I always liked short-term rewards: cleaning the dirtiest room fast before going out to lunch, cooking a giant pancake without standing for multiple flippings, making a three-minute customer service customer call where I actually got customer satisfaction.
Writing is no different. My focus has been on short works, mostly nonfiction but some stories, which also offer seductive short-term rewards. You can finish them quickly, even with several drafts. You can find many sites to submit to, in and out of virtual reality. With acceptance, you get relatively rapid publication, usually from a month to several. You get a little money (or none, it’s true). Mainly, you add notches to your resume, list of credits, bios, and email signature. And you feel like you’re publishing, which of course you are.
But . . . a novel? It gives few of the above. Much longer to write, to find a home for, to wait wait wait for a reply, if at all, and to welcome the baby into the world and the hoped-for accolades of your critique group. The whole process can take a year, two, or more.
I suppose I should take heart from the role model of Alice Munro, the brilliant writer of short stories, who admitted that she “didn’t get anywhere” writing novels. Her recent Nobel Prize for Literature should be supreme rationale enough (http://news.yahoo.com/alice-munro-seen-master-short-story-113152389–finance.html).
Munro notwithstanding, I can shirk no longer. The goad may have surfaced because I’ve now published a lot of short pieces (never, it goes without saying, as much as many other writers). Or because I published a nonfiction book I wanted very much to write, which of course also took a long time. Or because I notice, uncomfortably, that every time I chalk up publication the ping of satisfaction has dwindled. Or because I just can’t stall any longer.
I admit it: I’m a closet novelist. Scattered around my office and computer lurk hard-copy and computer files of at least ten novels. They’re all unfinished—a couple only with notes, some with ambitious outlines, and most barely started. Every so often I think of one of them and scribble out an insight, a skeletal scene, a pithy minor character description, or the protagonist’s lyrical musing. And throw it into the file.
For one of the incipient novels, in a moment of grandiosity, I even typed out the theme. Big mistake; it froze me for weeks. Novelist Jeanne Matthews counseled on a Writer’s Digest blog that our job is to write. Let the reader—and one might add student of literature—figure out the theme (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-things-ive-learned-so-far-by-jeanne-matthews). Lesson heeded.
A novel is hard. Harder than nonfiction, which is grounded in something. A novel is wide open. Sure you can base it on your great-aunt’s exodus from Cairo in the 1880s or your neighbor’s mysterious late-night basement hammerings. It’s still all in your head, so to speak. You’ve got to figure out who, why, when, where, who else, and what it’s all about (and what it all means, if anything). And throughout the protracted journey, you’ve got to keep the reader’s attention.
Despite these perceived headaches, I can no longer ignore or pretend away my deep, if until recently buried, pull to write a novel, or ten. So, I made a pact with myself: By end of this calendar year, I will finish and send out the two dozen short pieces currently in the works. Then, except for the Authors’ Blog and occasional articles for a local spiritual mag, stop it all.
Instead (getting nervous), I will devote regular time to a novel (more nervous). I know which one. The file’s already up front on my desk (very nervous).
Will I have the courage to stop? Lord help me, I must. Just thinking about the “reward” of getting to the novel revs me up. Makes me want to knock off that long list of shorts.
As the new year comes closer, too fast, I see that commitment, decision, and the dangling of a meaningful reward are the keys. Let my convictions here help you with your own most fervent, and maybe hidden, writing desires, whatever your goals, productions, and promises to yourself.
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, ReadLearnWrite, Women on Writing, Transformation Magazine, 11.11, and Unity booklets. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally), with a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook in progress. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery.” Discussions appear on Goodreads: http://www.unity.org/publications/unity-books/summer-reading-series, Her webinar on the book of June 26, 2013, can be heard and seen on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?V=95EeqllONIQ.