How to Make Real Progress on Your Novel

You’re at a big scene, just nearing the end of a chapter. Your voice is on point, your material’s spilling out faster than you can move your fingers to type it. And you see your deadline on the horizon and you think it is entirely possible you will even beat it.

But, wait. What’s happening?

Is your heart beating too fast? Are you aware of the days passing and can’t stop thinking of all the time you don’t have?

Huh.

That’s funny. Your ankles are itching. Now behind your ears. Now your sides. Your fingers feel like they’re swelling up. Oh crap maybe they are.

Great job! You’ve just given yourself a solid case of nervous hives.

Yes, folks, I am allergic to my life. I’ve been on Benadryl, which helps, but guess what? It also tends to put you to sleep so you’re too tired to write. NOT HAPPY.

I called my mom, as I always do when I’m sick (raise your hand if you continue to call your mom when you’re sick!). My mom gave me good advice. Plus, she wants me to take a break today, so I am. I’ll call the doctor tomorrow if this continues. Maybe I am allergic to something—I have no idea. Then again, I once got (huge, giant!) hives on my mom’s wedding day because I had some buried anxiety about it, so this is not out of line for me. So annoyed at myself right now, you have no idea.

The Novels in You

Ever wonder how many novels you have in you? Sometimes I’m sitting on the subway, watching the stations pass and hoping I get to work on time, and a novel I’d forgotten I wanted to write bubbles up and buzzes around my ears, trying to get my attention. A new title will come, a new plot twist. A character’s name will emerge. An image that belongs to that unwritten novel and that unwritten novel alone is clear as day on the subway bench across from me and I’m almost reluctant to leave the train, for fear I’ll walk up the stairs and hit the surface streets and forget it forever.

You can write it down, but it’s not the same as seeing it in full-focus, in that moment. It’s an immediacy that I have a hard time finding my way back to.

How many unwritten novels are in me at the moment? I’m counting… OMG (yes, this deserves an OMG), I’ve got nine.

Statistics: They’re spread out over the ages—four are probably upper YA, though two of those could be crossover, two are tween/middle-grade, and three desperately want to be taken seriously as literary fiction. They’re focused in place: three take place in New York City, though in different time periods, and all the rest are scattered throughout the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, where I’m from. All are about women or girls. Not all are in first-person, though most might be. They all have arguments in their favor. They’re fighting one another right now, to see who’s up next.

It’s dangerous, to think of a future novel when your present novel is not yet done. Later, I tell the future novels, please wait for later.

So how many unwritten novels do you have swimming around in you today?

Novel Questions

How do other people write novels? I’m at that point of the novel where I’m so deep in I must keep going as I have been, but I wonder: Am I doing it right?

Is there a “right” way?

This isn’t my first novel, but it feels like my first novel.

Novel #1 (adult): written in grad school, workshopped to oblivion

Novel #2 (adult): written after grad school, abandoned to oblivion

Novel #3 (YA): assignment = lotsa work but fun

Novel #4 (YA): assignment = lotsa work but even more fun

Novel #5 (YA): assignment = hard work, still fun

Novel #6 (middle-grade): assignment = hard work

This is Novel #7. But it feels fresher than the others. It feels real. It feels good. It feels, I don’t know how or why, like I’ve skipped back in time and started over and am writing what truly is Novel #1. Weird.

I had an outline. I’ve made changes that drastically challenge the outline, I’ve taken notes from my editor and altered a lot in the story to address them. So many changes to what had been the outline that it’s best now to not even look at the outline as I write. And anyway, I remember—I don’t seem to need the reminders. I’ll talk more about the outline later, much later, after I’ve finished this draft and my editor has seen it. Because at this point I don’t know if the outline was a help or a hindrance, a building block or a road block, a leaping-off point or— I’ll take stock later, see how it really went then.

The fun part of writing a novel is writing the novel, anyway, not outlining it.

Ahead of me is this sea of blank pages, I can see them, miles of them, expressionless, not giving me a hint of how it’ll be.

How do other writers find their way to “The End”? In the past, I’ve advocated actually leaping forward and writing the final chapter, so you know where you’ll end up. I’ve done that with this novel, almost, in my so-called outline, so I know the place, the room, the people, though adjustments have been made. I’m writing toward that spot. It just feels so far away.

