Saturday, October 07, 2006

Road Bump

So you want to know what that “road bump” I mentioned here is all about?

Several months into my current novel, I have come to realize that I can't write it. It's too complicated for me given my nascent novel-writing skills.

Now, doesn't that explanation sound up-front and professional? Maybe I should be a little more direct about it. How about this: I overshot my skills, and it sucks like nobody's business. In fact, I've been off-and-on miserable for months.

Since this blog is partly about “the synaptic anatomy of a struggling writer”, I'll let you in on some of the inner workings of a writer who wonders sometimes what the hell he got himself into.

(By the way, if I hadn't already developed a plan to solve my problem on my own, I wouldn't be posting this information, so take it as an interesting set of experiences.)

Here's a selection from my personal journal, which, like this blog, is solely devoted to discussing my work:
“I think it's time to move on. I can't get this story started the right way. I can't figure out what's wrong with it. I'm buried in questions, and I'm buried in even more answers. Which ones do I choose? What's the matter? God, I wish I new!

It's too conceptual for me, too touchy-feely, too emotionally complex, not concrete enough. It needs a simpler plot, like one of those guns and bombs novels. It needs fewer emotional denouements, more crashing cars. It needs a “thing plot” not a “thought plot”.

But you thought you had plot. It was beautiful. Glorious. Original. Moving.

Oh, yes! Plot, plot, plot! More like plodding.

“The seagull appears in the fog...blah, blah, blah.” Jesus Christ!—no, a story about Jesus Christ would be much more interesting. This story feels more like: "Nice Joe Smith and his pet mutt go to the beach for a pleasant vacation. Joe gets a sunburn, his mutt swallows a crab and nearly chokes to death, but overall they have a good time."

Will somebody please wake me up from this nightmare?

No, Toiler, that's your job. Wake your own damn self up. Get your own act together. What the hell good can come from your plan if you aren't getting a damn thing done that's worth doing. Snap out of it! Repeat after me: Get something done! Get something done! Get something done!"

This entry continues along the same depressing vein for a bit, but I think you get the general idea. It was dated August 22, 2006. Yes, I've been developing ulcers for going on two months now. Of course, what writer hasn't ever felt that way? This is nothing new. Just ask any serious writer, artist, or intellectual anywhere. Even so, it's gut-wrenching when it's happening to you.

So I was sweating bullets one day in my office when I looked up at my shelf and — God have mercy! — I see a book entitled How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. This little book is currently one of the hot sellers among "how to" guides. I don't know why I hadn't read it yet. Maybe I thought I didn't need it. If so, I was wrong.

As you may gather from the book's title, it is aimed at teaching the practical nuts and bolts of writing basic genre fiction, not high literature. Frey breaks a novel down into a set of rules, and he does so in simple terms using straightforward examples. It's a remarkable little book in that regard. His advice reminds me of the still lifes and musical scales that were discussed in this thread. He makes writing novels sound easy.

Well, in fact, it ought to be much easier than I'm making it out to be. And that, I believe, is the root of my problem. I'm once again trying to run — nay, leap into outer space! — before I really know how to walk, by which I mean, before I really know, know, know how to walk — and that kind of knowing can only come from learning, learning, learning, then doing, doing, doing, and then repeating, repeating, repeating!

The last thing I should attempt right now is an emotionally complex novel. If I'm going to write a novel, it ought to be another simple melodrama — a James Frey novel — then another simple melodrama after that, and then another. Like playing musical scales, I won't come to know how to write a novel merely by slogging through one once (which I have). I must become an expert at each level of writing before I move on to the next.

Isn't that what a real skill is after all? It's not just a point-in-time discovery; it's a continual state of acting by means of both automated and conscious effort — mostly automated. It's a state that can only be achieved through practice.

I see now why Frey and several other editors and writers, including the authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King), counsel young authors to avoid serious literature altogether. Unless a new writer is a budding genius, then there is no other logical place for him to start than by writing the very simplest tales (and perhaps even if he is a budding genius).

In my defense, I do in fact know how to write literary short stories. That I seem to have figured out well enough. But I don't want to write short stories. I want to write novels.

"No problem," someone may say, "just write a very long short story." Not so! Short stories are to novels what cookies are to wedding cakes — totally different ingredients, totally different recipe, totally different methods all around. No one would ever claim that a wedding cake is just a great, big cookie. Likewise, those who only ever write short stories generally know precious little about how to write novels.

I do still believe that my current project is profound and wonderful. I have no doubt that a better writer could make magic with it. It has all the potential to be the next Chocolat (the movie, not the book). In fact, several days ago I extemporaneously narrated the opening scene to my partner. He put down whatever he was doing at the time, walked over, and sat down in front of me, never taking his eyes off of mine, and his eyes were wide with fascination. He was hooked — hooked well! I know there's magic in this story — but I'm not Gandalf yet.

This is also part of my problem. When I peruse my stack of ideas for stories, I see that most of the best ones are literary. In other words, I have a mind that is able to imagine stories that I can't yet write. Coach Toiler says, "Pace yourself!" But it's not that easy. Knowing what makes a story difficult to write is not obvious to a beginner, at least not to this one.

So there you have it: a big, ugly road bump. But it's not the end of the road. It's not even a crash in the road, though it feels like one right now. It's just a big bump, and maybe I hit my head on the ceiling and got a bruise. It'll heal. Pick up that pen and keep moving forward.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will have earned the skills that I need to tell this wonderful, lyrical story of mine. Until then, it's back to writing about guns and bombs.

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