I am grinding out sentences on my ninth novel as if it were school homework. I’ve been working on Chapter Six since the middle of September, six weeks, and I estimate I have another two weeks to go on it. My previous novels were drafted at warp speed, often a thousand words a day, for weeks on end. Those days are gone.
I dread “going to work” in the morning, just as I did when I was a mid-level manager in a large corporation. I drink the coffee, grit my teeth, lower my head, and do the job, one molecule at a time. Any distraction is welcome. Why has the joy gone out of this project?
One excuse is interruption to the flow. I’ve been virtually commuting between Tucson and Los Angeles all summer to deal with family matters. I can’t write “on the road.” Some people can – ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Not me. I carry my laptop but I don’t open it. I can hardly think at all during these dizzying and stressful trips. And during the inter-trip calm, like this one, I struggle to rediscover the groove, if there ever was one.
Another reason for the feeling of slog might be the nature of this project, which is my first novel set in a historical period, around 1900 in America. That means plenty of interruptions for research as I go repeatedly into “dirigible mode,” a research diversion where one thing leads to another and you come out in an unexpected place. It was named by a friend: “You go online to look up a simple reference and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” I enjoy dirigible mode but it doesn’t add sentences to the novel. It’s unproductive.
And the truth is, another factor may be mild depression. I have not been able to get an agent interested in either of my previous two novels. Whine, whine. I understand the probabilities. By chance, you have to hit the right person at the moment when he or she happens to be buying what you’re selling, and is in a receptive mood. After the obvious parameters have been applied, making that match is a a numbers game. My query letters are good, my projects are complete, my writing is competent, my concepts are original, my pitches are focused.
But apparently, what I have to offer is not obviously marketable right now and there’s not much I can do about that. That’s the depressing part. Every rejection is a poison dart, of course, but worse is the absence of rejection, silence. There’s nothing more defeating than giving your best shot and being ignored. Alas, it is a common complaint of the unpublished writer, and one simply soldiers on, but that doesn’t make it fun. On the plus side, I did recently win a national story contest, had a nonfiction paper accepted for a conference, and I did manage to sell another story to an online magazine. One takes small victories where they lie.
Excuses aside, what is the real problem with the current novel? This is not a case of writer’s block, a disease I have never suffered. I bubble with ideas. I have a structurally sound, multiple-page outline of the whole project with crunch-points and turning tables well annotated. I also have thirteen thousand words I am happy with. So the fact of the matter is, I am getting it done and the output is good. The trouble is, I am not having fun. Maybe that’s okay. As writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”
I think the basic problem is that I am moving into new territory which requires me to change my expectations and attitudes and that is not easy and not fun. For anyone, ever. I am stretching and it hurts. This is my first entirely character-driven project. The other novels have featured strong characters and voices, but they were fundamentally driven by the plot line. This one isn’t. It’s supposed to be an examination of the human condition through the medium of the characters, no more, no less.
It took me several years to kick the habit of writing plots that were little more than pure kinetic action with characters surfing atop the waves. Those were fun but I wanted to more, so I migrated deeper into character motivation and emotion and cut way back on the gunfights and car chases. The results were good, though tended toward didactic talking heads, which was less than good but still not bad.
In this project, I have turned my back on physical bias and thrown all pretense of “message” over the side. This is all about my people, the characters. It took me over half a million words to get that other stuff out of my system. With this project, I’m trying to go straight, clean and sober.
And maybe that’s why I’m not having as much fun. I’m suffering withdrawal.
It’s really difficult to design each scene’s purpose and subtle movements without the cheap thrill of a wide-screen, technicolor, kinetic vision of what’s supposed to be. I’m working an old-time pipe organ in a cavernous church, pulling and pushing stops, adjusting registers, listening to the sound, but confined to the console in front of me. Everything must be manufactured anew as I call for each new pitch and timbre. And I’m molting as I do it.
I think I’ll have to throw in the odd action scene at some point. Not a big cartoony one. There certainly will be no drugs, guns, or counterfeit money, alas. But I could have a car crash or a heart attack. Some sex at least. As for the theme, I hope that seeps from the pores. I do have a logline. I always write that as part of the outline. Whether or not it will show through is something to be determined after the final curtain.
So I will continue the slog, trying to finish Chapter Six before my next trip on Tuesday. All I’m trying to accomplish is to get MC hooked up with his romantic interest. It’s not that big a deal. But there are so many constraints on how he can do it. He’s embedded in a context, in a life, in a community. It can’t be just a pickup at a bar. It has to be organic. I know what I need to do, but not exactly how to accomplish it.
I am sorely tempted to take a break from this project and start another I have in mind involving a televangelist committing financial fraud. But that would be falling off the wagon, wouldn’t it? I will try to stay the course until all my feathers have fallen out.