Monday, March 14, 2011

How to Write a Novel and Not Kill Yourself

I seem to be closing in on finishing my novel. Which is a good thing. Here are a few new things I've learned as of late.

1. The middle is the worst part. The first paragraph of a novel is the easiest part to write. I think there is a place towards the end where you pick up momentum because there is a sense that it will be over in the foreseeable future. The middle part just blows. It's like being lost in a wood of words. I have no idea what the "solution" is here other than to say knowledge that the middle is the hardest part may help. Or not.

2. Summarize as You Go. I've never been much of a fan of outlines, but I was stuck on a plane recently, and I thought, hm, well, what if I summarize in prose -- using a pen and a piece of paper, no less -- what's happened in my novel thus far? I did that. It helped. It makes you reduce all the complexities to simplicities. It edits out the endless psychological torment that accompanies the writing of most novels.

3. Music Helps. I like listening to Stereomood while I write. You can pick the mood you're in, and then you get a series of tracks that fit that mood. For literature, I've especially enjoyed Chillout, Epic, and Ambient.

4. So Does Multitasking. I've read about various studies that show how multitasking is bad for you, but for me it helps when I'm working on the novel. My novel is broken down into bite-sized chunks, and between the writing and/or editing of those chunks, I'll often take a short "break" and do something else. Like clean the toilet, check my email, or stuff my face. I find writing fiction to be very stressful, and the multitasking relaxes me. Also: Most stuff experts say is wrong or stupid.

5. Don't Expect to Like It. I think maybe writing a novel is like having a kid. Sure, sometimes it's fun, and you laugh and play, and everyone goes to sleep happy. Other days, it's about flying food, moist diapers, and bad attitudes. I guess the point is to appreciate the good times and pretend the bad times aren't happening. Otherwise, you kill yourself.

6. Push It Good. Or, in the words of Salt-N-Pepa, "Push it real good!" Personally, I don't understand how people can sit around writing crappy novels because the boredom would just kill me. I find I write best when I'm writing about something totally insane -- like people who sell their eyes, or one character waterboarding another, or a pill-popping mother. Really, no one cares about your stupid novel or the fact that you're writing it. You should entertain yourself.

7. Study Your Contrasts. In "Infamous," Truman Capote says of convicted killer Perry Smith, "he does have the tender and the terrible side by side inside him." I think that's a good way of describing great prose. It should be alarming and beautiful at the same time. Things are only beautiful in proximity to ugliness.

8. Meditate. It works. Do it. Smart minds yearn to write novels. Smart minds are crazy minds. Meditation helps make the crazed mind sane.

9. It's OK to Be Crabby. One thing I have a hard time with sometimes in this world is that you're supposed to be nice. Like, what's up with that? Honestly, at least 50-percent of the time I'm crabby. The kind of freakish self-indulgence that leads to novel writing requires the writer to function with a kind of ruthless impunity. Ruthless impunity. Is that redundant? Maybe. If the idea of being around others gives you hives, you're either in IT or a novel writer waiting to happen.

10. The Only Monsters Are in Your Head. Lately, finally, I've been able to realize that novel writing is a pretty stupid, boring, mundane act. I mean, really? You're going to make up a story in your head and write it down? How very special of you. The hard part is the demons in your mind that tell you that you can't do it, that make it hard to tolerate being alone, that want you to quit, to lay down and die, to give it all up. Serve them with eviction notices. Tell them that Dick Cheney has rooms for rent.

[Image via This Isn't Happiness]