How Getting “Serious” Killed my Novel

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I tore open my journals from six months ago when I started working on my current novel the other day. I wanted to know what I had been thinking about when I started writing the book. I was interested in figuring out what had changed so seismically in tone and mood from when I was writing seven months ago that got killed when I started writing a month later. The answer as it turns out was that I was no longer interested in making my stories funny. Comedy is what makes my writing worth reading. I started as a satirist. That’s where my sweet spot is. I decided with this last book that for whatever reason I couldn’t be funny. I thought it was the genre, but really it was a bad reaction to my first novel.

Being told you’re not as good as you think you are sucks. It is necessary however to get grounded when you’re disillusioned as to your own greatness. Sometimes you need to get punched in the gut so you remember that you still have a body and aren’t immortal. We all like to think we’re destined for greatness, but few of us actually are. I was stunned after editing my first novel to realize that it wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it was. I started giving weight to the criticism that my main character was in fact an asshole. What was worse was that I didn’t understand why people had such a hard time rooting for an asshole. I know lots of assholes in life that I root for. Why was my character any different? As it turns out my character wasn’t all that compelling. The story told in an almost stream of consciousness style doesn’t make all that much sense because it constantly moves back and forth. My takeaway from this was a subconscious decision to avoid comedy because that was what my first book had been.

When I looked back on the book though the comedy was hit or miss. The book itself wasn’t terribly well thought out. It was because I didn’t learn the lessons I needed to learn from the first novel that I repeated many of them in my second novel only worse because this time the story didn’t have the redeeming factor of being funny at times. My easy to read style was passive and though at times compelling not a barnburner. Sometimes we visualize the end result before we get there and then we think that because we’ve seen the end result everything is going to line up the way we want it to. This is why some people argue against visualizing that end result to begin with. I don’t agree with these people. I think visualizing successful outcomes is integral to achieving those outcomes. The naysayers argue that by visualizing the end goal we trick our mind into experiencing the bliss of successfully completing the work without actually finishing the work. Now, like anything, there is some truth in this. You may very well rush through parts of what you’re working on so you can reach that end result that you believe you’ve already attained. If you’re disciplined though you know the difference between doing work and doing good work. Yes, there is a difference. My average prose may be better than average compared to the average writer, but it’s still average for me. In short, I’m not going to get excited about my average prose though someone else might.

Hard as we may try we cannot avoid the trap of comparison. I still compare myself to other writers. I know I shouldn’t, but when I feel bad about myself I’ll say to myself that someone else is better than me and I’ll never get to that level when in reality I just need to put in the work operating at that higher level in order to get better. It doesn’t seem terribly difficult to understand, yet in practice moving out of your comfort zone, getting “inspired” as some say is the toughest thing to do. It’s especially hard to get inspired when you don’t feel good about yourself. When you put a bad draft forward because you’ve convinced yourself it’s good dealing with that criticism is tough. I tend to couch that criticism by saying that it’s better than the competition and by writing better than my competition I’ll always come out ahead. That’s not true. As long as I’m not putting my best writing forward I’m not achieving what I want to achieve.

As artists it’s so easy to wallow in our own self-pity and it’s easy to say that we’re not moving forward when in reality we are. I’ve realized that the most important lesson I’ve learned is the last one I learned. I always think the last thing I realized is the most important and this makes sense because it’s freshest in my mind. That doesn’t necessarily make it true, but it does clarify a problem that affects a lot of my writing. Consistency is the toughest thing to produce and once you’ve produced it you want to reproduce it all the time. This is why we build habits. This is why some of us get superstitious. This is why we ignore the obvious in favor of the novel and this is why we fail in simple endeavors when we tell ourselves we should be succeeding because we’re thinking more complexly. See how ridiculous that line of thinking is?

We think we should be able to achieve the simple because we’re thinking about things in a more complex manner. I wrote in my journal three times and underlined it three times the word: “simplify.” I have some complex ideas and they’re great ideas, but sometimes they’re so complex that I’m the only one who understands them. That’s a problem. I could put together the most beautifully complex idea in the world and it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t explain it simply. In my world, it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t explain it in a funny manner or with an anecdote that made me laugh. That’s my style and I chose to ignore it because it wasn’t giving me the results I wanted. Shame on me for forgetting why I do what I do. Here’s hoping that you realize what you’re good at before you make these mistakes as well.

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