Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Facing the unwelcome truth

For most of this year, I've been attending, and greatly enjoying, a writing class / group called Novel in a Year. The goal of the class is to help participants ... wait for it ... write a novel in a year. (I know, shocking!) The class meets about every 6 weeks or so for a half-day of skills-building and workshopping, and communicates in the gaps via a very useful Facebook group. The teacher delivers excellent and helpful learning materials and activities, and, all in all, it's been a great use of my time and headspace since commencing in February.

The novel that I've begun in this class is called The True Size of the Universe, and it is a science fiction story of a sort. It's set in middle-future, with humanity having cracked interstellar travel and now participating in a space-faring, largely regularised, but also under-tolerant, society. Most of the action of the book so far has taken place on the interstellar cruiser, the Queen Parysatis, and it is her crew, especially her captain, Ciro Grady, who are the chief protagonists of the story.

I started the novel with a picture in my head of just one thing: an intensely claustrophobic woman who's forced by circumstances to live her life on an enclosed, confining spaceship. This character, Tuy, is the astrogator on my ship, and she's a strange one, a character that I thought I knew but have discovered I cannot grip to in any real sense.

I also opted to go for what amounts to a Quest plot in reverse, with a kind of anti-Maguffin thrown in for interest. My crew get caught up, against their will, in something serious, and have to find the best way out of it.

The thing is, I've gotten myself hopelessly muddled along the way, and I've finally admitted to myself - yesterday - that it just isn't working at all as a story. There are some nicely-written passages, I think; I'm reasonably proficient with dialogue, and there have been some interesting ideas introduced. For all that,  my characters are paper-thin; my world-building is woefully undercooked; my description (always my weakest suit) is terrible; my plot is wildly out of control; and the overall point of it all has been completely obscured by the desperate urge to drive it forward to hit word count targets.

More importantly than all these, though, is that I've lost faith in this novel as a story that should be told, or perhaps a story that can be told by me. At 25,000 words - about a third of the expected final length - I've lost any interest in finishing it. By this, I don't mean that I'm blocked, or that it's hard going, or that I'm in a slump, or suffering from low writing self-esteem (well, not more than usual, anyway) - I mean, I have no fire in my belly to see this story through at all. I'm writing plenty - poetry, reviews and flash fiction mostly - but this? This thing ain't happening.

I was able to make this assessment after three weeks completely away from the novel. I've been extremely busy with work and family and reading for the Booker Prize longlist challenge, as well as being on reduced energy rations due to illness. I have not chosen to go near the novel since 10 August, using my writing time instead on poetry (which is flowing well), review pieces, and some really enjoyable (silly) flash fiction. Last night, though, I knew the time had come to address my uneasiness about it, so I sat down with a cuppa and to do a no-prejudice read through.

It's not that it's all junk - there are some ideas that I'd like to pull out and try again with in a different format, and my Captain, Ciro Grady, is a character that could stand a better setting (and more development love) than what I've currently given her. What it is, I think, is that a novel-length outing was never the right vehicle for this story, and it's now so completely snarled up with competing themes that it would be almost impossible to unwind it.

There's a fine line, always, between abandonment of a creative project because it is hard or you are lazy, and considered relinquishment of something that has petered out to a dead end. I *think* my (tentative) decision to let go of The True Size of the Universe is the latter, but there's always the possibility that it's the former. I am aware that being out of touch with the book for 3 weeks can create a distance that is not so much objective as difficult, and that might be influencing me too.

I'm obviously not going to throw out what I've done, and I will sit with my thinking on this a while longer before finally calling it. I'm also not going to stop attending my class, because I am learning very useful things from it that I can use in any project.

I just don't think the Queen Parysatis is going to reach journey's end in my hands, that's all.

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