Narcolepsy and the pressures of writing
National Novel Writing Month is underway, with over 60,000 brave souls attempting to write a semblance of a 50,000 word tome in 30 days. Most just wanna have fun; some really do want to get published. And CAAF (who’s back after a long hiatus, yay!) is throwing her hat into the ring:
I’m excited even though it’s a slightly insane proposition. A little sheepish, too, I don’t know why. I guess there’s an element to it that feels akin to being really into motorcycles because of some steppenwolfeian ideal that You Ride Alone, and then you join a gang and tool around every weekend Riding Alone with 20 other people, with a saddlebag on the back of your bike big enough to carry a tv, a filtration system, and a couple changes of clothes. (No offense meant to NaNoWriMo and fellow participants who don’t carry similar I Ride Alone baggage.).
However, I see this as an opportunity to conquer one of my main challenges as a novelist: rampant narcolepsy. This affliction, relatively new, has been dogging me the past couple months; the book keeps making me fall asleep. During my little blog sabbatical, I was going through it and realized that most of it has to be chucked because it’s all wrong and would cause rampant narcolepsy in anyone who isn’t my mom. The voice isn’t right except in a couple patches. And I was coming at everything from the wrong direction, but now I see the right direction, and that may be enough to keep me awake long enough to finish the thing.
It’s hard to put into words what was wrong with the book without going into specifics, which I’m weirdly superstitious about disclosing, but basically it was like the story was wearing all its insides on the outside. Or the back end on the front end. It doesn’t feel like time wasted exactly. There were things I wrote so I’d know them, but the reader, I realized, shouldn’t have to slog through it with me.
Oh man, can I ever relate to this. Next week (I think — I’m not exactly sure, which probably speaks volumes) marks the first anniversary of working on the novel, something which I foolishly believed would be completed months ago. The first draft was, in any case, and I put it aside for a while so I could look at it with fresher eyes. When I did so at the beginning of the summer, I had the same problem as Carrie — most of the book made me want to start snoring because it just didn’t go anywhere. So out went an entire storyline, out went about the first 6-8 pages of every chapter (a problem I’ve written about before) and while I’m happier, it’s proven to be a much slower process. Because I constantly ask myself the very question Carrie did: how much do I have to impart to the reader? Is this scene really necessary? And these questions bleed into my short-story writing, which explains why I had to chop 3000 words of backstory from one I just completed — backstory that may hold up as better writing, but was ultimately choking the story’s flow.
But being an unpublished novelist, I have the luxury of time at my disposal to fix whatever needs fixing. As soon as a contract is signed and a writer has a deadline, it’s all the more important to get things right the first time. I was at the NY Chapter of MWA’s monthly event at the National Arts Club last night and talked a little bit about this topic with Michele Martinez. Her first book, MOST WANTED, took 2 and a half years, but the next (THE FINISHING SCHOOL, out in January) took ten months because it was under contract to be delivered at a certain date, and she admitted that the constraints of time changed the way she approached the book — mostly to do with having a firmer idea of how to structure the story and know where it was supposed to go. Essentially, she couldn’t afford to go in the wrong direction because she would lose too much time she’d never get back.
But many writers, newbies or veterans, take a wrong turn they can’t get back. I thought it was pretty gutsy for Thomas Perry to admit that he’d written a book that was essentially unpublishable in between DEAD AIM (2003) and NIGHTLIFE, due out in March, instead of foisting it upon the world just because of a contract. William Landay, who wrote one of the best debuts in 2003 with MISSION FLATS, did the same thing, which is especially risky because the second novel is so critical, and people have short memories in publishing. But if that misstep leads to a better book — and THE STRANGLER (scheduled for next fall), which is set in 1960s Boston, sure sounds like it will be — then forgotten memories will fall away immediately.
So although I’m tempted to close with a pat "writing never gets easier" I’d rather get more specific in turning the floor over: when did you know you were going in the wrong direction with a story or book and how did you fix it? How did you do those things when you were on deadline? And when did you finally decide that something you worked on for ages — even with a due date looming — just wasn’t good enough?