Last fall, I decided with great determination that it was finally time to finish that literary novel of mine.
At that point, I had published short stories in literary journals and been told that a collection could be published … with, of course, a novel to go with it. It was disappointing to put the stories on hold, but I wasn’t too worried. I wrote in many forms, including long-form narratives. I had finished full-length plays and scripts, along with other, early attempt novels, and had sold a middle grade book, Twelfth, that I was still doing intermittent edits on.
The literary novel I was trying to write had been picked up and put down a lot over the years, but I was certain there was plenty of good stuff in there, and I was ready. I had the time blocked out. I had my notes and plans prepared. Finally, I thought, I could sit down and finish my real, serious, literary novel.
Only, I couldn’t seem to do the “sitting” part.
I would open the file on my computer and then immediately open YouTube. I would catch myself skimming my own work. More than once I lay my head down on my desk, willing my writing time to evaporate out from under me. As someone who always considered myself unafraid of “doing the work” of writing, this was a new, confusing, and honestly embarrassing experience.
It wasn’t writer’s block. I definitely had a sense of what needed to happen on the next page, and I already had bits and pieces drafted to get me there. Nor had I lost faith in the story I was telling. I believed it was exploring some valuable, big ideas, that it was interesting and engaging, and had moments of well-written tension and tenderness (I still do, in case you’re wondering).
At first, I blamed my problems on the fact that I had picked up and put down the novel too many times, distracted by other projects and jobs, and now couldn’t find the cohesive narrative. There was some truth to that—it was Frankenstein-ed together, overstuffed, and stitched sloppily at the seams—but it didn’t account for how I felt. It didn’t explain the dread, the procrastination, the sort of white-knuckle “just do it already!” self-talk I had to employ to actually write. Those feelings all boiled down to one thing: I just didn’t want to go in there.
But where was there? And why didn’t I want to go in?
Around the same time, I was receiving occasional questions and final edits on my middle grade novel, Twelfth. Normally I find this nit-picky, comma arrangement type of editing tedious, but instead I found myself eagerly jumping back into the book. I wasn’t making big changes, I was just enjoying hanging out with my sweet little band of theater geeks on a quest to find a diamond ring. I liked spending summer days at a camp in the Berkshires—chowing cafeteria food, taking classes, and going to the auditorium to rehearse Twelfth Night. And I loved having space to talk about Charlotte Cushman, Dorothy Arzner, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Hollywood blacklist, the lavender scare, and more historical figures and moments I find remarkable, and remarkably under-represented culturally.
But what was the difference between the two projects? After all, Twelfth had been picked up and put down over many years, too. It, like my adult novel, drew on personal experiences but was entirely fictionalized, and also had historical details I found fascinating. It, like every project I have written and probably ever will write, had been full of the usual sorts of frustrations: Brain-farty days when I couldn’t write my way out of a box, internal debates that stretched on far too long about what should come next, characters who would not do as they were told. So why was I so ready to work on one book but kept ghosting the other?
Like most writers, I’ve taken all sorts of workshops, have read all kinds of craft manuals, and have now spent the greater part of my life trying to figure out how a story gets made. I gained invaluable knowledge about the art and craft of writing, but what no one at any point in my writing studies talked to me about was the sheer number of hours you will spend in your projects.
The hours you spend at your desk doing the actual writing, yes, but also the hours you spend considering your characters as if they were real people. How thoughts of your writing will invade your commute and ruin your appetite and distract you when you’re just trying to relax and binge watch a TV show. How you will have to not just live with your writing, but in your writing—you will live in your writing as much or more than in your real life—and, for longer projects, how you will have to choose to go back into it every day for months, even years at a time.
In my stalled literary novel, I was proud to think of myself as brutal, leaning into writing advice like “there’s no story without conflict!” and “kill your darlings!” I had made sure there was conflict with my protagonist’s partner, her mother, and her boss. I had abandoned her alone in a decrepit, dangerous, and possibly haunted house (which seems appropriate, considering I am now thinking about writing as a place), complete with a pigheaded contractor who made sexual “jokes” and vaguely threatening comments. I had even invested in her some of my least favorite traits about myself.
