Tag Archives: how to ruin a novel

Stakes and the Blarg

Boy, oh boy, do I love a good stake. Charred crust, pink and bloody in the middle, melt-in-your-mouth flavor, rancid farts for the rest of the night…

What? Oh. STAKES.

Woo! Vampire hunters and silver crosses and garlic and…

Huh? Ugh. Okay, fine. Just stakes.

I guess there’s a lot to be said about stakes in writing, but today I’ve got the stakes of writing on the brain. Not least of which because I’m passively reading a book called The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. (“Passive” reading is my pleasant euphemism for “book-I’m-reading-on-the-toilet.”) And… well, for starters, I don’t think I’m this book’s target audience. Each chapter is essentially its own workshop and meditation on some aspect of the writing process, and much of it is the kind of rah-rah-rah-you-can-do-it stuff that would be more at home in a literal cheerleading squad than in a book aimed at burgeoning authors. For another, the tone of the book is through-and-through the sort of hippy-dippy, peace-and-love drivel that can give you a toothache if you swallow too much of it. It’s all “writing is a gift” and “the story speaks through me” and “anybody and everybody is a writer at heart”. Then there’s a lot of meditation on the sun rising over her private valley and rumination on her horses as they watch her through the kitchen window, and that’s about when I really want to induce vomiting so I don’t choke on her privilege. Now, okay, those ideas are lovely and all, but it’s all too Kumbayyah for me to ingest in anything other than the tiniest bites.

I don’t need that. I enjoy writing enough in its own right that I don’t need somebody pushing me to do it or ensuring me that it’s okay for me to do it. Whether or not anybody is truly “cut out” for writing is irrelevant, as any list of bestselling books will tell you. Horrible writers still write. This book is aimed at convincing somebody who’s perhaps too timid to leap into the pond that he might, in fact, have something worth writing about in his mind. It’s designed to invite you into the world of writing one baby-step at a time, by writing first about things in your house, then in the news, then about your family, and blah blah blah. If you’re a sometime reader of my blarg, it’s pretty obvious that I do that stuff on my own already.

That said, there’s something comforting in the way she puts her ideas forth.  And even among the platitudes and smug self-righteousness, there are gems of wisdom, little kernels of edible advice embedded in the stew of saccharine crap.

The one on my mind has to do with stakes, and what she has to say about it is this. When novice writers (and sometimes experienced writers, too) sit down to do their capital-W Writing — be it their novel or screenplay or short story or news article or whatever — there is this inescapable sense of pressure and dread surrounding the act. Because it has to be perfect. If I write something crappy, that’s all anybody will ever remember. It’s all will ever remember. Inability to achieve that perfection and to get all the things exactly right is paralyzing; it can lock up the mental faculties like a bit of chain snarled in the spokes of your bicycle. And this is a fear that I’m on a first-name basis with. (Its name is Todd. Like all horrible things.)

The well-hidden reciprocal of that fear is the fact that so many of us, writers and non-writers alike, engage in writing every day in which we feel no pressure at all to perform at some elevated level. These are your e-mails to colleagues about whatever projects you’re working on, your text messages to your spouse about what you need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home. Okay, it’s not Writing, but they are still words that you form for the purpose of communicating an idea to somebody else… and that’s writing, innit?

The trick, then, is to capture that free, unfazed, not-even-aware-of-any-kind-of-pressure feeling associated with e-mails and apply it to your capital-W Writing, to leap into your manuscript with the same abandon with which you fire off a scathing comment on a message board or a snarky response to your sister’s joke about your mom. It’s hard to do, but I’ve felt flashes of it when working on my novel.

It almost made me mad when I realized it. While I was having a chuckle at all the peace-love-dope sentiment in her book about writing, Cameron had thrown a literary dart and pinned my Id-Writer to the corkboard like a doomed insect. In her suggestion that writing doesn’t have to be this big deal that a lot of people (myself certainly among them) make it out to be, she had explained away the entire r’aison d’etre for this blarg. This is my low-stakes writing. It doesn’t matter what I write here; what matters is simply that I write. That I break apart the dam of mud and sticks clogging up the river of my faculties. That I pull the release valve on the hot-water heater of my brain. That I let the toddler out into the yard to run around in circles and scream its head off so that the adult in my Ego-Writer can get some peace.

