Tag Archives: novel writing

Counting Words

13 Oct
Mm hm.

Mm hm.

I have written a lot of words. That reads a little funny when I write it – I imagine it would sound funny if I said it aloud – but it is accurate. It would be interesting if I could have a magical, floating counter that told me what my lifetime word count was, at any given moment. I can almost picture it, at the edge of my vision, the manual dials clicking up as I type these words. What would the count be? If it included everything, starting from the first time I scrawled my name on the kitchen wall with a greasy crayon? I cannot conceive of it. In the sixth grade alone, I probably wrote more than in the next ten years combined.

Somehow, I don’t think it would be encouraging. It might have the opposite effect – after all, these particular words in front of me are special. They exist right now, as I create them, and put them together. If they aren’t special, does that just make them part of an indiscriminate mass? I suppose that it is the destiny of all our words, no? At some point in the future, everything you have written becomes just another statistic – another pile of characters, data, digits.

Uh oh. I think I may have dropped the existential soap again. Quick, gotta spin this away from the metaphorical abyss of navel-gazing doom…

So, I wrote a book. It’s a pretty big book too – at least, for me it’s big. It weighs in right about one hundred and ten thousand words. Since I was aiming for around ninety thousand (give or take), I’m pretty damn happy. If even ten percent of it needs to get cropped, the book is still in the proper range. Which is a funny way of looking at it.

We don’t talk about most other art this way, do we? Do you know how small the Mona Lisa is? Or how big your God’s finger is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Does anybody really measure the success of statue on how many tons it might be? It strikes me as peculiar that stories are counted, and measured, and judged on their length and girth.

The Stranger is a powerful piece of literature, and no less daunting to read just because it is (relatively) short. On the other hand, Infinite Jest is so dense and impenetrable that it would still feel thick if it were one-tenth the page count. I fundamentally don’t believe the size of a piece will determine its quality or efficacy in delivering a story. More pages equal more words, and more words equal a larger canvas to tell your story. And often, the stories don’t need that much room to move. Maybe I’m blind, or too narrow in my focus, but that is how I see it.

Of course, there is the commercial aspect. And some would say it is all-important. Who cares what your story is, if there’s no one there to read it, right? And to a large extent, that is true. For me, these words – just over a hundred thousand of them – represent my latest obsession. I still can’t think about it in those terms. I still have to cool off, let myself decompress, gain just a little bit of editorial distance. Otherwise, it may just end up another set of meaningless numbers – an anonymous jumble of funny shapes in a file somewhere.

Many years ago – when I first decided to be a ‘writer’ – a friend asked me if I was going to work on a novel. I replied something to the effect of, “I don’t hate myself that much.” Well, I’ve written a couple of novels now. And precious few of my words have ever seen the light of day. I wonder what that says about me and my precious words?














The End

15 Jan

Finishing a novel is a little like breaking up with someone. You’ll see each other again (you still have stuff to work out/rewrite) but the main part of the relationship is over. You’ll no longer be around each other every day. At odd moments, your mind automatically turns towards working on the ‘problems,’ only to realize you don’t have to anymore. It’s done. You feel both relieved and lonely. You wonder if you’ll ever have the strength do it again, but deep down, you know there won’t be a choice. The next time, just like this time, it’ll hit you out of nowhere and captivate you and you’ll think this time won’t be as hard and you’ll fall headlong once more.

What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

27 Jun

There are a few phrases and expressions that apply to many things in my life. Many of them are tired and cliche – quite frankly, I don’t care to perpetuate their use – so I won’t touch those. But there are some that are less common, but no less accurate, which I might share with you. Here’s the one that comes up most often in my life/work:

Willful self-deception is the key to success.

I think that has a nice ring to it. And it’s both cynical and optimistic at the same time. What it means for me is “Despite all evidence, odds, and tendencies about X everything will work out just fine.” X could be running my own business, or having children, or starting a publishing company, or writing a novel, etc., etc. Without reckless disregard for how terrible things will probably be, I would never have done any of those things. And yet, I managed to do all of that and more. Me: the most black-hearted and cynical of all my coffee-swilling friends.

I doubt I would ever be able to write a damned thing, without that phrase in my head. Hell, I certainly wouldn’t be writing these words here. It’s the mental tool that keeps me on the right track. It lets me lie to myself in all the right ways.

It only hit the floor for a second.

