writing the one you’re writing

A while ago, I saw a post on Farah's blog called "PreReading American Gods." In that post, she refers to a quote from the introduction to American Gods where Neil Gaiman (the author) asked Gene Wolfe (a much older and more experienced writer) for some words of advice. Gene Wolfe said, "You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on."

My comment at the time was that this is true and not true. On one hand, yes, each thing you write is its own adventure and requires its own process. But on the other hand, you do learn some things as you go along. If you've written a novel or two, you're not starting from zero again with the third one.

But each one does make its own rules. I've written thirteen mystery stories so far, and I'm writing a fourteenth one for the book I'm planning (and, no, not because I'm superstitious). The difficulty is that the new story has to fit into the middle of the book, because it's replacing a story I had before that I'm taking out. That story was pretty good, but it depended on the reader having read the novel U-town, so it didn't really work as a story in a collection. I'm increasingly aware of the importance of having each book stand on its own, even as they all take place in the same world with the same characters.

So, I needed a replacement story, but it needed to do what the other one did, mainly introduce some characters who will be important in a later story. And, of course, be a good mystery story, too.

And this is turning out to require a different process than my usual one, probably because the story has so many things it needs to do. Mostly they just need to be good stories. So, instead of going part by part, posting as I complete each part, I have the whole thing in one Word file (well, Abiword, actually) and am chopping and slicing and reorganizing in there.

You know, the way most people do. πŸ™‚

I started off trying to follow my usual method, but that wasn't right for this project, so I had to adapt.

(The most interesting part of writing this post was reading about Gene Wolfe, who said the original quote and who has written a lot of books – more than Neil Gaiman and me put together and then some. Now I'm curious to read some of his books, since so many people admire him and I'm not even sure I'd ever heard his name before.)


Later: Well, after I wrote the above, I solved my particular problem in a different way. I'm going to remove the later story (the one that required the earlier one be created), plus two other short ones. I've figured out how to do this without causing problems (one remaining story will now need an epilogue), and I think it will make the collection stronger.

And, most importantly, it will make the book shorter (~300 pages as opposed to ~400). The length of the thing has been my main concern all along. ~400 pages is a long book for a collection of mystery stories (even for a novel that's disguised as a collection of mystery stories). But (because it's really a novel) it was always hard to figure out what could be removed, but now I've got a plan that I think will work.

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13 Responses to writing the one you’re writing

  1. This is so true. My current WIP is taking up more of my time because I’m plotting writing plotting writing. Usually, I just write with a few ideas jotted down somewhere.

    So, I agree. You do have to adapt with each novel.

    I do kind of disagree with the quote like you did. Yes and no. You do learn more about the writing process as you go along. What works, what doesn’t. But, each novel is special and requires different things in the writing process. πŸ™‚

  2. Alexis says:

    I agree with the quote from Gene Wolfe, but I’ve never completed a novel, so I can’t be sure that I’d feel the same way, but I assume I would. Every small project, every short story, every poem, every lyric, every article, and every essay I’ve ever written has been its own unique challenge. At the same time, I think we get better at what we do as we constantly tackle the next thing.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Alexis and Emerald. The funny thing is that after I wrote the post, I came up with an entirely different solution to the problem and I’ve put that story on hold (I never throw anything away, of course). I’m amending the post itself.

  4. Alexis says:

    I toss out work all the time. It’s wasteful and self-destructive and I do it anyway.

  5. Tiyana says:

    Hooray for problem-solving! LoL

    I guess I can see where Gene Wolf is coming from with that statement. “Write a novel” is too generic to mean much on an individual level, as it implies there’s only one way to write a novel. So from that angle, I agree with him. However, there are general storytelling techniques which can be learned along the way, though they may not apply to every novel.

  6. Tiyana says:

    (Or rather, “How to write a novel.” My bad.)

  7. Alexis: I want to say, “No, never throw anything away!” but in reality the main reason I save everything is not because I think it’s essential for writers to save every word, it’s because I’m a pack rat in general. πŸ™‚

    Tiyana: I just thought of this from another angle. Not only does each novel present its own challenges to the writer, but I think that will end up being good for the reader, because who wants to read a bunch of novels that all posed the same challenges? That sounds like some novels that would be very similar to each other.

  8. Alexis says:

    Anthony, I guess that’s my problem: I am the opposite. Currently I’m in the midst of purging all useless clutter from my house, which includes everything I haven’t used in the past year. Imagine what a toll that would take on my writing!

  9. everydayepic says:

    Great post! I would have to agree and disagree as well. Every novel is its own unique work. They’re conceived differently (for me, one from my childhood that I could never leave alone, another out of asking “what if?”, and the third from asking what might happen next) and develop differently. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.

    But there are things about writing a novel that have stayed true (at least, for me) regardless of which I’m working on. And it’s those techniques, the discipline, and such that I’ve learned while working on my first novel that (hopefully) will make writing the others not take thirteen years to write. πŸ™‚

  10. Bryna, I started A Sane Woman (novel #1) over twenty years ago, and I’ve learned a few things since then. Far (very far) from everything, but I’m not where I was.

    Your next one will probably go a bit faster. Probably. πŸ˜‰

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