I used to blog here, and then I “got too busy” and quit. That’s not unusual for me. I know that ‘not un’ is a verbal construction George Orwell hated, which is a reason not to use it. On the other hand, I looked it up once, and the word for it is “litotes,” which is a word used in the Monty Python ‘Piranha Brothers’ sketch that (I think?) Michael Palin pronounced in a particularly funny way, which seems like a decent reason to use it. At this point I am sorely tempted to head to YouTube and/or my Monty Python DVD’s to look up that sketch, and this entire digression says a lot about how my mental processes are better suited to playing on the Internet than they are to writing novels.

Therefore. . .I tend to look warily at creative enterprises, like National Novel Writing Month, that require sustained attention. I’ve discovered that I’m fairly adept (“adept” for values of satisfying my own personal standards, which for the purposes of this post we’re going to pretend are the only things that matter) at creative projects that require short bursts of energy. Or, more accurately, creative projects that I can spend a couple weeks turning over in my head and then zap out over the course of a weekend, followed by a few rounds of revision over the next few days. The result is usually, “I’m pretty happy with that, and I could probably do more with it. . .” I think about the “doing more” for a couple days and then drop it and move on to something else or (more typically, lately) go for several months without writing anything, then repeat the process.

This is pretty much not at all the recipe for NaNoWriMo, which requires consistent and diligent application of effort, day after day. (This is assuming you’re not one of those people who can bang out 50,000 respectably coherent words in a week. I know they exist, and some of them even have day jobs, but my commitment to concentrated effort over a very short time doesn’t extend quite THAT far). In and of itself, this isn’t a big deal. . .NaNo is predicated on an approach that works well for some and not at all for others. I’m a believer in respecting your own process, and adapting it to what works, rather than trying to cram it into somebody else’s program. Chances are, I’m never going to be a ‘50,000 respectably coherent words in a month’ writer or even a ‘write every single day’ writer.

The greater concern for me is that I’ve got a bad track record with big/long-term projects, period, and thinking about planning for NaNo makes me grapple with some of the reasons. One of the things I wanted to do this month (and that’s why my caption is ‘running out of time’) was to sit down with some of the novels I’m familiar with — ones that I’ve read recently or that have had an impact on me — and figure out how they are put together. It’s frustrating that, as many books as I’ve read in my life, the way that they’re put together still mystifies me. I know there’s no one right way to do it (I got this from my writing professors in college — nothing can teach you how to write your novel) but clearly there are right ways to do it, ways that I’ve absorbed without noticing.

Also, I’ll admit, some of this is resentment. In my lifetime, I have read terrible novels. I have read novels written by people who are quite clearly idiots. But. These were novels. They had all the pieces they were supposed to have. They were finished. I don’t mean that these people were better writers than me because they got published; they were literally better writers than me because they could construct something that I couldn’t. Seriously, every time you hear a total idiot talking about the novel that they finished, doesn’t it bug you on some level? This is probably a terrible motivation, but it’s one I may as well confess.

Anyway. I don’t know. I like plot. I think I am, objectively, a pretty good beta reader/editor/teacher because I am pretty good at analyzing other people’s plots. I tend to read things that have plots. I sometimes worry that I read things with too much plot, because the novel idea that I have banging around in my head is one where there aren’t any dragons to kill or space pirates to fight, and I always have to pause and try to figure out what happens in books that don’t have those things. There are love stories, obviously, but I don’t particularly want to write a love story. I may also just be stubborn by keeping myself from writing the kind of stories that would be easiest to write. There’s also a not-so-bad theory that just about any novel can be a love story, or a mystery, or both, without actually being those things.

One of the things I said today while I was thinking about this is that I hate long term plotting because it makes me think about what I’m doing, and if I think about what I’m doing too much, I hate it. When I was in law school, I was supposed to write a review article, and I would say I spent, literally, an entire 40-hour week in the library looking up possible topics. From the way I was lead to understand it, everything topic that there was anything to say about had been covered (and thus was off limits) and every topic that there was nothing written wasn’t any good. I think, in retrospect, that I must have been misunderstanding the thought process that was required (I eventually wrote a paper based on a topic that a professor suggested, which I have no problem saying was a terrible paper; I spent an entire academic year on it and I never understood the point; looking back, I don’t understand how I survived that year). I realize that I’ve been going through some of the same process with fiction — if an idea is interesting to me, it’s not workable (there’s no way to make the pieces fit together; I don’t know enough about the subject; I’m not somebody who can plausible write about the subject; nobody wants to hear what I have to say about the subject; I can’t explain the idea in a way that makes it interesting to anybody else.) If an idea is workable (if I can even figure out what that is) it’s not interesting to me, or it’s hopelessly unoriginal.

I honestly meant for this to be a more constructive, or at least a more structured post. I can be really eloquent about what’s wrong with any particular story (I do think this makes me a good editor). But partly, I may just need to get the negative thoughts out before I try to do anything. . .

But as far as doing something constructive. . .what should I be doing? Part of me wants to spend the next year focusing all my energy on reading the kind of novels that I would like to write and taking notes on how they work. That part of me thinks that starting anything without knowing what I’m doing is a pointless experience (and one that I’ve had and don’t want to replicate; there are lots of beginnings on my hard drive; there’s even, to be fair, one really good ending that I’ve never been able to write up to). Do I forget all that and keep brainstorming until I get one really good idea? (Right now, I have a few ideas that I sort of like, that I probably don’t know enough about several seriously divergent topics for me to write, and that almost certainly don’t fit together). Do I focus on finding something simple and linear, with the knowledge that it’s going to get complicated no matter what I do? Do I borrow somebody else’s structure, or is that cheating? (I’m going to answer my own question and say it’s not cheating, because there’s a great Michael Chabon essay about how he stole the structure of Mysteries of Pittsburgh from The Great Gatsby and Goodbye, Columbus; I even thought, when I read that essay, about going right home and doing the same thing — but it turns out those are three books that I really really like but can hardly remember a single incident from any of them, so it might not be the best structure for me to steal. On the other hand, the most objectively successful short story I wrote in graduate school came from an exercise that asked us to, essentially, copy a Chekhov story, and nothing ever happens in a Chekhov story.)

Am I making this harder than it has to be? What do you think? (I really want to know. I like other people’s ideas, it’s just mine that I think are useless.)

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