Thursday, January 15, 2009

Let's Get Lost

One of the reasons I love writing novels (as opposed to writing short stories, which I merely like) is that there's so much room to spread out. You can walk into a novel, take off your hat and gloves and coat and leave them lying around on the furniture. You can spill food on the floor and leave it there. You can just make yourself a big mess and live in it for a couple of years.

I'm a tidy person, by nature: I like to keep my desk clean and the floor free of obstructions. I like to plan out tasks and execute them on schedule. But (as I've posted here before), the older I get, the less I like to plan out a novel. Short stories lend themselves better to my fastidious side; I find that they need to be almost perfect right off the bat, or I can't make them work. They have to be some kind of miraculous magic trick, or feat of physical dexterity, like sinking a three-pointer or making a perfect omelette.

A novel, though: you can stumble upon something and just go at it like a madman for a couple of days. In the novel I'm trying to write (I can't call it "my book" until I hit 75 pages or so; anything less, and it's just hubris), I recently found myself describing a character's job at great length--a good page and a half's worth. It doesn't really have anything to do with anything, and who knows if it will stick. But wow, what a blast. It's the most fun I've had writing in months. This is what it's all about--getting up in the morning and having no idea what you're going to be doing, then ending up describing the expression on a man's face as he peers out of a passing pickup truck, or the way an overweight hotel manager pushes himself up out of a swivelchair, or the way a CEO with a terminally ill child gossips about her employees.

The problem of course is confidence: confidence that any of it is worth it. If you have some distant goal in mind, maybe you can convince yourself that everything is relevant, even when you know it isn't. But without the goal, the excursions into the mess of the unknown just feel like so much pointless nonsense.

When it's on, though, it feels great. Getting lost, wandering around, finding your way back. Here's hoping it's on more often than not, for you, in 2009.


Matt said...

Nicely said, re: short story vs. novel. If I can't get a short story done in one sitting (revisions not withstanding) then the chances of it being "worthy" diminish exponentially. I've been working on a 3-pager satire piece for three years now. I take it out from time to time, dust it off, and try to make it what I originally thought it would be, but it's hard when you're not in that initial "zone".

And you're right, novels - as comfy and inventive as they can be - require a lot more faith for the amount of work the author puts in.

E. said...

Man, I really needed to read this today. My novel writing comes lately in fits and starts -- mostly fits -- and I get so busy pretending to write (making notes, looking up some obscure math equation my main character would know, imagining scenes without actually writing them) that I look up and days have passed without a single paragraph hitting the page. I become paralyzed with the enormity of the project, and need to remember it's that very enormity that makes it fun.

Like life? Yes, I believe so.

And, yeah, the short story: whip it up in a pot, simmer, add pepper and sherry, taste, and if making it superb means running to the market for anchovy paste, InSinkErate the whole thing.

zachary cole said...

See, this is interesting--in this case I'm Bizarro Matt. So far I've only written short stories (excluding a moronic, yet pretty gusty, novel outline I wrote in 8th grade, which involved an older man with health issues and his son's plan to take over his middle school.)

And for me, it's never been a "done in one" deal. In fact, the few times I have finished a story (or even the large chunk of one story) in one sitting it's always unusable, no matter no "right" it felt at the time.

The only stories that pan out are the ones that I spend weeks working (and stalling) on. Also, they never "wow" me at first-- it's always some vague notion of a great scene, somewhere down the line, that keeps me going.

Anonymous said...

bizarromatt, I have made you an avatar:

I'll admit there have been a few times that I've managed to write a story like a novel--slowly and discursively. But they're the exception. I wonder if, were I to make you all read five stories and pick the two labored ones, you could do it...

Anonymous said...

The only time I used an outline for a novel, it never got finished. In fact it hardly got off the ground. As for confidence--I think that's key. The doubts are killers. But the doubts are mostly based, I find, on worries about what other people will think. Getting back to the love of what the work is usually blows off those worries.

Belgium said...

Wow, I so much agree with everything you wrote. I'm a third-year MFA candidate who for years has written nothing but short stories. The Monday before New Year's Day, I started writing what I thought would be another short story when I made a few wandering turns through the material and-- wham bam-- realized what I was writing was actually a novel.

And it's so much fun! I'm lost in this world where I can suddenly ramble on about anything and tackle multiple issues/characters at once.

After writing stories for so long, I wonder if was suffering from something like a crisis of vision-- not being able to see "big pictures." Or maybe in the interest of pre-emptively tidying up structure, I just wasn't allowing myself to wander out onto sidebars.

So far, I've written 53 pages-- vastly exceeding by far my usual productivity rates. But what gets me is just how much fun I'm having doing it!

zachary cole said...

JRL: Dude, I can totally sell that jpeg on Ebay! ;)

And about guessing man hours put into stories-- I'd just prefer not to know. For instance, right now I'm reading "Beautiful Children". I'm enjoying myself so far, but every page or so I wonder "Hmm, when did he write this?" since I know it took the author over a decade to complete.

Matt said...

The blue/cyan look really completes my style.