I can make it another day without shaving.

That light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train.

You know, good lies.

That's not a train. Wait... what kind of tunnel is this?

That’s not a train. Wait… what kind of tunnel is this?

So, what do you do, when you don’t know what to do? You’re stuck on some piece – maybe it’s a novel, or a song, or a blog post – and you cannot figure out how to proceed. It’s the easiest thing in the world: You CONTINUE. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible, or doesn’t make sense. You keep going, or you lose it. You go on, or you go under – the universe simply doesn’t care. You must suspend your disbelief – in your own damned self and work – and proceed.

Because, let’s face it – if you had any real options, you wouldn’t be struggling with it in the first place. I’m doing this because I cannot not do it. And if I’m ever going to get anything finished – ever – I must be able to pull the wool over my own eyes. Willful self-deception. It shuts up the voice of the Editor in my head for a while. It eases the clutch out and pushes the throttle a bit. And before I know it, I’m writing – one happy, delusional word after another.

Don’t misunderstand – most of what I end up writing really is crap. Every writer needs to be able to see the worst of their own work and I can see plenty in mine. Stilted dialogue, dangling plotlines, pulled punches, and mistakes confront me every time I sit down to work. But, of course, that’s just the first draft. In another wonderful twist of self-deception, I tell myself that we can fix it up later. I can only wear one hat at a time. Maybe tomorrow I’ll put on my editor’s cap, but today I’m writing.

I say to hell with daily affirmations and loving ego boosts and upbeat, fast tempo Brit-pop. Right now I just need some juicy lies and hot coffee.

Perfectly Harmless Questions

7 Jun


Every now and then, friends or family will ask the wrong question. It is a simple, innocuous pit-trap in a conversation, but no one ever anticipates how things can go wrong. It goes like this:

“So, what have you been up to?” Or,

“How’s the writing going?” Or, if they’re being blunt,

“Have you gotten any work done lately?”

These are terrible things to say. There are other variations, of course, but these are common. To most people these don’t seem like problematic questions. And for most people, it would be fine. But I’m a writer, so it’s an invitation to be honest about my work. And that is a terrible idea.

For the record, when I answer, “Working hard,” or, “Doing good,” or, “Just plugging away, ya know?” those are simple, truthful replies. And they are designed to protect you. I don’t really want to tell you about it. Because at no point in time could the answer ever be anything happy, or inspiring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very productive times – times when I was kicking out work that I loved – but that’s the aberration. And even then, the terms I would use might seem a bit depressing. There is no way for me to explain why spending a month rewriting a short story is ‘great progress’ for me.

To be honest, even the fantasy isn't that impressive...

To be honest, even the fantasy isn’t that impressive…

I had a friend once ask about my work, years ago. After chatting a bit, he asked me if I was planning on a novel, or book-length work. I laughed and told him there was no way that was going to happen – I liked myself too much to work on a novel! Ah, ha, ha, how we laughed. A month later, I started work on my first novel.

See, I started working on a new novel this month. This is my third (fourth?) novel project, and I’m pretty certain that I can plow all the way through a first draft. I’m approaching the whole thing in a new, different way for me. And, of course, I’m excited and eager to get work done. It feels great, to sit down and pound on the keyboard for hours, actually making progress for a change. I feel like a ‘real’ writer, I guess.

But it is a temporary thing, I know. I’ve done this before, even if I’ve never tried my hand at this type of writing. My overriding concern, of course, is that I’m going to crash and burn, long before I finish the initial draft. And it’s a fear that I have to guard and fight against, every single day. Even if I can’t banish the feeling, I can put it aside for a while, at least until I can get some words on paper.

And in the meantime, I have to plan for the known pitfalls and my bad habits as a writer. That means write now, edit later – stick to the plan and don’t get sidetracked – and keep my eyes on the finish line. The worst thing – the very worst thing I can imagine – would be to start thinking critically about what I’m working on. For now, anyway.

Because the horrible truth about myself is that it is true: I do like myself too much to work on a novel. But the flip side is also true: I hate myself enough to work on a novel. I want to keep the damage to my psyche to a minimum this time. I am well aware that I can’t stop this destructive lifestyle, but maybe I can keep it to myself.

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Next time, I’ll tell you all about my new, super-awesome, totally happy novel writing plan that is foolproof and guaranteed to not drive me crazy! Yeah. We’ll see how that goes.