Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Noveldoubt, the theory.

So. One of you (locked post; identify yourself if you like) was talking about writing long-form stuff, novels and great big novels and series, and asked me how to avoid getting 100 pages in and ditching the thing. That person said, "You've written lots of long things. So do you research all the little bits first? Or do you just do the general outline and dive right in? :)"

Well.

I think I have the same answer that I always have, and lately I really do mean always: that the important thing is finding your own characteristic errors and then working around those. Some people will bog down if they have to do all their research first. The momentum that comes from story will not be present until words are on the page, so the research will feel pointless and fruitless. Others will bog down if they try to write something where they don't know half the stuff they need to know to write the simplest scene, and doing research first will give them firm ground on which to stand. And that's just the most obvious pair of problems coming from that question. Writers are creative types! What this means is that we are extremely good at coming up with new and different ways to go very badly awry, once we exhaust the standard ones. Um. Go us, I guess.

I do research in strata. I come upon something -- a fact, a phrase, an image, a voice -- and that's the seed. And then I have at least a couple of paragraphs of actual fiction -- this is the part where I'm not writing the book, you remember from a few days ago? And even in a few paragraphs, you can tell sort of what kind of book it's going to be. You can smell the colors of it. You can smell the difference between far-future SF on a space station and far-future SF on a natural planet and far-future SF on a terraformed planet, much less other coarser gradations or axes orthogonal to those in voice and mood. And from that you start to see what else you need to know, and whether it's stuff you need to find out from factual sources or pull out of the nooks and crannies of your own brain or, usually, both. And as I get more information, I write more bits of fiction, pages or lines, whatever, and then I know more of what I need to think thinky thoughts about, so I do some more of that, and I am still reading stuff about Finnish history and vacuum-tube computing and spies for books that have been drafted for years now. Because I'm still revising, and because they're not published, so it's still not too late to find out more really neat stuff that might have some direct or indirect bearing on the story I've written.

A hundred pages is not as arbitrary an arbitrary number as it sounds. At a hundred pages, or a hundred fifty, you either have to know a bunch of things about what you're doing, or you've written yourself into a corner. At a hundred fifty pages, if you don't know the structure of this thing you're making, it'll often fall apart under its own weight. At a hundred fifty pages, the bits that seemed all fresh and sparkly are either already introduced. You are stuck with the now-what. You are stuck with the bits that makes this thing you're doing a novel and not a short story with exposition bloat and pointless witticisms. You've got the elements that you squealed at your friends, the ones that made your friends go, "COOL!" and made you feel like a rockin' writerbeast, if you are a squealer-to-friends. And now you realize that no matter how cool the tagline is, nobody cares if you don't make it a book. And if you have a book that sounds really cool and then sort of mopes around doing nothing and sulks into an ending of sorts, that's worse than if you never had a book to begin with, because you had a really awesome idea, and you wrecked it. You idiot. What if you can't ever fix it from here? What if this idea has all the shiny rubbed off it and no amount of polishing will ever make it shiny again? You fool. You utter moron.

This is where your stage-of-career doubts come in. Some major categories:

I have never written a novel before! Probably I can't actually write a novel. Lots of people never do. Most people, even. My friends who have written novels are probably all smarter than me, and also more talented, and also harder working, and also they have better hair/have some hair/have cleverly removed all traces of hair so that they are not vexed by the pressing questions of hair that are keeping me from novelistic brilliance, damn you haaaaaair!

I have never written a good novel before! I Nanoed my way through one, or maybe there was that time when I was in high school, but then it turned out to be crap and probably everything else I write will be, too; heaven knows that being able to stick more than 40,000 words together in sequence does not make you Hemingway, and I don't even like Hemingway, although I liked The Hemingway Hoax all right, and gee, wouldn't reading some more of Joe Haldeman's stuff be a better use of my time than finishing this novel that will probably stink up the place anyway? Of course it would. Off we go.

I have written what I am convinced is a good novel, and it hasn't sold. Welcome to my world. If the shininess that was the last book hasn't sold, this one has to be super-duper-extra-shinerific or it won't sell, either! Never mind that the publishing industry is plagued with institutional poverty and greased with extremely chilly molasses, so only two editors and a dozen agents have even had a chance to reject this book and a couple of them have not done so. Or else never mind that all the rejections were about category, not other elements of the book that are more likely to carry over into the next work. Or that they were all handwritten and extremely positive. Or whatever. The past book is written. It is good. It is submitted. People have rejected it. Fame and glory* have not come my way. Likely the same thing will happen with the next book. Quick! Come up with something even shinier! This book's main character is only a shapeshifting pirate ninja! I need a shapeshifting pirate ninja zombie who rides a unicorn that can shoot laserbeams out its horn and fly!

I have not yet experienced the stages of noveldoubt that come after you have published novels. I remain convinced that they are there, and I suspect a few of you can describe them for me.

So all that shows up when the shiny rubs off, and you have to figure out whether you have spent 100 pages discovering that there is no there there or whether you have run into the mire of noveldoubt and need to press on if you're ever going to get anywhere with this. In some ways it gets easier when you've done this before, because you can greet it when it shows up, "Hullo, noveldoubt, old thing," and you can just be glad that "noveldoubt" doesn't scan in the place of "darkness" or you'd be singing to yourself about a vision softly creeping leaving its seeds while you were sleeping and silence like a hotdish and that, like ya do.

But if you let yourself wallow in noveldoubt, you get nowhere, and you start repeating mistakes you learned not to make years ago, or else should be learning not to make right now, and so what you do is, you live with what you put down. You either tear out the bit with her mother because that's not going to work, or you go forward, fine, okay, mother thing, right, what does this mother thing actually mean? You remind yourself that writing is, for the most part, actual work, and while it beats digging ditches in some ways and trying to resuscitate dying infants in some others, it has a few drawbacks here and there. And one of them is that when you pull entire worlds out of an orifice, nobody can really tell you you've done it right until you've actually done it right.

And if you decide that the novel you were in love with last week isn't worth finishing, okay. Sometimes this is entirely correct; or at least it isn't worth finishing now. But if you decide that the novel you were in love with last week isn't worth finishing three or four times in a row -- if you have 100 pages of four or more novels on your harddrive, or else you deleted them off it to get around this decree, then maybe noveldoubt is running the show a bit too much, and it's time to deal with lack-of-shiny for awhile.

Where am I with my own novel? Page 144 and counting. It's still shiny. Stay tuned.

*Q: Wasn't there supposed to be fortune somewhere in there?
A: No. You are -- at least for the purposes of this scenario -- a writer. Fortune rarely comes into it, except in phrases like, "I've never heard a car make that noise before! That's gonna cost a fortune."
Tags: full of theories, stupid brain tricks
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