Trying a novel: If at first I don’t succeed…

Anna_Brassey_438-victorian-woman-writing-jornalA couple of years ago, I made an attempt at starting a novel. Not the first I’d started, but this time I was determined that I would keep on and actually finish a completed manuscript. I was resolute. I was ready.

It never happened.

So after several months of complete writer’s block, during which time I’ve started and abandoned several short stories, I’ve decided to give it another try. I’ve got part of a novel that I workshopped a couple of years ago, and which I think I can finished. Maybe. Perhaps.

The first thing that I realized was that I had a dozen or more versions of the beginning, and several stray bit and pieces from later in the story. Before I could write, I needed to at least isolate which segments I wanted to use. I needed also to track the characters and the culture. And I finally realized why some people used writing software such as Scrivener.

So I’ve spent the last two days going through the Scrivener tutorial, finding the versions of the first chapters that I want to keep, and entering all my characters into a list. What I hope is that I’m not doing all this as busywork to justify the fact that I’m not actually, you know, writing. Or to justify the fact that I’m not querying for more freelance work, or getting several phone calls a day from publications eager to hire me as an editor. That I’m really doing this as a preparation to finish at least one goddamn novel.

We’ll see.

Trying a novel: Watching a deadline float by

While I’m not usually the kind of person who does things at the absolute last stay-up-until-4 a.m. minute, I have to admit that I usually work well with deadlines. They give me a goal and an endpoint. They keep me on track. And, for the most part, I usually make them.

Fresco from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum
Credit: Carole Raddato

So it pains me to admit that I didn’t make this one.

I had a deadline of today — Thursday — to have a reasonable chunk of novel ready for the Starry Coast workshop that I’ll be attending next month. The idea is that each person attending the workshop should have a manuscript (or, at least, a reasonable piece of it) ready so that two of the other attendees can have enough time to read and critique it.

Three weeks ago, I thought: I can do this. I’ll work hard, I’ll push through, and I’ll get at least 50,000 words in a reasonable condition so that I can send it in.

Two weeks ago, I thought: Well, maybe I’ll settle for 30,000 words. In decent shape.

One week ago, I thought: Yeah, right. I’ve got about 30,000 words, but there’s no way I’m going to show this to anybody. Decent shape? Yeah, tell me another one.

The problem is that I — like many writers, I think — am extremely critical of my own work. And while I have approximately what I think of as a beginning of a piece of work, as soon as I started reading it over I saw that it was barely a beginning — certainly not anything I’d want anybody else to read. The characters aren’t well laid out; the dialogue is awkward; the environments aren’t well described or thought out…

This, I thought, is not enough. The people reading this first draft should at least have some idea what the storyline is. I don’t mind hard critiques — I’ve spent my life attending a variety of classes and writers groups — but I visualized instead a puzzled silence. As in, “Um — who are these people and what is going on here, anyway?”

I started editing and rewriting — and realized a couple of days ago that I just wasn’t going to make it. It was just going too slowly. So I found myself typing out a pitiful plea to the two people who are going to critique my work, asking for at least a weekend to do another edit.

They, generous souls that they are, said that there was no problem. So deadline’s passed, and I’m going to try to make the secondary deadline and at least get the first 30,000 words out — in a reasonably coherent form.

And I’m also going to keep hoping that this will all be worth it, and for the first time in my life, I’ll finally be able to finish a single story that is over 5,000 words.

Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

I just realized something about this novel that I’m supposedly writing.

I need an outline.

A woman writesThis evening, I went to the Word bookstore in Brooklyn to hear N.K. Jemisin read from her latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book of her new Broken Earth trilogy. The reading was wonderful (not surprisingly; since she is high on my list of the best specfic writers around today), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But what struck me was something that was said during the Q&A session, when Nora mentioned that she had started with one outline and eventually realized she needed to drastically change it. All the long-form writers in the room nodded knowingly.

And I thought to myself, “Oh, hell. I need an outline, don’t I?”

Now, you have to understand that I’ve never worked with an outline before. When I write a short story, I usually do one of two things: I either start writing and wait to find out where it’s going to take me, or I start with an ending in mind and build the story to reach that ending. Very often, the story that develops has little to do with what I started with — but if I’m satisfied with it, that’s fine.

Now, however, I’ve realized that I may have been doing the whole novel-writing thing all wrong. I’ve been approaching it as if it’s a short story: Begin at the beginning with a general idea of where it’s going and then start writing. If I hit a wall, move to a different part of the story and write that, and then see how (or if) I can connect the two.

But that won’t work in the long form. For example, if I create a character in the third chapter that will disappear until the 15th chapter, I’d better damn well track what that character’s name is and what they’ve been doing in the meantime. And there’s the whole world-building thing; if I’ve established a society that’s just discovered the combustable engine, I can’t have somebody pull out a smartphone four chapters later. And by the way — if characters change by the end of the novel, shouldn’t I figure out how and why?

In fact, it may be a good idea to have a vague idea of where I intend to end up — especially if I’m going to have a workshop full of writers reading (and critiquing) it.

So, despite my increasing desperation about getting this thing actually done — or, rather, getting enough of it done — I’m going to have to take at least an evening or two and make myself an outline; some kind of textual map of where I’m going with this. I may end up going totally off that map, but at least I can pretend I have some idea what I’m doing.