Tuesday, December 31, 2013

But that other idea is so shiny

"As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written ... . I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I've realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea." --Ann Patchett, "The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Patchett has a lot more to say about this, but I don't want to copy her whole article. I relate to her point about novels taking so long to write that it's especially hard (harder, say, than when writing a poem or short story) to keep one's enthusiasm high for the duration of the whole project. Short stories were always satisfying that way: I could draft from beginning to end in one sitting; I could keep the whole thing in my head as I revised; if a story failed I could just go on to the dozens of other stories I had in various stages of completion.

But a novel takes more commitment, more tolerance of the slow times, more trust that all the little ripples you set in motion will reach the various shores you've aimed at. It takes so much longer to build in the layers that a novel needs (a short story can be layered, but it can also be punchy or piercing, and even if it has a hundred layers none of them need to be a hundred acres across, the way the layers of a novel must be). A novel takes more patience. And when a novel fails, it can mean months or years of work without a visible product.

As happy as I am with the books I've written, every single one of them gave me days (or weeks) when I was ready to give up on them, when I'd had enough or didn't see how to fix them or wondered who else would care about them besides me. They also gave me days of pure joy, days when I was so wrapped up in the story that I never wanted to leave that fictional world.

Mostly, it was a matter of waiting out the darker days. Trusting that another day's work might bring me to the corner I needed to turn.

8 comments:

  1. This is one of the things I've been feeling about writing a picture book. No, obviously, it's not easier than a novel, but there is a magic in being able to sit with it for a few hours and make a change or three that resonate through the whole thing, not just, oh, 10 pages out of 200. I am looking forward to having my current picture books in the Done pile, so I can get back to my MG novel, but the anticipation is also a bit intimidating.

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    1. Every time I revise, I'm glad I don't write 600-page books. ;-)

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  2. Ooh, the terrible temptation of the shiny! In my experience starting a novel remains a new and shiny experience for the first week. After that it's hard work (not totally unrewarding, by any means, but hard).

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    1. Sometimes the shiny only lasts for 5 minutes (those are the ones I give up on altogether). Sometimes I can sustain the glow for weeks. But one thing's certain, and that's the shine will wear off eventually!

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  3. I think you've hit on the hardest part of being a novelist, for sure. It takes a lot of faith to keep on going and see the book to its end (and not just the first draft end).

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    1. A lot of faith, and consistently. Day after day!

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  4. I can definitely relate to this feeling, immensely. Though a small silver lining i've found is being able to go back to that idea later with fresh ideas and the ability to improve it.

    That said it also means nothing gets finished or done. Ah, so shiny.

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    1. Eventually we have to stick with something even after the shine wears off. But it's tough to tell whether our disenchantment is just temporary, or a sign that the overall project is failing. Sometimes we just have to plow through and hope it's the former.

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