This, then, is why we read; this is why it’s important to engage critically even when the subject matter seems like a laugh. You never know when the river of sharknado is going to belch up a hunk of gold. I’m going to keep reading Cameron’s book, even though it irks me, and even though I will no doubt find myself rolling my eyes like a hamster on a wheel at its pithy sayings. Much as it gives me the chuckles, there may just be a few more juicy tidbits in its pages.

Also, it was a gift, and I’d feel really bad about tossing it.

Thanks, sis.

No, not that sister. The other one.


A Late Entry

I’ve previously noticed about myself that I’m a glutton for punishment.

As it happens, I’m pretty adept at doling it out for myself too. Nobody is harsher with my work, less impressed with my excuses, or harder to satisfy with my accomplishments than me.

And I’ve done a fair amount of kvelling here on the blarg about the knots that working on this novel has tied me into. The self-imposed deadlines, the lingering sense of doubt about whether any of the writing is any good, and the general disarray with which I’ve approached the edit, just to name a few. Last time, however, I pointed out (with not a hint of ego!) that I was done with phase one of the edit and slowly bringing the ship around for the next leg of the journey. That leg starts tomorrow, with all the notes that I’ve made on the draft and the (troublingly extensive) list of holes I have to plug to make the thing seaworthy. In short, the task ahead was looking gargantuan, but achievable.

Then, this morning, I had an idea. A fantastic idea. An awful idea. An awfully fantastic idea, and a fantastically awful one. The idea that I’ve had is an excellent one.

I love this idea. I think it does wonders for the story and it provides an element that perhaps has been missing all along while escaping my notice. It affords me a way to tie up some loose ends which I will readily admit were a bit hastily tied in the first draft and need some serious re-tying in the second. It gives me a chance to bring some redemption to a character who could sorely use some and some doubt and aspersion for one who is a little too pristine and unsullied. I can get a lot done towards the fixing of this story with the inclusion of this idea.

I also hate this idea. It came out of nowhere and I wonder if including it will feel a little bit Deus ex Machina-ish. Including it will also include the re-writing of several — by which I mean more than I can count on one or maybe two hands and possibly also my feet — critical sections of the book. It will mean lengthening the narrative to make room for the new stuff, and I sort of feel that the story is at a good enough length already. It will mean not so much tweaking and trimming in rewrites as breaking and smashing and gutting.

“It” is a new character, and the idea for him struck me while I was watching, of all things, “Mater’s Tall Tales” with my two-year-old this morning. In short, my novel is about characters living on two sides of a magical divide and figuring out how to make that work — this guy’s role would be to keep the rest of them from doing so. TO BRING BALANCE TO THE FORCE.  Well, maybe to my narrative. He’s sort of an antagonist to the antagonists, but he’s certainly not on the side of the protagonists. To sum it up without giving details away, he’s a monkey wrench. And while throwing this monkey wrench into the whirring innards of my story might do really fascinating things to the narrative, it will without a doubt do to the actual machinery of the story what actual monkey wrenches do to actual machines, which probably involves breaking it beyond recognition before I start putting it back together again.

I may take a day to ponder the ramifications of making this change, because it’s a whole boatload of extra work I was not planning on having as I began the second phase of this edit. Then again, the benefits could be immeasurable. Of course, to continue the monkey wrench metaphor, maybe all it will do is break a machine that’s operating perfectly well on its own.

What to do? At what point is it too late to make changes to the entire landscape of a narrative?

Part of me wants to accept what I have, forget this new idea, and move on with the work I’d set out for myself. Another part wants to run with this idea, invent this guy and stick him into the story, then start the long work of cleaning up the mess that follows. I can’t decide if I’m thrilled or destroyed at the prospect.


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