As I continue adjusting to the notion of being a writer, I’ve become a little stressed of late. In particular, I find myself intimidated by distance.
I’ve published a number of short stories in recent years, and I’m proud to have done so, whether in webzines or fancy anthologies. But the ceiling for short fiction is a pretty low one. There aren’t that many paying markets for the stuff these days, and in crime fiction, even the premier magazines in the field have lengthy turnaround times and a nickel-a-word rate that might have been enough to get by on in the 1940s or 50s, but are substantially less so now. (Of course, I don’t have to do this for a living, thanks to my academic gig, but if I’m going to write fiction — and I am — why not try to get paid for it?)
The obvious next step is to do a novel. I’ve had readers, agents, and publishers ask me about it, and it would be nice if I had something to show them. And I have to admit, there seems to be some sort of cachet to a novel that shorts don’t seem to carry, a sense of tangibility about a full-length book. It’s the difference between “I wrote this” (Book lands on tabletop with a satisfying thunk) and “I wrote this” (Opens book, riffles through pages, “No… almost… ah, here it is.”).
But it intimidates me. I’ve always written fairly short pieces. Broken Glass Waltzes was only 50,000 words, and even my dissertation was only around 35,000 words. Now, Stephen King once said that anything past 40K is novel country, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that works like Heart of Darkness (24K), The Great Gatsby (47K), or The Postman Always Rings Twice (36K) count as novels. But on the other hand, King’s own work has tended to the other extreme in the last few decades.
The paperback originals of the 50s and 60s seem to come in around 60K, but they tend to run longer these days, so I’m thinking 80K is probably a fair target. And that’s where I get twitchy.
It’s not the number of words per se, but it may be the uncertainty of it. With a short, I can have a pretty clear idea of what’s going to happen all the way through, from when I get the idea until I finish typing, and the process takes place within a relatively condensed time frame. A novel, by virtue of its size, is too big for me to hold in my head — but at the same time, there’s a pretty good chance that I may run out of plot or voice before I hit my word count. And is there’s one thing worse than hitting that wall, it’s envisioning myself hitting that wall before I’ve started typing.
I’ve been reading and rereading some books on writing novels, most notably from Lawrence Block and Steven James. LB offers wisdom from E.L. Doctorow, reminding me that writing a novel is like driving at night — you can’t see beyond the headlights, but you can make it cross-country all the same. I know that’s right, but I keep finding myself sitting in the dark, having run out of gas, and the beams of the headlights dwindle as the battery runs down. Then (to quote Matt Groening) the ice weasels come.
When I wrote BGW, I started with the scene that opens Chapter 10, because that was what came to me, and I found myself in the position of needing to write the backstory that got me to that point. Then I got the last scene, and wrote that, and wrote the rest of the book to connect that end to everything else.
Since then, when I’ve tried to write something longer, I get beginnings, but they’ve just tailed away, leaving me listening to the chitter of the ice weasels. But I’ll keep writing — I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, honestly.
Still, I find myself thinking of Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness (there it is again!) After Kurtz has checked out, Marlow falls ill and lingers near death. Telling the story in retrospect, he reports:
I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say.
Now, I’m not in extremis (at least, I hope not), but I wonder what I may have to say. And if it’s enough.