just collapsed again. Boo hoo. Woe is me. Woe!