Writing a novel has been on my list of goals for most of my adult life, yet I’ve never followed through on finishing one. Why not? There is no other goal I’ve pursued so consistently, yet been unable to complete with even moderate success.
My latest attempt stalled out a few months ago, although I continued to kid myself that it was just a temporary delay. After all, I don’t really get writer’s block in the traditional sense. When I decide to sit down and write something, the words come out – sometimes well and sometimes poorly, but they come without much prodding.
I decided it was time to really figure out what the problem is. On the surface, my novel attempts stall out because they just don’t feel right. No matter how much time I spend on developing characters and plotting, something doesn’t work. It’s hard to believe, but I never stepped back far enough to understand why they seem off. I just let them linger unused and untouched until digital atrophy takes over. They became those phantom folders that are always on your hard drive, until they wither away and disappear during a computer upgrade.
This time, I gave some real thought to what isn’t working with what I write. There’s no real trouble with characters or story – at least nothing that some re-writing can’t fix along the way. Conflict is there, character motivations are there. Dialogue has always been relatively easy for me – and, ladies and gentlemen, here we find the core of the problem.
My issue is with bringing a story to life in the setting. The look, the feel, the smells, the textures. I have no handle on any of those, even when I have the image framed perfectly in my mind.
Why is it such a struggle? All of my training and practice in writing was focused on what I wanted to do when I was younger – screenplays, television scripts, even comics. Lots of action, lots of dialogue, a few lines to set the scene – go ahead and leave the detailed look of the people and place up to others. I just never practiced the art of making a scene feel real through words. No doubt my professional life has been similarly crippling, with a daily focus on short, sharp descriptions of all sorts of technical processes and procedures.
This shouldn’t have been a mystery to me for as long as it was. There’s no doubt that this is the same reason blogging about my travel never appealed to me. My descriptions of places I visited consisted of snarky comments, incongruous metaphors and silly one-liners. That was fine, because that’s what I enjoy writing while I’m traveling, but it won’t cut it when it comes to fiction. Exacerbating the problem, I’ve always used the crutch of a first person narrator, which hid (from me) the fact that I wasn’t describing the scene well. If I don’t describe it, I can blame my character for not paying attention to what’s around him.
Identifying the problem is the first step to fixing it. Here’s the plan for the next steps:
- Forget about a novel at the moment. It’s on hold. I need to write a few short stories, paying particular attention to setting scenes and describing people, places and things in a compelling and engaging way. Plotting and writing short stories have their own challenges, so they may very well suck all sorts of ass, but it’s a training exercise.
- Get away from first person narrators. I may well go back to that if the situation warrants, but it needs to be a conscious decision and not just because it’s easier to write that way.
- Study good travel writing. Instructions and writing exercises intended for travel writers should go a long way to helping me on this. While I’m always going to be more of a goofball in tone and story, I need to ground it with ties to the sensations of real life.
Next up: a little session to brainstorm short story ideas, along with some research. I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe I’ll even post the list of what I come up with!