Reading Les Miserables recently reminded me why I can’t write a novel.
Why should we care why you can’t write a novel?
Because you may learn from it that you can.
--------------------------- (Denoting Mr. Blue Writer’s begrudging satisfaction with my response.
I’m a writer. I write things for a living and now for the fun of it. I am long past the “Can I write?” issue – I can – as well as the “Do I enjoy writing?” issue – I do.
And so, with these preliminary inhibitors behind me, I decide one day to write a novel, which I imagine is like writing a half-hour comedy script, only longer.
At the time of that decision, I was working under a “Development Deal” at Universal, where, having failed to come up with a marketable series idea during the appropriate “Selling Season” (fall season and mid-season), I was fundamentally left at my leisure. (I once spent a later “at my leisure” period watching the entirety of the seven-month-long O.J. Simpson murder trial.)
Once, during another extended “down time” period, Dr. M suggested that we should go to Europe. I adamantly refused, insisting that that was not what they were paying me for. Instead, I remained steadfastly in my office and tried to write a novel, which was also not what they were paying me for, but at least I was using the machinery. Both mechanical and intellectual. You get the distinction, don’t you? Who wouldn’t?
Determining what I should write about in my novel sent me thinking, “What am I most knowledgeable about?”, which is another way of saying, “Of what am I the least ignorant?” (allowing me to credibly write hundreds of pages about it.) The answer finally came to me: Summer camp.
Drawing on my thirteen years at Camp Ogama, I decided to write a fictional depiction of the “Summer Camp experience.”
The first day, I wrote six pages. The second day, I reread those pages and rewrote them, altering virtually every word. The third day, I reread what I had written the second day, and rewrote everything again. On the fourth day, I gave up.
Of my novel-writing experiment. (Impeded, at least somewhat, by my unconscious feelings of guilt that they were paying me to write TV shows, not novels, and by my regrets about not going to Europe. To me, however, such negatives are a “given”, a congenital ringing in your ears.
Okay so, in my obsessive effort to find precisely the right word or the most appropriate turn of phrase, I had “upgraded” my literary enterprise into oblivion. This liability has not entirely disappeared, though I no longer call my efforts “obsessive”, I call them “conscientious.”
The majority of my rewrite time on this blog involves upgrading the presentation.
I want to do the best job I can for you, and to that end, within the time available to me, I persist in my pursuit to find the right word and the most evocative turn of phrase. I once wrote a post where I actually revealed all the changes I made while I was writing it. It turned out that the majority of those adjustments involved less what I was writing than the way I was writing it.
Although an arduous albeit enjoyable undertaking, such rewriting assiduosity is achievable only because, for a blog post, I am writing a thousand or so words, rather than the tens of thousands required in just your average-sized novel. Can you imagine how long that would take? I can. Forever.
(Note: To some extent, Victor Hugo handled the “right word and appropriate turn of phrase” selection process by, primarily, throwing a dozen options onto the page “shotgun- style”, and allowing the reader select their favorite for themselves. I’d call that “overwriting”; Hugo (apparently) called it his technique.
Aside from the “right words and phrases” problem, there is also the issue of sustaining credibility. In every novel, there are elements of the book based directly on what the novelist personally experienced, and maybe heard about from others, or possibly researched. But, for the smoothness of the storytelling or necessity of the narrative escalation, there are also substantial gaps that the fiction writer is inevitably required to fill in.
My question in this regard has always been, “How do you make the made-up stuff sound as resonantly compelling and believable as the real stuff (with its generically built-in resonance)?”
I have no idea. (My concern being that my fabricated material would feel detectably flimsier.)
Then there is the issue – and this applies to writing screenplays as well, at which I have been only marginally less unsuccessful – of having a story to tell worthy of the reader’s (or film-going audience’s) time. I believe – at least with enough confidence for me to continue writing them – that my stories here are worth the number of minutes that are required for reading them. Do I have a “two-hour” attention-holding story in me? Or in the case of a novel, a tale worth maybe weeks of the reader’s licking their thumb and turning the pages?
I have never believed that I had. (A problem, which, if I overcame it enough to at least start the writing, would, I am certain, eat at me every moment during the process.)
Finally, there is the question of motivation. I have just listed four of obstacles that would keep me from writing a novel. My “Motivation Level” to write one? Well… I was always a “TV Guy” – and you saw where my motivation got me with that – but in terms of how many of those obstacles my motivation to write a novel would send me barreling through? From my past and current experience, I would have to say…none of them.
That’s why I can’t write a novel.
Maybe, after having read at least a portion of what it takes, you yourself will determine you can.