Writing A Novel Sucks And I Can’t Seem To Stop Trying

I have wanted to write novels since about first grade. My first serious attempt at a novel-length manuscript happened in 2009 when I was finishing up my last semester as an undergraduate.

I was studying creative writing and moral philosophy. I propped myself up between the complete works of Plato and the Norton Shakespeare Anthology and sat down to write a piece of fiction so stirring, so filled with deep insight, the world would never be the same.

I think I wrote about 120 pages. I labored over it but I could never weave together the plot. I could never really breathe life into the characters. I eventually put it into a drawer and decided it just wasn’t the right moment for this story.

My second attempt was abandoned after 50 pages. That was terrible. It was based on a vivid dream that I had a couple of times while pregnant. For some reason, I needed 50 pages to realize the dream didn’t make any sense.

I started the third right away, immediately putting down the nonsense of #2 and plowing into #3, what would surely be The One.

I don’t even remember how many pages I wrote on that. My life changed dramatically. I didn’t have as much time to think about writing a novel. I had already made three attempts. I no longer wanted to talk to anyone about my writing. I did not want to be that pretentious person always going on about their novel (while never actually writing it).

I decided that maybe I wasn’t going to write a novel after all. It had always been my goal. I was a goal-oriented person. I created a lot of anxiety because I was not able to accomplish my goal. Finally, I gave myself permission to NOT write.

Life moves on. I stopped thinking about writing for a while. I focused on my job and on the family I was starting. We got a dog.

But when I have a quiet moment of true peace, a story creeps up behind me and pinches me until I stop what I’m doing and begin to let it out. Before I know it, I’m on chapter 3 of a story that I’m really excited about.

I have no idea how many times I have abandoned a manuscript, but I do know exactly how many times I have finished one. Zero times.

My last attempt began in the summer of 2016. I was camping with my family, but all the kids were asleep. It was just my husband and me sitting on camp chairs on the porch of a 10 X 10 cabin. He was drinking beer and I was drinking wine coolers. There was a fire in the grate a few yards off the porch. It was a perfect moment of peace and I was hit by a story.

I began writing. I wrote for two or three months and then I stopped. I put it away. The plot was complicated and the characters weren’t real enough. But I knew there was a story underneath it, one that I really wanted to tell, one that I knew I would be able to tell.

About six months later, I picked it back up again. I emersed myself in it. Getting back into a manuscript after a six-month leave of absence was a first for me. I knew it was a sign that there was something different about this one. I dropped half the characters, I added a few twists. I wrote 184 pages. The biggest, baddest attempt yet.

And 2/3rds of the way through, I came to an abrupt stop. It was still wrong. There was too much going on. Any individual plot element could have been it’s own novel. Yet each element built upon the other in a way that made it impossible to remove just one or two.

Maybe the story I really wanted to tell happened before this novel, I told myself. I spent a month outlining that story and drafting a few chapters, but I lost steam quickly.

Eventually, I put it aside. Eventually, I gave myself permission to stop writing this novel. But it wasn’t easy. At this point, after this many failures, after literally ten years of trying to write a novel, I might have to admit that I am never going to write a novel.

A couple of years ago, a kid that went to middle school with my stepson published her first novel.

How is it that I can spend ten years of my life working on something that a 13-year-old can do on her first?

Maybe it’s time for me to face up to the truth, put it behind me, and move on with my life. Maybe there’s something else that I can be really good at. I have other interests, other passions. If I could get the money, I could go to law school.

But God Damn It, this story is back. It’s eating up at me and I think I understand the story I actually want to write now.

I think I need to cut out 90% of the plotline and run on the most simple path through the territory I want to explore. I’ve never been so consumed with a project for such a long period of time. Even though a large part of me wants to give up and walk away from writing forever, I keep coming back to the keyboard to bash my head against a virtual brick wall.

So here I go again. Wish me luck. I don’t know if it’s a creative process or some sort of mental illness. But it’s back, whatever it is.

2 thoughts on “Writing A Novel Sucks And I Can’t Seem To Stop Trying”

  1. This part here: “…and sat down to write a piece of fiction so stirring, so filled with deep insight, the world would never be the same.” — I’ve done that soooooo many times. I even once said the words “I am going to write the first Great American Gay Novel” out loud. To people. Yikes.

    There’s no trick to it, in my opinion. It’s just a matter of accepting that your first attempt will not be great. Your second draft will be a little better than “not be great.” And hopefully when you’re onto your third and final draft you’ll finally have an idea of what “great” might look like.

    I wrote mine completely drunk over the course of a year (but mostly over a one week period in a snowed-in cabin in Maine). Next to me were “It Can’t Happen Here”, Robert Nozick’s complete works, and Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.”

    When I had finished it… I didn’t like it. Which means I’m not finished with it. I’ve edited three chapters, about one every two months or so. But sometimes I read a line and wonder, “what the hell were you thinking?” I wasn’t, that was Jameson’s fault.

    You CAN do this. You can. I 100% believe you will. I also believe there will never be a “right” time to do it. You just sort of have to let yourself write some shitty shit first. Maybe know where you want to start, know where you want to end, and figure out the middle as you go. And when those voices in your head creep in telling you to quit, do your best to ignore them. Write through them. Figure out why they want you to quit and use that information to your advantage.

    Your life is absolutely fascinating. You’ve got an awesome backstory to draw inspiration from. Once you finish that damn thing, I’ll be the first to buy it. ❤


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