I’m up to 30k words on this book. I’ve been doing this thing for the past year where I write an outline for the book and then delete it. Having an outline means I know what I’m aiming at. But deleting it means I’m free to deviate from it whenever I want. This book is much less structured than any other book I’ve ever written, so the organization of detail is based more on effect and intuition than it is on story logic. So I realized today, while writing the fourth chapter, that it was going in a different direction than I’d intended and that meant that I could shuffle around some other things and the result was that I very definitively completed the first act and, at the same time, found myself with little idea of what’s coming next.
The most common stumbling block for me, when writing a novel, is the first chapter. There’s so much to do in that chapter. You have to establish voice, tone, theme, conflict, setting, characters, etc, and I find that if the first chapter (and, especially, the first scene) aren’t correct, then I can’t write the rest of the book.
But the start of the second act is also something that gives me pause, because I find that this is the place where the rules of the novel are often allowed to change. Novels become different between the first and the second acts, because in the first act the character isn’t yet acting. The first act, I find, is where the character is deciding what they want, and whether or not they want it badly enough to overcome the obstacles ahead of them. Whereas the second act is the one in which they do things. And when characters start doing things, the novel can switch up the rules a bit.
Sometimes this is dramatic. For instance, in many novels–especially literary novels–new points of view will be introduced at the start of the second act. I think that’s because the protagonists in these novels often don’t have much to do, so a sense of expansiveness can be created by opening up the world and allowing you to see the main character from a different angle.
In many genre novels, this is where the mode of action becomes apparent. For instance, my novel Enter Title Here is, at its core, a crime novel. It’s about someone who commits a tiny immoral act and has to commit more and more horrendous acts in order to avoid being punished for their crime. But that’s not really apparent until the start of the second act.
In other YA novels, the second act is where the book firmly establishes itself as a thriller or a romance or an adventure novel.
Anyway, the other thing I’m trying to do is I’m trying to avoid starting each writing day with a blank page. What’s worked well for me so far is to write a few paragraphs, at least, of the next chapter before I go to sleep, so I have something to work with in the morning.
In the case of this novel, Sequential Events, I walked around the block a few times and finally came up with an approach that I think will work, so now I have at least a thousand words of a sixth chapter (chapters in this book are averaging 5-7k words).
Just been thinking about the kind of books that I want to write, and why I’m having so much trouble writing. Realized that part of the problem is with my skillset. Because of my background in genre fiction, I’m most used to books that have both an internal arc and an external arc. For instance, Dune‘s internal arc is about Paul growing up and coming into his power, while its external arc is about surviving and f***ing up the Emperor and the Harkonnen.
Although the internal arc is an integral part of the structure of most genre novels (i.e. Paul cannot defeat the Emperor until he’s grown up), it usually doesn’t take center stage. It’s the nature of genre fiction to spend most of its time on the external arc.
However, I’ve begun to find that the external arc interests me less and less. When I read a fight scene or a heist scene or a magic-casting scene, my eyes instantly glaze over. Like, what’s the point? What exactly is happening? Who cares how well someone shoots a fictional deathray at a fictional robot? What does that have to do with anything?
My problem, though, is that I’m still programmed to write books where the external arc takes center stage.
So far, I’ve managed to get around this through a series of shortcuts and dodges. Basically, I write books that’re full of knavery and manipulation (i.e. where the external arc is stuff that I can enjoy).
However, I’ve recently come up against the limits of that technique. I’ve embarked upon several stories in a row where there really is no good external arc. Stories where the internal arc really needs to be the main thing going on. And each time I start writing one of these stories, my characters eventually flail around, because I’m not quite sure how to dramatize their internal struggle.
Anyway, not sure about the solution to this, but now that I’ve diagnosed it, I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon enough.
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.
I’m trying to write a whimsical children’s novel (you know, something in the style of Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket or Dianne Wynne Jones’s oeuvre), because I wasn’t in the mood to write another short story and I wasn’t in the mood to write anything long and complicated. Whimsical children’s novels (WCNs, for short) tend to be pretty short, and I also thought, since I had a pretty robust idea for one, that this would be easy.
I was wrong about that (as I kind of suspected that I would be). Putting together a WCN is just as hard as putting together any other kind of book. And right now, after two weeks of work, I have about 600 words (and thirteen discarded drafts) of an opening chapter.
However, I’m not full of the usual panic and gloom that I normally feel when I’m mired in a novel. I think that’s because no one is really expecting this out of me, and I’m also not working according to any self-imposed deadline. It’ll be done when it’s done. And if it’s never done, then that’s fine too.
