It's coming up on a year and a half since Valour Advances the Man started kicking around in my head. I still want to write it. I haven't put any new words on the page since last fall. And yes, we had a baby, all of that, but there's other stuff in the way too.
I've been poking at this in various places, and today I did the thing where I ask Twitter to solve my problems mostly so that I can see what I dislike about people's suggested solutions, which in turn helps me define the actual problem.
What seems to have shaken out:
1) I struggle a lot with the uncomfortable middle, the part of any big project between the excitement of starting and the satisfaction of finishing.
1a) I've run most of my life by an iterative process: do a thing, see what I like and dislike about it, do more of what I like and less of what I dislike. Unfortunately this process is anti-helpful when it comes to necessary slogs like knitting the middle 14 inches of the sweater or writing the middle 60,000 words of the novel; I get to that point and the iterative process says "This sucks! Go do something you enjoy more!". I'm familiar with Rachel Aaron's piece on only writing the parts of the book you enjoy writing and that's great advice except that it would probably lead to me writing the first 5000 words of a lot of novels. I've seen other writers fall into this failure mode and it's awful. Do not want.
1b) I don't like writing the part of the book where characters are in trouble and don't yet know how they're going to get out of it. I feel sad and worried for them. I feel daunted by the responsibility of being the only person who can help them by writing them through to the part where they fix things and life gets better. It's incredibly uncomfortable and I'd rather go do anything else than sit with that discomfort. A lot of this probably goes back to how much work I've done to get myself out of that part of my life and into the happily-ever-after part. I don't want to have to remember how it feels to be scared and uncertain and anxious about what the future holds. And I'd need to access those remembered feelings in myself in order to write them well.
2) "Set little goals en route to the big goal" or "Write a little bit every day" isn't useful advice for me because it implies that I've already got the big goal in place. In various fundamental ways, I don't. My issues are conceptual, not practical--I can very easily write 500 or 1000 words a day without breaking a sweat, as long as I have a structure in place for doing it. (When I was a medical writer I did this all the time.) Creating that structure from scratch is the hard part. That said, this is probably the easiest of my problems to solve, because it's a craft problem. talkendo and anamardoll pointed me to this iterative process for novel-writing, which I'd seen before but forgotten about, and I might come back to that once I've wrestled all the rest of my issues into submission.
3) Writing an unsold first novel is a fundamentally solo process, and that's hard for me.
3a) I'm not daunted by the scale of it. I love large-scale, ambitious projects as long as I'm part of a team, or working for someone else, or collaborating in some fashion. I'm daunted by doing something on that scale all by myself.
3b) The purely self-directed nature of writing a novel freaks me out because I don't know who/what it's FOR, and that makes it hard to motivate myself. "It's for me" doesn't feel like a satisfactory answer because I'm used to seeing "for me" in terms of the iterative process described above: "for my happiness" or "for my comfort". I cannot begin to explain why I even want to write this novel, other than that it's in my head and won't go away (and putting it that way feels coercive and makes my skin crawl and I immediately resist the urge to write it because I refuse to give in to bullying), but it sure isn't because it makes me feel happy or comfortable. I guess the other obvious answer would be "it's for my readers" but that feels so abstract. I don't have readers yet because I don't have a book yet, and until I have a book I won't know whether anyone is going to enjoy reading it.
3c) The deeply vulnerable nature of writing a novel--especially this particular novel--makes it emotionally difficult for me to join a writing group, ask someone to beta-read, or work on it with a writing teacher. Just the thought of someone reading my work and giving me advice on it in that kind of context is making my heart pound. Weirdly, as soon as I put this in the context of professional writing--"I write the book and get an agent and the agent helps me revise, and then we sell it and the editor helps me revise again"--all that emotional baggage goes away, because I've been on the editorial side of that kind of relationship and I understand how it works. And I'm very comfortable with the idea of writing for money, and editing being part of the process of writing for money. But if it's a personal project, critique feels personal. I would cry. It would be messy.
3d) I don't tend to learn by making mistakes. I learn by watching other people make mistakes, doing a lot of research into how not to make mistakes, and then being as perfect as possible right out of the gate. For short fiction and nonfiction, I write an average of one draft, with maybe one quick revision pass for tiny word tweaks if I have time. The idea of writing a novel and then reading it and discovering that it's been one big unpublishable learning experience is total nightmare fuel. But as long as I'm doing it on my own, I worry that I won't get the kind of feedback I need to improve as I go.
