Novels are long. Filling 400 blank pages is intimidating. I have written 11 and am working on my 12th. In the beginning stages of writing a novel, every creative known writing term known to civilization comes to haunt me. You call that a narrative hook? Have you ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell?” Remember, never describe what a character looks like by having her look in a mirror. Um, isn’t that a clichée? Do you even recognize the term “objective correlative?” Of course. Then why can’t you use it properly? Sheesh, they should take your MFA away from you and give it to someone who could use it.
I could go on, but I don’t want to spread my paranoia cooties.
“Try not to let the critics into your head,” my literary agent told me when I was starting my second novel, sold on a verbal proposal. I’d had many good reviews and some really unpleasant ones. So of course the critic moved right in, painted the walls a painful mustard yellow, added fraying furniture with bad springs, hung Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” on the wall. Then it set out room temperature macaroni salad and some questionable fish, scattered tacks on the floor, and put on the soundtrack to “Jaws.”
Newsflash: This happens every time I write a novel.
I might appear normal on the outside, grocery shopping, brushing my hair, engaging in ordinary conversations with people other than my dogs, but inside, I’m nearly paralyzed with doubt. I start writing anyway, hoping to reach the magical page 200, proof to me that these inflated meanderings may yet become a story. When, after many months of writing, hurrah, I arrive at page 200, I am thrilled. By this time I’ve rewritten every word, started over in six different places, and banished characters that were intent on hijacking the story for their own illicit purposes.*
*Warning: The second a writer makes blanket statements like this, the characters gang up to prove her wrong and turn out to be excellent guides. I don’t want to think about how much control I assume I have, I just want to write.
The reason page 200 arrives is because I have stubbornly pursued it. I have written passages and even chapters that I know will be axed, but the number 200 quiets the critic for a while. I can breathe. Then I forge ahead with more conviction, because now there’s something to work with.
Something to work with.
This is what it takes to finish a novel. Even the most horrible first 200 pages prove that I can write probably another 200 without imploding. 200 + 200 = the most beautiful phrase: a first, full draft. Yes, there will be massive rewriting, doubt dressed in go-go boots, and even potentially rejection, but right now I can write the pants off of a novel.
At this point there are only 2 ways to look at your writing: It is OK, or it is Not OK. Anything else (this is brilliant, call the MacArthur Grant people, this is dreck, this is amazing, this is pointless) is going to stall me out.
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