Props & Crutches

After looking at a couple of online courses in fiction writing, I’ve concluded (not surprisingly) that a course is not what I need. These courses are expensive, and they’re directed at novices. You’ll get a week on dialog, a week on how to write a strong opener, a week on how conflict works, and so on — the basics. I already know all that stuff.

Applying it is not always easy, but a course is not going to show you how to build up the conflict between two specific characters who are already firmly ensconced in your pages. A course just gives you some vague generic guidelines, with maybe some examples from books the instructor has read that you probably haven’t. After that, you’re on your own.

What I actually need is an ongoing source of support and encouragement to keep me focused on the novel that’s sitting here on my hard drive. I have a complete second draft, and it still needs some fairly extensive revisions, for reasons that would take many paragraphs to explain. This book is a complex project, and the points of confusion that get me discouraged are very, very specific. As in, why does Jeroe dismiss the guards he hired? (Or is the guard asleep downstairs? Will that work?) How can I work Mother Hagel into the denouement? How will she feel when she finds out she was hoodwinked? Will Graysall work out how Lady Murassala died? How do Prince Rufallo’s men know Danforth has the shawl?

These are all real questions about my actual project; they’re not made-up examples. And they’re not going to be addressed in an online curriculum where you submit two 3,000-word excerpts over the course of 12 weeks. What the hell good would it do to have your fellow students read a couple of 3,000-word excerpts? That’s not where the problems are!

Unfortunately, even admitting that what I need is a source of support is, in effect, a sort of catch-22. If I say it out loud (or here in the blog, which is as close to out loud as shut-ins get these days) and get no meaningful response, that’s an emotional body blow. I experience the lack of response as rejection. (This is to do with childhood issues, nothing I intend to explain. You just need to accept it; don’t even bother trying to talk me out of it with some sort of pathetic pep talk.)

But if I don’t say it out loud, how will anyone know I need the support?

Mick Jagger: “We all need someone we can lean on.” Exactly. You can call it a crutch, or a prop, or a balloon lift, the precise metaphor doesn’t matter. Writing is hard. As I used to tell my cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”

When you’re young, I suspect, you can give yourself some emotional support by dreaming about the success you’ll enjoy someday. You bask in the gauzy visions of the admiring fans who will someday flock to your book signings. But I’m 72 years old. I don’t for a moment believe that flocks of admiring fans will figure in my future. If a few people read my stories and enjoy them, that’s good enough. Beyond that, I just want to finish this novel because I think it’s good. I care about the characters. I re-read Chapter 1 this afternoon and it brought tears to my eyes.

A couple of weeks ago one of my Facebook friends (a woman I used to know pretty well down in Cupertino 30 years ago) said she had downloaded While Caesar Sang of Hercules and was going to read it. Great! And then … nothing. I have no idea if she even started reading, if she tried reading it and gave up because it didn’t interest her, if she read it and hated it, or if she read it and liked it but just hasn’t bothered to say so.

And you can’t ask. That novel has fallen into the void. I’m proud of it, but not a single person has yet said they read it and enjoyed it. (I checked. No customer reviews on Amazon.) So why should I struggle to wrestle another project, something that’s more of a struggle than that one was, into shape? What does it matter if I do, or if I don’t?

If it mattered to someone other than me, I’d be more likely to keep at it. But I’m not going to ask for support and encouragement, because if nobody responds, that will make the struggle much worse. Much worse when drums stop.

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