Sunday, February 17, 2008

To novel or not to novel, that is the question

I am not a novelist. I am a short story writer. I feel lucky that the four short novels I've written have been published (two to good reviews), and, after placing more than 800 short stories since the beginning of my writing career, I feel confident that any short story I write has a strong likelihood of seeing publication.

But I also realize that short story writers, no matter how prolific, are often viewed as the red-headed step-children among creative writers. Novelists are the anointed ones.

I often wrestle with the realization that truly advancing my writing career will require me to write another novel. Or two. Or more.

But taking the time to write a novel means not writing short stories. So I must give up immediate income to work on a project that may or may not ever see publication and may or may not ever generate income. Despite occasional attempts to write another novel, I inevitably set aside whatever I'm working on and go for immediate gratification. After all, if I don't pay the bills I soon won't be writing anything.

Earlier this week, after e-mail discussions with a couple of fellow writers about projects we never finished or never sold, I decided to reassess one of my novels-in-progress.

In early 2006 I wrote 113 pages of a novel. I stopped work on it because a sudden influx of assignments kept me busy for the following several months.

Thursday and Friday I reread the manuscript and found that the first 100 or so pages held up well and that the last dozen pages were partial scenes, snippets of dialog, and notes on what was still to be written.

Because I am caught up on all of my assigned work, and because I had no social or family engagements scheduled for this weekend, I gave myself a challenge: Could I lock myself in and add at least 30 pages to the manuscript?

Apparently I could. I now have 169 pages--an increase of 56 pages in two days of non-stop writing. I haven't gone back to reread the new material, but my initial impression is that I've written a few great sentences, a line or two of snappy dialog, a couple of compelling scenes, and a whole lot of other stuff.

The first 148 pages are pretty much written straight through. The rest of the pages, as before, are partial scenes, snippets of dialog, and notes on what is still to be written. I now know how the novel ends and have notes on how to wrap up the primary plot and most of the sub-plots.

But I also have to face tomorrow, when I will once again find myself dealing with clients and assigned work that will fill much of my time for the coming weeks. I also have social and family obligations in the next few weeks that will further interfere with progress on this novel. I don't know when I will be able to devote more attention to this project.

What have I learned or what can I infer from this weekend?

1. If I devote three more weekends to this novel, and if I have the same level of productivity during each of those weekends, I will have a complete draft of a new novel.

2. If I do this again I will ensure that my kitchen is appropriately stocked with healthy food. I found myself drinking too much Mountain Dew and eating too much junk food (much of it left over from Super Bowl Sunday).

3. Music selection is important. For whatever reason, I found myself writing more while Matchbox 20 was blasting through the CD player than when Alanis Morissette was playing. The Moody Blues, Marilyn Manson, Deep Blue Something, and a compilation album containing rock'n'roll hits that feature cowbells all proved to be good background music, but not quite as effective as Matchbox 20.

4. When I wasn't writing, eating, or walking the dogs, I read. I alternated between a variety of magazines and a novel from the same genre as the one I'm writing. Reading in the same genre helped me maintain the voice I was striving for while reading the other publications kept me from becoming too insular.

5. I didn't answer the phone and I only responded to a couple of e-mails. I used the Internet to research things I needed for the novel and restrained myself as much as possible from surfing. Limiting distractions was clearly beneficial.

That's it. That's what I learned.

Now I need to find out what happened in the world while I was locked in.


pattinase (abbott) said...

What I learned after writing a novel is that the time it takes in writing it is only half the time it takes in getting an agent and a publisher. Or the time it takes in recrafting it for said people. Short stories are more fun and less stress. Plus I get darned sick of those same people over 300 pages.

Anonymous said...

I think there's one other question you forgot to ask yourself. How important is to you to be one of the annointed ones? Are you giving up short stories just so your name is recognized? As a short story writer, your name is well known to the editors you write for. You make a good living with your writing or else you'd be holding down another job. As near as I can tell, there's not much more money in writing novels (unless you hit the big time) than writing short stories. So is being a novelist all that important? Did your other four novels bring you a higher level of recognition? Just some thoughts that occured to me while reading your post.

One of the red-haired step- children who's pondering the same questions.

Michael Bracken said...

I know how easy it is to get sick of characters I've lived with over the course of several hundred pages, and I suspect one of the reasons I was able to write so much this weekend is that I had not touched this manuscript in nearly two years. The characters, the setting, and the plot, while not new to me (I created them, after all), seemed fresh.

How important is it to be one of the anointed ones? Moderately important, and here's why:

1. Having books published (novels and short story collections) made me more marketable locally. I've picked up some freelance copywriting assignments simply because I'm "that guy who writes books."

2. Having books published enhances my cover letter when submitting short stories to new markets.

3. It enables me to answer the inevitable question from non-writers, "Well, have you ever had a book published?" (Though it doesn't do much for the follow-up question: "Why haven't I heard of you?")

4. It's an ego thing. Being able to look at my bookshelf and say "I wrote that and I wrote that and I wrote that..." makes my head swell.

Anonymous said...

Those are the best reasons for writing a novel that I've ever heard. It makes sense to write a novel when you put it that way.


Kevin R. Tipple said...

the cool thing is that you were so productive. If you can keep up that pace you would have it done in just a few weekends.