Beyond The Pale

On Writing a Novel, Shattering Me

Looking back, this one seems a little emo, though that’s not the intention. You might just want to pass on this one.

I’ve been trying to write a novel for a number of years, or rather I should say that I’ve tried to write several novels over the years. When I say try to write, I don’t mean that I’ve actually written half a novel and didn’t know where to go from there, as seems to be the case with many writers. If I ever made it that far, I would consider myself not only blessed but lucky. No, despite my ability to write graduate level papers of twenty plus pages on the morning they are due and still receive As on them, and my ability to blog about my childhood comfortably and journal extensively, I can’t seem to pry even the barest outline of a story from my brain where it has attached itself, fully formed yet unexplicated.

As things stand, I have a fairly well articulated world with something of a history, and a full cast of characters, I even know where I want to start and what I want the denouement to look like. What I don’t know is how to get there. In short, I have place, people, beginning, ending, but no story. Still, I plug away, day after day. It feels like banging my head against, not so much an American gypsum wall as the top of a wall in South America. You know, the type where they put bottles in the upper layer of cement and when it dries come back to break them off. Yeah, I have glass shards in my frontal cortex.

The failed artist will play any number of little games with himself to trick himself into believing that he is actually getting some work done, making some kind of headway. Timelines are great ways to waste daylight while pretending to work without creating anything new, as are character sketches, historical research, drawing maps, rewriting the same first chapter yet again, and—of course—blogging about writing.

In all of my delusions of being an actual writer, I’ve come to notice something interesting about my characters, perhaps the very thing that makes me unable to throw them into the stories that will get some of them hurt or killed, turn others into monsters, cause the least deserving among them the most pain, and give some undeserved success in the world: they are all me.

They aren’t me as I am, though me as me does sit in the corner and watch, recording all that goes on and trying not to intervene in the story more than necessary, but they are me as I once imagined I would be, me as I was, me as I think I will be, me as I’m afraid to become. There is me successful, me failed, me the soldier, me the teacher, me the clerk, me the addict, the murderer, the suicide. There is me the time traveler, me the taxi driver, me the fighter, the artist, the vampire. Is there a crime I wanted to commit? One of me will probably commit it before this struggle is through. Is there a girl I could have loved but chose not to? Maybe me clerk will fall for her. Do I want to roll my own cigarettes? Hugh me will take that mantle. Do I want to smoke Indian killers? The murderer me will breathe those fumes. What about a disciplined life of abstinence? It might seem ironic if me who lives in a hallucinogen induced stupor berates others for their poor health choices in smoking or eating processed sugar or wheat.

It doesn’t matter. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t know what I’m getting at, but I do know who I’m talking about. The general consensus is that we should write about what we know, but do we really know anything but ourselves, or rather, is there anything that we know less than ourselves? I know what I want to be and what I’m afraid of becoming. And I know what I believe myself to be, but what I see in the mirror is not what others see when they look at me.

So I’ll keep tooling away, making file after file in the folder marked “book,” writing a paragraph or three and moving on the a new subject because there isn’t any story. And I’ll make timelines, and download maps, and remember what it feels like to fall in love, imagine what it feels like to lose, dream the sensation of dying, and hope that finally, all of the pieces will coalesce into something coherent, something worth reading, but if it doesn’t, maybe it doesn’t really matter because I’ll have still performed the task of sorting through all my identities and finding the one that works, the one that leads me to where I’m meant to be.


August 31, 2009 - Posted by | Writing


  1. That was very nice and humorous. Luckily I have never tried the longer version of the story.

    There is actually writer in my place who has only written short sories all his life and is yet considered great.

    Maupassant is another example. Chekhove too was not famous for his novels.

    Anyway I enjoyed your struggles with your novels. It recalled that charecter in Plague of Camus who never gets beyond the first paragraph of the novel he was writting.

    I empathise with you. is my site. Its not any good. So come and tear it apart

    Comment by samronsilva | August 31, 2009 | Reply

  2. You’re right, it’s a little bit emo, but that’s ok. You know, I feel a lot of the same things you talk about here. My file is called “Book I” and there are maybe eight thousand words in it. It’s a story that I’ve been churning on in my head for about six years. I think you’re a little farther than I am, though, in terms of a fully fleshed out piece of work, and of that I may be a little bit envious. I think my problem, simply, is confidence. I don’t believe that I can write a whole story. Or maybe I don’t think I can write a whole good story. Whatever. It comes down to one word for me – confidence.

    Comment by thewritingspider | August 31, 2009 | Reply

  3. As you have everything worked out inside your head about the novel I suggest that you meditate on it, I mean really meditate on it. Sit quietly for some time every day, close your eyes, focus your mind at the forehead and strongly visualize the whole novel coming out into to shape till you feel that it has already happened.

    You know the images you create thus are very powerful and would attach to the words you write, it is what gets into the minds of the readers and make them take notice of your work. Mere words and style and information wouldn’t do the trick.

    Don’t worry about inducing life into your characters, it would come naturally. The difference between a confident man and others is only in the mindset. The confident man thinks of the task in hand as already accomplished and visualizes it as such even before he sets out to do it(aren’t you doing this on other stuff you do even now?), while the others visualize failure from the outset. Both get the results they look forward to. Even the confident fails, but the percentage is smaller I think.

    Comment by samronsilva | September 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. Poetry has always been my creative outlet of choice, but at the end of July I got a urgent call from my muse and I now have 23,800 words of a “novel,” which blows my mind. I say “novel” because that’s what it looks like it could become, but I think it’s pretty much all shite right now.

    Anywho, I got inspired by some people in my life and at first, the characters stayed true to the people, but now they are becoming not me, but who I want them to become. Or maybe they are becoming what the story needs them to become. I can’t tell, so I just keep writing as the words come. Point being, what happens with your story and [whichever] You if you just let the story take them where it will? Or can you really not do that if it requires one of You to die?

    Comment by xgravity23 | September 1, 2009 | Reply

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