I had plans for this long, semi-instructive post about writing a novel. A how-to, in ways that might be contrarian to others out there. (While keeping in mind of course, the usual caveats about YMMV, this is what works for me and may not work for you, etc.)
But I kept falling into pitfalls–or places where my brain would stop working, in trying to put forth some kind of prescriptions (and even if they weren’t called prescriptions, they were certainly assertions). I think I need to throw that out the window now. There are certain things that worked for me in writing Total Oblivion, More or Less, and certain things that do not. Talking about those in a nuts and bolts kind of way, however, I think would elide away from certain aspects of novel-writing itself that need to be paid attention to more.
And sometimes I fear the rush to crank things out deflects attention to what a novel’s use is now–I think it’s a vital form, but for every novel it’s worth asking: why? What is it about the novel that does work?
It was much, much harder for me to switch from short story writing to novel writing than it was from poetry to short story writing (and, oddly enough, the one poetry project I’ve been working on the last 2 years has been this 150+ page behemoth of a poem). My thinking about the world radically changed while writing this novel. It’s given me space to put a world inside, and to, perhaps, report a little bit about it.
No matter how much you write, though, and how much world building, it will never be enough. In the first draft of Total Oblivion I deliberately avoided world-building–the family was going down the river, and certain things were happening to them involving all sorts of catastrophes, but I wanted to keep the POV right there with the characters. They didn’t understand most of what was happening to them (Scythians taking over the upper Midwest, e.g.) and I didn’t want to either. I owed my characters that, at least. In the 2nd and (now) 3rd draft I added some sections that were of a much broader, omniscient perspective, alternative between the characters’ past lives when everything was “normal” and larger sociopolitical issues dealing with the altered landscape (literally and figuratively) of the Mississippi river region and beyond. But that came later. Those briding sections became a way to make the world fuller, but it can never be full.
Similarly, there’s little you can do as a novelist, while writing a novel, in terms of some kind of public persona. Sure you can talk about past works. You can read snippets at a reading (though those will by definition be incomplete). But for how many years you’re in the middle of the novel, it’s going to be like:
Q: So what are you working on?
A: Oh, a novel.
Q: What’s it about?
And yeah, you can try to give some kind of clever synopsis, an “X meets Y” kind of angle (and god knows I’m in love with those!), but it’s not going to be enough. It’s not like a poem that you can write in one afternoon and post on your blog, or a short story you can crank out in a week and start submitting. There is always the serial model that Dickens and other novelists have used throughout the years, but In terms of scale it’s something much thornier, and, yes, scarier–because even after years and years you can still fail at the novel, miserably and spectacularly.
And you have to live with that. (By “you” I mean “me” or “I,” of course.) Any novel is an act of courage–and it gives us, in our ordinary lives, a project of sustained courage. (Not to be confused with political or ethical courage, btw, although a novel can sometimes fulfill that as well.)
This is the precarious, existential handhold. However, this novel writing process is pretty much antithetical to the way novels are packaged and marketed. Marketing novels is anything, most times, except courageous. It’s fine–and it’s good to think every once in awhile about how people will think about a novel. Pretending that the marketing component doesn’t exist (that BEA doesn’t exist, eek) is only, in the end, fetishizing the market through its forced absence.
But thinking of marketing every once in awhile doesn’t mean using market forces as a substitute for that courage. Because it’s pretty much the most important quality that you as a person–never mind as a writer–can possibly hold inside yourself. I really believe that. It can spill out into other aspects of one’s life in unexpected ways.
Certainly there are aspects of craft that are important, and tricks that you can play on yourself to keep writing (god knows I needed those!). But in the end, a novel is a BDO (Big Dumb Object, to use SF’nal parlance) and, if the cards are played right, dwarfs craft and trickery. The scale of a novel is that of a supercollider/atom smasher. It’s daunting. It’s supposed to be daunting and difficult. And not only does it have to work–like an atom-smasher–it also has to look pretty. So it has to have an aesthetically pleasing structure and great landscaping and everything. It’s the whole deal: a supercollider where you’d want to get married or have a big party, or send a postcard of which to send to your grandmother.
So, right. Very daunting. Rather than finding the most expedient tools to blow through a novel and solve it, there are opportunities for a writer to find a process that is just dysfunctional enough, but not too dysfunctional. The process should be like a QWERTY keyboard (“Frequently used pairs of letters were separated in an attempt to stop the typebars from intertwining and becoming stuck, thus forcing the typist to manually unstick the typebars and also frequently blotting the document”.) These dysfunctional tools are one-of-a-kind for each novel. It’s a design issue and an engineering issue. The soul of both.
This takes awhile. In the new novel I’m trying to write (put on hold for a bit while I finish revisions), I’m trying to use a wiki on my laptop, which is…interesting. It’s not a very well organized wiki. I also have a little notebook with flower prints on the pages, and I leave little notes for myself regarding the characters on those pages too, along the curvatures of the flower drawings. My characters are pretty nasty but try to be kind. I have no idea where they’re coming from, and don’t know if I ever will. I have the design for this novel but not the engineering yet. Not quite ready to split atoms yet!
All of this is over the map, as my blog posts usually are. I’ll end with pointing you all to Meghan’s post from awhile back about Slow Writing.
Keep writing as if you life depends on it.