A line would get stuck in my head. That’s how I started writing everything: short stories, essays, novels. A line would get stuck in my head and just wouldn’t let go. Like a song.
The sound of an “s” pulled up next to an “a.” Assonance and dissonance. The way words have a way of sounding like music when you string them together just right.
I can feel it in my fingers and my toes. A light, happy tingling. And when that happens, I think, That’s it. I finally got it right.
I wanted my first novel, Whores on the Hill, to be like a song. I kept thinking of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” or Paul Curreri’s “On Hopeless Love.” Short and sad and melancholic, leaving you wanting more.
I wanted the whole thing to be like that.
And I think in a way, it was. It took a lot of finagling, but I think that’s what I was going for with the short chapters and the different formats and the pace.
When it was over, I thought, Whew! Writing the next novel is going to be a piece of cake!
Only it hasn’t been.
And I hate to even say it, but I think what is tripping me up is this love of the one line. Finding that one great line, that somehow encapsulates exactly what I was thinking and trying to say.
Because it doesn’t happen that often. Even when it does, I often have to go back on Draft Three or Five or Fifteen or Twenty and strike that line that I thought was so great because it doesn’t work with the overall plot or storyline.
I’m writing in circles lately. Striking and revising the same lines and the same images and not getting anywhere. It’s incredibly frustrating.
I had a teacher who said, “Find out what your weaknesses are as a writer. Whatever it is:—dialogue, descriptions, character, pacing. Zero in on your weakness and annihilate it.”
For me, that’s plot. I started writing because I liked how things sound together. But that doesn’t exactly work when you’re writing a novel.
Writing a novel takes a long, long time. It’s not one line or one scene or one character. It’s a bigger body of work. It has to work together—your beginning, your middle and your end. Your characters and your setting and your themes. The tropes and the objects that you repeat. It’s the full body of work, rather than the great line, that makes the novel great. It’s the grand overall that makes it sing, not the one pretty line on page 69.
And because I’ve been writing novels lately, it seems that I’ve had to change my process.
I wrote one novel that I had completely plotted out on note cards, which is something I had never done before. I thought that would be a smarter, more efficient way to do it and that I could finish writing the book in a year. But it took much longer than that.
Writing the book was like trudging through molasses. I went to my desk every morning, brow-beaten and lonely, looking at my little note card with its little scene on it and plugged away. I think I even had a word count—like 500 words a day. I put in my words, I put in my time, doggedly, but then I’d push away from the desk, greatly relieved and somewhat ashamed. It was an unpleasant process. And it took about four years.
But there was no discovery in it. No breath of fresh air. No journey and excitement for me as a writer. I write to discover what I’m trying to say. I write to try and understand the world around me—that’s part of the process.
Needless to say, that novel still hasn’t been published. I hope it will, eventually, one of these days when I can circle around to it and finally get it right.
So I put it aside and started a new novel. I started with an image—of three girls running through the woods late at night—rather than a line, and went from there.
But again, I’ve run into plot problems. I’m on Draft One Million and Eighty-Five (not really, but you get the idea) and I still don’t know if I have it right. I keep cutting things out and rearranging them and then putting everything back together again. I know I did this with Whores on the Hill, but I still think, Shouldn’t there be an easier way to do this?
In the end, I think that you have to honor your process as a writer. Note cards didn’t work for me. But also charging ahead into the abyss because I have one great line hasn’t exactly been working out for me either.
I think I need a little bit of both. I think I need to honor the line, the music of language and strive for it. But also, honor the plot. Have at least an idea in my head of where I think my characters are going to go. So that I can make the lines as great as the overall story.
I listened to an interview with William Maxwell once. He said that after writing one of his novels, he thought, There! I figured out how to write a novel! Everything will be so much easier from now on.
But of course it wasn’t. He struggled as much as he did before. It took entirely too much time. But that’s just the way it goes. Each novel has its own set of problems that the writer has to solve, its own peculiar riddles and maze of messages that you have to figure out on your own.
But that’s what keeps it interesting. What keeps writers—and readers—coming back for more. That you’re trying—with all of your heart and your soul—to do something new and to make it work.