Thursday, August 2, 2012

Writing a Novel is Hard

Writing a novel, however, is the hardest thing I have ever done.  I have been a reactor operator on a submarine, earned a master’s degree in business, earned a law degree, passed the bar, and practiced law. Nothing, however, has been as difficult as writing a novel.

The first novel I completed I self-published. I was curious to see what that experience would be like, and I didn’t want to fool with trying to get an agent. Sitting on my desk in front of me now, though, is the most recent draft of my next novel. I’ve struggled with it for over two years. 

The first novel (which was really the second, as the one on my desk was started before it) I just sort of cranked out. I never intended to get a publisher, so it made me much less concerned with what they would be looking for. 

For the second novel, however, I intend to try to find an agent. For that reason, I’m much more concerned with story arc, character arc, structure, and proper form. Not only that, I always have in the back of my mind the question of what would an agent want to see, and serious doubts as to whether the novel is anything other than crap.

I hired an editor/mentor (at no small cost) which was a huge benefit. I learned a lot from her, and intend to still avail myself of her services. But she was a cruel master. I needed, valued, and took her advice (for the most part), and I needed her frank analysis. Every writer, new or experienced, needs that. But it is no way to build confidence and self-esteem.

The novel on my desk is the third draft. A few other drafts were abandoned in progress. The original version was 90,000 words. This version is 73,000 words. I wish it were more like 80,000 words, and it may yet be, but in the whole scheme of things, 73,000 is enough.

What’s the book about? Don’t laugh. Vampires. In Venice. Italy. Not really vampires, but critters known as shroud eaters. Did I really start out to write a novel about vampires? I don’t know. I started out thinking I would write a book about my experiences as an expat in Italy. Then this shroud eater thing came up. There was actually one found in a graveyard in Venice. The skeleton of a woman with a brick in her mouth, buried during the plague of 1576. During that plague they would open mass graves and find that previously buried corpses had tried to eat through their death shrouds. They thought that they were also eating the corpses of the other inhabitants of the grave, so they put a brick in its mouth to stop it. If they ate enough, they would rise from the grave as vampires. That piqued my curiosity. They really had vampires here. And Venice is a spooky place, anyway. Hence . . . .

Then I had second thoughts, based in no small part on comments from my editor. Maybe I should scrap the vampire thing. It’s beginning to be a little played. But then I wondered what the heck the story would be. I got 20,000 words into the new version, and then hit a wall. Now what? Maybe I should keep the vampires. So, back to work on the vamps. Then doubt crept in again. Back to no blood suckers. I was a deer in headlights.

I talked to my wife, who is a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Vamps or no? “If there are no vampires, then what’s your story?” she asked, cutting (as usual) right to the heart of the matter. Exactly! So, back to having vampires. And so it went, until I finally decided to keep them, finish the damn thing before I die of old age, and throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. 

This brings me to what’s so hard about writing.  First you’ve got to have a plot. Well, some idea of what the story is. All right, an idea as to how it starts, a vague notion of what happens in the middle, and some theories on how it might turn out. Then you have to have characters, know what they’re like, where they fit into the plan (to the extent that there is one) come up with some way of building conflict and tension, think of a climax, then have a way to tie it all together.

Then you start to write. They say that writing is a solitary act. It is. But you are not alone. There are demons. While you struggle to put this thing on paper, they torment you. “You can’t do it.” “No one will ever read that.” “You’re stupid.” “Your English is bad.”  “They will laugh at you.” “Quit.” “Give up.” “Have you seen the videos from agents? They are all jaded and cynical, and snotty. You want to subject yourself to that?” “They will hate you.” “Your plot sucks.”

But you can’t listen to these devils. If you are going to write, it is hard enough to come up with a story line, and put it down in a coherent form in something resembling proper English. You can’t worry about what others think. You need to have a good story and good characters. You’ve got to have tension and structure, and all that (i.e., you’ve got to know the craft). But you can’t write for everyone. Just write your story. Don’t worry about what will sell, you can never figure it out. Don’t worry about what agents look for, you have no way of telling. 

So, just put your little caboose in the chair and go to work. Cast out the demons, and write what you like. Find your own voice, and your own style. As the late Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” If you ever want to finish a novel, you can’t give a damn about what other people think.

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