Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 6
In which thompsonted, author of The Land of Steady Habits, answers your questions about writing, publishing, and making good work. Have a question? Ask away.
Anonymous asked: As an aspiring novelist, I often have ideas that I think would make great books and then I write 30 pages and find that there’s nothing more to tell. Is this something you’ve ever struggled with? Have you abandoned ideas that haven’t gelled? How far into the first draft of your book did you know that it was going to be a novel?
This is an interesting question, so thank you for asking it, whoever you are. I suppose it’s easiest for me to answer the last part first, which is to say that I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I was many iterations into it. The truth is that I had purposely kept myself in the dark about that fact, mostly because I had somehow at a young age gotten it in my mind that novels, especially first novels, had to be Grand Statements About Society, or at the very least a stage on which to announce my talent. I had written my way into a few of these projects and I doubt it’s surprising to hear that they were grandiose and terrible. But still this was my deep, private, unspoken vision for myself, that I wouldn’t just “write a novel” but would come thundering onto the cultural landscape like Godzilla, with a book—whatever it was about didn’t really matter—that allowed me to transcend my polite, everyday, innocuous self and tower above the public in a way that caused them to marvel. Novel writing for me was synonymous with a young man’s desire to be seen, the place I had poured all of my need for recognition.
Whereas a short story, a simple, light-hearted twenty pages, didn’t carry any of that baggage. It was, most importantly, private. How it would be perceived was less important for me than the pleasure of articulation, of finding words for the many tiny movements of my internal life, which at that time was plagued with self-consciousness and aching with ambition, so that in the course of my day I felt every minute slight or gesture of approval as either a crushing failure or soaring triumph, an exhausting experience that I tried to carry without letting any of it on. Anyway, that short story then became a forum for expressing this over-reactive internal life, for using narrative to somehow communicate all that was for me in my day-to-day life incommunicable. In those pages, unlike in just about every other place in my social world, every gesture and phrase didn’t have to be directed toward the end goal of being loved, and thus the more complex (which I know is often just code for “unpleasant”) feelings could find expression.
I realize that’s a little wishy-washy and also might sound like I’m advocating for something that sounds suspiciously like the emotional barf of confessional writing, but all of it is to say that before this particular project (and if I’m honest, during most of my time in graduate school) there was no such thing to my mind as writing for myself. When I sat down to work it was all directed toward the imaginary perceptions of others. But in this project, which I kept hidden and refused to put up for critique in workshop, I had been able to silence that impulse long enough to begin to understand what was beautiful about the forces of narrative, and the compression and clarity required by storytelling: that it unearthed in me the articulation of that which I had felt acutely but hadn’t understood.
The problem was that the project didn’t work as a short story. Like in any way. No matter how many drafts I wrote. So it grew into something I called a novella (which meant it was long and formless and I didn’t know what it was), then into something I called a novelito (which was a new literary form I told myself I was inventing). Finally, after Googling “minimum word count novel,” I gave myself reluctant permission to call it what it was.
And that was how I wrote the first draft.
As you can probably tell, the process of writing, and probably creating anything in general, is for me inextricable from the processes of psychology and self-esteem, which is to say in my case having the confidence not only to speak but to say something that isn’t uttered solely for the approval of others, or as an attempt to shape how they might perceive me.
So when it comes to your predicament of starting novels, getting thirty pages in and feeling like you’ve said everything you have to say, my gut tells me (having been there oh-so-many times myself) that perhaps rather than running out of material, you actually haven’t spent enough time to truly find it. Perhaps, like me, the project in your mind is already being reviewed in the New York Review before you’ve written the first sentence. Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted the idea enough to push through the uncertainty, to go beyond what you already know of it and allow it to transform into whatever it wants to be. Perhaps you haven’t yet allowed yourself to cede control. My experience is that novels find their expression, that if you stick with them long enough and follow the writing that feels the most vital, they end up being about what is most vital to you.
My primary challenge is always in shucking from myself the instinct to please (or to shock, or impress, or enamor). Because there is a gargantuan difference between the public and private selves and when facing a blank page they can so easily become entangled. And while of course the end goal is to write something worth making public, it seems to me the only way I’ve ever done so is through a long and convoluted process of duping myself into not being conscious of that. Creating for me is as much about silencing the urge to perform as it is about silencing doubt. In fact those are probably the same thing. It takes a while to see it, but there is always tremendous richness and depth and meaning in your own subjectivity. That is the substance of your voice. The trick is to find a way to sit with it, to not decide its fate. Because you really can’t. In the end you have no say over how your work is perceived. All you can do is take the time to listen to that private part of you, the dank, languageless part, and pour your energy into being as precise as possible in its articulation. I am continually elated to discover how fascinating anything is when you take the time to look closely enough.
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
- On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
- On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
- On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
- On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
- On Writing and Money: “I have seen just about as many paths as there are people.”
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