More accurately, I’ve almost finally gone and done it. Specifically, I’ve completed an almost-readable draft of a novel. This is something I have wanted to do since my mid-twenties, and seriously began to try to do in my thirties. Do the math, but I’m kind of old to be a first novelist, although not the oldest, to be sure.
So, why did it take so long? There was nothing external to overcome, no life problems that any other writer might face. No, the problem was in me–let’s call it a partial writer’s block–but that is a simple term for a rather complex process.
My big hang-up was the plot. I couldn’t seem to make one, not 60-80,000 words worth. Short stories? Sure. As long as it’s short enough that I don’t have to outline.
At novel length, you get into the details. Novel length allows for subplots, all of which affect all the other main and subplots. It can feel overwhelming. Characters have a lot of time to develop. I cannot seem to develop them in an outline. I can’t get to know them well enough without making them play the entire scene.
An outline happens at a distance from me. Conversations are muffled…more than that, I can’t hear them at all; it’s as if I’m being forced to lip-read. The setting is like a 1950’s B movie; the scenery is obviously a sheet hanging behind the actors, and the spaceship is just as obviously a cardboard model being dangled by a string. An outline should be like a map, a scaled-down representation of reality, the reality being the novel. The main guideposts–highways, rivers, cities, and towns–are left in, and the small and unimportant things are left out, but you can get from point A to point B, from the beginning to the end.
I tend to get confused as to what is important, and what is not. I make bad plot maps. I set off on my journey with my characters, and halfway through, we are totally lost. I have no idea why I began this in the first place. The outline seems stupid, I can muster no feeling for it. I have tried force-marching my characters along anyway, but have ended with something I hate, that makes no sense, that is unreadable, that feels utterly generic.
I need to see my characters in action in order for them to pop into full dimensional color and sound. This means I usually undergo a series of drafts in which my characters say pointless, flat stuff, and walk into walls. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a mess of unmotivated actions and idiot dialogue. In a short story this is okay. I throw the mess down on a table and look at it, as a whole. You can do that with thirty pages, pretty easily. No matter how bad it is, no matter how hopeless it seems, I can, usually, find some part or parts in the crippled narrative that rings true, that bears some relation to my original inspiration. I keep that, and throw away the rest. At that point, I’ll have a revelation or two regarding characters, plot, and often in particular, the ending. I then rewrite it, and throw away less the next time. The third draft is usually readable; the fifth, submittable for publication.
Doing the same at novel length is daunting, because I can’t keep all the people, places, and events in my head the way I can a short story length. Yes, I know novelists keep big massive files for all the details. I’ve tried that. But I can’t decide the details of my universe until I’ve actually written it. It starts to come out all false. Everything a writer is supposed to do to finish that crucial draft–make an outline, keep copious notes–I cannot seem to do.
But this time, I finished the draft. How?
My tale is science fiction, set about eighty years in the future, in an artificial habitat near the moon. That much I came up with about sixteen years ago. That, for the most part, was where it stopped. About five years ago, I realized the habitat, although quite large, created a “closed room” situation, which suggested, strongly, that my tale should take the form of a murder mystery.
I enjoy mysteries, and I’ve read enough of them to know the formula. Oh, I couldn’t stand up and give a chalkboard lecture on the subject, but I realized it was a form I knew intuitively. To be certain, I pulled a few mysteries off my shelf to deconstruct. I could not bring myself to write an outline of my story, but I did write a twenty page synopsis. Even that was horrible, because although I knew the relationships between the main characters (and therefore discovered pretty quickly who the murderer had to be), I did not know (for instance) the cause or means of death. It was enough, however, to start writing.
My first draft (although that is a generous term for it) was about two hundred pages. My second, still not readable, was three hundred-ish. My third, the almost readable one just completed, is four hundred. The final third still doesn’t make much sense, but it gets me where I’m going.
I wonder if it’s a variation of dyslexia, this inability of mine to deal with outlines. I don’t like pie charts or spreadsheets much either. I react to them the way some people react to spiders. I recoil and cover my mouth. My heart starts to race. I have an urge to flee.
It is possible getting through plotting a novel once will allow me to get through it in the future. I hope so, as I have a short list of novel ideas I’d like to try. Or it may be the key is merely accepting my process. Perhaps, the more I try to use the dreaded outline, the more trouble I’ll cause myself. Perhaps I need to trust my own method.