Sep 07, 2012, 03:33AM

5 Reasons I Suck at Writing a Novel

I read somewhere that novelists are supposed to like writing fiction.

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I started out the summer with a simple Memorial Day-to-Labor-Day goal: rent a cottage, write a novel. This seemed to make sense. As a professional writer for nearly 20 years, I’ve produced countless hundreds of pieces of writing. Some crap, some good. But many.

I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel. I’ve tried a few times, but not successfully. This time, though, it would be different. I was sure the only reason I couldn’t finish a larger fiction project was that for most of the past 18 years I’ve been a mom, my husband flies out of town Monday and returns Thursday, rendering me a single mom of four kids for the majority of my parenting years. Freelance writing nonfiction projects and newspaper humor columns were about all I could handle.

So, on the actual day my oldest graduated from high school, I rented the cottage to “take back” the other three days of the week for the summer. Surely I could finish the novel now. Right? Wrong.

It’s not done. Why? Well, here’s a list in an effort to share my colossal failure, since I’m obviously better at being a blogger than a novelist.

  1. I’m Not a Fiction Writer This may sound like a lame excuse, except to non-fiction writers, who may nod their heads. I have been writing newspaper and magazine articles for two decades. One thing these pieces all have in common, whether written in the first person or the third, is that they are about things that are true. In fiction, apparently, you have to make shit up. I have discovered that making shit up is lots of fun, but it can also be a pain in the ass. Making people up is fun, because you feel like God or like you’re playing a literary version of The Sims, but it can be complicated to make up their houses, kids, birthdays, car brands, jobs, and family histories, which means you have to start making Excel spreadsheets, which are like math. And I hate math. Also, I think I read somewhere that novelists are supposed to like writing fiction. Writing about actually true stuff is way easier than making up a lot of fake people who need clothing styles and dog names.

    My Attention Span Sucks Try and try as I might, I could never sit at the computer for more than a 3-4 hour stretch. I did manage to master about three 3-4 hour stretches of writing some days, but the words were not flowing in a way that felt natural. The story (and its accompanying spreadsheets for character development, plot lines, chapter timelines, etc) felt forced. The novel is about a third of the way finished. (An average novel is 60,000 words; I’ve got 20,000). My psychic (yeah, shut up, I have one) in a phone consult the other day immediately asked me what the book blockage was that she was seeing. Blockage indeed. Like literary constipation. Not writer’s block, exactly, more of a writer’s obstacle. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the art of fictionalizing reality. I might try fiction in short story form. And a memoir? Hell yes, it would flow like water.

    I Like Money This will seem like the lamest excuse of all, but it’s true. I have several writing clients who, together, form full time work for me during the week. In an odd mix of circumstances, when I rented the cottage, I became terrified of how to pay for it out of my writer’s (non) salary, so I picked up various web writing and editing jobs. My dream of “taking the summer off to write a novel” quickly became a “get paid by clients so I could pay cottage rent and put food in cottage fridge” scenario. I am not complaining about this. The cottage is my office, and I am beyond lucky to have it. It’s both a second home and a workplace and I have decided to keep it for fall and winter. But often what happens is that client work I can’t finish during the week gets done on weekends. 

    My Personal Life is a Train Wreck Of epic proportions. You will just have to take my word on this one for now, until I can finish experiencing the health and family issues I’m living and somehow become able to put them into words. Probably in that memoir if I ever have the attention span to finish it. 

    The Cottage Made My Novel Fail Having my own four walls in the world for the first time in my life (husband was high school sweetheart) and having them be on the Chesapeake Bay waterfront was enlightening. I fell even more in love with sea glass collecting than I already had been and started making sea glass jewelry, which I really enjoy. (I’m even launching a sea glass blog). I learned to catch and cook my own crabs. I ride my bike to the country store for something to eat, or over to the docks for crab bait. I’m in the Tilghman Island Book Club now. There are definitely distractions, and I’m obviously (see #2) not good at avoiding them. 

But failure? I don’t know. For some reason, I don’t feel like my summer has been a failure. Just because I didn’t meet my goal (and I did send 20 book proposals to New York with no signs of interest) doesn’t mean I didn’t make progress toward something that will in some form eventually be published. This novel is just in the greenhouse, which is how I always refer to the metaphorical placement of a piece of writing I start that for whatever reason, just needs a little more sunlight and water and time to make it grow into something that someone might like to read.

Mary McCarthy blogs at pajamasandcoffee.com.


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