The Parable of the Leaf Blower

I moved into my current home about three summers ago. When Fall came, I tried to use my leaf blower, but it didn’t work. I plugged it into the electrical outlet in my garage, but when I switched it on, nothing happened. Assuming my leaf blower was broken (but being too cheap, lazy, and weirdly sentimental about the machines I own to throw it in the trash), I put it away and left it my garage for the past three years.

Earlier this month, however, I decided that I’d try to fix my leaf blower on the off chance that the problem was just a loose wire or a switch or something I could repair given my limited skill set as a handyman. My first step, of course, was to plug it in and flip the switch. And this time around, it screamed to life.

That’s when I remembered an important detail: Subsequent to the last time I’d used the leaf blower, I hired an electrician to rewire the garage. But I never put two and two together. I never made the connection between the bad wiring in the garage and the fact that the leaf blower didn’t work. As a result, I spent the next three years raking leaves like some kind of caveman when I could have been blowing leaves like some kind of jerk with a really loud leaf blower.

The point of this parable is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but I think it works.

It’s the end of November. If you made it through National Novel Writing Month with a draft, you’re probably painfully aware of how much work it needs. And if you came away from the month with only a portion of a draft, then you might feel like you have a lot further to go. Either way, you probably have a massive collection of pages that you feel, due to your proximity to the project, is somehow “broken.”

Maybe you hate the characters.

Maybe you feel the dialogue is flat.

Maybe the plot doesn’t make any sense.

But a lot of these negative feelings you have toward your novel might have a lot more to do with outside issues than with your novel. Your disdain for the project might have more to do with the fact that you’ve been living so closely with it for the past month than the fact that there’s anything wrong with it. In other words, your manuscript isn’t broken. You’re just too burnt out to appreciate it right now.

If you suspect that this is the case, your best bet is to put the manuscript aside for a while — probably not three years, but long enough to come back to it with fresh eyes. More to the point, don’t give up on the project, and don’t trash it just because you think it isn’t working. Instead, give yourself some time. Let your synapses rewire themselves. Allow yourself to recover from the arduous process of banging out that draft.

A month.

Two months.

Maybe longer.

And when you think you’re ready, turn to page one of the manuscript, flip the proverbial on-switch, and give your work a chance to scream back to life.

A Novel Approach, pt. 10, (Sausage)

(Continued from yesterday.)

Ultimately, the thing to remember is that writing is a process. In fact, it’s a messy process that’s bound to look like a hopeless mess when you’re in the middle of it. But that’s okay. As my friend and colleague Tim Connelly always says, all we want is the sausage. We don’t want to know how you made it.

As a writer, you have the luxury of working at your own pace and of hiding all the messiness involved in the process behind closed doors. Sure, we always hear about writers who say wild things like, “Once I found my narrative voice, the novel just wrote itself.” But those writers are just a bunch of bastards and they can all go to hell. Meanwhile, the rest of us can hunker down and get on with the real work of writing.

Having said that, let me end with a little thought experiment.

Imagine you have to explain writing a novel to someone who’s never done any writing—or any reading for that matter. And I don’t mean the “fun” aspects of writing a novel. I’m talking about the grim, gritty details of the process: I sit down in front of my computer for hours at a time, every day, possibly for years on end, and try to construct a narrative that reveals something about humanity. Some days I wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Other days, I just sit there and stare at the screen, reading the same line over and over again and wondering what comes next. It’s not uncommon for me to be happy to squeeze a single good sentence out of my brain and onto the page in front of me. Most days, I’m stricken with doubt and, if I’m completely honest with myself, have to admit that I have no ideas what I’m doing.

“Oh,” your friend who doesn’t read or write says. “That sounds terrible. They must be paying you a lot of money to do that.”

“No,” you say.

“Well, at least a lot of people read your work.”

“Um, actually?”

“The important thing is that you enjoy it, right?”

“Not always, no.”

“So why do you do it?” your friend asks.

It’s a tough question, but it’s a fair question, too. The best answer I can give is that I do it out of love. To write for any other reason just doesn’t make sense.

A Novel Approach, pt. 9, (Stop Counting Words)

(Continued from yesterday.)

One more piece of advice I have is to stop counting words. We live in a world where everything has to be quantified all the time, and it doesn’t help that most if not all word processing programs offer word counts at the bottom of the page—yet another reason, I suppose, it might be good to write in a notebook.

My main concern with counting words is that it encourages us to think about writing in terms of speed—how many words we write per hour, per day, per month. The thing about writing, and especially about writing a novel, is that it takes time. And if you want to do it well, chances are good that it’s going to take a lot of time.

When you start counting words, you start getting down on yourself—especially if, like me, you compare your word counts to your friends’ word counts.

The other guy’s is always so much bigger than mine.

So I start to feel bad because I’m not generating however many thousands of words per day my writer friends say they’re generating. As a result, I forget all about why I’m writing in the first place—that I enjoy the process. What’s more, hanging a number on my writing obscures everything else. I stop thinking about how satisfied I am with the work I’ve done or how meaningful the subject matter is to me, and I dwell entirely on that terrible little number.

(Concluded tomorrow.)