Let’s say I’m writing a novel. Heck, let’s say I’m rewriting it. And let’s say this process is taking me an ungodly long time. How long? Let’s not get bogged down in details. This is all theoretical, anyway. I’m hypothesizing for a friend.
Why, fellow unpublished novelist, might this rewrite be taking so long? There are so many reasons: kids, home, work, aging parents, democracy, volunteering in your community, etc. If you want to publish, yes, you need commitment. But you also can’t ignore the rest of your world. Throw in a few life crises, and the process of writing a novel can start to feel like it contains more chapters than the novel itself. Raising a kid? That only takes eighteen years. But a novel is forever.
So what do you do when you feel like every writer you know has finished her seven-book series while you’re still struggling with your debut (or maybe your second or third book)? First, stop beating yourself up. It’s okay. Second, recognize that this abundance of time is an opportunity, especially if you’re unpublished. If you don’t have an agent and publisher tapping their fingers on their desks, expecting you to meet a contractual deadline, then use this time to work on your craft and get that novel right. If all goes well, you may not have this kind of time in the future.
Third, be prepared. If you’re traveling the long road to finishing a book, you may run into a specific set of problems, one or more of which undoubtedly involve you questioning your own sanity. Let’s examine some of these potential anti-speed traps, and see if there’s anything we can do about them.
The gnawing plot problem
You’ve come to a tricky plot point in the middle of your manuscript, and the problem is exacerbated because you can’t give it your undivided attention. Here’s the trap: you’ll solve this problem. Then you’ll solve it again. And again. In fact, you’ll come up with so many solutions to this problem and have so much time to consider each one while you’re tending to your other obligations that you’ll decide each solution seems too contrived to be usable. If it’s not contrived, it’s too obvious, as evidenced by the fact that you thought of it. This is true even if in your literary historical novel set during the American Revolution, it occurs to you that aliens from the Vega star system could thwart the British before they capture the young Patriot by guiding said Patriot to the cache of laser-powered muskets. Duh. Anyone would see that coming.
The solution? Realize it’s possible your perspective has become skewed over time. Yes, you’ve thrown out at least fifty possible plot points. But hopefully you kept a few of the better ones in a “scraps” file somewhere, because chances are at least one of them contained a nugget of something good. Go back and find it. Better yet, stop at maybe twelve or twenty solutions and look through those. Something in there is bound to work.
The symbolism epidemic
In discussing her novel, Commonwealth, Ann Patchett said, “None of it happened, but all of it’s true.” (This immediately became one of my favorite quotes.) It’s common for novelists to figure out what they believe, what they think, even who they are through their writing. But over a period of several years, this can go too far.
If you’re a writer with too much time to think, you may experience streams of epiphanies about your manuscript. You realize, in private moments when you’re focused on other things—taking care of kids, zoning out at a work meeting—that various elements from your book actually refer to pieces of you and your life. The boyfriend is your lonely childhood. The sister’s death is your changed ambition. The zombies’ temporary victory is that fear that gnaws at you constantly that climate change will steal the world from your great-grandchildren, and you’ve never admitted that to yourself before. Darn, now you must confront that not just in your manuscript, but in real life, too.
As the epiphanies mount, so does your fear that your characters will drown in these moments of real-world clarity. But wait a little longer. These epiphanies should eventually—and mercifully—trail off. The protagonist who keeps interrupting your sleep to explain how her mental breakdown is a representation of your psyche after you lost a job, a girlfriend and a dog all in a month will sooner or later finish with you and turn back to the story you’re writing. Then you can return to manipulating her instead of the other way around.
The “my character has moved on” problem
Your poor characters. You tortured them emotionally, mentally, maybe even physically. You lived with them for a year or more, felt their pain, internalized their sorrow. Their tears were your tears, their few successes your happiness. All their emotions, which you channeled, are reflected in the first draft of your book. It’s how you knew you were on to something good.
But years later, you’re still revising, and guess what? Everybody’s moved on. No one stays enraged forever. Devastation eventually turns into acceptance; despair into action. Your characters recover, which is good, because they live in your brain space, and you don’t want to feel those crushing emotions for too long. But the problem is that part of your revision includes writing new material, and you need to feel those characters’ emotional states again in order to write new chapters that will be just as true as the ones you wrote before. How can you feel properly devastated again?
In case you’re wondering, this is why non-writers think we’re twisted. Seek out whatever external stimuli you can to recall the searing emotions necessary for whatever you need to write or rewrite. What did you rely on in earlier drafts? Music? Play those songs again. Reading memoirs? Go back to passages you highlighted. Did you interview people in your characters’ professions, buy a scarf that your character never took off, go to a park where a scene took place and snap photos? Did a particular aroma rise from a cherished recipe? Bring out anything you can, do whatever you need to do to accompany your characters back to the key places in their lives. Then, with closed eyes if necessary, write or revise the appropriate portion of your book.
The “a real writer would be done by now” problem
Ah, self-doubt. Where would we be without it?
If your kid was born when the idea for your manuscript was and now you’re sorting through college acceptances, it’s hard not to blame yourself. And maybe it’s true: maybe you’re not that dedicated to your book, or maybe this book wasn’t the right one for you to write. Maybe you do have the attention span of a tadpole. I don’t know you. (Probably.) But consider that there may be other factors at play. Life can develop in stages, and maybe this stage isn’t your best for setting aside the daily hours of writing you need to dedicate to finishing this manuscript. That’s frustrating, but it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re defective or not a writer.
I’m saying this twice because it’s that important: Stop beating yourself up. Write when you can. Look for openings in time where you can create writing space. Keep notebooks everywhere and jot down ideas, patches of dialogue, bits of narrative. Write and publish some smaller stuff both for the experience and to build some confidence. Know that difficult times won’t last forever. If you’re writing anything, you’re writing, and your book will still be there when you’re ready.
Spoiler: This isn’t a hypothetical. The current section of my work-in-progress is entirely new, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I’m writing it mostly on scraps of notebook paper that I keep in the car, on the coffee table, in the shower, next to my side of the bed and in a baggie in my purse. I’ve used the white space on a Band-Aid wrapper when nothing else was around. My manuscript is taking me longer to complete than I had hoped, but I’m getting it done.
And no matter how long it takes you, you can get your novel written, too.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!