How to Not Know a Novel

When I was a kid, I was always writing books. None of them were ever much over two hundred and fifty pages and the first one, something about a dog, a dog thief and a girl named Jenn (hey, that’s me) written at nine years old, was twenty pages (totally still a novel). But by age thirteen or fourteen I had four book-shaped things, plus numerous projects started and never finished. In ninth grade or tenth grade I watched The Matrix for the first time. Two hours after I finished the film I started writing a book about dreams and reality. It was first called Puzzle and last called The Dream Tree. In the space of eight years, I started to rewrite it seven times and rewrote it fully for my undergrad senior project. Then I rewrote it a third time and edited that draft from 95k words down to 48k, which was probably a little drastic. After all that, you’d think I’d have learned something. But I didn’t know how to write a novel before Puzzle, I didn’t know how write one during Puzzle and I still didn’t know how after The Dream Tree.

Somewhere during the time that Puzzle became The Dream Tree, the author Karina Cooper told me to escape. Run away. Stop. Just stop beating the horse dead in the rain.(She didn’t say that, exactly; she was nicer. But let’s be brutal here.) I listened, but not really, and continued wasting my time.Compulsion is strong in me and I have a hard time letting go even when I know I need to. But it wasn’t just a matter of writing this one book over and over. When I was a kid, everything was a novel. Every idea was worth tens of thousands of words.

I don’t know why, maybe because books were it. They were big. They were better because of their greater gravity. But actually, I think it’s because they were all I knew. I didn’t read poetry or short fiction as a child, not unless it was mandatory for school, in which case of course I did (remember my compulsive compulsion?). But even though novels were all I read, I didn’t actually know a thing about them. I knew, sort of, how to read them. I definitely knew how get high on them. I wrote them start to finish, but not very well. Of course, I thought I knew them, but the further I got from them, the more I realized that, no matter how close we’d been, I hadn’t known a thing. I listened, but didn’t engage.

A month after moving to Montana, I finished that third full draft of The Dream Tree and finally listened to Karina Cooper’s good advice.I finished my 47k wordhack, realized the book was broken. I don’t think I’ve opened that file since. I read The Melancholy of Mechagirl and At the Mouth of the River of Bees, two collections that were pivotal. I started writing more short fiction and joined a writer’s group, were I met Richard, a friend full of snark and wordlove, who told me that applying to MFA programs was a shitty idea, because I already had a voice and stories, and that I knew what I needed to do to figure the rest out. Once again, I didn’t listen. His advice was good, but I think that this time I made the right decision. I ended up in a Master’s program of folklore and it’s both good and upsetting. I finished my first year in June. I don’t think I’ve ever been further from novels than during those nine months. All I wanted to do was write stories. Instead, I wrote papers and annotated bibliographies. We were long-distance lovers, novels and I (especially bad because I hate phones and it was all one-sided, anyway), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them clearer than in my first year of grad school. Distance does wonders. (Side note: Richard’s amazeballs–he’ll appreciate that word–The Flood Girls is due out from Simon and Schuster February 2016. Fuck yeah. If you’re reading this Richard, I want an ARC, hahaha.)

When I moved from Montana to Oregon to begin my folklore degree I was deep into a sword and sorcery novel about wormholes and magpies and revenge. I reached 65k words before the term started. I haven’t looked at the manuscript since. I spent the fall, winter and spring reading and writing about foxes, studying Swedish, philology, cosmogony, eschatology, and some of the stuff in between. The only novels I read were during a fiction seminar I took from the university’s MFA program and The Blue Fox, excusable because it was vulpine and relevant. I read probably a couple novel’s worth of fanfiction–sometimes when I had a little down time, but mostly when I had absolutely no time–but no intentional books.

