How I went about abandoning my last novel

            On March 25th, I did not plan to spend any part of the month of June on producing new work. As I wrote in my March 26th post, I planned to spend it revising my last novel. I’d finally gotten around to reading through it, and discovered that it was better than I thought it was…and maybe there could someday be some merit to it. Even if I hadn’t discovered that, I was determined to rewrite the damn thing. Moving on to the next novel without revising and submitting the last one feels like an avoidance behavior. It’s just a more advanced, and sadder, version of abandoning a work in progress in order to chase a shinier, more exciting idea (that will, perhaps, be in turn abandoned once the shine is gone).

Nonetheless, I was feeling distinctly unexcited about it. During my reading, I’d started to detect some structural problems in the novel that I was starting to think might require fairly significant revisions. But what was even more troubling was that I had started to suspect that the novel might just be deeply confusing. While, conceptually, it was clear in my mind…it was a very complicated concept, and in order for the novel to have even a chance at success, the concept had to be clear in the reader’s mind within the first 10,000 words. I didn’t think that was the case, and I wasn’t sure how to make it be the case.

Then, sometime on the night of the 25th, my car was broken into (around here we call that “an Oakland parking ticket”). Nothing major was stolen, but the window was smashed. I wanted it fixed as soon as possible so I woke up at 7 AM to take it to Le Auto Glass (an amazing Oakland institution). I normally go to bed at like 3 AM, and the broken car window (my first one ever) had disquieted me so much that I don’t think I fully fell asleep that night.

So after my car got fixed, I was understandably kind of tired and dazed. I had something to do that afternoon, and I knew that after it got done there was no way I was going to do any writing, so I decided to pack in some writing right then.

After some futzing around, I wrote 700 words of what I recognized as another treatment of a concept I’d discussed over AIM about a year ago. I’d tried to make a go of it as a short story before and had realized: a) it was really novel; and b) the way I was doing it was not only a little boring, it also had the potential to be sort of creepy (in a bad way).

The new approach solved the second problem and I was really excited about writing the short story. But that afternoon I realized it was really a novel, so I kind of tabled it.

But over the next few days, I kept thinking about this novel. It seemed shiny and fun. But how could I spend another eighteen months on something without seeing through to the end the last thing I’d tried to do?

I went camping that weekend (god it was cold on that trip. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that cold). Anyway, on this trip, after a lot of thinking (and a lot of watching Oakland hippies play with fire and devour sixteen freshly caught crabs bare-handed in front of a distinctly tepid bonfire) I decided that if I did take another trip to rodeo, then I needed to avoid the mistakes I’d made the first time. First, I’m primarily (at this point) a short-story writer, so the structure of my long-form work kind of sucks. Short stories are all a huge amount of front-loading and set-up, followed by a big bang. When I try to write (or even think about) a novel, it ends up being an interminable series of bangs. Second, I wanted to write a novel that was dead-simple conceptually (my short stories often tend to be a little high concept and confusing too).

And I also started to think, “You know what the real problem is here? That whole eighteen months thing. If it didn’t take eighteen months to draft that’d be fine. If I just spent a month doing it, and made sure to get right the things I’d gotten wrong before, then it’d be a fun exercise, and it’d teach me a lot.”

So when I got back, I set forth the ground rules. I’d start when I woke up and I’d write 4,000 words a day. Generally I only write out on about two out of three days, and I expected this to be no different. I was going to aim for 70,000 words since I had the fantasy that this would be a YA novel and also because 70,000 words is a lot shorter than a hundred thousand words and shorter is less work. So in a month I’d hopefully have twenty 4,000 days, thus giving me enough room to finish even if the novel ballooned a bit.