So basically I want someone to hire me to write a novel, with a set schedule and some guidance and the understanding that if I don't meet my deadlines then that has ripples for the other projects in the works and the editorial schedule and the practicalities of production. I want an editor I work with on a purely professional level, the two of us collaborating on making the work into the best possible work that it can be within the limits of the schedule. I think (I think) that would be enough to motivate me through the uncomfortable middle, because I'm very used to motivating myself with externally imposed deadlines or internally imposed professionalism, even when I would rather be doing anything other than working, even when opening up files literally makes me cry, even when I chant "I don't want to be doing this" as I do my work. And if I can approach it as a professional writer, I can let go of a whole lot of anxiety around feeling like I don't know what I'm doing because I've never done this specific kind of writing before, and instead draw on my nearly bottomless well of serene confidence that I am a fucking awesome improviser and can totally adapt skills acquired elsewhere into doing whatever it is I need to do. (This is how I turned a single connection in medical journalism into a multi-year career. I approached medical jargon as an SF reader learning alien languages, with Wikipedia as my back-of-book glossary; I applied critical reading techniques from book reviewing to breaking down journal articles; I mimicked house style until I had a sense of how to strike out on my own; and interviewing techniques are universal.)
gabrielsquailia put up a tweetstream about trauma, anxiety, and difficulty with goal-setting that really speaks to me. Among other things, they link to this post from robertjbennett about the value of working with editors. And yes, that, that's what I want.
As a professional writer I am completely confident that I could write an entirely passable first novel that's better than, oh, let's say 70% of the first novels out there. That's the sort of goal that I set in my work life: not to be the best or even super-duper-outstanding, just to do the work well enough that the client likes it and wants to hire me for their next project and maybe recommends me to a friend. (Iterative goals again! But that's how businesses grow.) That larger context makes the individual project seem comfortably small and achievable. In this case I have no plans to make a business of writing novels, but approaching a novel as a professional project still lets me draw on those thought patterns.
I think it's hilarious that "write a novel well enough that my editor wants me to write another" sounds perfectly reasonable to me, like an opportunity that I could consider professionally in light of how the first one went and decide whether it was something I wanted to take on (much as I did with anthology editing invitations after Long Hidden), and also I have panicked thoughts of "what if I write a book and readers like it and they want me to write more books?!". I am really just not used to working for readers. The author/reader relationship is intimate and weird. But working for editors? No problem.
Maybe I should look for ghostwriting gigs. Can you get those without having written novels of your own? That way I could get the first novel out of the way and hone my skills before applying them to a project I have strong emotional attachment to. Like figuring out your body by having casual sex with acquaintances so that when you settle down with someone you really care about, you know what on earth you're doing and can mostly skip the fumbling stage.* I realize this sounds exactly the same as the "novel as learning experience" concept I decried above, but there I was talking about doing it all on my own. Doing a learning-experience novel for money is totally different. For one thing, I get something tangible out of it. For another thing, my clients' standards are generally much lower than mine, and working to their standards lets me mostly escape my perfectionism.
* I have been doing an archive read of Questionable Content this week for reasons semi-related to all this--I wanted to immerse myself in an unbounded narrative and consider that as an alternative to writing a bounded one, so that I can skip the whole goal-setting part of things--and it's full of sex jokes, so I have sex on the brain.
Engaging my professional brain is a sneaky way of saying that I want some emotional distance from the parts of this that are scary and hard. And that's a lot of why I think a first novel I approached this way would only be better than 70% of first novels--you can't write a really good novel from a place of emotional distance. But the casual sex analogy is apt; there's a lot to be said for separating out the part where you acquire the skill and the part where you fall head over heels, and doing the skill part first doesn't at all mean you're giving up on the possibility of falling hard later. It just means that when you do fall hard, you want to be able to enjoy it without freaking out over how little you know.
Realistically, it seems very unlikely that anyone is going to hire me to write a novel that I haven't already written. First novels are nearly always written on spec, and I say "nearly always" rather than "always" only because I'm sure there must be exceptions somewhere, not because I personally know of any. (Also, honestly, if I were an editor, I wouldn't hire someone with my résumé to write a novel sight unseen.) But I feel much better having come up with what feels like a plausible scenario for success. I'm going to set it aside for a bit and go get some work done, and let the back of my brain work on figuring out how to mimic or approximate those conditions.