I started a novel a few weeks ago. I was convinced everything was fine until I read the thing sequentially. That’s when I realized I had a problem. The problem wasn’t that the writing was poor. Sometimes that is the problem and when it is the best thing to do is chuck it. The problem, I quickly realized was with the story. My issues with storytelling are usually scope and flow. I’m a fine writer I just need to elaborate and expand on things at times. This is what I call systemic compartmentalization. When I write prose I’m putting together only the things that come to mind immediately when I’m writing. I leave out details because I don’t think of them at the time I’m writing not because I don’t think they’re important.
For instance, today I wrote a scene that takes place at this huge lake country mansion. I don’t describe the house all that much. Part of the reason for that is that the main character isn’t inside yet. Now, that’s more of an excuse than anything else. I could describe the damn house and get it over with. Sometimes you need your writing to be inspired though. Scratch that. You always need your writing to be inspired. If you’re writing things that are devoid of passion then you’re not really writing.
I know that if I write the three hundred or so words that I understand in my head as being crucial to the plot and development of my novel then I’ve done all I can as far as that goes. But, my work with this particular part of the chapter isn’t done yet. I haven’t described the people, the place, or the things for that matter. You might be wondering: well, what did you do? I laid out the action, the dialogue, and the thinking of the main character. That’s what’s most important to me when I’m laying the foundation for a chapter. All the menial stuff comes after that.
So, later today or tomorrow or whenever I get around to it I will describe the house. I will describe what the characters look like, how they act, and what that all means. I’m compartmentalizing the writing so that I can do the writing I need to do when I get there. I can’t do everything at once. As an artist that’s kind of how you think about things sometimes at least when it comes to a project. I know I think about things and tell myself: you can’t just do a part of this, you need to finish the job. What I don’t tell myself is that writing what I don’t understand distracts from the writing I do understand. In short, there is virtue to procrastinating. By putting off the things you don’t know you allow yourself to develop the ideas you do know.
Back to the novel I was working on a few weeks ago. Something wasn’t working with the plot line and story development. I knew this because the story I was telling and the story that was being told were not the same thing. This is what my mentor would say is the story not matching the synopsis. I hate the synopsis though. I hate that thing with a passion. What I don’t tell her is that I can’t for the life of me write the synopsis until I’m at least halfway done with the book. I’m a developmental writer. I always have been and thinking big picture detracts from how I think about my novel.
I think everyone needs to have what I like to call an Admiral Stockdale moment in the writing process. Admiral Stockdale was Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1996 Presidential election. Stockdale’s opening remarks in the Vice-Presidential debate were: “Who am I? How did I get here?” What a beautiful moment in debate history. No introduction will ever top that one. The guy genuinely looked confused. As writers though we need to ask ourselves that often hilarious question, but in a somewhat serious way.
Who am I? As a writer, who are you? What are you about?
As a writer, I’m an essayist at heart. I write short stories in an essay format that are often humorous and sometimes devoid of a point. I write these essays because as a writer I am an observer of life and I really do enjoy nothing more than describing an experience that I’ve had so that a reader can have something new to think about. That’s all I’m giving the reader sometimes: something to think about. And you know what? That’s okay. But, when I’m writing a novel that’s often not okay and it’s important to recognize that. The things that inform your regular writing aka what you write that doesn’t make you nervous are the things you need to look out for when you’re writing stuff that does make you nervous.
The second question in Admiral Stockdale’s remark is tougher to flesh out. How did I get here? What I think of when I hear this phrase is the opening from the Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime.” If you’ve seen the new Tom Hanks movie, Hologram for a King then you know the best part of the movie is the opening five minutes when he’s going through his dream sequence version of that song. It’s hilarious. I would venture that the opening five minutes of that film are the only five minutes worth watching, but I’ll let you be the judge.
How do we get anywhere in life? We don’t usually get anywhere worth going by following a pre-ordained path created by others. We make our own path. How did I get here in the grand scheme of my book? Well, I forgot what energized me about the story. When my stories fall apart it’s generally because I’ve lost sight of what I’m trying to do. That’s why I am where I am. I’m not complaining though because let me tell you something: I’m 20,000 words stronger because I got through that part of my writing. Do I have to chuck a large part of it? Probably most of it? Yeah. Is it a total loss? Of course not. Anytime you write that’s a net positive even if it’s horrible and you have to throw it out.
So where am I now? I’m re-writing my novel. Am I happy about it? Yeah, actually I am. Once I got rid of the sting of loss aversion that comes with having to disregard something I’ve written it’s actually a liberating feeling knowing that I can start again with a clean slate. See, I’m not bound to what I’ve written simply because I wrote it. I think we put these shackles on ourselves when we start a work. No one said that just because you started something you need to finish it.
There’s this line of thought that says the only way to fail is to not finish something. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes failure is getting so caught up in something that you can’t stop yourself from going down a path of ruin for you. Believe me, I’ve written three novels. One of them is readable. You can follow the path to a place that isn’t worth going, but with experience you’ll figure out what that path looks like and you’ll know when to get off of it.