Forever Novels and the Terrible Trivium: Camp NaNoWriMo

Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about my Forever Novel, at least not here. It’s on brand, sure, but it’s a little too personal and a little too embarrassing. Would you trust an editor who had spent over eight years on a novel and didn’t have a completed, polished draft to show for it? Probably not. I don’t know that I would. Never mind the temptation to start talking about what my Forever Novel is actually about, which I’m both dying to do and which I would prefer never to do. But since I’d like to keep up my weekly-ish schedule here and I’m out of book reviews, and since I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I guess I have no choice except to talk about writing. (It dawned on me, in the middle of writing this post, that I could have just nattered on a bit about my trip to Paris, or short stories I’ve read recently, or the books I was going to read next, or the books I’m currently reading, but oh well.)

My Forever Novel

I wrote the first draft of my Forever Novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. I completed the sixth round of revisions on it last week, meaning that I won Camp NaNoWriMo by meeting my self-appointed goal of revising the last 25 chapters out of a total of 156. I then overshot my goal by immediately going back to the beginning and reading through the newly revised manuscript from the beginning and—as you do—immediately making further edits. For an idea of scope, we’re talking about just a hair over 80,000 words.

I’m glad I met my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo, not least because this particular round of revisions was unusually tricky and was where I made the deepest and most painful cuts. This is the revision where I figured out the skeleton of the whole weird thing. It’s nice to finally know what I’m dealing with.

But is it anything I want to deal with?

There was certainly a personal, emotional value in writing this Forever Novel, from the first mad NaNoWriMo dash in 2014 to this rather casual rounding off last week. The entire process was a surprisingly effective way of expunging a particularly dysfunctional friendship from my psyche. Anything I ever wanted to say to the other party in real life just got dumped into the novel. Approaching all of that from a writerly perspective helped me see how much was petty spite that really didn’t serve the story, and as I cut those elements out from the story, it also seemed to drain all of the petty spite out of myself. Or did the various drafts only reflect my own maturation back to me with each passing year? Hard to say. Either way, I’m now left with a weird, ambitious story and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my reach has exceeded my grasp.

The truth is, not every project has value. Or perhaps a kinder way to phrase that is: not every project has value in its completion. The only value this project might ever have is helping me process and discard a hang-up I’d been nurturing for fifteen years, give or take. If I feel obligated to see it through to completion, to the point of excluding other projects and losing that sense of play and exploration, is that really a good thing? Marcy Dermansky went for the jugular right in the opening paragraph of this essay for LitHub:

A lesser-known fact about me: In addition to writing my own novels, I am a developmental editor. I help authors improve their novels. Sometimes these novels get sold; sometimes—as one of my despairing clients knows all too well—they don’t. About a year ago, she came back to me wanting to work on a sixth draft based on the suggestions of an interested agent. “At this point,” she said. “I just want this novel to be over.”

There was true heartbreak in her voice—and also real animosity for her novel. It was clear to me that she had begun to hate the book she once loved, had been working on for years. And while the one interested agent’s suggestion to move the end of the novel to the beginning, forecasting the events to come, could work, it was more likely not a good idea. I could sense pure dread. All the joy, all the play was gone. “You can rework material to death,” I warned her, and honestly, she already had. “Why don’t you start something new. See what happens. Have fun. Play.”

When that essay appeared in my inbox, I instantly recognized myself in that despairing author. I was not at the stage of animosity or pure dread yet, but I could sense it as a distinct possibility. For the first time, I allowed myself to ask the question: what am I even doing with this project.

The Terrible Trivium

The truth is, I haven’t really seriously worked on any other fiction since 2014 because I’ve been so focused on my Forever Novel. I used to lament that majoring in writing was a pointless endeavor, that if you wanted to write you would; at this point in my life I have to admit that I can see value in having a two-week deadline to churn out new material or else risk failing a class. I might have hated writing short stories (as this blog post nears 1,000 words, you might have noticed I struggle with brevity) but I still wrote them within that rather narrow deadline. Without fail. They were an assignment, and I had to get them done, and so that was that. I have them all still today and I actually kind of like a few of them.

Now adrift in the real world, I don’t have to write short stories when I write. Great! But without the motivating factor of a deadline and a passing grade, it’s all too easy to fall under the spell of the Terrible Trivium.

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. “Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

Close-up of grains of sand
Photo by Dave LZ on Unsplash

On the one hand, I’ve certainly made progress in the Forever Novel. But if I just keep fussing with it forever—if, like Milo, I keep moving that pile of sand with a pair of tweezers—then I never have to do anything difficult. I don’t have to try any new ideas, I don’t need to worry about failing, I can just keep futzing around with this story for the rest of my life.

Thus, the $64,000 question. Am I doing the hard work? Or am I avoiding it?

Who knows?

Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.