Saturday, September 23, 2006

Problem Child Novels

When do you abandon a novel, or a story, or a poem? A poem is easy to let go - and by let go I mean give up on it and put it away, probably forever. There are many poems that I write just for me. Sometimes they are warm-up poems - I might not have written any for a little while, and I need to write a couple of awful, cliched ones to get back into the language and the rhythms. Then I'll write one that I'm happy with, that I'll keep reworking.
Short stories take more time. Often with a story what I will have is a beginning, and the abandonment happens because I can never come up with the rest of it - the middle and the end - in a way that satisfies me. If you read enough short fiction, you come to see how much has been done before and I find now that unless I can create a story that feels different to me in some way, that is at least new for me, it won't hold my interest long enough to be completed and reworked.
The other problem story is the one that starts well, moves into the middle, then launches off into something that threatens to become a novel and I can't figure out how to rein it in. Or if I want to. That kind of story (I have one that's been sitting on my laptop for about six months now) becomes "I'll tackle that one tomorrow".
But what to do about the problem child novel? If it's not working because you don't care about it enough to wrestle through the problems, it's easy to put away and forget about.
It's when you've written six or eight drafts of it, the story still won't leave you alone, but you believe that you've done everything possible to fix whatever is wrong with it - and somehow it still is not working ... What then?
One solution is to put it away for a couple of years. Then read it and decide if it's worth another draft.
Another solution is to re-vision it - make it into something else entirely so you can see it with new eyes. This might mean changing from first to third person (or vice versa), changing the POV character, changing the genre, taking out the first three chapters and starting in the middle. What is sometimes needed is a huge shift in how the novel is going to work. A huge shift in the writer's own perception of it. Not always possible.
A novel contains a huge number of words, a huge investment of time. You look at the pile of pages and remember all the hundreds of hours you spent on it. How can it not be "right"? It must be, you think. It's just little things that another edit will fix.
But your heart and/or your gut tell you that it's something fundamental, something that maybe is not fixable. The voice is not convincing, the concept is laboured or boring or been done a million times before, the characters never really come to life. These are major problems. The kind that cause abandonment.
Hmmm, that all sounds very heavy and depressing for a Saturday morning.
On a lighter note, a writer friend and I have been discussing, via email, two stories recently published in the New Yorker. One is "Black Ice" by Cate Kennedy (an Australian short fiction writer whose first collection is just out) and the other is "Kansas" by Antonya Nelson. We've had opposite reactions to both stories! Email comments such as competent but not totally engaging, too much telling, characterisation too obvious, have been really interesting - and a good reminder of how everyone engages with stories in different ways. This often happens in class. A story can divide everyone down the middle, sometimes into hate and love!
I've just started the new Kathy Reichs novel, and am very relieved that she's moved away from the current obsession with religious artefacts and "what they really mean". Ergh. Wasn't the Da Vinci Code enough for anyone's lifetime?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

:)I'm definitely sick of all the Da Vinci Code hype in the last 3 years. I'm banishing Dan Brown from my authors to read list.

(Enjoy your blogs. You're very funny. Your personality comes through.)

Voracious Reader