Zephyr 98 Archive

What’s Missing is the What (repost)

Posted on: June 5, 2009

## Because I’m busy with new prose, I’m reposting this from late spring of ’08 (to show a pulse). And because it’s in the spirit of this blog. ##

Writing a first novel means trying to make every good idea you’ve ever had work in the story.

Then, writing a first novel becomes extracting almost every idea you’ve ever had from the story. 

But the longer you take to tell the story, the more you read and live, the more ideas you generate, then the more you have to filter. At first you feel like you’re trapped in a whirlpool (metaphor ends here). But if you’re lucky, filtering/working out the ideas becomes a lot of fun and a lobe-tickling exercise, and even leads to shiny armor clad moments of near religious ecstasy. Joan of Arc moments.

And if there’s a malevolent Lack of Something in your treasured story that nags you in the middle of the night (keeping you from sleep), nags you in the middle of the day (pausing you in the middle of the street facing traffic and a train coming), that nags you just as you’re about to give the most important speech of your life (okay, your day) or tell someone you love the most important thing you can tell them–filtering new ideas that may vanish the Lack can save your life. (No, I’m not being too fucking dramatic–this is serious shit to the first time novelist. Perhaps to repeat offenders, too.) Especially when you’re so deep in the process of telling your story that only your subconcious knows the truth.

So the other day (he says), I was reading Dave Egger’s What is the What–a novelized account of one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and his trek from Sudan to the United States (and a beautifully written and moving story) and 50 pages in the other I says, Buddy, there’s a character in your own story who you barely mention, who you dropped in and then out for dramatic effect, but who is an important part of the plot and who, if you take a bit of inspiration and information from WITW, can lift your story, give it contrast, depth, and more complexity that intersects more or less neatly and logically with the other threads. And you don’t have to copy Eggers or work in a Lost Boy–you just have to pay attention to what he’s doing and learn from it. (This is where you, as the blog reader, imagine the reimagined character bursting from the forehead of tall geeky near-sighted Zeus.)

Once I recovered from the adrenaline rush, I set to work thinking and writing out how this boy and his journey will take place and, because I had such a strong reaction, whether he really was too strong for the current story. I spent a day doing that and was happy to find that he did fit without turning him into Gumby, that he also extended and tied up frayed plot elements that happen much later, that’d I’d mentally set aside.

He also reminded me that I had another character, an important character, a very complex Mother character, with particular motivations I hadn’t worked out. Maybe it never ends. Just as long as it leads to writing, that’s okay.

## Postscript: I finished the first draft of said work a few months ago, then scrapped it, keeping the useful bits, and restarted on a slightly different, much tighter story, on a shorter timeline. I had too many good ideas and fell into my own trap. Lesson learned–ready for the next one. ##


2 Responses to "What’s Missing is the What (repost)"

Gosh, it sounds so difficult! I’ve already abandoned my first attempt a couple of years ago at my first novel. Wrote three chapters and an outline but some vital ingredient of the story was missing. I think I know better now what that ingredient might be, but don’t have the time to write it. And it is hard to invest time in something you know you might discard…

So it’s going to be short stories for now, although there is this novella I’m planning to work on this summer (first draft already ready) which might turn into a short-ish novel. I wonder if the process of extending something already written is different from writing a novel from scratch.

In any case, good luck! Can’t wait to read it….

Yes, but you write such amazing shorter works.

I had too many vital ingredients, and I’m not ready yet to write a mulligan stew of a novel. It was terrible to discard it, but, in retrospect, freeing.

I’m trying not to think novel or novella or series–I know there’s a lot to tell, but it’s very possible that when I reach the end, there’ll be just one book. I’m not going to think about it right now, just focus on the storytelling and staying focused (setting min work tasks for those days when it’s difficult just to show up, especially when the process of living makes me feel like I do reside in an alternate universe.

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