I am writing a novel.
Well, no, that is incorrect. I am “writing” one novel while mired in a sordid and illustrious affair with this other novel that I am actually writing.
I’m try to figure out where the hell I want my relationship with the first novel to go.
If we should, you know, stay together.
(It has no idea the other novel even exists.)
I am an authorial adulterer. I am committed to the first novel because someone gave me money to write it. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, specifically. I sent them a sample chapter that was basically the only content I had for the novel, and with it a summary of where I thought the plot was going that, mere seconds after I mailed the grant application to SCBWI, I binned. But then I received the runner-up prize in the contemporary novel category. I thought: holy shit. I thought: holy shit I can buy a laptop. I thought: holy shit I can buy a laptop and maybe actually finish this damn novel.
I could be a writer.
I dove right in, and banged out fifty pages in a week. People were giving me money to write? And not for a finished book, but a work-in-progress? I was convinced I was ahead of the game—in it to win it, etc. An avalanche of delusions crashed over me: I was going to finish this damn novel, edit the shit out of it, get an agent after one query, get published, buy a house for my wife and myself with a huge-ass kitchen in it and a Dahl-esque writing cabin in the backyard, have fourteen babies all named after Austen characters, get a Welsh Corgi, and damn it all if John Green wasn’t going to be my best friend.
Then I read my work.
I cringed. It was tripe—crowded with too many characters and weak dialogue; episodic as opposed to driven; saturated with the kind of expository lines you might hear at a slam poetry open mic night; passive verbs; illogical scenes; weird pacing.
It was unreadable.
I edited, I tweaked, I condensed, but after a few months I realized I was simply rearranging the unfinished manuscript.
I hadn’t written anything new.
I slipped the manuscript into a drawer, not defeated, but “needing a break.” I had other projects that needed editing, works-in-progress that I could fine-tune and submit to agents. But honestly, I just wanted to work on something different.
I was starting to stray.
I poured myself into another novel, knowing the one in the drawer was always there, safe, waiting for me. And after a year of tweaking, re-tweaking, re-re-tweaking, killing off characters only to resurrect them and give them another chance, adding fifty-pages of content to flesh out a budding romance, I finally finished this second novel, and have begun submitting it to agents. The reception and feedback has been great—about 50% of agents request the full manuscript, and while all 100% of these agents have passed, many of them have given me positive feedback and encouraged me to keep submitting.
And I will. And I am. But submitting isn’t the only thing a writer should be doing, right?
So I dredged up the ol’ novel and began hacking away at it. 20 pages became 50. 50 pages became 100. I was in it again—this was like a whole new relationship! Characters that were gray before shined anew. Scenes were snipped and replaced with plot-driving action and character development. Mysteries were sowed, and their questions began to sprout and unfurl. I knew what I wanted to happen, when it should happen, how it should end…
…until I didn’t.
Writers conflate belief in their work with belief in themselves. We are what we write. “Write what you know” is, to me, the piecemeal method of pinning yourself to the page. Even if that page has gibbering beagles and more explosions than a Michael Bay wet dream. I believe I can write this novel, I believe in myself, I believe in the work, until I don’t believe in myself, I don’t believe in the novel, I don’t believe the work is worth the work.
I began to feel trapped again. I got caught up in a scene and still haven’t figured my way out of it—should these characters make out? What about the mom passed out in the living room? SHOULD THERE BE BOOBS? I didn’t know. Scenes I’d plotted down the line I suddenly began to question—I mean, agent so-and-so said “coming out” novels were passé, so should I still write that part where this character comes out mid-tuba concerto? I didn’t know. I was in a cube made out of windows suspended over a bridge. I could see everywhere; I couldn’t go anywhere.
I didn’t know.
Months went by. My manuscript and I barely talked. Sometimes I would tack a few paragraphs onto it, but it just wasn’t the same. I questioned everything, I knew nothing.
Then my friend Jamie reached out to me to kindle a writing partnership. I thought: hell yeah. I had this crazy ass idea for an absurd sci-fi novel spinning around in my brain and, you know, I thought maybe writing that would loosen up my writer’s block and let me work on the original manuscript.
It’s not working.
Of course it’s not working.
I’m writing 2 pages in it for every 10 I write in this new novel. And those 2 pages are hard. And I don’t mean the “writing is hard” kind of hard. I mean the kind of hard where you keep smiling as someone flicks their finger against your teeth.
I am caught between a project that I love, and a project that I love to write. I am committed to finishing one novel, but the other one gets me, and has explosions, and world-building, and hope. I am in love with two novels, and because of that, neither is getting the attention they deserve.
Writing is an open form of creation. Our supplies are only as finite as language itself/the memory on our devices/the pens and paper we possess. Sometimes you need to step away from your work and doodle a picture or write a haiku or outline this insane novella titled “POP” about a guy delivering balloons to a girl for her birthday during the zombie apocalypse.
But finishing a novel is about commitment. The entire time I thought working on another novel would help me with this one novel, I had the right idea but the wrong mister/mistress. I didn’t need another novel: I needed Jamie telling me to stfu and write the novel.
Basically, I needed professional help.
I read a lot of writing blogs and advice from other writers, and, “Stfu and write the novel” is the best writing advice I’ve ever come across. Or, to be more eloquent: give your work the time it needs and your work will give you the story you want. I needed to realize this for myself, and I needed to realize too that I need people giving me feedback and interacting with my work for me to figure out my work.
I’m going to finish this science fiction novel. And when it’s done, I’m going to open that drawer, pull that novel out, and I’m not going to give it a good hard review. I’m going to stfu, and I’m going to write. Nothing will stop me from finishing the other one. Not explosions, not balloons, not zombies.
Not even a friend request from John Green.
Well, probably not.