I walked into the Hutchinson Starbucks, and there was Sarah. Oh! I know her! My first random connection in Kansas. We began to chat.
“Are you just about finished with your book by now?” she asked me.
“No, I’m just plodding along with it slowly,” I said. Because right now I’m only about 1/3 of the way through my first draft.
But then, after I got my tea and sat down to write, I realized that the “book” of her question was a completely different book than the “book” of my answer.
When I drove through Kansas in September, which was the last time I saw Sarah, I was working on Book A.
Book A was a middle grade novel. Fantasy, but with no actual magic in it. I was trying really hard to finish something, even if it turned out terrible.
But when I was in Ohio, I gave up on Book A. Something just was not working. I couldn’t place my figure on what. The plot, probably. Plots have never been my strong point.
I was determined to fix my plot issues. In Delaware, I used my Ohio library card to borrow an e-book called “No Plot? No Problem!” The book wasn’t remotely helpful, so I went to the Delaware library and borrowed real books and took notes.
Notes in hand, I spend my week-and-a-half in Washington DC working on Book B.
Book B was a project I’d first worked on in the summer of 2016. Unlike Book A, it had a strong plot idea, and seemed like a good candidate for plot practice. I didn’t even write more chapters, I just sat in coffee shops with a notebook and tried to trace the story arc and resolution for each character.
And it was good practice. But then I got busy and stopped working on it. Book B is a strange story–not really marketable–so probably not a good time investment right now.
In Florida I had no wifi and no library card and one afternoon I was bored. I opened my laptop to see if I had any books downloaded on my Kindle app. Oh! There was my copy of “No Plot? No Problem!” that I’d borrowed in Delaware. The lack of Internet had prevented it from automatically returning.
So I read it.
“No Plot? No Problem!” wasn’t a book about plots, it was a book about how to write a novel in a month. And as I read, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a novel in a month.
So I began Book C.
Book C came from a fun idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for years. Writing it was fun at first, but eventually I began to hate the book. I mean, I loathed that thing.
Something was not working, and it was more than just the plot.
I was driving down the 501 when it struck me. The Big Problem with Book C, and also, coincidentally, the Big Problem with Book A, and the Big Problem with most novels I’ve attempted in the last five or so years. It’s not the plot that trips me up. It’s the lack of humor.
I don’t enjoy reading books without humor, or reading poetry without humor, so why would I enjoy writing without humor? No wonder I started writing books and then ended up hating them!
In any case, I gave up on fiction for a bit, and instead started working on Book D. Book D is a memoir, the story of this year. Nonfiction feels easy after struggling along with fiction for so long. You don’t have to worry about plot. You just write down what happened. And humor nestles naturally into my nonfiction.
However, this was not the end of my fiction journey. There was, and by “was” I mean “is,” a Book E.
Book E happened because one day as I was walking along the streets of Lancaster, I came across a little free library, and found a book called Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar.
It was a book I knew I liked, and I knew I didn’t own a copy of it, so I took it home with me. And I began re-reading it carefully. And I began noticing things.
First, Sachar doesn’t really have a plot in the book, but rather writes individual stories based on different characters. The book is held together by repeating characters, incidents, and random elements paced throughout.
Second, the entire book is filled with humor. It’s a humor based on repetition and silliness, and it reminded me of an unfinished children’s book I’d started over ten years ago. I dug up my old manuscript, and started reading.
The first three chapters were written when I was seventeen, and they were fantastic. Very similar to Wayside School, full of silliness and repetition and fun times.
The last half-chapter was written when I was 25. It was awful. I was desperately trying to contrive a plot to tie the whole book together, and all the humor was gone.
I started working on Book E again, determined to channel the humor and silliness and repetition, heedless of plot, that somehow came naturally to me when I was seventeen.
Of course it’s taking a back seat to Book D, but right now, if you asked me, I’d say I’m working on two books.
If you’re wondering why I stopped putting humor into my fiction, well, you tell me and we’ll both know. Was it a result of the the humorless literary fiction of my writing classes? Was I focusing so much on plots that I forgot all about humor? Was I putting myself under too much pressure to reach a word count, leaving myself no time to contrive good jokes?
As to the haphazard way I keep starting books but not finishing them, I’ve ceased to let this bother me. When I was young I thought my unfinished books were all going to waste. But now, I’m always taking that old manuscript from four years ago and finding the perfect new twist to keep it going. And if it dies, well, perhaps I’ll revive it again in another four years.
But Book D, the memoir about this year, is in very little danger of being abandoned. And that’s what I mean, right now, when I say I’m working on a book.
Note: I now have a Patreon page, where you can get bonus blog posts by subscribing for $1 or more a month. My latest post is titled, “How Mennonites Set Women Up to Reject the Head Covering.“