11.08.2008

A Third of the Way There... Some Insight on Noveling

A week ago, I started down the path of writing a novel in thirty days. Prior to that, I had written several short stories, a 25K word novella, and I estimate that I've written somewhere in the realm of over 1 million words in blogs over the last three years. Suffice to say, I'm a little on the prodigiously prolific side. But I have still never entered the ultimate realm of Noveldom. I start big projects, and usually become bored or overwhelmed a few weeks into the endeavor. The reason for this is never clear; apathy is a strange and unpredictable beast. But I suspect that an idea usually dies because it just wasn't good enough to sustain itself. It's like having plans to build an ambitious fort out of a really big blanket, only to realize that you don't have enough pieces of furniture to keep the thing off the floor. Before you know it, the fort is sagging in the middle, you're running out of chairs, and only solution that seems feasible is to give it up for lost. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say "Oh I wish I could do what you're doing! I'd love to write a book! I just don't have the time!" Or they say something I used to say a few years ago when I was content just blogging my heart away on a little-read website (like this one). I used to say: "Creative fiction just isn't for me. It doesn't appeal to my strengths." Of course, in the back of my mind, even as I rolled those words off my tongue or fingertips, I could still see the image of myself pecking away at a keyboard on the "Next Great Novel." The great ship of my dream was still there. It just lacked a sail or a motor (i.e. the ambition) to leave the dock. I discovered over the last year or so that writing a long story is not nearly as cumbersome as it seems if you just approach it in terms of daily quotas. If you're writing a near-daily blog, you can write a novel. You've proven you can put words down in a coherent structure of thought. The only difference is the content. The ending isn't even fully realized for me most of the time. I have a roadmap of a situation in mind. It's written in pencil and I have a really huge eraser nearby just in case I decide to change directions. I can do that; it's my world. I create a shell of a character whose head I can easily get into. I don't really know him or her yet. It's usually just a literary hitchhiker that came to me from the ether highway. I may come to like this person, I may not. We just have to keep from killing each other until we reach the end. But the final destination is not even remotely in my sights until I'm just about there. If you have to drive from Washington to Florida, you're going to have a really disappointing trip if you can't get the palm trees out of your head as you're trudging through Idaho. Right now my daily quota is 2000 words. That's not too many, at least for me. Your quota may be only half that. Maybe 1500. Maybe it's 3000 (I did that today, in fact). Or maybe you prefer a time-based system. "I'm devoting two hours a day to writing my book." Either way, you're making a small commitment. It's like exercise, only more fun (if you are lazy like me). When you break up the work into smaller, more easily digestible pieces, it makes the prospect of writing an epic novel less intimidating. When you relax and stop thinking so much about the "omigod I have to write a big huge novel" concept and just say "I'm going to write a series of 30 little stories that, when put together, add up to a big one," the tapestry of plot and story begins to flourish. You start to see possibilities that you never could when cowering before the monolith of "The Big Idea." When you let go of your fear of the machine, you'll start to see how it works, and when you know how something works, you can figure out how to manipulate it. A plot idea that wasn't a part of your original plan may suddenly sound awesome and you say to yourself: "Well, by golly, I'm gonna dump it in there because this is my world! Nothing's permanent! I can take it out later if it doesn't work out, and no one gets hurt." On good days, when the machine's parts are well-oiled and the ideas are flowing easily, you may find you've exceeded your daily goal by a thousand words or more because you discovered a whole other nugget you wanted to write about in addition to killing off your main villain or making your two main characters get busy in the Burger King bathroom. Before you know it, you're not only putting away 2000 or 3000 (or more) words a day, you find that you have become emotionally invested in your characters. You want to see how things turn out for them, because even though you're the author of the story, you might not always see what's coming around the next bend. When a story is good, you feel not so much like you are dictating the fates of the characters under your charge. You feel more like you're riding along in the co-pilot's seat, or that you're using a special telescope to commit an act of voyeurism on people in a whole other galaxy, and you're documenting everything for the rest of the world to see. At some point along the way, you discover that you're actually having fun too. But you'll never get that true joy, that rush, that exhilaration from an idea that you "have always wanted to write, but never have the time to" unless you just start writing. You'll never get it by miring yourself in a ton of research before hand, either, or finding other ways of putting off getting your hands dirty with the nitty gritty of your prose, dialogue, and your setting. Once you get started on those things, you'll find the rest just falls into place. Wing the facts you don't know and pepper in your research with the second draft. That's okay! There is no rule that says you have to know the quickest way from midtown Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge if you want to set a story in New York City. The important thing to do is to just START! Furthermore, you have to let go of the notion that someone is reading over your shoulder, that you're wasting time, that you don't have what it takes. That's just your doubt talking. That's the part of you that says you should be spending your time doing "other things that benefit society" and that anyone who deigns to care about anything not firmly rooted in the doldrums of reality needs to "get a life." Never once do we realize that when we don't feed our souls with the food of our dreams, we become that drain on society those naysayers always complain about. If you have an idea in your head and you keep prefacing the word "write" with "I wish I could," then you should be writing! I'm reminded of a psychological theory called Facial Feedback that discusses the human tendency to actually feel certain emotions simply by wearing the corresponding facial expression. If you want to feel pissed off, frown for half an hour. If you want to lighten your mood, turn that frown upside down. It's the same with writing -- sometimes you actually have to DO it in order to believe that you can. If you want to be a writer: WRITE. The hardest part is just getting started. Just remember that every avalanche starts with a single snowflake.

7 comments:

  1. You've just outlined the way I write almost exactly, and with far more lucidity than I ever could.

    I'll drive a few readers your way for this.

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  2. Thank you! Bring em on over. I'm giving away free cookies and such. :)

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  3. I'd like some such, please. I've had too many cookies already.

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  4. ...you feel not so much like you're dictating the fates of the characters that are under your charge. You feel more like you're riding along in the adventure, or that you're using this special telescope to commit an act of voyeurism on people in a whole other galaxy, and you're documenting the event for the rest of the world to see.

    John Fowles once said that his stuff begins when he sees images as if they were on a mental film strip... just a peek, a few seconds worth.

    Me, I gotta hear a voice. Then it's just a matter of taking dictation.

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  5. Great post. I'm someone who flounders around with doubt, and stalls out thinking I can't go any farther without research, etc. The part about 'thinking about palm trees while in Idaho' really struck a chord. :D

    I'm definitly going to heed your advice about thinking only in terms of small chunks of writing time/word count. Thanks,

    Karyn

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  6. Doc -- I would definitely follow the Fowles line of thinking. The picture comes first, and the voice kicks in a little bit later. :)

    Karyn -- I'm really glad that you got something from this. I want to abolish people's doubts so they can go out there and do something great! There are too many talentless asshats getting published nowadays, which means there are too many good people who are probably not living to their potential. LOL

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