The Book That Tried To Kill Me
March 5, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992.

Inspired by Chabon's recent publication in McSweeney's of the first four chapters of the long ago abandoned Fortune City ("complete with annotations that in turn bemoan and belittle the book"), NY Times' Dan Kois weighs in on the phenomenon of the novel that had to be killed before something horrible happened to the author responsible.
posted by philip-random (45 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Usually in my case it's because the heroine is a horrible victimy victimpants and there's absolutely no story there, just a bunch of great ideas. Gets pretty repetitive.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:08 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because November ends.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:36 AM on March 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Because it's Friday and there's a Minecraft update.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:38 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because after three or five or x years, you are a different person with a different sensibility.
posted by Handstand Devil at 10:43 AM on March 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Didn't The Pale King basically kill DFW?

I'm deeply conflicted on whether or not I should read it when it comes out. On the one hand, an unfinished novel will always necessarily fall short of what it should be. On the other hand, 2666 was "unfinished," and it was one of the best books I've ever read.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:54 AM on March 5, 2011

Because the shiny new idea was more exciting.
posted by changeling at 10:55 AM on March 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

posted by The Whelk at 11:00 AM on March 5, 2011 [24 favorites]

1984 killed George Orwell.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:04 AM on March 5, 2011

-->Writing novels is boring and if they suck, it's even more boring.

Are you a professional novelist? If so, I will find your comment strangely delightful.
posted by artemisia at 11:39 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I usually abandon mine as soon as I realise they're utter shite. Thankfully this normally happens after about three chapters.
posted by Decani at 12:08 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Didn't The Pale King basically kill DFW?

No, clinical depression killed DFW.
posted by Tin Man at 12:14 PM on March 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Because I don't feel like pulling stuff outta my ass until this abomination finally takes some kind of shape.
posted by cropshy at 1:03 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a character become homicidally angry at me for a while, once. We've since talked it out and come to some semblance of a truce, but it got pretty freaky during the period when she was sending me threatening e-mails.
posted by kyrademon at 1:13 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've got one or two of those gathering dust on my hard drive. Mostly it's not that they're shite, but that gosh this has taken a dreadful long time, and will the reader see what I'm trying to do, and just as importantly will the editor see what I'm trying to do, and isn't this all horribly trite anyway, and even if I finish this the chances of it actually seeing print are slim, and of it then being profitable additionally slim, so why not just save all of us the trouble and stop right n
posted by JHarris at 1:13 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Because after three or five or x years, you are a different person with a different sensibility.
posted by Handstand Devil at 6:43 PM on March 5

Weird. That never happened to me. At 51 I'm basically the same person I was at 16, with the same sensibility too. And yes, I understand that this may reflect badly on me, but there it is.
posted by Decani at 1:33 PM on March 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

Didn't The Pale King basically kill DFW?

No, clinical depression killed DFW.

I ain't no DFW but the worst case of prolonged despair I've ever suffered was very much connected with some fiction I was trying to make sense of (a screenplay). Finally, I decided that my sanity was far more important than any story I'd ever manage to tell and managed to coax myself back from that particular abyss ... an experience which I've been drawing from in my writing ever since.
posted by philip-random at 2:53 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

1984 killed George Orwell.

Nah, 1950 killed Orwell.
posted by kmz at 2:55 PM on March 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

After a few days you realize that there's much more to it than you thought, you're looking forward to two or five years chained to your table, and worst of all ... you're not a storyteller!

It's not actually you dying, it's your dreams - of all those readings, TV interviews, dollars rolling in, and parties with the literati.
posted by Twang at 3:04 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

philip-random: Do you have clinical depression?
posted by valrus at 3:13 PM on March 5, 2011

Authors, always sensitive creatures, might abandon a book in a fit of despair, as Stephenie Meyer initially did in 2008 with her “Twilight” spinoff “Midnight Sun,” which she declared herself “too sad” to finish after 12 chapters leaked to the Internet.

Only the author of Twilight would consider shelving a book in progress because people get all excited about reading excerpts of it on the web.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 4:03 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

“Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” [Stephen King] said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”

Mine sank, repeatedly.
posted by dhartung at 4:45 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

isn't this all horribly trite anyway

That's it in a nutshell IME.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:09 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

philip-random: Do you have clinical depression?

I never went to the clinic.

Seriously. My experience was decades ago, and whatever was going on:

A. I never made a sufficiently public display of my darkness that it got taken seriously enough by others to pursue a clinical solution

B. I was too confused myself to suspect that I had options other than just muddling through.

My guess is, yes, I probably was "clinically depressed" at that time but that it was an acute as opposed to a chronic situation which was, to some degree, triggered by the immense amount of mental and emotional energy I was investing (ultimately vainly) in the project I was working on.

