I don’t often decide to stop writing novels. I thought I had a strict non deletus est policy – write on til the bitter end and all that. But I recently decided to lock away a novel I’d been writing.
Last summer, I excitedly tweeted that I was working on a new project. I posted ideas and theories to improve my plot. It became my field for extracts and I poured over it in my free time: UTC, an NA contemporary uni romance, set in a fictional British town.
However, I came to realise, rather soon into September/October-time, that I was getting very little done with this plot very quickly. I pieced together ten-thousand, then fifteen-thousand words. I knew the three main axes. I knew which Supporting Characters would have a romantic, diverse subplot that would aid my heroine into making a decision over her wildly aloof hero (as they all are, am I right?).
Yet, despite this, I wasn’t writing this silly thing. I sat in my little plot bubble, planning where to take them, and verbally sketching out the occasional scene; but when it came to making those scenes into a work of contemporary, New Adult fiction, I couldn’t write them together.
Maybe it was me. But, honestly, it was more than likely the book.
No offence, book.
(High five if you also read that gif in Radcliffe’s voice!)
Without trying to over-analyse the situation, I want to think about my reasons behind a) the decline of writing this story, and b) my reasons to finally admit ‘no, this isn’t working’.
Contemporaries. *lets out long sigh of air*
They’re just not the same as SFF fiction, are they?
Okay. That’s the easy way of saying it. But of course, there’s going to be a different way of writing contemporaries as there is to writing fantasy or sci fi. For starters, character traits can’t be reliant on the alien or different as descriptors of their behaviour and liveliness. We’ve got no super-vampiric Cullens here. These guys have to be human. And I mean that in all senses of the word. Think human, talk human, trait human.
That’s a lot harder to write than one would think.
We’re surrounded by humans (probably) every day, but even for the people-watcher, the psychologist, the thinker, we cannot know what they’re thinking separate from our thoughts. Being a human is actually a very solitary job. We know what we ourselves like, our habits, our behaviours – but we have to extrapolate those things onto mannequins of other humans in order to manage realistic characters. As philosopher AJ Ayer said – we only know others exist by inference from their behaviour being similar to our behaviour.
And realistic characters have the added problem of being boring.
That’s not to say I find contemporary writing boring – and that’s not to say that I found writing my contemporary boring… I just…didn’t love the characters. Not because of their likes/dislikes or their behaviours. I cannot say why I wasn’t interested. In them I saw people I knew and would know, the same people I passed every day.
Certainly, we look for, in characters of any sort of fiction, a uniqueness and diversity [of interest], but I think to make contemporary fiction appealing to all sorts of readers, we need an added ingredient.
The thing is, even with their less-than-typical interests – caving, mixing cocktails, ancient history – my hero and heroine were too simple, two one-dimensional. Maybe this would have been fixed during rewriting, but there was something deeper that made me relinquish their scenario.
I’m not the only one to notice how contemporary is not only about plot. One might argue that the point of contemporary is to focus on the characters, as if the genre is a YA imitation of literary fiction but without the gorgeous.
Something about my characters didn’t click. In themselves, in their scenario, in their future. I think they were cute when push came to shove, but I wasn’t actively ‘shipping’ them in my head; nor did I seem to be actively shipping their stories to its page.
They were interesting, but they just weren’t my kind of interesting. Not suited to their fiction. And I think that’s one of the most difficult things about writing contemporary: getting that balance of character and place and having the two fit each other enough to convince not only the reader and the character, but the writer – as perfectionists as we are. In short, a contemporary doesn’t appeal when it slips even an inch from one of those high standards. It’s a tough act.
At least, in my subjective opinion.
So, I had to make the decision: keep going down a path that I knew, in my heart of hearts, was eventually doomed to the back of a drawer; or call it quits on this one, for now or forever.
I have nothing against contemporary writing, of course. In fact, that and contemporary fantasy made up most of my under-10-years-old reading. My adult romance/woman’s fiction (completed two years ago, but not yet fully rewritten because I have fantasies bleeding out my ears) thrilled and still thrills me. And there we have the problem of this certain contemporary: despite living directly in their world, I couldn’t relate to my hero and heroine. Part of me wanted to sneer and ask them “what makes yourself better than these other characters?”.
Indeed, what made their world any better than any other world I’d created? Nothing, judging by how enamoured I still am with my big novel’s universe.
Nevertheless, when it comes down to the long and short of it, I am notoriously hard to please with contemporary fiction. Give it me in the here and now, but sprinkle it with murder and mayhem, rather than cliques and chattering. If I want contemporary fluff, I’ll put on Mean Girls or Clueless in the background of an editing session.
What I’m reading.
At the moment, I’m reading and enjoying novella Bride by Mistake by Nicole Helm. It’s a quick read, and the characters aren’t particularly eccentric, but at least they have colour and form in my head, unlike mine.
I’ve started YA novel Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider. It’s nice, but I’m not loving it yet, and perhaps the characters are too young for my head.
My favourite contemporaries remain those I encountered in my childhood. Jacqueline Wilson’s Love Lessons is a poignant novel and breaks my heart every time I read it. In fact, many of Wilson’s novels have and still do entertain me. Her characters don’t tend to be out-and-out eccentrics like myself, but they have heart, and that’s what matters.
Maybe my characters were simply lacking heart.