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!