The absurdity of it all

I’ve reached a point in the first draft of my novel “Absent” where I’ve had to stop and ask myself:  is this absurd, or is it brilliant?

It’s not a question of shitty first drafts, in which you give yourself permission to suck in order to plow ahead and finish the wretched thing.  The quandary I’m talking about is a different animal altogether.  With a shitty first draft, you know the story is a mess.  You recognize its awfulness and choose to ignore it for the time being.  What I’m experiencing is a complete inability to objectively assess whether the story I’m telling is laugh-out-loud ridiculous or utter genius.

In all probability, it’s somewhere in between.  The fact that I’m incapable of determining this, however, makes me nervous.  I’m usually pretty good at working out whether a story has potential or not.  And while I can step back and identify certain structural problems with the unfolding of the narrative, point to places where character development is inconsistent or where plot holes might be forming, I just can’t  suss out if this damn novel works or not.

This has happened to me once before, and looking back I think I’ve nailed down a possible culprit.  In both cases, when I couldn’t determine if the story worked or not, the underlying problem was a scientific improbability I was struggling to make seem plausible.

In the case of “Absent”, the improbability is time travel.  In the other example (a short story still languishing in a file folder) it was near-future space travel.

Speculative fiction is all about creating worlds where the improbable (and often impossible) seem real.  The trick is to avoid obvious hand-waving in making your speculative elements believable.  I think I have a tougher time doing this with sci fi than with fantasy.  Upon reflection, I suspect this is due to a lack of confidence.

Unlike anthropology (a discipline I think lends itself particularly well to the creation of fantasy-based worlds), science has never been my forte.  Even when I engage focused research on a specific scientific topic, I come away feeling tentative and unsure of my efforts to spin it into a believable speculative world.  This insecurity is surely transmitted when I craft the plot and write the story, calling attention to itself like a big red winter nose.

To solve my problem, I know I need to simply keep at it, to dig in harder with my research and read and dissect more science fiction novels to see how they succeed where I fail…assuming, of course, that a lack of confidence and practice are my problems.

As I write this, it strikes me that another element in the mix might be basing a story in the real world and inserting just one speculative element in it (as opposed to creating a largely speculative world).  Getting readers to accept a world just like ours except for this one, single, crazy thing might be much harder than selling them on a completely speculative world.  Perhaps I haven’t yet accrued sufficient writerly skill to pull this off.  In which case, practice and study still seem like the appropriate route forward.

So, has this happened to anyone else?  Have you ever started into a novel or short story only to realize halfway through you’ve got NO IDEA if it’s working or not?  And, if so, why do you think it happens?

Tell me I’m not alone in this…please!

8 thoughts on “The absurdity of it all

  1. Steve Buchheit

    It’s a common conundrum, directly related to the mid-novel, “OMG this all SUCKS!” syndrome.

    And those parts that are based on reality need to ring very true to carry the verisimilitude over onto the one twist from reality in the story. The main way I’ve solved for this problem is to not call attention to the twist. Present it as a fact among other facts and it’ll carry water. In ghost stories you can have a moment of “holy crap, ghosts!”, but with everything else the moment of “well, THAT was weird” comes after. Or in other words, if all you’re brain is saying is “OMG Zombies, OMG Zombies” instead of “chop off the head, the body dies” you’re going to get eaten. Get the head chopped off, then have the breakdown.

    At least, that’s my humble opinion.

  2. Julia Rios

    I always get to a point when I just can’t tell if it’s good or bad or completely whack. Usually I either step away for a bit and return after working on other things, or I send it out for critiques. Sometimes these things help.

    1. Cath

      What Julia said is what I was going to say, so this is my parasite entry saying that.


      ps Happy to take a look, although right now, I’m reading Marion’s very large merman book.

  3. Vlad

    I’d say that it’s totally normal. No, I never wrote fiction. But I did agonize over a 240 page dissertation for about a year, mostly because of an overzealous advisor. The feeling at the end was essentially the same. Interestingly, after a couple of years I read the material again and thought that it was actually pretty good stuff 🙂

    Time travel is definitely tough. For a novel, I’d say that the most important part is consistency. If there’s multiple occurrences of time travel, you should stick to a single paradigm.

    Star Trek, for instance, was particularly bad in terms of consistency. Here’s a take on it:

    Babylon 5 did a much better job with time travel – it was organic to the story as opposed to accidental, it was consistent and it did explain some of the “miracles” and “prophecies”.

  4. EF Kelley

    Well, we’re directly connected to our work in a way that no reader ever will be. We know where the set is just painted canvas, and we know which prop knives are real or not.

    This happens to all writers at all levels. If it’s really giving you a hard time, the only solution I’ve found is to put it away for a while. The distance can give you some perspective.

  5. Rick Zawadzki

    Time travel can present itself as a tricky subject but the best time travel stories that I’ve read or seen not only stay consistent with the methodology, they simply present it as fact and don’t get deeply involved in the science. Look to the Back to the Future series- McGuffin X (ie. Flux Capacitor) is responsible for time travel. You accept that the McGuffin is what enables it and move on to enjoy the rest of the story.

    Terminator and Terminator 2- they never really explain how it happens so much as they do the limitations. It happens, you accept it, and move on with the rest of the story. Both movies exist in what would be considered an Earth Prime environment, similar to ours, where super science is not evident any where else in society.

    The only time travel story that I’ve read where an attempt to explain it with any sort of plausible science is Michael Crichton’s “Timeline”. In the book it is explained as an effect of quantum physics (Quantum Foam and multiple universe theory) and even then it’s only explained to a point. The story’s scientists are unable to explain exactly how the people they send back are reconstructed on the other side.

    Overall, I think that if you have a plausible way of doing it and simply accepting that method as a fact of that universe, whether or not it’s based on actual science, then commit to it. In the long run, what will make the story enjoyable is the journey of the characters, not necessarily the details of the super science. I also consider myself a huge fan of time travel stories so feel free to email me as well if you want any feedback. 🙂

    In the story they go on to state that they have no idea how the people are reconstructed when they reappear.

  6. mirandasuri

    Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts so far. I agree with the general wisdom of not calling too much attention to the strangeness of speculative elements (esp. re: time travel) and either putting the thing aside to marinate or getting feedback.

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