Simply Remove Everything That Isn’t Story
I’ve found myself, lately, going over half-completed novels and wondering if I had a stroke while writing them.
It’s not true, of course. I didn’t have a stroke. But I was very ill for about four or five years, the time I refer to as “the wheels came off.”
Before the endless moves, there were the endless illnesses, which were, apparently precipitated by low thyroid. (This is not actually strictly true, which is why it took so long to identify. My autoimmune issues attack a component necessary to my thyroid output being used by my body.) Low thyroid causes other issues, like weight gain and lack of energy, but most importantly depression, verbal competence issues and memory issues.
The memory issues were a problem because I keep the “design” of a novel in my head as I write. Even when I’m purely pantsing, I know what the novel is supposed to “feel” like, and so I know how to remove everything that isn’t novel. Only I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep it in my mind, not the feel of it, the sense of it, (it’s like following a thread into chaos. You have to keep holding on.) And so my half completed novels (except one that gets ditched from chapter one) are … not even wrong. I kept going from chapter to chapter going “why am I showing this? What does this have to do with the plot? Gratuitous sex why?” And on and on and on. The chapters and scenes are competently written, but it’s as though someone tried to tell Romeo and Juliet by following Lady Capulet’s depression, her husband’s business deals, friar Laurence’s crisis of faith, the Montague’s reading habits.
Fascinating side details, and the glimmers of the story are there, but for some reason you can’t get at them, because the deranged author is showing you EVERYTHING BUT.
Which in case you wonder is why you won’t see the second of Vampire Musketeers until… oh, late October. Because that’s the state I found it in.
So, to bring this to where you can use it: writing a novel is easy. You simply remove everything that isn’t novel.
How do you know what isn’t novel, particularly in those cases (and all of us face them, now and then) when the novel, for whatever reason, won’t let you outline it?
Be aware of the character arc and of the emotions you want to evoke. Then follow that, like a thread into the maelstrom of the story. No matter how fascinating side-scenes are, if they neither advance that arc, nor carry any emotional punch that furthers your involvement with the characters, don’t write them. Or if you must write them, cut them ruthlessly.
Oh, and if you find you can’t keep anything in your head, have so much trouble thinking of words that it feels like you’re writing novels by passing words out one by one in a tiny fissure in the cement wall surrounding you, if you’re depressed and your affect is flat, and most importantly, if you keep getting sick, get your fricking thyroid checked. And get a comprehensive test, as comprehensive as possible.
There are a dearth of good writers in the world. Don’t allow health to make you a bad one.