Writing novels

I read a great quotation today: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s by Ray Bradbury, so of course I had to find out from which book and order it.

Way back in November, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I was feeling stuck in my research. I had applied for a grant for my collection of H. G. Wells’ writings, so it felt like I had no reason to work on it until I knew whether I got it (I didn’t, third time running). The other book on Wells was in the process of being written through a series of scholarly papers presented at conferences, but since I teach full-time plus, and can only present once a year, this was going slowly. I tried reworking the papers into publishable articles, but they didn’t seem to fit what journals were looking for.

So although I was still fascinated by my topic, output was lagging. Nothing felt completable. So on a gloomy November day, I haphazardly began writing a novel based on a character like me, in the process of doing research on H. G. Wells. Over the next four months, I wrote every night between midnight and 1 a.m., until it was done. The writing flowed. I downloaded Scrivener to have a place to write it, and ultimately paid for that program (and I rarely pay for anything). The book seemed to write itself. I edited as I went along, going back to the previous chapters nightly, rearranging and fixing. It was a strange process, since I have long thought of myself as having no imagination. But what came out was pretty good.

I wanted to get it published, so I began reading up on how to do that. I have a former student who’s now an author and writing coach, and subscribed to her advice. I thought I should join writing groups on Facebook, so I found a few and followed them. I searched out information on writing and writers conferences, novel construction, how to make a good plot. I discovered that I’m a “pantser” (writing by the seat of my pants, with no plan) rather than a plotter.

This conclusion annoyed me. I have for many years prided myself on my organization and planning skills. I had read that it is a good idea to start work on a second novel, while waiting for the zillion rejections on the first. The first book was in the genre “literary fiction”, I discovered, but I had been wanting for some time to write a Victorian mystery, so I started that. My many blog posts on the year 1862 attest to the fun I’ve been having doing it. The pundits said no, you should write in the same genre for several books. Oh well.

Unlike the first book, this one should have been planned out rather than “pantsed”. Mysteries are complex, and my memory is not good (few historians have good memories). I tried mind-mapping, and ended up with Scapple, from the same people as Scrivener, to map the plot. This didn’t work well. I tried to plan, but ended up putting things that I had already written on the map instead, a reverse process of tracking rather than planning.

And I kept looking for groups to join, because I’m entering a new world so I felt I should. Writers, they say, should hang out with writers, as a community, for support. I am not a joiner. I don’t like groups. And I’ve become annoyed with the process of looking for an agent, which everyone says takes huge amounts of time and lots of rejections. I expected rejections from publishers, but agents? The whole publishing thing has been frustrating and mystifying. The advice, the formulas, the sample letters, the filling out of forms that each have their own format, just to get someone to represent you whose fee will ultimately be paid through book sales. I have decided on one plan, anyway: write agents some, send directly to publishers if I can’t find an agent, and self-publish if I can’t get an agent or a publisher.

I do not, like some authors, seek fame or fortune. But I would like some people to read and enjoy my work. If the writing itself adds joy to my life, the seeking of agents and publishers seems to suck it back out. My book(s) are good, I think, but I have learned rather quickly that quality doesn’t matter that much in the publishing world. I’ve learned why Dan Brown and John Grisham sell, and beautfully written works do not.

The pandemic now has millions of would-be novelists putting fingers to keyboards. I have been joined by mobs. Am I novelist, without a published novel, just because I’m up at night writing novels? Does this graphomania have anything to do with my job? Why am I doing this?

And yet I continue to do it all wrong. I have read that my protagonist must have a horrible flaw, an Achilles heel that causes conflict. Mine merely has a penchant for buying too many books and taking his time thinking things out. The action is supposed to rise, with a status quo brutally disturbed, truths revealed, and a startling conclusion. Mine has likeable characters that mosey along finding things out. There are supposed to be twists, where I’ve led my reader to think one thing and then — shock! — it’s something else. I have some pinkish herrings, but I don’t think I have a single twist. It’s more like a churro than a pretzel. Is it a cozy? Apparently not, because there’s some plot-based sexuality and the person solving the mystery is a professional. But it seems like a cozy to me.

And now, I’m a bit stuck, with most of the mystery written, and no idea how it’s going to end. But when I allow the characters to just mosey along, talking and discovering and living their lives, the world of today utterly disappears. I am in 1862, caught up in the pushing and shoving of the audience at the Surrey Theatre, sensing the activity of overcrowded London, wondering whether it’s worth the trip to travel to the Exhibition in Kensington when the omnibus doesn’t go all the way there. When I let the characters take over, the plot just goes along fine, so I’ve decided to leave it to them. They know what they’re doing. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe when ones characters become so real they write the story, one really is a novelist. So I’ll stay drunk on writing.

6 comments to Writing novels

  • Eric Kuniholm

    “The tale grew in the telling,” as J.R.R. Tolkien observed. It seems like you are just one of many to embrace Pantsism.

    • Lisa M Lane

      That’s an interesting picture. 🙂 Yeah, definitely growing in the telling.

  • Nice piece. I loved the quotation and stayed for the commentary, which was edifying. I’m a pantser myself. Thanks! This was fun to read, and educational.

  • jmm

    Loved “pinkish herring”. Made me think of socialist fish.

    Here’s my favorite line from Wallace Stegner (whose prize-winning novel bored me stupid): “Writing a novel is like driving across the country at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    The clear arbitrariness of publishing is deeply frustrating. Unfortunately, like so much of life, I suspect it’s all about Knowing Someone. Maybe you should get famous *first.*