A Novel Approach, pt.1, (All the Wrong Reasons)

On Saturday, I gave a talk at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Here’s the description I turned in for the brochure:

So you want to write a novel. Or maybe you’re three chapters in, and you’ve hit a wall. Or maybe you’re slogging through the third or fourth or fifth draft of something you dimly remember loving a long, long time ago and wondering where the magic has gone… Wherever you are in the process, Marc Schuster has been there, too, and he’s here to help you fall in love with your novel all over again.

And here’s the talk:

Apparently, I promised to help you fall in love with your novel again. This happens every year. The guy who runs this thing asks me to come up with a description of the talk I’m going to give, and I come up with something that sounds really awesome where I make all kinds of promises about magic and overcoming hardship and falling in love, and then when I sit down to figure out what I’m going to say, I have nowhere to go with it.

This is largely the same problem I have with writing novels. I’ll come up with a great premise, but two chapters into the project, I’ll lose interest. I’ve heard people say that writing a novel is a lot like running a marathon. Never having run a marathon myself, I wouldn’t know. I’m pretty sure, though, that there’s a lot more sitting involved in writing a novel than there is in running a marathon.

So I think the better comparison is to being in a relationship. We all know that there are all kinds of relationships, but I’m going to start with the really, really bad kind. The kind of relationship where it starts off kind of cool, because you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m talking to this person!” or “I can’t believe this person is interested in me!” because he’s so hot or she’s so cool or I’ve never actually ‘been on a date’ before, and this is all so new to me!”

And then a few dates into the relationship, you start to notice weird things. She always talks about her ex-boyfriend, for example. He always gets his mother to drive. You find yourself thinking about the latest episode of Glee when you’re making out on the couch. And you don’t even watch Glee. You don’t even own a TV.

But you keep with it for all the reasons people stay in bad relationships. She’s so hot. He’s a really nice guy if you get to know him. You’ve put so much time and effort into this relationship, it would be a waste to break up now. And, besides, who else is going to date you?

I’d argue that the same rationale keeps a lot of people working on projects they hate for far too long: It’s such a great idea! It’s bound to be a hit! I could probably make it work if I just changed the point of view or added some comic relief or told the story in present tense. But the bottom line is this: If you don’t love the project you’re working on, you’ll eventually start to resent it.

To put it another way, you should be writing because you want to, not because you feel locked into it. Writing because you feel locked into it is the best way to kill a project, or at least to produce a stillborn project. At worst, sticking with a project for all the wrong reasons might even kill your desire to write. So that’s my first point: Know when to quit a project—or at least when to put it on hold.

Michael Chabon speaks to this very issue at some length in his essay, “Diving into the Wreck,” and his novel Wonder Boys does a great job of bringing the quandary to life. In the latter, the fictional novelist Grady Tripp is struggling with a manuscript that’s already 2600 pages long. His sunk costs in terms of time and effort are immense. But the book is a millstone around his neck. An albatross, if you want to get literary about it. And it isn’t until he abandons that project that he frees himself up to start not just a new novel but a new life.

Sorry if I ruined the ending for anyone.

(Continued tomorrow.)