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The mess of the novel.

As I wade into the waters–of my next novel–I am struck once again at how little I know. How do I begin this marathon?  How much information is needed right here? Is this supporting cast sufficient? Is the tension getting on the page, or is it only in my head? Does this new concept fly or falter?

I must confess I do not know. And, mind you, I’m writing my twelfth novel.

It’s not as though I’m unprepared. I have an impressive notebook chock full of planning. I wrote a great synopsis that tells me at least one version of the story really works. I have character sketches and key scenes creating a classic structure. I have a killer title.

But the proof is on the page, not in the planning. And here I encounter frustrations, revisions, re-thinking and . . . doubt. Can I do this again?

My husband tells me I go through this every time. The story is a lump of sodden clay in my hands. I am on page 75 and I wonder if I can make it to 375. It’s a long way to go, and the characters are pulling in different directions, and I can’t tell if it’s even interesting. Im stymied by plot and character questions.

Yet I go on.

This is the great secret, I think, of writing the novel. One goes on. We go on despite doubt, because we can never be certain we’ve nailed it. Because the story will never be perfect. The process of writing is terribly murky, despite notebooks, lists and sketches. It is, at times, an unholy mess. To be a novelist it is best if we can sink into that mess without fear or at least without panic. If we’ve done this before, we know that the mess is a natural part of writing. That the story will go through strengthening revisions. And the only way to get to revising is to get a draft down on paper. Therefore we must go on.

Randall Jarrell said the definition of a novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it. I love that quote because it gives me permission to make mistakes.

My novel doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to have a clear forward writing process. It will be a mess. A beloved, balky child.

And each child is different. No matter how many you have.


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