I recently finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I enjoyed much of it, particularly his ability to develop characters in a methodical way. While some of the dialogue was incredibly stilted, what was fascinating to me was my willingness to keep reading even as I was saying in my head “no one talks like that!” As I wrote in 168 Hours (about my making time for reading novels, and why I do it), “It is comforting to see that even the great writers in the English language have their awkward moments; I have realized that the important thing is not to be flawless, but to be compelling enough to make up for the flaws.”
One reason I was reading Freedom is that it was the biggest novel of 2010. I have gotten in my head that I would like my next big writing project to be a novel. A big part of figuring out what will work is seeing what has worked. I have made a variety of attempts at novel writing over the years, and have several unpublished novels in the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) drawer. I want to resurrect some of the themes and plot lines from these works and create something that I (and hopefully thousands of other folks) will want to read.
But all of this is completely speculative. Novel writing can take a long time (I read somewhere that Franzen took 9 years to write Freedom! Though of course it wasn’t speculative for him — after The Corrections, he knew it would be published to much fanfare). It takes focused time and, in my case, unpaid time. That means that not only is it competing against my personal life, it’s competing against other assignments that come with checks attached to them. I could devote hours every day to writing a novel and still have nothing come of it.
So as I think of these things, as I’m trying to psych myself up for this project, there are a few questions lingering in the back of my mind. Like, how much time am I willing to devote to it? If this round of novel writing doesn’t work, am I willing to accept that it’s not going to happen? What kinds of signs along the way would be encouraging?
All this has me thinking back to the roughly 18 months between getting the idea for 168 Hours (which was not called that back then) and getting a book contract. Much of that was completely speculative as well. I wrote an entire 9-part series for the Huffington Post. I wrote articles for various low-paying outlets who’d let me blather on about these topics. I wrote 4 different versions of a book proposal and kept getting no where. Except then, finally, I did.
I am not sure what lesson to draw from that story. One is the poster you’d see in a guidance counselor’s office exhorting one to persistence. The other is that it’s really hard to keep focused during long periods of unrewarded (at least externally) work. Am I willing to face that again? I think I am, and so it is just a matter of putting one word in front of the other. What speculative projects have you made time for in the past? And what kinds of projects would you like to make time for — but aren’t sure you can?