Now, this all sounds pretty blasé, but it was actually kind of a big undertaking for me. As my sidebar shows, I really, really love charts. Also, before May 30th, I’d only exceeded 4,000 words twice, and all those times were ages ago. That’s because beginning writers often find it easier to hit high wordcounts than more experienced ones, Susan Sontag told me that. Okay it was in an essay she wrote. And what she wrote was:

 “I have never had what, it seems to me, most writers have – a sense of mastery. For unlike, say, the art of the surgeon, that of the writer does not, through years of practicing it, become less difficult. It doesn’t get easier. Surprisingly, it gets harder.…The permission given to the self to be expressive steadily, unremittingly as a vocation, feels as if it could be withdrawn at any time.”

Given the numbers I’ve put up in the past, I thought there was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it. I read Catherynne Valente’s “How To Write A Novel in 30 Days”* over and over (her blog is best writer blog that I read), and kept swearing to myself that I was going to do it…that I wasn’t going to fail on this. I made a huge black background for my screen that said:

            I’d intended to start on June 1st. But on May 31st, I was at a loss for what I was supposed to be doing with myself…so I started early. I had a 100 word outline: three sentences detailing what was going to happen at the end of Acts One, Two, Three. By 6 PM, I’d written 4300 words (already making it my 5th highest day ever). I decided to break my personal best, and restarted at 8 PM, finishing up with 8600 words by midnight. That night I could barely sleep. I calculated and recalculated in my mind when I could finish if I wrote 8000 words a day, every day. I could write this thing in ten days (still being overly conservative about how much and for how long I could draft).

*The confusing thing about this blog entry is that Valente makes it sound like writing a novel in 30 days is the most grueling thing imaginable…but don’t like 30,000 a year people do it for NaNoWriMo? I mean, it’s hard, but it doesn’t seem to necessarily involve becoming the antisocial wreck that Valente describes. Well, if you read the comments, you’ll see that Valente actually wrote her first novel (55k words) in ten days, and that nowadays she often revises the novel within that one month too. That sounds grueling as shit. What I did definitely involved neglecting everything in my life (I have a pretty flexible work schedule, so I just cleared five work days). Except my laundry. I did do my laundry.

Next: Quadrupling Your Writing Speed For Ten Dollars

5 Comments on “How I went about abandoning my last novel

  1. I don’t find hitting high wordcounts all that hard when I’m in the right mindset. But that means I need a half-decent outline, at least a sense of “roughly this, then roughly this, then somewhat that” (what I call “bracketing” because I outline a story by sticking a bunch of square-bracketed sentences on a page, then writing the story itself {sans-brackets} underneath them), and I need to be comfortable, uninterrupted, and have that sense of, “stop being a romantic and write it.” I haven’t really hit a point where I maintain that attitude all the time, though. The last two weeks, I was scraping a few hundred words together for all sorts of random, “shiny” new projects each day, but never getting anything done. But since Monday I’ve been “on” and written three entire short stories, something like 20,000 words I think.

    The muses, perhaps, are carried on tides of brain chemicals.

    Your series is exciting me terribly. Sorry to fan-boy, but I can’t wait for tomorrow’s installment. And thanks for the link, too, because I’m going to check that out.

    • Yay, I am glad to like it. It will get so much more navel-gazing than this, but I kind of feel that the time to write about any sort of writing-related epiphany-type thing is right after it happens, because eventually you’ll internalize it so thoroughly that you’ll have very little to say about it.

      Glad to hear that you’ve written 20,000 words in a week. That seems so intense to me.

      I went through alot of different kinds of outlining. Like I used to have big outlines filled with all kinds of setting / science details. I also would have plot outlines. I’d outline at the top of the page. I would sometimes write things out of order until they coalesced. And sometimes I would write things out of order and then have to go back and assemble them into order. And I would also use brackets too to to just write [scene where the thing I need to happen happens] and then move on to the part I could actually visualize.

      I’ve had friends who do something like what you do, too, where the outline gradually turns into the story. I think that’s really cool, and I kind of want to try it sometime. The way I picture it is, like, writing ten sentences that tell the story from beginning to end, and then each sentence becomes a paragraph, and then each paragraph becomes a scene, and so on….

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