Living With the Difficulty of a Novel

Measuring progress can be tricky, especially for a writer who doesn’t have pages adding up, let alone when a writer is deleting them. Over the past month, I’ve hardly written any words in the main document of my novel. I’ve detoured instead into research, character studies, and questioning the shape of the entire project.

For a while, I was worried enough that I searched for the basics of novel writing and rediscovered the stuff about honing a one-sentence concept, building on that for an outline, expanding next to chapter paragraphs, and then writing pages. So simple. Systems always tempt me, but they also make me wonder what’s wrong with me when I can’t follow them.

I think an important part about novel writing, something that doesn’t get enough airtime because it’s elusive and doesn’t fit in lists, is living with the difficulty of a book. Just living with it. I go to bed pondering one detail, like the lack of soil on Antarctica, and wake up with characters half drowning and dropping their purses through clear, aquamarine water. I zero in on one character to consider how what she wants has been changing, and then I ponder what this means for the power dynamic between her and her mother. I sit in a scene with my characters while they decline to talk, and underneath that, I’m testing what the stakes are.

The process is messy. It completely eludes bullet points. I can’t really explain it well, and I can’t yet see where it will come together, but I know this is absolutely essential to my novel. My first draft is halfway written. It’s well over 50,000 words. But it’s also in this half-born, inchoate state, and the only real measure of progress is that each day I’m getting new ideas about it, however small or random they might seem.

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