Thankfully, over time, I got my chemicals balanced again (it's a long story) and haven't known such depths since. But it has changed my emotional relationship with writing (fiction in particular) fundamentally. Whereas before, I pursued it as something very playful (time spent alone pursuing make-believe), I now take about as seriously as I take anything in my life.

Finally, I hope my earlier comment didn't sound like I was diminishing the seriousness of Mr. Wallace's clinical depression, or anyone else's. That wasn't my intention.
posted by philip-random at 5:16 PM on March 5, 2011

..Because your agent told you you would have to finish the whole thing before he knew he could take a gamble on it, and you already almost killed yourself writing the first half.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 5:59 PM on March 5, 2011

1. Because the research part of it got totally out of hand! It can be incredibly difficult to research some things while attempting to write anything decent at the same time.

That happened with a Historical I was doing. I hate half backed research on Historicals.

2. Stuff happens in one's real life and you just physically can't do both the novel and your life.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:17 PM on March 5, 2011

I've abandoned a couple of novels at the 20k mark. Up until then, I'm shaping a body and hoping it will eventually get up and walk. But if the goddamned thing doesn't breathe on its own by 20k, it goes in the bin.
posted by headspace at 7:34 PM on March 5, 2011

All of these little autopsy notes I write to myself, formal and distant, terse sentences of clinical terms designed to obscure the true cause of death: neglect. Conceived in rare, awkward moments of hope; gestated in ASCII and insomnia; and then we're off once more to malnourishment, lean and painful months of Don't Bother, Brother. How could I finish raising you only to release you into a world where you were not invited and would not be welcome? I will be sure to make the same mistake again.
posted by adipocere at 8:04 PM on March 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've been working on the same screenplay for 11 years. I lost track of drafts in 2008 at 72. Multiple drafts that I loathe have placed in the top 10 percent of the Nicholl Fellowship (world's toughest screenwriting contest) and the top two percent once. It's killed countless numbers of my relationships. Six and a half years ago I just about threw myself off a bridge with frustration (actually climbed up and stood on the edge of the bridge).

It started as a rom-com. At one point it dredged into thriller/horror. It's currently a miserably bleak noirish drama (and will probably stay that way).

It's outwitted 4 laptops and outlasted innumerable moleskines and pens. I've used Celtx, Final Draft, Screenwriter, Scrivener, Word, CopyWrite, and other programs long-forgotten. I've written for it with pen, chalk, computer, Sharpie, and marker on notebooks, legal pads, chalkboards, dry-erase boards, flip charts, and recipe cards. Over the same time period I've written multiple web projects (The Cripple, Victory Shag, Wrestle the Future to the Fucking Ground), three other screenplays, and one novel (that I hate). I consider all those things DONE. No desire to ever re-write them. But this one fucking thing...

I'm gonna finish this fucking script to my own satisfaction if it's the last thing I ever write. The end is, indeed, near. I can feel it.
posted by dobbs at 8:22 PM on March 5, 2011 [10 favorites]

Why do writers abandon a novel? To put it glibly: Because if you're any good at the craft at all, you recognize the smell of your own bullshit.
posted by gompa at 10:19 PM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna finish this fucking script to my own satisfaction if it's the last thing I ever write. The end is, indeed, near. I can feel it.

Put it away. Put it down and walk away. It only took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. Of course, it took Wagner twenty-six years to write the Ring Cycle. I don't think a screenplay that's taken eleven years to write through 70+ drafts through four genres is ever going to be the Sistine Chapel or the Ring Cycle.

Congrats on placing in the Nicholl several times but, man, this one screenplay is not the be all and end all. It's not the answer.

Put it down and walk away!
posted by crossoverman at 11:21 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

3. Physical Exhaustion! Especially back in the days of pen, pencil and typewriter, even desktop computers.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:29 PM on March 5, 2011

Because I was too lazy to ever really
posted by maxwelton at 11:37 PM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because I discovered that I liked drawing at a drafting table better than typing into a keyboard, so I'm turning that novel into a comic instead.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:04 AM on March 6, 2011

I have a very nearly finished script sitting in a drawer that I was so excited to have done, so clever and original!

Then Scott Pilgrim came out and bombed and it got shunted into Oh well maybe I can ..change it into something ...serious...later.

posted by The Whelk at 6:56 AM on March 6, 2011

Would that they abandoned more of them!

My guess is, a person comes up with an utterly brill idea, is confident that the ending will reveal itself in due course and so starts right in on the thing and the prose flows and the characters dance and actions trip lightly and until at page whatever - no way out, no way out, no way out.

So the book stops and the writer and the publisher agonize a bit and then say what the hell, we've come this far, let's just put it out anyway and hope the public enjoys the first part and forgets or forgives the rest. Same thing happens in movies, though there perhaps the too many hands screw up the story.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:51 AM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I long ago gave up keeping track of promising movies that had terrible endings, though this is often has can have a lot to do with market demands that it be HAPPY, rather than a writer's special and lonely failure.

But from my experience, there's also a very special disaster that awaits any writer who starts on something without a VERY CLEAR IDEA of where it's going. Just as IndigoJones describes, you're swept up in the thrilling early stages of exploration where characters, situations, themes all come brilliantly, alluringly to life ... but then, at some point, a dark voice whispers, "How do you propose to resolve all of this bullshit?" And it keeps on whispering, a little louder and a little nastier each time, until inevitably, unless you've come up with a strong answer, you're getting shouted down and ultimately out. Or you forge stubbornly on and it's crap anyway.

Which brings to mind something that Robert McKee talks about: that all writer's block comes from not having done due diligence at the outlining phase of the story process. Personally, I think this oversimplifies things, but I have learned to NEVER start a big project (novel, feature film script, book length anything) without forcing myself through a prolonged outlining phase (months worth). It can be annoying as hell and often painful, but man has it come to save me a lot of time, grief and sanity over the years.
posted by philip-random at 12:02 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Which brings to mind something that Robert McKee talks about: that all writer's block comes from not having done due diligence at the outlining phase of the story process.

David Milch says exactly the opposite. His argument basically boils down to, "storytelling is a creative art; creative art is intuition and instinct, and comes from the opposite place to logic; outlining is logic; therefore outlining is antithetical to storytelling". That's a vast oversimplification but suits fine for this post.

I used to trust McKee and countless other "gurus". I used cards and software and such to "plot" my plots. Starting two years ago or so, when I discovered Milch's lectures on, among others, "the idea of the writer", I started actively changing my creative process to be closer to what he proposes. It has been *extremely* difficult to change my habits after almost two decades of working a certain way when it comes to screenwriting. (In addition to the countless books on the topic, I also have 4 years spent in Film School with a double major in screenwriting and film production, every minute of which is spent drilling in the "outline" model of storytelling.)

I think my creative skills or powers or whatever you want to call them have multiplied exponentially since moving away from "logic methods" of creativity. Milch has said, "Everything you think about your writing when you are not writing is wrong, wrong, wrong." When I first heard that, I simply could not comprehend it. How could carding or outlining my plot and characters be "wrong", let alone "wrong wrong wrong". But I've come to believe he's right. My best work has always come out of that method of creating. The difference, however, is that I never applied it to screenwriting--only to the other writing I've done.

Milch also thinks that one goes to logic modes due to fear of the unknown. As long as you're outlining, you're thinking "I'm writing". But Milch thinks no, you're not writing. You're avoiding writing.

In 2006, the deadline for the Nicholl was coming up on a Monday. It was Friday. I wasn't happy with my draft. And I looked at the few days I had in front of me and the work that still had to be done and I thought, "I can't make it. I won't be happy with it on Monday." I literally threw the thing across the room in frustration. All the time I'd spend thinking I was writing had gotten me nowhere.

I decided to forget plotting and started a new script then and there. I used methods that I'd used from 2000 to 2003 on a project that had brought me a lot of creative satisfaction (an emailed writing project with about 5000 subscribers). That method was "sit the fuck down and start typing and don't stop". With the emailed project, it wasn't that hard because the pieces were short, rarely more than a page, and usually taking me one to six hours to finish. I had never done that with a script before. I started typing and did so for 37 hours straight. At the end, I had a new script that I literally had no concept of before I started typing. The "trick" was that I'd stumbled onto Milch's system without knowing it (I wouldn't discover him till years later).

However, there was one other catch: when I started the new script, I was using "my" method from the emailed project... and I was the central character of that project. So... I now had a 105 page screenplay in which I was the main character in a completely fictitious scenario. Ridiculous.

Though the process was a success (I had a script I was happy with), I obviously couldn't do that again. Who the fuck wants to read dramas about a fictional me?! It was absurd. So, instead of starting another script with this "new" method, without me as the character, or applying that method to my crippling script, I returned to the logic method. It wasn't until years later and hearing Milch talk about creativity that it occurred to me: "You stupid fucking idiot! It wasn't having a central character named Dobbs that made the creativity flow, it was trusting my instinct and intuition as a storyteller!" (Milch refers to this--and he may be referencing someone else--as "resting transparent in the spirit which gave you rise".)

I then returned to my crippling script and have been working on it since 2009 with this method and I am very happy with the results. No, it's not done (to my satisfaction), but I know that it will be. I expect it'll happen this year, hopefully by spring. I can't stress how hard it has been to try and ignore all of the previous "thoughts" or ideas I've had about this story that came out of logic but stifled me. Even knowing they're stifling makes it hard to ignore them because of my university training and the ten years of screenwriting I did thereafter using those methods.

As for the 37 hour script? I never returned to it but have passed it around to friends. (It's also placed top 10 percent in Nicholl.) Without my knowledge, one friend passed it to an LA-based director he knew and that director then called me out of the blue. He told me his name and asked if I knew who he was; I said, "Or course." I had seen four of five of his pictures, one of which has a pretty big cult following (two fellow students of mine at film school list it among their favorites). He replied, "I just read your script. Twice. I don't want to buy it--I'm not even sure I understand it--but you can write. The tension is fantastic. The characters are excellent--especially the girl [the lead]. I think you should come to LA." I told him I was Canadian, broke, and couldn't legally work there. He talked to me for 45 minutes, was extremely encouraging, and said he was considering a sequel to his cult hit and wanted to bounce ideas off me and see if it interested me.

Long story short I went to California a short while later (which was last April). I won't be working with the director but I loved the city (stayed in Venice and spent time downtown and in Santa Monica) and I'm going back this April and May just for vacation and hope to meet some other folks while I'm there. With any luck I'll be done my no-longer-crippling script (and possibly two others) and will be able to pass it around.

Those interested in Milch's lectures should start here (scroll down to the 5 podcasts from 2007). They are admittedly rambling and dense, but they've had a profound effect on my creative life.
posted by dobbs at 3:39 PM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

IndigoJones, Milch talks about shooting out that siren in one of those podcasts.
posted by dobbs at 5:54 PM on March 6, 2011

Good thing I wasn't counting the hours, or I would be even more embarrassed knowing just how much of my time went into assembling lines of words that will never be read.

On the other hand, some of those hours were spent soaring.
posted by ecourbanist at 8:16 PM on March 6, 2011

Milch also thinks that one goes to logic modes due to fear of the unknown. As long as you're outlining, you're thinking "I'm writing". But Milch thinks no, you're not writing. You're avoiding writing.

Wish this was so for me. I could show you boxes upon boxes of stuff (all more or less unresolved) that came from "just writing". Because "just writing" comes damned easy to me, far easier than outlining, which I find to be my own special version of herding cats (ie: chasing my ideas around, trying to get them to stay put so I can focus on larger, structural concerns), but ultimately, it (outlining) has been working for me of late, saving me a lot of time, and grief.

As for Robert McKee, I am in no way a fan or a follower, but I did read THE STORY and, at the time, his emphasis on outlining was exactly what I needed to hear. "Writing from the outside in", he called it.

There was another thread recently where a lot of folk got to talking about how they write, and what advice they'd give to younger, newer writers, and the one thing that stuck with me was, holy shit, every serious writer has their own particular method, their own unique combination of strategies, tricks, voodoo, MADNESS, that when successful provides the world with something worth reading.

Which is why discussions like this are always so darned interesting.
posted by philip-random at 8:25 PM on March 6, 2011

Oh, I hear you, philip-random. I'm not recommending you change your ways. I only offer my opinions because often when I come across proponents for outlining, it's presented as "the real way" or something similar to what you wrote ("all writer's block comes from not having done due diligence at the outlining phase of the story process").

I should also emphasize that Milch's solution is not "just write" though I suppose that objectively that's how it may appear. Not "writing" (plotting, thinking about, etc.) when you're not actually writing is as much a part of his method as just writing is when your writing.

One other of Milch's suggestions to get to "rest transparent in the spirit which gave you rise" is to--and keep in mind he's talking about screenwriting or television writing here--write in two voices without anything except their voices (that is, no action or physical description). He's also a real proponent of putting away what you write and not looking at it again. "Write for no less than 20 minutes, no more than 50 minutes, two voices... put it in an envelope, seal it, and forget about it." (And here he's just talking about getting to a point where you can reliably write anywhere/anytime--basically exercises for training yourself to write without ego, which he thinks is always in the way when you're applying logic).

I don't know if you've ever seen Deadwood, philip-random, but if you have, I suspect you'd be surprised to find out it was written entirely without an outline. In my opinion, it's the best TV show ever created. Having watched it, I read this fantastic article, and then started investigating Milch's methods. The "2 voices" and "envelope" stuff was discussed by Milch in the seminars that the article's author mentions.

Yes, writers should use whatever methods work for them. However, in my situation I constantly tried to use logic methods because I was told that was how it was done--when I was in film school, our grades were often split evenly between our outlines and our drafts. Had my professors ever entertained that it was possible to write well--good, solid scripts, without an outline, I might have tried it 15 years ago and not had such a miserable time, creatively, throughout the 00s.
posted by dobbs at 9:02 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Several years ago, I abandoned a mostly-completed trilogy I'd written in a fit of economic frustration during my stretch as a freelance building contractor. I'd gotten frustrated seeing that there were writers out there passing off lazy, hackneyed crap to the throngs of people who seem to love that sort of thing, and I thought hell, I'm a good writer—I ought to be able to turn out a couple little mundane pageturners, for chrissakes. People kept watching Lost, and that thing was a steaming hot mess.

I had the time, sketched out the outlines for three books that all would link together into one broad arc. I had Presbyterian terrorists planning to hit Dollywood with a dirty bomb at a ride's grand opening hosted by Alan Alda, kidnappers capturing a potter specializing in erotic ceramics for people with a fetish for sexual impermeability, a wealthy businessman in North Carolina with a staff of young German boys with mopeds, living in an exact 1:1 replica of Fallingwater, a handyman with the ability to teleport himself to 1982 NYC with self-hypnosis in laundropmat, and a pair of wannabe performance artists stalking Grace Jones. I had a protagonist who was a fading infomercial star, a bicycle shop owner hung up on a 9/11 widower, and a woman trying to build her own 28 Barbary Lane at a down-on-its-luck motel on a road bypassed by the interstates. There were homophobic zealots hiding out in bear bars in the deep South, shadowy former Soviet agents chasing after a stolen space heater, and a professional thuggish Mandingo working his way through the conservative sex party scene in Raleigh while concealing his multiple PHDs.

It was going to be one fucking blowout neon-lit hyperkinetic piece of trash, to be sure.

Writing it was fun, because I didn't care when I used cliches and tired old tropes. When thing seemed cheap and too easy, I made them cheaper and even easier. It was sort of Nancy Drew writing, all breezy and simplified and pulpy, and I hit this point, telling all these ridiculous interconnected stories, when I realized that there was an actual story hidden in the loops and framework of a anti-literary rollercoaster. I was trying hard to be a jerk, really, and to write a piece of day-glo shit, and somehow, something better came of it.

I pulled back, wrote up a new outline for a much smaller book, where a pair of characters from the original narrative had more realistic adventures, something that wasn't about showing off my trashy chops, and it's been coming along nicely. The rest of the project will stay in my files, probably forever, and I'll pinch lines, characters, plot points, and the rest over the next few years, and that's okay. The thing about writing is that there is always more. We can't think everything we write is golden, or that every single thing must be pursued to its natural conclusion. Sometimes the natural conclusion is to take a lesson and keep moving.

The novel is not my most natural form, though. I'm more of a blathering raconteur, an essayist with a love of stories told in a jittery serial progression, so this novel may also stop somewhere along the way. I've been concentrating on finishing another manuscript, and have just let it relax for a while. It's too easy, at least for me, to overwork a piece, and to take something fresh and smooth and turn it ornamental and thick, so you really have to have a hair trigger on your instinct to step back.
posted by sonascope at 9:51 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you've ever seen Deadwood, philip-random, but if you have, I suspect you'd be surprised to find out it was written entirely without an outline.

Actually, that doesn't surprise me at all. As much as I admire the show, it did feel like it evolved on the fly without any real end goal in mind - both within each episode and each season overall. Particularly the third season, which just sort of ended. Even when there seemed like a strong narrative forming, story wasn't really Deadwood's strong suit - the show was driven by its characters and language.

I mean, just look at John from Cincinatti - that was clearly written without an outline. And it's a fucking mess.
posted by crossoverman at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

IndigoJones, Milch talks about shooting out that siren in one of those podcasts.

Didn't mean it as a cut, I just found the juxtaposition funny. Whatever works say I- and I've seen read plenty that has failed (I suspect) by over structuring and not structuring at all, so there you go.

BTW, please post when Hollywood does right by you. (And that too is meant sincerely, not snarkily.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:39 PM on March 7, 2011

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