On Writing, and Starting Fresh

I finished the final draft of my first “proper novel” (a phrase which here means “something I didn’t hate”) back in March. Although I’m really happy with it, for various reasons I’ve decided to stop querying it and concentrate instead on writing a new novel. Which… I’ve found… is a lot easier said than done.

Writing Proper Novel was kind of like being possessed. (Not that I ever have been possessed, cough cough whistle whistle, but I feel I’ve read enough fiction to know pretty well what it might be like.) Point being, the protagonist jumped into my head when I was only sixteen, immediately inserted herself as a side character in the (terrible) novel I was writing at the time, and refused to stop appearing in things until I wrote a novel about her. Which I eventually did. And now, I think, she’s finally happy, because she hasn’t shoved her way into anything ever since.

I don’t think this is an experience I’m going to get to have again—or at least it’s not one that I can make happen. The trouble is that in the two new novels I’ve started (I’ve been calling them “Thing One” and “Thing Two” in my head, because that’s what they are right now: things), it’s been absurdly hard to forge a compass without a fully-formed, Athena-style main character leading the way. I’ve got the basics of my new characters, and I know enough about them that I hope they’re fairly three-dimensional, but they aren’t alive in quite the same way that Proper Novel’s protagonist was. Which, I realize, might be a function of the fact that these novels are, you know, babies, and you have to spend a lot of time with a baby before you can see it grow into a person.

But still. It’s hard not to feel like I’ve failed on some level, that if my brain can create a fully-developed character out of nowhere once, it should be able to do it again, and whenever I need it to.

The thing that I’ve had to force myself to realize is that not only is every book going to be wildly different, but the process of completing it will be different, too. In every other author interview I’ve read, the interviewees say something along the lines of “you can’t learn to write a book; you have to learn to write this book.” And they are right. And I need to remember that.

When I started Thing One, I told myself that the important thing was to plot it out in as much detail as possible, a strategy I’ve tried before but have never quite mastered, because at the beginning of a story, my brain seems to work more in terms of blurry mental images and bullet points than detailed plotting grids. But I ignored what I knew about my process and spent a long time filling out charts, writing character profiles, doing world-building. And then, when it actually came time to actually start writing, I hit a wall.

“I get the feeling you’re trying to prove something to yourself,” said my friend Ana. “Like you don’t think you’re going to be able to write another book like Proper Novel unless you prepare like crazy.”

Which was, I had to admit, accurate.

So I’ve taken a wide step back, deleted the bulk of Thing One, and started Thing Two over from the beginning. Neither story is longer than 2,000 words at the moment. But both are at places where I feel like I can make the stories grow, as long as I’m not too hard on myself and I let my instincts lead rather than my fears about bad writing and screwing it up. Whenever I start to take my writing so seriously that I think about being Rumpelstiltskin and smashing my feet through the floor, I stop, and I make a cup of tea, and I take a walk, and I come back when I feel excited about writing again. I’ve ditched the plotting grids for now, and I’m beginning to love my main characters. My faith that I’ll someday write “THE END” on Things One and Two is slowly coming back.

To me, starting a new novel feels like traveling along in a rickety little golf cart on a particularly bumpy golf course. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re constantly stopping the cart to look behind yourself and see how much distance you’ve made. Equally, going as fast as you can and ricocheting off the bumps in the road is only going to end in disaster. You’ve got to keep a balance, move along at a sensible speed, and be willing to turn around if it turns out you’ve been going the wrong way. Most importantly, it’s not going to do you any good if you keep comparing your jouncy little golf cart to a Ferrari. (I suppose this metaphor really only works if you imagine that golf carts can evolve, Pokémon-style, into Ferraris after you’ve driven them long enough. But who knows. Don’t discount the possibilities of modern engineering.)

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