Periscope Depth

tuesday's gone with the wind

When I wrote about the 2009 Muse and the Marketplace conference a few months back, I mentioned Ann Patchett’s keynote speech. Let me give a little more detail there:

Patchett talked about editing the 2006 Best American Short Stories collection. Out of the wealth of material available to her, she had the hardest time winnowing down to a roster of twenty. “But I would not have had that difficulty were I picking the twenty best novels of 2006,” she said. “They’re just not the same quality.

“Everyone tries to sell their first novel,” she continued. “But nobody tries to sell their first short story. You write it and you stick it in a drawer. Or you throw it away. No one has a problem throwing away a short story. But when we invest so much time in our novels, we get married to them. And if you’re going to take your craft seriously as a writer, you have to reach the point where you can admit that a novel just might not work.

“I had a very dear friend who had tried to sell a novel for ten years. He worked on it and revised it and edited it and workshopped it a dozen times. Finally he gave it to me and said, ‘Ann, if you say it can’t be saved, I’ll put it away.’ I read it. Then I came back to him and said, ‘Put it away.’ And he screamed at me in tears and said, ‘No, no, you’re wrong,’ and we have not spoken since.”

I say all this because I may be at that point with my last two novels.

I’ve been trying to push the first one as a thriller, but that was before I read any actual thrillers. With two hundred thousand words of Tess Gerritsen and Lee Child and Harlan Cobin under my belt, I now know what a thriller’s supposed to look like – and the Levittown Barbecue Club ain’t it. It takes its sweet time. I may have some talent as a stylist, but I can’t plot for shit.

The second one, the one I just finished, is more literary. But it also starts with a murder and it coasts on suspense for as long as it can. If it’s a thriller, I don’t introduce any real tension until about midway through; if it’s literary, I don’t spend nearly enough time exploring a theme. And it’s barely 60,000 words.

Whereas the short story I just finished? The one I sent to Esquire’s new fiction contest? I feel pretty good about it. And if it gets rejected, that’s a month’s work gone. No big loss. But a month of writing a short story helped me at least half as much as a year of writing a novel did. Maybe I should measure my writing progress in plots instead of words. I created four plots in the last six months, etc.

I haven’t given up hope yet. Michelle’s feedback on the second novel gave me some new inspiration. But hope’s not what I need most right now. More than anything, I need truth. I need to know whether either of the novels I wrote over the last two years have any future. Because if I need to murder my darlings, I want to get my blood up.

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