Although it’s an unsettling and chancy endeavor, starting off on a novel is also really interesting. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re carving and painting the pieces one by one, and each individual piece also has to work as an aesthetic object
When I’m in the process of imagining (for instance) the setting of a novel or the main character of a novel, I can often feel myself getting closer and closer to something that interests me, and it’s always really exciting to find a piece that I think I can work with. But then there remains the task of how to fit it in with all the other pieces.
The temptation is to just hammer the uneven corners together and make them fit. And, eventually, that is what you eventually need to do. There aren’t many novels where everything is perfect: all of them have places where stuff doesn’t quite make sense or things are glossed over. But you generally want to avoid that, because it throws off the whole thing.
The real solution is to go back and sort of re-jigger the edges of the pieces so they come closer to fitting. Often, you’ll need to throw out a bunch of the pieces entirely, because there’s just no way to make them fit.
For me, most of this work takes place without that much writing. Because the first 2000 words of a novel contain so much information—character, conflict, setting, voice, arc, point of view, theme, narratorial distance—they often suffice to show me exactly how things are fitting together. I’ll write a thousand words and then I’ll pull back and say, “Hmm, what’s not working here?”
And then I go back and start moving my pieces around even more.
What’s really exciting, though, is when I get close to the end, and the missing pieces are things that need to be so delicate and so specifically crafted that it seems almost impossible that I can find them. For instance, I was recently writing a story where a hard-working, successful woman was dating a total schmo who’s kind of mooching off her, and at some point I realized that the only question left—the only thing that was keeping me from writing the story—was “Why does this woman want to be with this guy?”
Except it wasn’t just that, because she needed a reason for being with him that: a) the reader would understand and emphasize with; b) wouldn’t make him seem like less of a schmo; c) wouldn’t make her seem like some kind of castrating monster who just wants to be with a weak-willed guy; d) wouldn’t be so strong that it couldn’t be disrupted by the later events of the story; and e) wouldn’t require (since the story was so short) any new scenes.
It seemed impossible that the solution would ever present itself, and I was very tempted to just go ahead and force everything into place with some kind of makeshift solution (i.e. I’d’ve thrown in a few lines of description about how no one else had ever treated her with such grace or looked at her so appreciatively, etc, you know…the kind of stuff that you can say, but which the audience won’t believe, because you haven’t dramatized any of it).
However, when the solution finally came, it felt so good and so right that it felt like there never could’ve been anything else. After that, I wrote the story in a day or two.
Right now, I am at this point with the WGN. Many of the pieces have been created. Many of them are even locked into place. But there’s one major thing that’s missing (an emptiness at the heart of the main character which somehow needs to be fulfilled in a way that will do five very specific things). And it seems impossible that any solution can ever be found.
But I have faith that it will come. Somewhere out there is one extremely odd and extremely specific character trait that will slot perfectly into the space that I have left.
And now I just need to wait for it to reveal itself to me.
This novel has finally reached the point where it’s flowing really well. I’m about 73,000 words in and can state with a fair bit of confidence that I am going to finish. Even if the semester ends and swamps me with work, I will finish. Even if I get super depressed (which sometimes happens around mid-winter), then I will still finish. That’s not really a matter of my indomitable will or anything. It’s just simple human psychology. If a human being gets 75% of the way through anything, whether it’s a movie or a book or a hike, then they’re probably not going to quit before it’s finished.
But there are still a lot of hours between me and the end. And looking at those hours makes me think about the hours that I’ve already put into it.
Over the past month, I’ve worked in a more thoughtful and more sustained fashion than I ever have before in my life. And it’s been really fun. But it’s also been really lonely. That was my winter break. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t go anywhere.
It’s not that there’s any specific person or place or event that I regret missing. It’s that all the things I gave up were light time: things that would’ve passed the time in a pleasant way and left behind warm and fuzzy impressions in my memory. In contrast, spending 123 hours at a desk (and counting!) is heavy time. Those hours sit with you very heavily. You can’t escape from them: you have to exist in each and every one of them…which tends to make you very aware of the passing of time.
And living on a different time-scale puts you out of sync with other people. In that way, it’s similar to being drunk all the time. When you’re drunk all the time, life is exciting in a way that it’s not for sober people. Not because you’re doing anything particularly exciting, but because your emotional life is so turbulent. You can go from wanting to kill yourself in the morning to dancing ecstatically at 3 PM to seeing the oneness of the universe at midnight. Because of that, the days separate out, and each one becomes very distinct, and you do crazy and impulsive things because the tomorrow seems soooooo far away. When you live that way, you can’t take very much of it with you–being drunk all the time doesn’t lend itself to accumulating skills, friends, knowledge, or professional success–but the experience of drunken life feels so much fuller than the experience of sober life. The point of drinking isn’t to anesthetize yourself. Or, at least, it wasn’t for me. No, it’s the opposite. The point of most things in life–the consumption of media, in particular–is to make time pass smoothly and easily. The point of drinking is to break up that orderly flow and smash time into little pieces.
