This post originally appeared on Benjamin Roesch’s blog, the almost right words.
Post #17: Crawling Through the Nearest Window
Doing National Novel Writing Month is exhilarating. I think this is mostly because I’ve never written, outside of education, for a capital “D” Deadline and the need to complete X quantity by Y date is a utilitarian sort of enterprise that’s added a different timbre to this writing experience than others whose end point hinges on a self-imposed deadline.
I’ve decided that NANOWRIMO is more about stamina than it is about creativity. Not to shit on creativity. Not at all. But the truth is that the writers who have the best chance of starting and finishing a task like NANOWRIMO are those not necessarily with the keenest imaginations, but with the deepest well of endurance. Those who can follow that sage piece of writing advice that I sometimes think is the only truly useful one: ass in chair.
Writing on a deadline makes you solve problems quickly. My analogy is that when your story runs into a wall, find and crawl through the nearest window. Can’t find a window? Tough. Invent one. I’m writing a sci-fi/horror mash-up because it sounded like a novel (pun so very much intended) change to my usual subject matter (realistic literary fiction) that would breathe enough fresh wind into my sails to make it to the finish line. What I failed to realize is that genre writing is a lot harder than I thought it was.
Of course, all kinds of writing are difficult in their own way, but what I’m talking about is closer to the necessity in genre to respect the beginning-middle-end story structure. I’m not writing a book about an existential crisis that doesn’t need to have an ending to be considered successful. The plot is front and center this time out and the plot needs to, perhaps above all things, make sense to the reader. And not sense as in “real,” but sense as in “consistent” and “logical.” There’s a difference.
Consider The Catcher in the Rye. In Salinger’s classic, one need not believe that the things that Holden does are the only things that could have happened. For instance, after Holden’s conversation with the nuns in the diner, we don’t feel the need to make the meet-up logical or the basis to judge what happens next. It may affect the next action, but it doesn’t have to. Nor does the book have to really go anywhere, to end up someplace in order to be a great book, which is, of course, why it doesn’t. For Christ’s Sake, the book’s final image is a kid on a merry go round! In many ways this is exactly what makes a book like Catcher so great and so lasting–it prizes emotion and character above action. And, quite frankly, character is more interesting.
But it all depends on how you look at it. Seen through certain eyes, too large an emphasis on character could be a liability. Most people I know who don’t like Catcher don’t like it because they don’t like Holden, not because “nothing happens.” And if they don’t like it because nothing happens, well, they should probably put down Salinger and read Blue Dot, my NANOWRIMO book. Because, let me tell you, all kinds of things are “happening” in my book.
But, of course, making things happen is its own kind of problem. One problem being that the “happenings” have different rules in a plot driven piece than in a character driven piece. Not dramatically different, but different all the same. In genre, the cause and effect sequence needs to be cleaner, leaner, and ultimately, more satisfying to the reader. After all, that’s what you’re selling them. No one wants to buy tickets to the circus only to find, after the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, that they’re actually at an antique show. It’s false
advertising. In filmic parlance, you might compare the ending of Die Hard to the ending of the last season of The Sopranos. If Die Hard had ended with a long, slow fade out on the bloodied face of John Mclaine before his final show down with Hans and his reunion with his wife, and we were given no closure, no sense that the good guy had prevailed or that the estranged couple had re-united, myself, and a lot of other late 80′s Bruce Willis fans, would have wanted their money back. The Sopranos could get away with such an ambiguous ending because the show was always more about Tony than it was about what Tony was doing. Die Hard is about a guy too, but for that story to make sense to us, that guy needs to always be doing things that lead places.
I guess what I’m saying is that I choose a genre piece for NANOWRIMO because I thought it would liberating, and perhaps easier, to write. But I’m realizing now this was a false assumption. Genre isn’t harder, but it sure as hell isn’t much easier. Which leads back to the earlier point that all kinds of writing are hard.
A problem for me is that I’m not used to writing plots that need to add up so neatly and my characters keep trying to stop my story and let themselves come front and center. Part of me feels like they’re stalling because they don’t know what to do next. I’m on track to finish my book on time, or at least get to 50,000 words on time, but right now the ending keeps getting further away. And the further away it gets, the more I’m getting the feeling that Blue Dot may just be the world’s first alien invasion story that ends with a kid on a merry go round.