We mostly do not see our own weaknesses easily, or they wouldn’t last so long. Several of mine conspired for many years to frustrate my desire to write a novel. I’ve made at least six attempts, all stalled out at anything from twenty to a hundred and twenty pages.
I was always annoyed by these failures, but never devastated. I moved on – too easily. My focus was elsewhere. I had decided, when I was 23, that I would become a college professor, and work on my writing on the side. But that didn’t end up working out well – at age 25, age, 28, age 31, as I was making attempts at novels, my academic career was taking vast amounts of energy. And consciously or not, I began defining myself by my successes there, rather than as a writer. Somehow, I’d lost the plot of my own life.
And that’s why I kept losing the plot of my fiction projects. I never started with a plan because I never approached these projects with enough seriousness, focus, and energy. And I never approached these projects seriously because, while I was telling myself one thing – I Am a Writer – my reality was a much different one, of endless rounds of applications for social science grants, fellowships, and teaching jobs. I carefully planned the contents of my dissertation, but had no such disciplined approach to my novels because, despite the stories I kept in my brain about myself, they weren’t important to me.
At a point about two years ago, I came to realize just how misplaced my academic ambitions were. There were plenty of reasons for this, but high on the list was the fact that most of my ‘writing’ was ending up in academic journals where it was totally unread. And while I was proud of my work to a degree, I was fighting an uphill battle against an academic machine where Good Writing was defined much differently than the work I had fallen in love with as a teenager and young man. Despite my good intentions, my academic essays were often mangled, stunted, and airless cloud-castles of pure concept.
Now that I am truly focused on my writing, I am better able to see where I’ve been going wrong, and work seriously to fix it. In my journalistic work, I’m beginning to figure out the difference between Important Facts and A Story. I’m deeply grateful to the editors who have been instrumental in teaching me – or maybe, reminding me – that People, their motivations, and their interactions, are at the center of most writing that matters.
I can’t help but think that my youthful misanthropy played its own role in arresting my awareness of Story. My early literary influences have been perhaps, I’m beginning to think, not entirely positive. Of course, there were the conceptual works of the social sciences – I was reading critical cultural studies before I was out of high school – but the literature I read was pernicious in its own mind-blowing way.
My favorite writers were, in rough order, William S. Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkein, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel Beckett. Only Tolkein is no longer on that list (replaced by the more esoteric likes of M. John Harrison and Jack Vance). Tolkein is a bad model for his own unique reasons, but the rest of those are intensely self-conscious stylists who also happen to be, in many senses, satirists of traditional plot, structure, and character.
Burroughs and Reed’s characters are often quite ‘fake,’ and they can and will do anything at any moment, not because it serves any larger plot, but for the impact of a single moment. Beckett’s novels are best characterized as vast swathes of nothingness, with words on top. Naked Lunch, Watt, and (to a lesser extent) Mumbo Jumbo are more experiences than novels, things you have to power through with a level of motivation that the books themselves are reluctant to supply. They are the products of varying mixes of genius, madness, and despair. They are not, in that sense, easy to draw lessons from.
Which is why, fifteen or twenty years after first devouring those brilliant works, I’m having what should not be a new experience – I’m carefully plotting and structuring a novel. It’s the continuation of “The Scouts of the Pyre”, the three-part serial that first appeared in Steampunk Tales back in 2013. It’s insane to admit this, but the completed parts of that project – what amounts to roughly 1/3 of a novel – was completed without any plan in place. As I extend the plan out from what I essentially improvised for Steampunk Tales, I’m realizing that I’ll have to go back and change significant portions of the completed work. Not a bad thing, I suppose.
I’ve found two books helpful in this new venture. I bought them both, I think, over a year ago, which gives you a sense of how long the process of coming to this new task has been. One is called Building Fiction, by Jesse Lee Kerchival. The other is Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. These books are most useful in sparking questions that should be obvious. Who is this person? Where do they come from? What do they want? How will they get it? With their help, I’m fairly quickly filling in an outline of what will happen in my book.
It’s a fairly giddy process, because I feel like I’m cheating – I don’t have to actually write out all of the ideas I have – but I know I’m doing important work, and that I will eventually get the pleasure of writing them, confident that they have meaning and heft and purpose.
I’m also seeing the creative world around me in a powerful new light. As much as I love style and image, I’m beginning to appreciate things for their structure, for their characters, for their story. Some of these are unlikely sources of education – Netflix is full of questionable films that will teach you a lot about plot.
I’m hoping to write a bit about this process as it continues. I feel like I’m becoming a more well-rounded artist, very quickly. I’m enjoying that process, and its promise, immensely.