The five car pile up

If you read very many writing blogs and go to workshops, you must be getting the impression that novels need a lot of stuff and some of it is rather complicated. Screw up and you may be headed to a five car pile up in your work of fiction.

To avoid this, we have a long list in our heads of what must be done. One of the most essential, to avoid that pile up on page 162, is to plan the structure of the novel, anchored by big scenes in pivotal places. I also like to write a synopsis and make it as thrilling as I can.

Both these things are very helpful. Even so, organizers like me sometimes end up lost in the novel.

I’m writing this to debunk the idea that getting lost must be avoided.

It can’t be avoided. When you undertake a novel, you embark on a fictional journey that will take you through towns you never could imagine; you will sometimes run out of gas, follow dead ends, and misunderstand the people you meet (your characters.) You will, in brief, screw up.

If you are currently writing a novel, you know what I mean. But since attitude toward our work is almost as critical as execution of the work, I’d like to share the recent issues I’ve had in the middle of writing novels. These books survived to publication. But oh, the horror.

You are not alone, my friend. And you will get past page 162 with your novel intact and your self-esteem only slightly battered.

Kay’s true confessions on screw ups

These are just a few of the things that happened to me while writing recent novels.

  • Realizing that my novel was on track to be a 100 pages short. This set in motion a long spate of frustrating analysis.
  • Finding, after finishing a draft on a complicated novel that the story could not be told without another major character.
  • Discovering, after finishing the second draft of a novel that I was straining credulity with circumstance and coincidence.
  • Listening to feedback caused me to lose my grasp on the central character (who I intended to be edgy and difficult and who, after lengthy revision, is now much nicer. And a tad boring.) Yes, I really gave it away.
  • Failing to link the plot with the subplot, I ended up with a draft of a novel broken in half.

Friends, I fixed these problems. It’s something called revision, and it can be as enjoyable as fiddling with a picture in iPhoto, or as painful as jamming toothpicks in your cheeks.

Point is, when you’re in a five car pile up, you take a deep breath and acknowledge that this is part of what happens. You take your knocks, try to enjoy the challenges of getting back on track or salvaging poor planning, and get on with it.

You are not stupid or wasting time. Writing a novel is a task of questionable merit and will eat up your free time. So as to wisdom and efficiency: Let them go. This is not the province of the novel.

Remember Randall Jarrell’s immortal words: “A novel is a prose narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.”

We’ve all been there. Every last one of us. Even, I’m betting,  John Scalzi and Naomi Novik. The process will not be seamless. The result will not be perfect. Hooray! We’re writing a novel.

Carry on. I’m rooting for you.

2 Responses

  1. Jay Noel says:

    I think it was Stephen King that compared writing a novel and archaeology. Often times, you think you’ve found a priceless treasure, but it breaks apart in your hands after digging it out.

    I guess stepping back and revising is like duct tape!

  2. Kay Kenyon says:

    We could hope a good revision is invisible, or at least does no damage on its own. Sometimes it does feel like duct tape, though, I know what you mean.

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