On Trying to Finish a Novel

NaNoWriMo 2012 I have to say, it feels different this time. The project I’m working on is the novel I first started playing around with when I was 13ish (all copies of that first version have been destroyed tyvm) because if I’m going to finish something it would be symbolic for it to be my actual first novel, and I’m all about the symbolism.

Characters, setting, conflict. I had all these. My problem was always, always, always plot. Once the dilemma was introduced, how do I get the characters out of it? It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas. It was that I couldn’t decide which direction to go. All choices felt contrived. That was always the place where I stopped.

But several things have transpired since the last time I tried to finish this novel.

+ I’ve finished five half-marathons. Yadayadayada, lessons learned from long-distance running. I won’t bore you. But I think this has made a difference in how I approach novel-writing.

+ My life imploded. In the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons, I’ll just say I think this has been good for my writing. As Garrison Keillor once said, “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material.”

+ I read The Art of Dramatic Writing and had this epiphany:

I debated over which thread to put this in (daily writing thread? this month’s AB thread? Art of Creative Writing thread?), but I was pretty sure I’d mentioned My Biggest Problem with Novel Writing somewhere here before, and so I searched for that and aha!

Beaver wrote:
Thought the 2nd: I have a similar problem (I think) with novels wherein I cycle through various ideas for endings, but can never settle on one b/c each choice feels too arbitrary. (am I forcing it? is this the ‘right’ ending?)

Well, thanks to Bellman, I’ve been reading The Art of Dramatic Writing and in one sentence (one! sentence!) on page 106 Lajos Egri has solved My Biggest Problem:

“The premise is a tyrant who permits you to go only one way — the way of absolute proof.”

Problem. Slayed. cough cough thud

So, now that My Biggest Problem has been solved, I need to work on my premises! Thanks, Bellman Smile

+ I figured out my personality type, which it turns out, is one of the rarer ones. This discovery was kind of like when someone who has an identified illness finally puts a name to their disease. There’s a sense of relief: “Oh, so that’s why…”  It doesn’t change anything, but somehow it helps to know that there’s a reason why I react differently than other people in various situations. I’m not just ‘doing it wrong’ (as I was always led to believe).

That got me thinking about my characters and their personality types and how different personalities would react when presented with a dilemma. So it was helpful on that level, in terms of figuring out whether a particular character would make choice X or choice Y. But it was also helpful in understanding myself and the major source of my writing frustrations, which is my desire for order/sense/logic conflicting with the way my brain jumps all over the place when I’m thinking about something.

+ I started using Scrivener. This month, when I sat down to work on my novel, I knew I didn’t want to start in the place where I’d always started before, rewrite the same scenes I’d written twenty-seven times before. I wanted to finish, and finishing meant moving forward. I thought about the Etgar Keret tip to “always start from the middle” and decided to make that my motto. I picked an arbitrary point to start the first day, and then, without really thinking about it, I just started writing random scenes because, with Scrivener, I could do that—without the project becoming an unwieldy mess. In other words, I could write non-linearly and still maintain order (= INTP happiness).

So if, during the day, I’m running through a particular scene in my head, instead of saying (as I would in the past), “ok, I know this happens sometime in the future, but I can’t write that yet, I have to get there first,” and then sitting down and trying to write whatever it is comes next, I’ve been sitting down and writing whatever it is I’ve been thinking about. Later I’ll organize these scenes, smooth out all the rough edges, fill in the gaps. But for now, I’m learning to work with my brain rather than fighting it. Thank you, Scrivener.

And as I said, it feels different. The characters are making decisions that feel right, not arbitrary. I’ve already resolved several issues that had long flummoxed me.  I murdered some of my darlings. That includes some character names and the title. It needs a new one. As yogis say: let go of that which does not serve you—or in this case, the story.

I’m not worried about not reaching 50k by November 30. Another thing that feels different: this time, I feel like I’m going to make it to THE END.

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One thought on “On Trying to Finish a Novel

  1. kingmidget

    I’ve often thought that my biggest roadblock is my need to write the story in order. As I struggle with the writing of The Irrepairable Past, I keep thinking I should skip to the pieces I’m more confident of. I think it’s time to give it a try.
    Congrats on you knocking down some of the walls on your novel. I hope I get to read it one day.

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