When I peered close enough, through the fog of fiction, I could see my character hauling around my own sense of shame over health issues, my meek agreeability and willingness to laugh off casual misogyny, my stubborn desire to be proven right in an argument. There was even an incident of trauma and shame lifted directly from my own life experience, spit-shined with different circumstances.
My poor character had to wear my worst self nakedly in narrative, all our ugly inner thoughts exposed by a close third person point of view, and, on top of that, face dangers and difficulties I never had. Did it follow the rules of good fiction? Definitely. Did it make for an interesting, engaging read? No clue. All I know is it made me physically cringe my way through each page.
Vonnegut famously advocated that a writer should “be a sadist” to their characters—something I had obviously taken to heart—but I had overlooked the next part of that same advice. That making “awful things happen to them” wasn’t just for the sake of the making awful things happen; it was so “that the reader may see what [the characters] are made of.” Novels aren’t meant to be trial after trial for no purpose, but rather the story of overcoming trials or finding the meaning that failing can offer.
Looking at the list of prize-winners and bestsellers from the past few years, I don’t think I’m the only writer who has made this mistake in approaching their work. How many scenes have I had to sit through where characters are belittled or manipulated by their partners, abused or ignored by their bosses, and then drown their sorrows with petty, selfish, spiteful friends—or, worse, everyone besides the blowhard protagonist is only there to oafishly serve as exposition into the next scene.
I’m not saying that books shouldn’t try to tackle difficult, even traumatizing topics—of course they should. Stories are frequently the only way into some sort of understanding of the darker moments in life and a way to find empathy for suffering. I’m also not advocating that you write only “likeable” characters. Yes, there is a place for the anti-hero in literature, but before you decide to write one, ask yourself this: Do you really want to hang out with that jerkface day in and day out for the time it takes you to write a novel?
Maybe you do, maybe you get a kick out of him. Personally, I can fume for hours about people who honk for no reason in traffic, so I’d rather not spend my precious time at the desk sitting in a world full of honkers. And finally, I’m really, really not suggesting everyone toss their literary novels and jump ship to start writing middle-grade fiction—in fact, please don’t. For one thing, there are plenty of us already, and for another, if you think it’s going to be easier than any other kind of writing, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
All I’m saying is find a way to make your writing an inviting place to go to every day. Construct your draft with the same care and attention you would use to decorate your home. Add a historical element you love, set it on a cruise ship, include a Monday morning boba tea ritual. Figure out a way to like your character and then treat them like someone you like: Let her have a nice dress that doesn’t get spilled on or worn to a funeral; let him cook his mother’s lasagna without burning it; give them a hobby that you’re neglecting in your own life and then watch with pride as they make the sort of progress you wish you had the time for.
Stories are supposed to be about the exceptional moments, the breaks from the everyday that challenge protagonists, but maybe the baseline of their everyday life doesn’t have to be “crap” and the exceptional, “total crap.” Don’t just make your writing a minefield of future conflict and then, day after day, guide them to step in fresh traps.
If you don’t want to hear it from me, then take it from Alice Munro, who compares a story to a house: “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.”
So, if you can’t make your writing a pleasant house, then make it an interesting house; and if you can’t do that, if your book has to be a place where you delve into the darkest parts of your history and/or humanity at large, then consider making sure there is a very comfy therapist’s couch waiting somewhere in the story for your characters to rest. Maybe have a real one waiting in your non-writing life, too.
I haven’t returned to that serious, literary novel I was writing last fall—not yet, anyway. Maybe it’ll have to be permanently drawered, but for now, I’m thinking of it in the same way I’m thinking of my apartment: deeply in need of a spring cleaning.
Someday soon, when I find a free hour or just can’t stand it anymore, I’ll grab the vacuum, literal and metaphorical, and start from the rugs up. I’ll toss the expired coupons and expired ideas about good fiction. I’ll dust off the sentimental tchotchkes and see if they look better somewhere else. I’ll go full Marie Kondo on my closet and on my conflicts: what can stay, and what can go, and what still brings me joy.