One Writer’s View: Confessions of a Reluctant Novelist

A musing meander (meandering muse?) in three and a half parts—the backstory, the crisis, and the discovery. Sorry for the length. I suppose it underscores precisely the point that I just might be a novelist at heart.

The Backstory

I was once considered a promising writer. I had written more than 150 short stories. I had joined the staff of a magazine so I could do inside research on how and why fiction sold. I attended workshops with Big Name Authors and organized workshops for the rest of us. I attended conventions and met New York editors. I was a member of a thriving local writing community and belonged to several critique groups.

I was selling short fiction and creative non-fiction regularly to small and regional publications (BYU Studies, The Leading Edge, Irreantum, lds entertainment) across a variety of categories (science fiction, fantasy, memoir, literary, slice-of-life). I was winning contests. I had even managed a handful of sales to national magazines (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s FANTASY Magazine, Galaxy) and anthologies—though only one story ever appeared.

Even the rejection letters were becoming more hopeful, with an increasing number of personal comments written in by editors on why that story didn’t fit their editorial needs, but asking for my next. It seemed I was on the cusp, only a technique or two away from selling short stories to the national market on a reasonably consistent basis. I’d been knocking at the door for a long time, but it was just a matter of when, not if.

Then it happened. The horrible realization that sapped my strength and crushed my heart and left me dazed and disoriented and despondent. I was a fake. A fraud. A pretender. I was not the spinner of brief tales I had always seen myself as.

I was not a short story writer at all. It seemed I was a natural novelist—an entirely different animal.

The Crisis

It was a problem. I had a rhythm, a program, and a method for producing short stories that I had refined over more than a hundred exercises. I had practices for story ideation, research, character development, and plot beats. I had techniques for juggling a half-dozen projects at once so I could switch if I ran into trouble on any one story. I had a food chain of target markets and kept upward of a dozen stories on editors’ desks at any given moment.

I had a built up a consistent, predictable system for writing short stories. I was invested.

I had noticed the signs, but tried to ignore them. I was using entire scenes to set up a single idea or character attribute. The time frame of the stories was moving from hours or days to weeks, months, or even years. I was spending more time setting up and complicating the conflict than resolving it.

My stories were becoming longer, moving from 3500–7500 words up into the 9k–17k word range. And I’d had to cut the last few down from more than 20k. All my new story starts required that greater length.

It was a terrifying moment. It took me an average of two months to produce a short story—and I hadn’t sold new fiction to major markets in more than two years. If I extended that out to a standard novel length of 80k–120k, I would have to spend well over a year just to produce a draft manuscript, and another year to refine it for submission. The scale was all wrong.

I would have to go dark for two years to produce just a single story. Inconceivable.

Worse, I couldn’t imagine how I could come up with enough stuff to fill out that many pages. My stories were getting longer, but they weren’t full of complex plot twists or clever misdirections; they were just bigger ideas that required more setup and development time. There was no way I could 1) come up with that many ideas in the same story arc, or 2) organize them in a way that allowed me to have fun as I wrote.

Even with short fiction, part of the fun was discovering events and character attributes as I went. Because I was only devoting two months to a story (max—some stories were written in hours), I knew I could keep the idea fresh. Even when bouncing among a half-dozen projects, it wasn’t hard to slot back into the momentum of any one story. Keeping that energy for two years was an impossible dream.

I had been a technical writer for a decade at that point, and I knew the drudgery of writing while bored. I knew well the blandness that crept into your work after staring at the same drab interface for weeks on end. I wanted the fun of moving to a new idea and new characters. I had tried novels three times and lost interest each time after about one short-story worth of writing.

I was doomed, and I knew it. I had morphed into a no-man’s land with a mind drawn to novel ideas but a temperament built for shorter forms. If I really wanted to make a living writing fiction I knew I had to move to novels (short stories get notice; novels get paychecks), but all of my experience was oriented around short fiction.

It intimidated me out of fiction entirely. I knew exactly what the problem was, but I had no idea how to solve it. So I diverted. I joined AML and started to write about fiction instead of writing stories of my own. I tried to fill the storyteller’s urge with personal essays, recurring email columns, or blog posts. I wrote pop criticism and reviews, and engaged in cultural commentary.

