Monday, June 25, 2012

shoes and ships and sealing wax

To tell, or not to tell: that is the question. Should a would-be author writing a would-be novel let friends and family know about it? I've had occasion to regret ever mentioning my novel--that most treasured and meaningful of my creative endeavors-- especially since the project in question has now been in the works for over six years.

"Hey; how's the novel coming? Are you done yet?"

Author Tom Wolfe once remarked, and correctly so, that someone who has been working on a novel for years hasn't been working on it that long-- they've been doing a dance around it. True enough, Tom!

In my defense, I'm working on a four-volume work, essentially four interlocking novels involving tons of research and ancillary material. In my heart of hearts, however, I know I should be finished by now. Therein lies a tale or two.

The big fiction project began very innocently. I effectively tricked myself into writing a work of long fiction by publishing short weekly chapters online to a hobby group. The ice was broken, and at least in terms of output, I developed good writing habits. I had a general idea where it was all going, but I let the characters run their own show. For many months, the commitment to providing new material on a timetable removed certain mental obstacles for me.

I was off and running. After a couple of years of fooling around with this format, I gradually awakened to the realization that what I really wanted to do was take my characters, and their basic situation, and write a so-called serious work. And so, much like the old Grandpa's Ax joke ("It's had the handle replaced twice and the blade once") I began the wonderful process of reworking it into something less frivolous and more serious and complex. A whole new game.

One school of thought holds that letting people know you're working on a big writing project sets up a certain amount of useful pressure. While this may be true, writers should consider the flip side of this strategy. Do you really want everyone you know to ask you about it every time they see you? Are you ready to endure their mental eye roll when you inform them, yet again, time after excruciating time, that you're "Still working on it", or, "I'm in the last phases", or, "Getting there."? Is it useful to feel their thoughts burning into you, comments along the lines of "Sheesh, just finish the freaking thing already; what's the big deal?"

One reason some people might share they're writing a novel might be that it sounds kind of cool, as if it were enough to just to be doing it. But I've never liked that idea, and that kind of phony buzz never been my motivation. It's not enough for me to be working on a book: I want, I need to finish it. Anyone can say they are a writer, but I want to cross the finish line and be an author.

For good or for bad, everyone close to me knows I have been creating a long work of fiction. A few close friends have read excerpts, in a couple of cases some lengthy sections. (I removed the original serialized chapters from their online home quite some time ago). There's no real question amongst these fine people that despite my having a minimal track record of published works, I'm still a serious writer. And I'm sure none of them expects to open my manuscript to find 1000 pages of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Feedback has been positive, and things are moving along. Slowly, painstakingly, but I'm getting there.

"So, what are you up to these days?"

This is the question that I always feel compelled to answer honestly. I wish I could just make up something out of whole cloth, a scenario that could disengage the whole line of inquiry about the novel and clear my potentially flaky reputation at the same time, but I can't seem to help myself. Friends know I work freelance in corporate film and video production, but that profession has gradually dwindled down to a few small jobs a year. If you catch me more than a month after such a job, chances are I won't remember who the job was for, let alone have anything interesting to say about it. When you ask what I'm doing, I have to say something, right?

"Lately I spend most of my free time working on personal writing projects," I'll say, or something to that effect. (My ego does admittedly play a role in this, otherwise I might simply allow people to imagine I spend my mornings on Pilates and my afternoons getting French mani-pedis).

"So, you're still working on that novel?"

Here we go.

"It's a tetralogy-- four novels. They're interrelated and non-linear so I have to work on all of them at once. But I'm enjoying it... we'll see how it goes," I say, my mind racing as I try to find a graceful segue to another topic and still keep a positive look on my face. I could add, "And besides, I'm crafting it carefully because I'm thinking of it as a literary work," except for the fact that this distinction isn't something an author can claim. It's a status conferred by others via a mysterious process nobody completely understands.

At least I have friends. At least they care enough to ask, right?

The other day, while on vacation out of state, I was enjoying lunch with friends I rarely see. I kept engaged in other lines of discussion to stretch out the time as long as I could, but eventually someone asked what I've been doing since they last saw me. Any movie jobs? No, that's been pretty slow. Well, what then?

My mind raced. Cooking classes! That's it! I'll tell them that.  But... nah. Watching a couple of TV cooking shows a week doesn't count. Maybe it's enough to say "Not much; mostly housework"! Sure, right? No; they'd remember my less-than-perfect house and garden. Or maybe my fashion doll hobby; that might work. But my workshop door has been closed for weeks and I have no doll conventions coming up, so I can't use that. Besides, that activity is almost harder to explain than the writing.
"Well, I've been on a big push to finish writing my books," I began in a small voice, steeling myself.

She cast me a look. Apparently this gal wasn't going to give me a pass on that one, having heard this from me the last time we got together.

"Who cares how it ends?" She said suddenly, her voice rising. "What DIFFERENCE does it make?" She was laughing, but I saw something in her eyes. A feeling of dread crept over me.
"Here's what you do," she continued. The others at the table were silent, eating and casually waiting. "You just... KILL EVERYBODY!"

There was no stopping her now; I knew this. I kept my face carefully neutral.

"I know... You can have a BIG GAS EXPLOSION," she said, clearly enjoying herself. "Nobody gets out. PROBLEM SOLVED."

Several thoughts occurred to me almost at once: with pangs of genuine sadness I imagined the loss of my beloved characters. Oh, the humanity! I thought again of how important book endings are. I mused over my characteristic reluctance to have any harm come to my characters, let alone untimely deaths, and reminded myself how that inclination can impede a book. I reflected on the arbitrary nature of violence in stories and how writers often feel compelled to jump the shark just to keep things interesting. And finally I thought about how great it would be to not be drilled and grilled about my book until it's time to announce its publication.

But of course, it's way too late to fix things. Not unless I tell people my manuscript was lost in a tragic gas explosion...

1 comment:

Sharon Jones said...

Brenda...I feel your pain.

I have a few family members that keep nagging me...and one person even said, "Why don't you just put it on the internet and be done with it?"
(I suppose, as in self-publish)

My novel is probably not anywhere near as detailed and "literary" as yours is, and I've been working on it since 2009. (it's a paranormal romance novel)

I think my problems started when I decided to break apart my huge (685pages) into a trilogy. I had already started the "sequel" and knew exactly where it was all headed at least. But after being told by several sources that most agents/publishers do NOT want HUGE manuscripts for the "first-time-published" author, I had to do it. And as you most likely know, it isn't all that simple. Where to cut it? How to start the next novel...should there be a cliff-hanger or will that irritate people? etc....

Anyway...don't let the "naggers" get you down. I just fluff them off now and say, "Hey, I don't want to just throw it out there until it's polished the best way I know how." And now that I'm in the query process, I tell them I'm searching for an agent, and writing book 4. That usually shuts them up! HA!

I've gotten 4 rejections so far (sent my query letters out June 11th) and if/when I get number 5...I'll be sending out the next 5.

If I don't find an agent who is interested...then perhaps I'll think about self-publishing. I just don't see how there would be any time for real writing if you're so busy promoting...ack.

Wish me luck!

Sharon :)