Unfinished Business

I’m calling my novel draft "TNP." That’s not the real title, of course, but it is the acronym. I know better than to discuss the content of it here, or anywhere; as you writer-types know, the best way to kill an idea is to unveil it before its time.

I almost feel silly talking about it. Not because I see novel-writing as an ignoble pursuit. Not because I think there are more important things to do than spend three hours each morning writing five or so pages. In fact, I consider those three hours the most important, if not always the most productive, three hours of my day. Even if TNP is never published, even if I never finish it, it’s still important.

No, I think my feeling comes from the fact that, from age 12 to age 25 or so, I was always “working on a novel.” In junior high and high school, since we didn’t have the technological advances of laptops and jump drives, I carried meaty five-subject notebooks everywhere I went, along with shorter, smaller notebooks for short story projects, poetry, and what I called “short story excerpts,” or “SSEs,” which were nothing more than sketches of people and scenes I encountered.

The fat notebooks were for the novels. Most of them were dumb little teen-fiction stories that were modeled loosely after whatever we happened to be reading in school at the time—A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Hobbit, or whatever. My stories took place in the mid-1980s, and their characters wore headbands and leg warmers and talked like Valley Girls, much as we did.

The subject matter of my stories may have been silly and dated, but they were otherwise well written, for a teenager. I certainly put in the hours of writing practice required to improve my writing; I wrote every second I could manage to scribble down a few words. As an avid reader, I always had a feel for words and a love for stories. The writing practice was just another facet of my writing self-education.

Now, it seems natural that I’d be working on a novel now. So why does it feel silly?

Because, as much as I’ve spent of my life “working on a novel,” I’ve never finished anything.

My closet is full of notebooks that contain starts and stops to all sorts of writing projects. Some projects—like my draft novel “Gypsy’s Caravan”—are hundreds of handwritten pages long, but are only in draft format. Others consist of a detailed outline and several dozen pages. Still others are just seeds of thoughts that I wrote on for five or six pages before quitting. I also have floppy disks—the truly floppy ones from the late 1980s, as well as 3.5” disks--and a laptop hard drive full of ideas and unfinished beginnings.

Sure, I’ve had ideas die on me. I’ll start to pursue an idea then, for whatever reason, it ceases to strike me as interesting or worthy of my efforts. But more often than not, I remain impressed with story ideas I’ve had. I just let life get in the way. By the time I come back to the idea, it’s lost its luster. I can’t work the magic on it that I found before. Sylvia Plath writes about this experience in a poem, where she compares her unfinished poems to unborn fetuses in jars. I understand the sentiment all too well.

I guess I’m scared that the TNP effort will go the way of every single other effort I’ve ever made at fiction writing. I don’t even know if it’s a workable "novel idea"yet; even as I write, I know that I'll end up cutting much of out.

Maybe TNP isn’t meant to be finished. Maybe it’s just a necessary warm up for me, a way of spilling words onto a page so I can build up my fiction-writing muscles. They were in pretty good shape until my early twenties. Now they’re pretty flabby.

Hm. I hadn’t thought of that before. If I think of TNP as a warm-up draft, that takes some of the imagined pressure off. I feel more comfortable with the whole idea of writing it.

We’ll see. Maybe it’s meant to be unfinished business, or maybe it’s meant to be something that the public eventually reads. Either way, I’m enjoying writing it and building up those fiction-writing muscles. And if it’s just practice … well, I have plenty of unfinished story ideas to take its place once I'm in better "shape." Maybe I’ll even find the magic in some of those old ideas that I can’t seem to let go of.

Speaking of ideas, and writing, and stories, I have a table waiting for me at my favorite coffee shop. Time to get to work on TNP!


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