Engaging in a project like this is a bit like that too. That heaviness is exactly why it feels like such a worthwhile experience: it makes me feel like I am actually using my time in some manner, instead of just trying to get through it. But the heaviness is also a burden. Because even when heavy time is pleasant, there’s just so much of it. I don’t even know how else to explain it, because it’s totally independent of what you actually do during that time. Even during the happy parts of heavy time, the slowness of the time is quite unpleasant. If someone was to ask us, we’d say that we want life to be heavy (i.e. meaningful and full of experience), but if we were to look inside ourselves, I think we’d find that most of the time, we actually just want life to be over.
I wrote the other day about how I’m only rarely afraid of death. That’s because so much of my behavior (of any person’s behavior, really) seems to imply that I hold my life very cheaply. How can watching fourteen straight hours of television (even excellent television) be interpreted in any other manner than as a desire to stop existing?
I am awful at love stories. A friend of mine was telling me the other day that all her stories are about the guys she’ve dated. I can’t even imagine doing that. It’s not that I dislike love plots. I like them alot. I find them very warm and wonderful. But I just don’t have much to say about love. However, love is a real part of life. And sometimes a novel simply demands a love story. Like, you can’t ignore it. Love and sex often intrude on life.
Which means that I not infrequently am forced to ponder: Can I make this love story work even though there are only maybe five scenes between the characters?
It definitely can be done. Look at Jane Austen. Sometimes her novels have lots of meetings between love interest and protagonist. For instance, Emma and her love interest meet on a number of occasions. But how many pages do Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy really spend together? He’s very much in the background through much of the book. And yet their love feels plausible. It almost seems like the only kind of love that could be shared between two such formal and terse characters. It’s a love that’s revealed not through words, but through actions.
And, in general, there’s a larger question here about economy of incidents. The easiest way to build intensity and show movement is to have something happen many, many times. If two people meet and exchange numbers and then go on a first date and on a second one and a third one and then it’s their one-month anniversary and etc. etc. etc., then obviously the audience will believe they’re in love. I mean, they’ll be bored, but they’ll believe it. Whereas if you sweep over all that time with a blistering narration, then it’ll move much faster, but might not be as believable.
In general, I have become a much bigger believer in doing everything as few times as possible. I don’t like to look at a novel and see, “Oh and here they have lunch again and here they discuss the previous night and here…” No. I want to be able to sit down and enumerate, in a specific way, every interaction that two characters have. For instance, I want to be able to say: “These characters have six scenes together. In the first, she kicks him in the kneecap because she thinks he’s an Islamic terrorist. In the second, she apologizes to him in the hospital. In the third, he testifies against her in the course of his civil suit for all the emotional distress and physical pain she inflicted on him…”
I think that if you break down lots of good novels (and I’m actually just making an assertion here, since I haven’t done this), you’ll see that in lots of them, there’s considerable economy of scene. Each incident is very sharp and very specific and shows measurable movement in their relationship since the previous incident.
Romantic subplots are just an example here. It’s also true for anything in the novel that requires movement: a job, a friendship, a question to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer…
I write my novels in Scrivener (I know, feel free to groan right now), which allows you to tag each scene with keywords. Lately, I’ve taken to tagging all my scenes with keywords relating to the various plots that are advanced therein. Obviously, the main plot is threaded through (almost) every scene, so there’s no point in tagging that. But all the minor ones, the friendships, the love stories, the sad and lonely declines, get their own tag. I’m hoping that when I’m done, I’ll be able to just click each tag and immediately be able to break out each subplot and see the places where it’s advanced in the novel. Hopefully, this will allow me to learn something about economy of incident. It also might just be a waste of time and an easy way to procrastinate (today I spent half an hour figuring out how to make Scrivener reset the chapter count for each new part of the novel. Yes…that wasn’t procrastination at all).
Novel-writing continues apace. It’s pretty much all I can think about, so I am going to blog about it as well. This is definitely one of the knottiest ones I’ve ever wrestled with. I got to exactly the same place (30,000 words in) where the novel failed last time. And I was about to write exactly the same chapter (like, same general place, conflict, etc) where it failed last time. And I started writing. And I was writing and writing. And I had it all plotted out in my head. And…it wasn’t working.
So I went down to the kitchen and ate some Wheat Thins and tried to figure out what was missing. And I realized, “Aha, I need to raise the stakes! Shit hasn’t gotten more real in a long time!”
So I went back and made the character start running out of money.
