Thursday, January 28, 2016

For Something a Bit More Serious...

You might want to check out the blog post I did for The Escapery (a Bay Area writing "unschool" with whom I do developmental editing and coaching) on the truth about query letters.

After reading more than 1,000 subs, queries, and partial/full manuscripts as a slush pile reader, I've come to a surprising answer on the question of how important a query letter actually is.

The Escapery: Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Query 

My Novel is a Jerk

I first became aware that my novel had achieved a form of sentience a few years ago when we were in the midst of a disagreement about the sequence of certain scenes. Every time I sat down to write, I was dimly aware of a tug-of-war going on between what I, the conscious-brain in charge of the physical act of writing, and the novel, the subconscious-brain in charge of the mental act of writing, about what the next scene should be. It made for some seemingly unproductive writing days with little achieved by me staring at the computer screen.

Things came to a head while I was explaining the problem to my husband one morning. In the middle of my explanation, I suddenly turned to my right and said, as if addressing another person, "No, we're not going to do that" then turned back to my husband whose amused expression clued me in on what I'd just done and that the novel had, in fact, "said" something to me. Remember that the right brain is in charge of intuitive, holistic, symbolic thought, and maybe I seem a little less crazy (my husband, bless him, took the whole thing in stride -- apparently, I've been doing things like this for awhile, just not aware that I was).

Like most writers, I am used to characters "talking" to me -- becoming so deeply aware of them that they feel like real people who have an internal logic so complete their dialogue has a particular cadence and vocabulary, their actions and physicality have an individuality to them, and they have an ability to surprise me by doing something my conscious writer-brain hadn't planned on. But, until that moment with my husband, I wasn't aware that novels, as an entity, had the potential for doing the same thing.

I suppose I should have anticipated it. The same dynamics that cause characters to come to life are at work in the novel as a whole, and I've been working on this story and with this narrator, in some form or other, for over a decade. The past three years have been immersive -- it's the only thing I am writing, and I work on it every single day. So I shouldn't be surprised that my novel would develop a personality, but I am. And I am most surprised that that personality is, well....kind of a jerk, actually.

As I said, for the past three years, this novel is the only thing I have worked on, which was not necessarily by choice. This novel is a jealous novel that didn't give me the brain space to be able to think about other stories or even do much reading. Which would be fine, except for the fact that this novel will occasionally just shut down on me for no apparent reason. I'm familiar enough with my own process to recognize procrastination, avoidance, and fear-induced creative paralysis pretty quickly, but this novel sometimes seemed to just....go away. I'd lose the narrator's voice, lose track of details and themes, lose the forward momentum, spend hours, DAYS even, just staring at the computer and being rewarded with a single sentence.

And then, when I would finally say, "Okay, I give up. I'm going to go work on something else!" BANG, the novel would be back. Almost like it was saying, "Wait, don't go, I was only kidding!" It's been a bit like being in an emotionally manipulative relationship with the fact that all of this is being generated from within my own head -- yes, I am the one who's doing this to myself -- added in just for fun.

I suppose it's not too much of a mystery why my novel behaves like this -- my first person, present tense narrator is an emotionally shut down 17-year old boy with an eidetic memory, who is trying to come to terms with the extreme grief caused by the death of his older brother in a car accident, a car accident he caused and can't remember. It's a difficult narrative voice to hold on to -- he is unaware of so many things that have to be made clear to the reader before they become clear to him (as an aside: several years ago, while this was still a short story, a workshop leader tried to convince me to switch it to third person/past tense for just this reason. First person/present tense compresses what the narrator (and reader who's seeing the world through the narrator's eyes) can know and the amount of perspective he or she has on the events of the novel. Third/past gives you distance and perspective, and makes it easier to generate the tension and forward momentum needed to keep the story moving. While I'm happy I ignored the advice, I do recognize how much easier my life would have been if I had followed it).

All of this is why, though I wrote back at the beginning of November that I was nearly the end of the novel, I am still working on it at the end of January. The novel simply shut down again in December right after I completed the draft and started editing. I cajoled, I wheedled, I took hold of it with a firm hand and started getting up at 4 in the morning (which usually works), but nothing. I've gotten a few dribbles. A scene. A paragraph.

So I signed up for a friend's novel writing bootcamp to start work on the novel I was working on when What You'll Know Tomorrow decided it was no longer content to be a short story or novella, declared itself a novel, and told me I was going to be working on it and nothing else until it was done (I guess I shouldn't be surprised the novel talks to me, it's been doing it since the beginning, but really, I didn't realize we'd started out like this until I wrote those words). I figured, WYKT would get jealous and come running back to me, arms waving, yelling, "Wait....don't leave me!"
At "worst" I'd end up with a chunk of a first draft completed for my next novel, at best, I'd end up with a finished novel and a good start on the next one.

Two weeks into the bootcamp, I've yet to get anything written on the new novel, but WYKT is picking up steam quite nicely, thank you, very much, and I'm now about 30 pages from finishing my final edits.

Which probably means I'll be done sometime in June.