Not a very alluring title, even if of a Stephen King best seller! Come to think of it, that novel was about a writer, had a writer as main character who was writing a character called Misery, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Read on – I promise no gloom and doom – or broken ankles…
When, just over 3 years ago, I started writing a novel I imagined the hardest thing would be to generate the amount of words necessary. My mind was on quantity. I ploughed on and on but once I tipped the 85, 000 mark, I actually wondered if I’d bring it in under 100,000 words, so involved was the story and it’s many many strands!
It was over 100,000. Some time elapsed, I had feedback and realised that because of the ‘toiling on and on’ ethic I’d used to generate it – the second half’s writing wasn’t up to the first. So then my mind was on quality. More toiling, but this time up close to the characters – all sense and sensuality.
A second draft was born. I had more time away, had new feedback, tweaked some, got more feedback and despite getting a fair degree of glowing praise for the writing, hit another realisation – though the quality now passed muster, there was too much going on. So I reminded myself of how streamlined novels are by reading a couple and knew I had to think leaner and meaner.
Mean – because I had to be merciless in stripping away lots of my lovely writing, however beautifully crafted. Mean – because in staying with the characters, I had to stay with their concerns and for the story to work their concerns had to be troubling, there had to be more at stake.
And this folks, means misery. Characters have to be unhappy for a novel to get off the ground. And getting up to close means wallowing in what ails them, not to put it right instantly but to see what they might try.
If compassion means the capacity to be ‘with suffering’ then novelists need a lot. I noticed how gloomy I was getting spending day after day with my characters this draft around, before I realised, I was really registering their misery now – which is actually a good thing, novelistically speaking.
So, I currently think the hardest thing about writing a novel is having to be cruel (to be kind) to your characters and staying with whatever is making them miserable because then you’ll truly want them to solve it while knowing it’s not that easy.
On the same note, I found this extract from a talk by Joyce Carol Oates, not sure the link will work but here goes: