I’ve made a terrible mistake. But there’s no going back. I hope to god it’s one of those “good mistakes”.
I’ve started to write a novel.
It isn’t my first attempt at writing a novel. I have two sitting on my laptop’s hard-drive. One of my major difficulties with them was that I couldn’t get into re-working and re-writing them, something I’ve tried to train myself to do with LH.
My prose is pretty blunted these days. Because I’ve spent so much time writing non-fiction based stuff like COG and LH, my descriptions and wording is pretty rustic. I used to do, what I call, “mental doodles” (you can see a few of them on the frontpage of my main webpage). You just write what comes into your head, be it a rambling nonsense, a poem, a scene, a conversation, etc. I don’t do them at all these days. Instead I write blog entries or posts on forums and newsgroups. This has helped my non-fiction stuff alright, but not so much my fiction. However an element of novel writing is the long winding explanations of things that reveal elements of the characters and the world, so I’m hoping they’ll help me along.
But that’s not all of the challenges I must overcome, I prefer writing short stories, i.e. taking a single idea and turning it into a story. (You can see some of my efforts here). And there is a distinct difference in writing a novel compared to a short story, many writers can only do one well. I’ve read one or two Stephen King novels and thought… “This would be much better as a short story” and recently I read a collection of Robert Silverberg short stories from the 70s and while I found the writing excellent, the stories themselves were sort of… empty.
Writing novels is about character portraits: character-oriented prose. While writing a short story is about exploring a single idea or concept and leaving the audience with something. I’ve tried writing a script once and found myself struggling. A script, be it a play or a screenplay, is purely about characters, everything is character based. The plot is the character. It’s a strange graph, at the bottom you have short stories, which can have some character-based stuff, than novels, which are mostly character-based, and then on the top, plays that are entirely character-based.
Continuing along this train of thought, short stories are, well, short. They take one idea and present it in an entertaining way. In a sense, when I’m writing a short story, I’m writing towards a goal. Which makes it much easier to complete. However, writing a novel is not the same. Going back to the Robert Silverberg short stories I read recently. They were really well written and pulled you in as a reader, but ultimately empty. I finished it thinking, “What was the point of that short story?” Robert Silverberg is writing short stories as he would novels.
In a sense: it’s not the arriving that matters but the journey. That’s an idiom I’ve used myself but to be honest, I never truly followed. (Another saying: Knowing is not the same as believing). I’ve become quite goal-oriented as a way of driving myself forward. With short stories, I often have written the story before I put pen to paper (or turned on the laptop). I know what I want to happen, what should be in it, and I write it. I spend a lot of timing thinking about what I want the audience to read in that single short story. A novel, however, is not the same. It wanders, explores characters, sidetracks and comes back and even pulls together and breaks apart. Writing a novel is truly about the journey and not necessarily about an end. A novel can be good without a decent ending or even a point. Unlike a short story, which requires a point or decent ending for an audience to get.
So I have to learn to explore rather than race to the end. To do this, I’ve dropped any semblance of plotting at all. Instead I have images, characters and vague intentions. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, only that I’m heading somewhere. Bringing it back to roleplaying and gaming, my “cammy’s model v0.1” for running long-campaigns, seems to be applicable to novel writing, with a few noted exceptions. We don’t have complete adventures instead we have chapters and they do not have to have a distinctive beginning and ending. Elements can be characters, bits about the world, history, plot hooks, etc. So far I have a number of elements I plan to introduce, making for several chapters before I have to getting going if you know what I mean.
Sidetracking a bit here but I really really hate it when the second part of a novel has little or nothing to do with the first part. Or more specifically when the story changes utterly, to a different planet or world, with a complete new host of characters and won’t return to the first world until the end. It bugs me. Obviously, by the time I’ve gotten to this part of the novel, I’ve gotten involved with the characters and world presented. I’ve invested time… and now the rug has been pulled out from under me. Arg! (Same is true for roleplaying campaigns too).
So, going back to this journey stuff, I don’t have a goal for this novel. I don’t know if I’ll be trying to publish it or not. I want to enjoy writing it. The thing is, people buy and read novels. The market for short stories, afaik, seems to be in anthologies and collections. If you want to be a writer, it’s to novels you go. It’s weird, bringing up a point I made in earlier post about “gods”, what’s the point of gods if you don’t believe in them? Or to make it more applicable: what’s the point of writing a novel if you don’t intend to publish? Is there a point? The answer I guess is that it is irrelevant. It is the journey that counts.
With all this floating around in my head, I starting thinking about roleplaying and gaming and what the difference in short story and novel writing mean when viewed through the RPG lens. Briefly leaving aside the real gaming (as in winning-oriented) aspect, can we look at roleplaying in the same way? Most people I think would say that convention games and once-off games would be the equivalent of short stories, that long-running campaigns as novels (and LARPs as plays?). This is a rather shallow view IMHO. Short story would be more “goal-oriented” with characters changing somewhat in between. This does apply to most convention games I think and most roleplaying systems too. Indeed, all published campaigns I’ve seen or played are goal-oriented, taking the characters from point A to B. I, myself, am very much on this short story spectrum of stuff, preferring goal-oriented type systems and stories. I don’t have a problem discarding character histories/backgrounds and letting players become characters with the story and believing that adventures serve purposes. However, it would seem that most people (who are not real gamers) are more on the novel-character based spectrum. (Arggg… another thing to argue about!) All character. This kind of stuff doesn’t fit well into the once off/adventure based concepts. White Wolf’s WOD2.0 system tries to be character based (weather it works or not, I’ll leave up to your critical minds, dear reader) and demands you come up with fully-fledged character before play. In part I can see it but I think the approaches so far are flawed. Yea, character is important, but character cannot be forced nor can it be designed. It must be revealed, even in novels you may design your character beforehand, but the reader only sees what you reveal to them. If you spend hours creating characters but only a small fraction is made relevant to the story, that is all the character that is important. I guess I need to think more about this, perhaps in the future I’ll write an article about this when I have some more concrete conclusions.