How Not to Write a Novel

By | October 20, 2013 | 2 Comments

Writing the Old Fashioned WayI just wrote a novel in possibly the hardest way possible.

Years ago, I wrote two novels. Well, both were short – one very barely qualified as novel-length and one was absolutely a novella, really. I liked both very much, one a bit more than the other. The longer one I sent to my agent with that special feeling of doomed hope and suggested it might be the next thing we go out on. I loved the longer one because it had a sense of poetry to it, a dreamy atmosphere. Plus, I loved the longer one’s creation story:

The Duchess had forced me to attend the Broadway show Mama Mia. I was reluctant, for obvious – lord, I hope they’re obvious – reasons. But I am a dutiful husband, so I went. I had this central concept for a novel in my head at the time, but couldn’t get it to coalesce into something coherent. And then, as the lights went down in the theater, I had an epiphany. I saw the first line of the story in my head: “This is the story of my father.” And it was off to the races. I wrote the longer piece quickly, easily, after that point.

That’s no longer the first line of the book. That line isn’t even in the book any more. But it’s there, nonetheless, even if only I can see it.

The shorter one I held back, because while I loved a lot of it even I couldn’t convince myself that a 30,000-word “novel” with a lot of padding had any chance at book publishers. The novella had a bit of juvenalia to it, but it had a clear throughline that held it together nicely.

My agent, god love her, read the longer one and sent back her notes, which made a crucial point: There wasn’t much of a story arc. No real conflict, no climax. It was a story, sure, but it was kind of a flatline if you plotted the events.

So, I pondered. Other stuff happened.

Recently, I revisited the longer work and now it was apparent that my agent, whose sulfurous fumes still clung to the digital pages, was absolutely right: I had written a novel in which very little happened. Then I considered the shorter work from the same period, which had stayed in my imagination. It was a a bony, skeletal thing, which was about 1/3 padding as I meandered about the universe I’d created trying desperately to find details — but it had a definite plot, a mystery and a climax. It had a point.

I re-read both and had an epiphany: Written so closely together temporally, they were actually parts of the same story. They shared elements and atmosphere and, if I’m being honest, characters as I recycled them from one to the other. I had a longer, fleshy piece that was all character and setting and backstory, and a shorter, bony piece that was like a fucking plot outline. The answer was obvious: Combine them.

A lot easier than I would have expected. I really had written a novel in two parts, months apart, without even realizing it. I’m either a genius or a drunken moron, take your pick. They fit together so seamlessly if you didn’t know the story behind the new novel you’d never guess. You can’t see the scars as the stitching healed. The slight limp as it walks about on two legs of microscopically different lengths just give its gait some character.

I have no idea if we’ll ever sell this beast, but regardless I’m pleased. And also amazed at the way the brain works. And once again reminded of the value of a great agent.

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