The misery of long projects by MLR

As the (to astronomical precision) ~0 people who read some of the words I write in places like this know, I have technically been working on my novel for around 15 years. I say technically because the first draft of it, other than eventually having the same protagonist as it currently has, was absolutely nothing like the current draft, with vastly different characters and writing style and plot, and therefore is only connected to the novel I'm currently writing in my own mind as a previous iteration of the same project. Since I started that project, I have rewritten (written?) the novel four times, and am currently finishing up the fifth rewrite.

I think it's a bit dangerous to admit something like that because of the expectations it creates. When you admit to someone that you've been working on a piece of writing for over a decade, and then you actually finally finish it and show it to that person, well... I mean, it's almost guaranteed it will fall below their expectations. People assume that if something takes a person a long time, it's because they've been spending the whole time getting it absolutely perfect. This is in contrast to the real reason, at least in my case, which is that this is the project I've been using to learn how to write. So even though the way I know it should be thought of is that the draft I finally submit for others to read is not, in fact, a masterpiece I've been crafting and polishing for 15 years, but is merely a novel I wrote over the course of the last few years that happens to have a very similar plot to one I wrote five years before that, I know the expectation is going to be if the work is not somehow flawless then the fact I've spent 15 years writing it is just an embarrassment and a testament to my own incompetence. Peoples' minds, like electrons, always want to occupy the lowest energy quantum state.

In reality, spending a miserably long amount of time on a single project comes with a whole host of interesting new pitfalls that people who actually finish projects never get to experience. One of these has been sitting on my chest for the past several months, and so, as a way of helping ease some of that pressure, I'm going to describe it now.

First of all, let me admit this may be somewhat specific to my own experience. When I say I started writing this project 15 years ago, one should keep in mind that as I write this piece you are now reading I'm only 32. So I started writing this project in early high school. And high schoolers, we all know (well, we all excluding high schoolers themselves), are by and large terrible writers. I had no experience, and my thoughts were wild and incoherent and still forming. This is all a long way of stating the first draft of my novel sucked and was a horrifying embarrassment, something I eventually came to realize and why I decided to try rewriting it the first time. And then, after rewriting it once, I eventually came to realize that the second draft also sucked and was only slightly less embarrassing, so I rewrote it again, and so on in similar permutations to the present day.

The reason this happened of course is because as I grew older, my concept of what does and does not suck changed. Specifically, as regards the example that I will shortly elaborate on, I began to more seriously consider the decisions I made regarding things like plot and character action and even word choice, to think more carefully about what kind of meanings I want to convey with a given work, and the cohesion of the work as a whole. Given that, in the previous draft of this novel, I had not been doing that, I've had to spend a lot of time agonizing over which details from that draft to keep and which to jettison. Sometimes it was a relatively easy decision: there was a passage early on in the novel in which the protagonist has to clever-clever his way out of a situation by acting dumb about current events, which was an obvious ploy by me to insert some world-building into the dialogue. Hated that, so I threw that out and replaced it. Other decisions were harder: the entire second part of the three-part novel really lacked purpose and was consequently kind of boring, so it needed much more severe revision than the first part.

There's a certain amount of agony inherent in making these kinds of decisions, which I think anyone who's ever edited a piece of writing is well aware of. There's a certain amount more, though, when you have to make a decision to revise a piece of writing that's been with you for over a decade, and because organic beings make it a point to avoid pain, this extra layer of agony, this asking of yourself to not just "kill your darlings" but to kill them after they've grown in your mind into children and friends, greatly increases the chances you will make a mistake.

The example, finally. In the previous draft of the novel, in the third section, I had inexplicably made the decision to start swapping perspectives between the protagonist and another newly introduced character, immediately from chapter one of the third part. If I had a good reason for this at the time, I've by now forgotten it. Now, you might say, "Fair enough; I've been paying attention and remember that earlier on you stated you were trying to more carefully consider such decisions in your writing, so logically if it was a decision made with no clear purpose, you reversed the decision when you started working on this new draft. Right?" And that would be very kind of you to say, but in fact I didn't do that. In fact, in writing this new draft of part three, which I have now been working on for around 8 months, I decided to keep that swapping of perspectives.

Now why did I do that? The decision to do it in the first place, even if I did have a reason, didn't make a whole lot of sense and mostly just served to confuse the handful of people I let read that draft. Logically I should have done away with it and rewritten all chapters in the original protagonist's perspective. Yet somehow, even though now I'm trying to be more thoughtful about such things, I kept it anyway. And I kept it anyway because it was apparently a darling of mine that I loved so much I decided to invent a reason for it so that I could keep it. Part of the novel's theme now, you see, is about otherness, and the constructive and destructive influence of change, and I wanted a way to show the protagonist coming to a realization about how his own otherness affects other people. So since it's already in there, why not do this by showing how he is actually seen by someone else? And with that justification in my pocket I happily went to work.

This might be fine in theory, honestly. I'm still not completely averse to keeping it in to some degree. But there is still a huge problem, which is that, while now I've managed to justify it in my own mind, I forgot that I also need to more deeply consider the execution of it. Immediately from the get-go swapping to another character's perspective, I realize now, simply does not work to convey that meaning. It still will serve mostly to confuse people, because I never swap perspectives anywhere else in the novel, and there is no buildup to this realization on the part of the protagonist that I wanted to use to justify the perspective swap.

So now I'm stuck in the quagmire that is making the following decision: do I come up with a better reason for swapping perspectives and work to improve the execution of it so that the intended message is actually conveyed, or do I go back and rejigger eight months' worth of work to reverse this decision entirely like I probably should have done in the first place?

This is the misery of long projects. If you're looking for a quippy resolution to this rambling set of paragraphs, let it be this: maybe don't do them.

The misery of long projects


26 May 2019 at 06:19:38 MDT

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    Just a thought, but what if you showed a very small, short perspective swap early on in the novel. It would justify the perspective swap much further on in the narrative by letting the reader know this might happen again later on.

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      Hm... not too sure about that. I think it would work more to do several, if I was to take that route, but even then I worry it would come across as confusing if they were only sparsely tossed about. I may just need to take like a whole day and think it through more carefully, how I want to proceed here. Thanks, though.