I’ve written previously about the tensions of writing a novel – specifically that process of mourning an old bit that wasn’t working, and the new growth that springs up in the aftermath, once the dead part has had a chance to mulch down.
And I do think this is one of the most important attitudinal skills any writer can learn – that preparedness for the disappointment that comes when certain strategies, certain range-finding shots lobbed into the fog of unwritten sections, prove suboptimal. You try having the character do such-and-such a behaviour – it produces a series of subpar scenes. Oh crap. What do you do? Rewrite those scenes to try to tighten up the language? Or do you change the early decision and branch off in another direction?
Sometimes, letting go of certain ways you thought the story had to pan out can be the most liberating, creative moments in the whole writing process. You’re like ‘oh, I could just not have this character at all’ and it’s like you’ve removed a bunch of dead wood and the rest of the story thrives. It hurts, and then it’s like this once-blocked, stagnant stream is inundated with fresh water, and it begins to flow and you bash out a whole load of new, wonderful chapters.
But here’s the thing – here’s the reason why you can’t just read this off as a simple writing tip and apply it all the time.
The notional number of alternatives for any given scene is infinite.
You can always ask yourself ‘what if I did it this way? What if she didn’t exist in this scene? What if I told it from X’s perspective?’ and so and so forth. And if you’re not very, very careful, you can tie yourself up in agonising knots.
I think this problem gets worse the more you write. Your ability to think of alternatives grows, your ambition grows alongside it, and your expectations of your own work rises too. You feel less like you’re transcribing this miraculous, incorrigible vision, and more like you’re plotting an invasion of a series of archipelagos by sea and air. Experience teaches you there are a paralysing number of options. For every tactic, you can immediately think of weaknesses, counter-tactics and alternative strategies. You can argue yourself out of any position.
So look, I want to say this:
No book is perfect. No story is all things to all folk. If you make your protagonist an alcoholic postal worker they cannot also be a sentient bomb living in the brain of the President. Your story cannot be both atmospheric elegy and lightning-paced thriller. If you drop the revelation early you cannot also drop it again later. If you eat that cake, it’s going to stay eaten.
This is why it’s important to balance a willingness to drop sections, to try alternate routes, to let go of preconceived ideas of how your book has to be, with a sense of momentum and faith in the core elements of your vision. I have watched people redraft and edit stories and, yes, novels unto death, changing the setting, main characters, central plot thrust, style – basically resigning themselves to the safe mediocrity of absurd perfectionism. A book that is never finished can never be pronounced a conclusive failure.
Open yourself up to the risk of failure. Commit to a certain route for now – at least till the end of the draft. Wait and see what people make of it, take the feedback, then make decisions. But don’t try repairing the plane while it’s still in the air.
Getting through a novel is, in part, about momentum. You must sign yourself up to the patently ridiculous belief that this heap of implausible inarticulate crap you are hammering away at will someday be a fantastic and wondrous artifact. It will not be the Everynovel. Nor should it be. Some people will hate it. Even if it becomes the most critically-lauded work of fiction in the history of humankind, some people will hate it. Accept that. Move on.
Your novel needs you. Time to write.