But under it all I still wanted to create my own stories. If only I didn’t have that two-year chasm staring me in the face. If only I could avoid the specter of being chained to a single idea for five times as many words as I’d ever written on a single story before. If only the commitment wasn’t so darned big and scary and fraught. What if I committed two years and got nothing out of it? The horror.

The Discovery

Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. After fifteen years of avoiding the issue I decided to try again. I started by trying to refine my old short stories, but those had already been refined many times over. So I took an idea I had mulled for most of fifteen years and decided to write it and submit it to a contest.

I had a plan. The story would be carefully constructed at between 7k and 9k words—the length of the average prize winner in that particular contest. I would develop the plot based on cultural and historical fact (it was a fantasy story) combined with rigorous mythic underpinnings. I knew the thematic points I wanted to hit, the only question was how I would demonstrate them.

I had thought about short fiction a lot and believed that I had rediscovered the formula—or at least taught myself how to simplify the larger ideas that now dominated my imagination. I could force any idea into a structured, well-planned mold that met my immediate goals as a writer. I’d been doing it with creative non-fiction for fifteen years, after all.

Of course my carefully planned short story was in trouble right from the start. After a carefully constructed setup for the idea, I then launched into a 3k word digression on a point of background. It was good stuff and added flavor and realism, but it didn’t directly support my thematic hit-list, so I cut it (saved it to a “bits” file in case I ever wrote the novel).

It took me a long time to get that opening to work—close to three weeks of frustrated writing and deleting and cursing. I knew the pacing was a bit tedious, but believed everything there was necessary to kick the story off right. Once I made that first turn (about 3k words), the rest was easy. It took me three days to blow through the 7k word mark (still hoped for 10k), then another day to blow through 10k. By the next day I was up to 13k and worried about hitting the max word length limit of 17k for the contest.

I wrote the bulk of that story in five days (after a two month false start), and trimmed it down to 16k in the end. But there was no longer any doubt; it was a novel that I had forced into a novella’s body. When it came back from the contest as an honorable mention, the only question was when I would write the novel it always wanted to be.

This was in June; it turns out that I would write the novel before the end of the year. But not before writing another novel start and submitting it to the same contest (finalist this time). The difference was that I knew the second story was a novel start, and I structured it as such.

Something had changed. Whether it was writing quickly or whether it was obstinate commitment to overcome my own fear, but I refused to be intimidated by the idea of writing a novel. Two out of four story starts since returning to fiction writing had turned out to be novels; there was no use pretending. I was a novelist.

So I took a deep breath and went for it. I decided to take a shot at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November as a goad; I knew I wouldn’t make it, but the program gave me some structure and a word count goal. Sadly I only made 30k words (the goal was 50k words) in November, but I had still written more on a single story than I had ever written before. I had some momentum.

To make a short story long (I know…too late), I wrote 50k words in December, and finished the first draft of my first novel; a YA fantasy that weighs in at 80k (spent the first week of January cutting 5000 words and adding 4000 new words).

In the process of overcoming twenty years of worry in a single two-month writing exercise, I discovered some key things (for me as an individual writer—your mileage may vary).

  • It took me about the same amount of time to write a novel as it took me to write each of the two novellas I had produced earlier in the year. Not the two years I feared; just two months.
  • Plot complications and ideas came naturally as a function of the writing. Ideas suggested themselves as I went. Because I was freed of space constraints, I could let imagination run.
  • Every night I was unsatisfied with what I wrote that day; during the night my subconscious mind worked on the story and I awoke knowing how to fix the previous day’s frustration.
  • Secondary and tertiary themes emerged as I wrote, and I discovered them as I went. This was a bit of a surprise to me; I had always worked theme in from the start—discovering theme as an embedded part of the emerging story caught me by (very welcome) surprise.
  • I gained energy as I went. The first month was (relatively) hard as I set things up; the second month was easier as I drove toward the inevitable conclusions set up by that first month.
  • I gained good writing habits over those two months. Now any day where I don’t get some writing done feels like a wasted day. I awake early now, excited to write something useful before daylight breaks.
  • Writing a novel was much funner than ever writing a short story was. For me. The depth and breadth of story possible in a novel appeals to the storyteller in me. And I lost no more time to the effort than my normal commitment to a short story. A win all around.
  • As a result I can’t wait to start the next one (I plan to write three more novels this year—each more than 100k long). I only wish I had discovered this earlier.