The tourists taking flash photographs at the café table near me aren’t helping. *flash* where am I? *flash* who am I? *flash* novel… what’s that?

Anyway, back to work. A big scene to tackle today. I’ve given my first reader—what’s that called, a “beta reader”?—the first 120 pages to read. My beta, otherwise known as the love of my life, e, is an honest, tough, and smart critic. He knows what I want from the story, and knows me, and once he sees what I have so far I can talk to him about my ideas for plot adjustmets for the third and final act. In the meantime, I’m forging ahead. Big scene. Much work.

Am I doing this right? Any way to know for sure?  Please say.

Like Buttons?

So did you see this? Anyone and everyone can show their support for Obama, including your friendly neighborhood bus driver, the breakfast on your plate, and, of course, unicorns and pirates, a good mix of extremes, I think. Now, as for me, I’ve never liked to pin buttons on my jacket (sharp points + clumsy fingers = ouch), but these are great:

And there are a lot more where those came from. What would your button say? I think mine would be “Pessimists for Obama” or “People with Weird Names for Obama,” then again I’m sort of partial to the one about bee keepers, for reasons I won’t say.

Writing Without Paper

When I wrote my first and second novels (the under-the-couch novels, the up-on-the-top-shelf-of-the-closet novels) I would print out after every chapter. Then I’d line edit, enter the edits, and print again. If I changed a sentence on page 10, I’d print out page 10 again instead of having the handwritten edit on it, and if page 10 reflowed pages 11 and 12 and so on, I’d print out those too. I don’t want to know how many trees I sawed through with my printing obsession, knowing, especially, how long my couch novels were: 500 pages; 345 pages, respectively. It was bad. I was a bad person.

Why the printouts? I loved the feeling of holding my words in my hands. I loved seeing my sentences carved out in Times New Roman, how crisp they seemed, how real. The books felt more solid when seen on a page. And it felt like there was nothing more satisfying than holding the weight of all my work physically in my arms. With my first novel especially I was known to hole-punch all the pages and carry around the section I was working on in a binder. I’d bring this binder with me when I went to my day job, a long subway ride away, even if I knew I wouldn’t have time to even look at the pages there. I’d be scrambling around at work, feeling the insignificant nothingness the job of a thankless assistant can settle on you, and then I’d glance down at my bag. And I knew, in it, was my manuscript. And I felt like I had a secret. And it exhilarated me.

I remember, at a writers colony I went to, hearing one woman talk about how she worked on her manuscript, a memoir, which sounded especially difficult for her to write. Every night, she’d take her printed pages to bed with her. She slept with them beneath her pillow and would wake up clutching them in her arms. The book spent its nights touching her, seeping into her subconscious through her skin. We, the other writers eating dinner with the writer who made this confession, may have chuckled at her attachment to her manuscript… But how many of us went back alone to our studios that night and were tempted to do the same?

As for me, after couch novels #1 and #2, I stopped with the printouts. I don’t want to waste the paper. I’m trying to be environmentally conscious. I barely print anything anymore, until it’s done (and often not even then). When I edit, I do it with tracked changes in the electronic file. I save many versions, a new one for each day. But…

But, I have to tell you, as I write my manuscript now, there’s something missing.

I feel separated from my words.

I am dying to print out my manuscript, though I don’t have all of it yet. I am dying to hold it, to feel its weight, to put my fingers on the lines and follow them down the page. I’m telling myself I am not allowed to print until I write to the end of the book. But…

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to hold out.

Why is it, how is it, that all my progress doesn’t feel like progress at all if I can’t reach out and touch it? Maybe, in the future, someone will invent writing software that creates virtual holograms of your manuscripts, so you can cuddle and stroke and sleep curled up with your work, even if the only space it takes up on the table is air.

Contemplating Time Travel, as Usual

I have an unhealthy interest in time travel. I like to be practical about it, as practical as you can be when you’re contemplating time travel instead of doing the dishes. Like, for example, if I were to go back in time and do this one thing differently (not go to that grad school, take that job, write this book and not that one, call this person, wear these shoes, walk this street… the smallest of possibilities unending) where would I be now? I picture the different thing and then loop off from there, playing choose-your-own adventure with my memories, until I am the age I am now and I look around and see where it is I ended up.

