Why I’m not writing a novel

Chuck Wendig recently wrote a post entitled “Ten Things I’d Like to Say to Young Writers“, and his tenth point in that essay was, basically, finish what you start.

I’ve been writing since I was thirteen years old, but I never finished anything. I wrote pages and pages of text, but no complete stories. I managed to convince myself along the way that I was unable to create plots for stories, that my brain was linear and just didn’t function in the necessary way.

As a result, my ability to create readable prose grew steadily, but my ability to write a story remained weak and stunted.

On the plus side, however, I now understand that the problem isn’t that I am physically unable to do it, it’s that I never learned how. And that is a problem I can work with.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last months lurking on writing blogs. One of them belongs to the aforementioned Chuck Wendig, a published author of books, comic books and video games, and the other belongs to Jodie Llewellyn, who is an aspiring writer like myself. Both blogs discuss the craft of writing in some detail, from differing points of view.

On both sites, there has been a recent post that brought writers, aspiring and not, out of the woodwork in droves to discuss the current state of their own writings. And it seems like everyone and their cousin is smack in the middle of writing a full-length book.

I kind of feel left out in discussions like that. As though the novel is a rite of passage all writers must experience. And I know that it’s something I will want to tackle eventually. But at the moment, I’m not ready.

I’m still slogging my way up the learning curve, and short stories are my mile markers at the moment. In the last month or so, I’ve finished two short fiction stories. That’s a big accomplishment in my world. I got to feel that success, and take encouragement from it.

And short stories allow me to go through the cycle of plotting and writing on a much quicker time frame. It gives me the practice that I need in terms of the nuts and bolts of storytelling.

The fact that all these very logical points also cater to my absolute phobia of commitment is a complete coincidence…



Well… duh

I ran into this quote last year sometime, and it has had a profound effect on how I look at my writing:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

— Ira Glass

I came across this quote fairly late in my own process. I’m thirty-five now, and I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. I remember laboriously hand-writing a project on the arctic fox for a grade four assignment and thinking, “How am I going to be  a writer when I hate hand-writing so much?” And there’s a box in my living room closet (and I will eventually leave instructions in my will that that box is to be burned to ashes upon my death) that contains notebook after notebook of my scribblings from age 13 onwards. And at this point, in terms of assembling words into sentences, my ability is beginning to approach my taste. So, basically, the quote gave me permission to not feel humiliated by the contents of that box, but for some reason I didn’t think to extrapolate beyond that.

I’ve written before, I think, that I have some confidence in my ability to put together creative non-fiction essays that say what I intend for them to say. But when it comes to fiction, I have a firmly entrenched conviction that I am UNABLE to plot stories. I’ve blamed it on my very logical, linear brain. Plots require lateral thinking, I tell myself. I fully believe that I CAN NOT DO IT.

I have believed this for years. Completely internalised it. And every time I sit down and try to write fiction, it becomes this huge mountain that I need to scale before I can even begin. And I flagellate myself as a failure the whole way up.

And then, the other day, I was on the phone with a friend of mine. He was very patiently helping me talk through the half-baked story idea I’ve been poking at. And I started spouting the usual “I’m so bad at this” routine. And he just kind of shrugged and said, “You’re not bad at it, you just haven’t learned to do it yet.”

And I swear to you, that thought had never occurred to me before, ever.

I just need to practice.

One day, I’ll be better at it.

It’s okay, I’m still learning.

Well… duh.

So, I kind of feel like an idiot just now, but a very relieved idiot. And in addition to removing the whole self-doubt obstacle from my process, it has also given me a new approach. I have spent some time searching the internet for plot-building tools that I can use as training wheels while I learn. (I may do a post later on about what I’ve found.)

So, I just wanted a chance to read the quote again, and to share it. In case anyone out there hasn’t seen it yet. There is a difference between sucking and learning.