There was nothing easy about the task, but it was infinitely do-able; something I would never have known until I finally overcame fear and gave it a valiant try.

Take Your Shot

Every writer works differently. I’ve only written a single novel (and not yet sold it), but the fact is that I did finally write it. I broke through the barrier of my own fear and took a shot—and discovered more fun in the writing than I had ever experienced before.

The fear is gone; that particular uncertainty vanquished. I’ve discovered a capacity I never imagined I might have. There’s no guarantee the novel will ever sell, but the fact is that until I wrote it there wasn’t even a possibility that it could sell. Now there is.

Every writer has to overcome their own unique barrier(s) to full commitment. In my case, fear of how hard a novel might be to write kept me from writing fiction for most of fifteen years. It turns out that fear was an illusion—as it often is.

While I hope this turns out to be a story of personal triumph, it’s also a cautionary tale. Don’t let fear keep you from moving forward in your own writing. The markets are changing and there are opportunities now that have never existed before. Take your shot or you will always regret what might have been.

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17 Responses to One Writer’s View: Confessions of a Reluctant Novelist

  1. Wm says:

    This fascinates me, Scott. Thanks for sharing it. Last year was the year I finally committed to writing fiction with an emphasis on short story/novelette. And now I have a new thing to worry about. ;-)

    But seriously: painful thought it may have been, I like that you a) saw the signs, b) responded to them ,and c) were rewarded by doing so. That’s awesome.

    Question: do you have any sense of how many words per hour you can produce?

    I ask because I’m intrigued by your ability to generate 50k words in a month. Where I sit that seems impossible. But I may have a skewed perspective.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Three thoughts–

      First, as an unemployed person I have an unreasonable amount of free time. Coming to the decision that it was okay to spend that time writing was a different problem, but I got there. Perhaps an essay for another day; there’s a *lot* of the personal (and the particularly Mormon) in that story.

      Second, I didn’t keep an hourly word count, only a daily count where I looked at the total after I had edited/rewritten the previous day’s work and produced new work—so I have no way of calculating a true daily count of new words.

      I generally averaged anywhere from 200-800 words an hour. My worst writing day was 28o words, and was the day when I struggled to transition from local events to the external quest. I ended up writing close to 2000 words that day, but most of it replaced words that I deleted (more than 600 killed in single backspace) in the pages leading up to that transition.

      My best single day was 6100 and I had four more days of better than 5000. I ended up doing 40k words between December 17 and 27 (including 1650 on Christmas day—not quite three hours of writing time before kids woke up and family activities took the rest of the day). Those five most productive days all happened during this period.

      Which is not quite representative. I had written the novella first, and those last 40k words went over much of the ground already covered there, so there was quite a bit less new story to imagine. Some of that was copy and paste from the novella, though I tended to use only a few sentences or the odd paragraph; I had changed the story enough that the stuff from the novella was more useful as a guide than actual text.

      I did have quite a few days where I didn’t write fiction at all. I did 80k words in 27 writing days; an average of just short of 3000 words per day. I averaged four to six hours of clean writing time on each of those days (minus kids, meals, and normal daily life).

      This doesn’t take the three weeks of intensive research and note-taking into account. I tend to create a research file (with references) before I begin serious writing (why make stuff up when you can use actual fact?), though one never stops looking stuff up at any point in the crafting.

      Third, my only suggestion is that you not worry; let my weakness be your warning. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, fear is the mind-killer; don’t bother with it. It’s hard to charge ahead when so many things vie for your attention, but even small forward steps are better than simply walking away for so long—as I did.

      I don’t think the fifteen years away was completely wasted, but I did lose a lot of momentum, contacts, and opportunity. Now I’m just another geezer who’s watched so many new writers zoom past me into market success because I let ordinary fear and uncertainty stand in the way.

      But no more. Win or lose, I’m taking my shot right now.

      • Wm says:

        Cool. That’s very helpful. Not that my process would be the same as yours — it’s just good for me to see how other people do it because when it’s presented as total output I get a little daunted.

        I can average 800 words or so an hour, although my rough drafts are much rougher than they used to be* so that also means more time in revision. I have just this month been able to do 400-500 words every work day on the bus in to work. I’d love to do the same on the ride home but a) my mind is not fresh and b) I don’t always get a seat.