If only I could really do this. I would change so much. What I wouldn’t change is meeting E, my other half, that’s the piece of time I keep intact, always, no matter where I travel and what bits of the past I scatter. It’s good to have some grounding when you time travel, so you know what to hold on to.

As a time travel enthusiastic, I love the movie Donnie Darko, of course. My sister—not knowing my particular attraction to revising time, though maybe I told her, probably I told her—told me to read The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is such a good book, and left me in tears by the end because it is so romantic. Love transcends time. I happen to believe that, too.

But, and this has perplexed me, what if I were to go back in time, far far back, to the ninth or tenth grade, and adjust a few of my bad choices? Yes, there’s the danger my new life could go off the rails and I’d irrevocably change something that needed to happen in order to meet and catch E. And I worry about this, yes, and I also worry about what would happen to my mind if I step that far back into the past. I don’t want to go back in this body, you see, I want to be the person I was before and make myself take different steps. This isn’t time travel at all, possessing yourself in the past to force your hand, and I don’t know what to call it. And then what if you land in your 15-year-old body, all set with a mission from the future to not sleep with that guy or to write the novel you wanted to write back then or to at least fix your hair because you looked awful, and yet once there you have absolutely no memory of the present? What if you land back in the past and you’re just… in the past? Fifteen again, and forced to do it all over? The whole point in going back would be to bring along this wisdom, this wonder, this regret. Without it, you’re just in high school again, and once was hard enough, thank you. Thinking this kind of thing stresses me out.

Maybe I should just wish that I could send myself messages. Letters that transcend time. Like, I’m 23. I’m in my second year of grad school. I’m starting a novel. And one morning I’m getting dressed in the dark to head off to that early class I signed up for and I don’t remember why and I find a letter in my shoe, tugged up tight in the toe. I pull it out and it’s a letter from me to me.

Don’t start that novel. You will spend five years writing it and then you will give up and nothing will come of it and your dreams won’t come true.

I’ll read that, toss the note aside, and put on the shoe. I can see my self in the past ignoring my self from the future.

So I’ll have to leave a second note, on the bathroom mirror:

I am telling you the truth. Don’t write it!

And a voice mail message:

You will fail. Write something else.

And an email from the future:

When your thesis reader says he worries it will fail: He is right. Write something else before this happens.

And messages in chalk all over the sidewalks as I walk my way to class:

You can do it!

Write a different book!

Or you will

fail

fail

fail

fail

p.s. Don’t write the one about the astronaut either.

Will I listen? I wish I knew.

Cascade of Chairs

You know that point of the novel well about halfway when you start looking around wildly, flailing your arms, going where are we? how much longer? are we there yet? Maybe that’s just me. Okay, so you know that point of the novel where you want to print out your pages just to bury yourself in them or sleep under them because you’re forgetting what progress looks like and you don’t know if you’ll believe it unless it’s on top of your head?

No?

Okay, so you know that point of the novel when you wonder if you’re typing in Turkish because your words make no sense? No? Polish. No? When you think you have made up an entirely new language using random keys on your keyboard and if only your story could be so inventive?

No…

Um, you know that point of the novel where you’re suspended over the highway and all the other writers are zooming past in their sports cars and you’re losing your grip and now you’re holding on by one hand and you wonder how far the fall is and you wonder how much longer you can keep hanging on?

?

Let’s just say I’m at an indescribable point in my novel. Somewhere in the murky middle. Every day is one more day in which I worked on the novel, in which the novel got better than it was before, but it’s still not near fast enough.

I saw someone, not a writer, who was trying to get a handle on my life: So you get up in the morning and you write. Yeah. Then you go to work at a desk job. Yeah. Then you go home and you do what? Sit on the couch, read, watch TV. Then on the weekends you go out to write more? Yup. All day. And you don’t drink? No. And you don’t get high? No. And you don’t dance or do yoga? No. And you don’t have a wii? No. I guess I spend a lot of time sitting down. I guess it’s sad to describe a life this way, as a series of chairs.

My Life as a Series of Chairs: the black chair in the living room to the wooden chair in the café to the bench in the subway to the wheelie chair in the office to the bench in the subway to the couch to the bed. What a beautiful still-life that would make. My novel is making me fat, I think.