And then I wrote a few thousand more words. Nope. Still having that reluctance. Still having that weird unevenness in the writing and that overreliance on dialogue. This was a bit shocking, considering I’d been swimming along pretty good and had just written one of the best scenes I’ve ever written in my life.
So I lay on my bed and was all like, “Well…dammit. What do I do now?”
And then I realized that everything I’d just written (that first thirty thousand words) could be part one! And then I could just skip ahead three months (over all the boring low-stakes stuff I’d been fiddling around with) and then skip right to to the place where the stakes get higher! It’s pretty amazing. The girl gets into school in one chapter, and then in the very next chapter she gets to be on the verge of failing out. Very exciting moment! I had to spend fifteen minutes figuring out how to reconfigure my Scrivener document as what it calls a A Novel (With Parts).
And during that fifteen minutes, I had another brainstorm. Now that I’d time-skipped once, I could do it again! So I went into my outline and added a Part Three, where I get to skip ahead three whole years! And just for fun, I’m also gonna put in a fourth time-skip (right before the Denouemont).
Oh, now I remember the main point of this blog post. You know how whenever there’s a guy in a movie or TV show who can see the future, there’ll always be one point in time that’s fuzzy–beyond it he can see nothing clearly? And that’s the part where the big climactic event happens, the point where the world could either be saved or lost?
Well, writing a novel is exactly like that (for me). Generally, I can see ahead pretty flawlessly. Like, not just on a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene basis…I can usually even see what the individual beats are going to be in a scene. I mean, they’ll change (sometimes drastically) as I write towards them, but they’re usually there.
And then sometimes I can’t. And it’s not like the power fades away and gradually becomes fuzzier. It’s like, beyond a certain point, everything is vague. Forget about beats, I can no longer even see scenes. And I’ve noticed that this always happens right after a point where there’s a decision that I haven’t yet made. Oftentimes, it’s a decision that I never knew I needed to make, until I’m suddenly confronted by it
But once I make that decision, suddenly entire chapters fall into place in this cascade of images. It’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s also possible that it’s pretty amateurish and that I should be thinking way harder about what to write (just covering my ass in case I later turn my back on this post), but at the very least it’s a pretty exciting thing to have happen.
Nowadays, I’ve gotten much better at seeing the points of vagueness and preemptively answering unanswered questions (I don’t mean questions that aren’t answered for the reader. Any good novel contains many such ambiguities. I mean questions that I, the author, don’t know the answer to, even though I should). But sometimes they sneak up on you. And sometimes you see them up ahead and you can’t think of anything, so you just write towards them and hope that the solution will make itself clear.
Just remember, sometimes the solution is to write a novel in parts.
Incidentally, today I wrote for 641 minutes (10.7 hours). This is my longest writing day (by almost an hour) in the 650 days that I’ve been recording daily writing time. I also wrote 10,250 words, which is my fourth-highest-ever wordcount. The only two days that were higher were the 10 hour frenzy in which I wrote the last 14,000 words of Enter Title Here and two of the final days when I was writing This Beautiful Fever. Since I am nowhere near the ending of this one, I certainly consider this to be a pretty major accomplishment. Although, I guess I did have to cut a substantial fraction of the words that I wrote today…
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.
Something 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.
I wasn’t even going to post about it. When you finish your first novel, it’s cool because you’ve done something that’s hard to do. But when you finish your sixth, then it becomes slightly uncool because, err, when is one of these going to get published?
Right now there’s a bit of a pipeline issue for me. The novel that’s currently being shopped around by the agent is the second novel that I ever wrote. Novels three and five are adult novels, and they’re currently lying fallow (I’m not terribly excited by them). But novels four and six are both YA novels that I think are extremely good. However they can’t really go out on submission until novel two is either sold or taken out of submission.
Ideally, once novel two sells, it will become very easy to sell novels four and six. But right now it still feels a bit unreal. Since I won’t actually be able to submit this latest one for awhile, it’s almost like I am writing it for my own pleasure.
Anyway, it’s another very high-concept novel idea from me. The working title is (You Gotta)Eat Me. It’s about a young woman who used to be a pop star, but then had some very public scandals and setbacks. Now she’s trying to make a career comeback by starring in an HBO-like show that’s about a high school girl who develops a superpower (when men hear her sing, they fall in love with her). However, halfway through the filming, the pop star starts hearing a voice which tells her that the whole show is sinful and evil, so she walks off set. The whole novel takes place over the course of one day, during which the studio tries to get her back on set and she tries to shut down the whole show.
It’s super fun. And it’s my shortest-ever novel, at about sixty thousand words. Another fun thing about the young adult genre–you can actually sell a short novel.