        The word count is also easier to attain, imo, because I’m writing 3-9k stories so I can keep the whole thing in my head (even if some it is on the hazy side).

        * when you only write one story a year, it’s easy(ish) for it to come out rather crafted.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          For me early morning is the best time to work—or at least start working. I’m fresher, there are fewer distractions, and I just feel clearer.

          Go, go, go.

          • Lee Allred says:

            There’s a very good reason to write early in the morning (I do as well): your critical voice (your inner editor) part of your brain isn’t quite awake yet. Your creative voice part can get a lot done before ol’ Grumpy Lobe wakes up and tries to tell you you can’t write. :)

          • Jonathan Langford says:

            Sadly, I’ve found that my inner critic rarely if ever sleeps. Though I can sometimes distract it. Which is why some of my best writing has been done when I either (a) had a headache, or (b) was supposed to be paying attention to other things…

        • Lee Allred says:

          Wm wrote:

          “I can average 800 words or so an hour, although my rough drafts are much rougher than they used to be* so that also means more time in revision…when you only write one story a year, it’s easy(ish) for it to come out rather crafted.”

          Wm, may I suggest a bold experiment? I call it the Charles Dickens Literary Rewrite Method” after its chief practicioner*.

          http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860

          –Lee

          *In November 1836 Dickens accepted the job of editor of Bentley’s Miscellany…In 1836 as he finished the last [weekly] installments of The Pickwick Papers he began writing the beginning installments of Oliver Twist–writing as many as 90 pages a month–while continuing work on Bentley’s, writing four plays, the production of which he oversaw. (Wikipedia) Extrapolate the hours spent in rewrite. (Lee)

        • Scott Parkin says:

          Just one writer’s opinion—

          As a recovering over-re-writer, my own experience suggests that it’s really easy to overwork a story, and spend a lot of time to little (or no) benefit. Consider less rewriting and more new writing.

          Unlike others, I believe in rewriting—or at least in taking one more run through the story after you’ve gone off to work on another project and reset your mind.

          My rewrites tend to take two forms—a story edit where I make sure key elements are in place the way I intended, and a reduction edit where I go through and cut my tendency to say everything twice (or more).

          After that, it’s just tinkering and I tend to believe your energy is better spent working on the next story rather than the last. FWIW.

          • Wm says:

            Oh, I only tend to do 2-3 rewrites on a story now. Like, Scott I do one structural one and then one or two prose polishes.

            That one story a year thing hasn’t been true for three years now.

  2. Lee Allred says:

    Congrats on getting your mojo back, Scott!!! I saw a lot of myself in that post, especially the fear of the novel part. :)

    Wm– As a general rule of thumb, a typed manuscript page is about 250 words. Six pages a day (or 1500 words) would give you just short of 50,000 words in a month. That’s the length of a 1950s-1970s genre novel. (And 50k novels are coming back into vogue with POD indie publishing because of POD economics/price points.)

    Even only producing a page a day — just a bit more than double your post above — will still give you about 92k words in a year. That’s a good sized NY-published novel or two indie published 50k novels or 13 7k-word stories in a year for only a small time commitment each day.

    I’ve been pretty steady with four pages a day (1k words) lately. My daily four pages take me roughly two hours (1/2 hour per page).

  3. Mark Penny says:

    A gripping tale if ever there was one. What can I say more? I hope to see your novel on my Kindle sometime soon.

    Where can I find your short fiction? I see there’s a list at Mormon Literature and Creative Arts, but can you guide me to someplace where I can actually read something?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      More likely to give you the grippe than actually grip your attention. Still, I did label it as a confession, so at least there was truth in advertising.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    Give it a couple of weeks and I’ll put out a dozen stories or so as ebooks.

    In the mean time, very little of my stuff is available on the Web (it has been fifteen years since I’ve really worked at it). You can still get at the stories I published in BYU Studies (18 years ago). One is a mainstream-ish piece called Die Mauer, and the other is a slice-of-life story called “The Great Bean Count Schism.

    Otherwise, I’m not sure how much of my stuff is out there where you can get at it.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately myself as I am transitioning back into longform fiction from the shorter short stories I’ve mostly written the last few years. I’m wrapping up a novella now and hope to finish a novel draft sometime this year. (I think I’ll need at least that long—I fear this one may be a behemoth.) Packing in the minutes matters much.

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