Sometimes Your Novel Breaks

I’ve been doing better with Nanowrimo this year than expected, and for about the last week have maintained a slight lead on word count. This is a nice change from my usual “should I drop out” doom and gloom around the third week of November. However, the lead hasn’t made me immune to novel breakage.

Maybe this eventually goes away with experience, but in all my novel drafts to date–indeed in any story I write–there comes a point when the whole thing breaks. Something happens that feels so outside of what I originally planned that I’m wondering if I can even finish the story. This often manifests for me as some jarring jump in tone or genre.

For example, this year I planned a science fiction romance, and I wanted to keep the tone light. That was great until I sent my hero off to get captured by the bad guys and then wrote a scene in which one of the bad guys gloats to the heroine about how the hero cracked under torture. Torture had not been part of the plan. I went with it, but found myself considering things like, “How has his personality been affected by torture?” I wrote a love scene in which he lost interest in sex because his mind was on what had happened to him.

At this point, I felt I needed to reassess what I was up to. Did my story want to be a different genre? Should I cut this torture thing out and go back? I just felt the story was getting a lot heavier than I’d meant it to be. I can’t say what the end result’s going to be because I’m still only in the mid-30Ks on this novel. However, I can say that if I’d worried too much about all that stuff at the beginning of this paragraph, I wouldn’t be that far.

Instead, I just kept writing. I’ve had drafts totally disintegrate on me, and that’s always a fear, but this didn’t feel that way. In fact, in this case, I think the moment I felt like things went terribly wrong was the exact moment at which my characters really came to life. Not exploring this avenue feels like it would have done a disservice to the story.

I can’t say yet how it will all work out, but I can say that the torture incident and its fallout is a more honest reflection of what I find romantic than what I originally planned, and I’m glad I allowed it into the draft.

As far as I can tell, that moment of breakage occurs in every draft, not just the first. It always seems associated with things coming to life. I currently use this to measure when I’m done revising. If I go through a draft, polish things up a bit, and nothing breaks, then I’m done. If I go through and find myself changing male characters into females or adding long-lost siblings or reworking significant portions of the premise, I know I’ve got at least one more pass before it’s over.

I read an article once by Zadie Smith that really stuck with me–she talked a lot about the process of writing and revising, and I’ve thought a lot about what she said and how it compares with what I do. In that article, she talked about how some writers edit drastically, like move their novel’s setting from England to the U.S. between drafts, or change the time period, or make other big changes that she finds overwhelming and exhausting. When I first read this, I thought, “What crazy person would change the setting mid-stream?” Then my husband pointed out that I do stuff like that all the time. I’ve changed main characters, rewritten stories in a different tense or person, and just ditched entire drafts and redone the story from scratch. For me, the story is wildly malleable, and when it stops shifting all over the map, that’s when I know I’m done with it.

So that moment your novel breaks? That’s just it twitching to tell you it’s still alive.

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3 responses to “Sometimes Your Novel Breaks

  1. Howzit, Erica – long time ago we knew the four of you in Hawaii. Way to go, girl – we’re proud of you!

  2. About novels breaking … I finished the first draft of my first book in college. 600 pages of mainstream, semi-literary fiction with biographical and autobiographical elements.

    When I started going through it from the beginning, I discovered that about the middle of the book, one of the main characters had just gotten up and left. Disappeared. Dropped off the face of the earth, without a word to anyone (including the author).

    Interesting what can happen while writing a book!

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