Then summer came and I was supposed to be jobbing, and researching and reading for my terminal thesis project, which I did and am doing. But I got desperate. I read The Republic of Thieves when I was supposed to be reading Convergence Culture. I read The Name of the Wind instead of Marvels and Tales, 2015 (Vol. 29) No. 1, SPECIAL ISSUE: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales. When I wasn’t misbehaving, I did read plenty for my thesis, including Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, which I think is what really did it. I read Wonderbook parallel to the Lynch and Rothfuss, and while I fried chicken and burritos and jo jos and yet more chicken at Safeway’s deli, I thought about writing books. I’d enjoyed Republic, but Name made me want to write (and just read, forever). But in between reading Le Guin’s Cheek By Jowl for pleasure by way of my annotated bibliography, pretend-coding a database and writing my prospectus, I didn’t actually have much time left for writing. But it turns out that frying chicken leaves you with plenty of time for thinking.

I thought about Wonderbook. I thought about The Name of the Wind. I thought about what was wrong with my magpie book. I thought a lot about wanting to write a book, but I couldn’t think of an idea wide enough and intense enough for a novel. I had ideas, sure, but were they book ideas? Before, when I was a kid, when I was in high school, when I was an undergrad, they would have been, but I wasn’t so sure anymore.

As a kid, I thought about plot and imagery. Plot because I knew that’s what stories are all about*, imagery because Tolkien. This time, I thought about character. Every time I wanted to know how the tale was going to finish, I wrenched my thoughts back to who, and the whys that defined the whos. I thought about many characters, but the ones that stuck were the ones with stories thick enough around them to warrant novels. And it was the around that really got me. I stopped thinking linearly. I thought about what came before and after the pivot point of character, not the story I wanted to write on them. I started with that seed, sure, but I didn’t cling to it. I considered the possibilities.

And that’s what’s most important, I think. I stopped flogging the horse. (It’s still raining, obviously, because I need rain for story writing, and because it’s been smoky and hot in Oregon and if I can’t get it anywhere else, I need rain in my head.) Before, I could recognize when a plot line or scene wasn’t working. So I’d rethink the scene, seeking the key that would make it work. But there’s not always a key, not when all you’re dealing with is brainplay (which is both it’s wonder and its bane). Reading Wonderbook made me realize that I was just trying to unbreak something rather than finish the break and kill it completely. And I understand why I stuck with that method for so long and will probably always have to remind myself that it’s not the only way–beheadings are hard work. Spinal cords are tough. But rather than reviving a scene back to shambling life, I’ve started to wonder what else works. What are my options that have nothing to do with the broken thing at hand? What can I do that’s completely other, unexpected, unplanned? How quickly can I give up a thing and be okay with it?

I think it’s working. After almost a year of knowing I have books in me, but not knowing what they were, I now have a trilogy and two novels to write. Maybe one, two or five of them will fail. But all I know right now is that I’m procrastinating on my thesis not because I’m subscribed to every single Buzzfeed channel on youtube, but because I’m writing.

I’ll be honest: compulsion still dogs me. I still think about The Dream Tree. I haven’t let it go, not completely. There’s something compelling about Fel, Kit and Jiiki, the book’s three main characters–I’m not relinquishing them yet. Their stories aren’t dead–but I don’t think they’re novels, either. There’s an exercise somewhere in Wonderbook, and maybe I keep thinking about it because it feels like a condolence:

Excise a scene from a trunked novel
Keep the scene, the character
Removing the context
Write something new

There, there, little novel. You aren’t dead yet.

But actually? I don’t think it’s a condolence. I think it’s an acknowledgement. I have good ideas, sometimes, but they don’t always come out right. And that’s okay, but beware: repeats might be treacherous. A rebirth might be better. Or maybe go back to the conception. Different egg, different seed, and when you do get around to squeezing that idea out, find a midwife with steadier hands. (Also, be careful around extended metaphors. [That’s probably my favorite advice from Wonderbook.])

Or burn your ideas. I hear that works, too.

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*the asterisk exists to make note of how little I know