Well...news on the 6th novel front. I scrapped my entire plot but not my research. I have a blank page again. Tabula rasa. Square one.
Of course before doing this, I contacted my agent and editor and told them I was going in a new direction and why. They were very supportive and encouraging of my new concept. They understood. They always do, thankfully.
People who know me know that I am very egalitarian about this novel-writing process business, about who "can" and "can't" write a novel. If you are passionate enough, and you leave your butt in the chair for long enough, you can write a novel. Sometimes putting words on the page is a pain and sometimes it's a thrill, but lately it's been agonizing, and that's because I knew in my heart it wasn't going to work, not ever, not to my satisfaction.
For every single novel I've written, I've had to re-learn how to write a novel, or at least learn how to write that novel, as Sue Grafton puts it. When I wrote Dust and Shadow, I'd never written a novel before. When I wrote The Gods of Gotham, I'd never launched a series character before. When I wrote Seven for a Secret, I'd never written a sequel before. When I wrote The Fatal Flame, I'd never ended a series before. When I wrote Jane Steele, I'd never written a female narrator before.
For various publishing reasons, I came up with the proposal for Book #6 over a single weekend. It had a lot of atmosphere, a very interesting narrator I didn't know well (didn't know yet, and that's fine), and a vague but definite plot. I'm used to those. I figured out who Jack the Ripper was in Dust and Shadow when I was 60K words deep. I didn't understand the murder conspiracy in Jane Steele until I was more than halfway through, and figured out the rest in the final quarter. I'm a "pantser," not a plotter, and I thumb my nose at uncertainty. It doesn't frighten me.
Then I sat down, and it was literally impossible to even begin writing it, and there were many tears, and lo, I was not writing the sort of book I would write.
At first, I thought I was just adjusting to living on my own in this beautiful apartment in Key West, living curled like a mobius strip inside my own head, grateful for the residency and furious that I couldn't make more of it already. I was working as hard as I could, and it wasn't hard enough to make the words come out.
This was not writer's block, which Lee Child once famously called in my presence "an excuse made up by wankers who want to drink alcohol," which I've also had many times, and involves staring at your screen in bafflement until you put on a dress and go out for a glass of wine with a friend. This was crushing anxiety and self-blame. And it's also the reason why I love fanfiction.
I've been working on, as you might know, a collected book version of my Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which is now finished and totals 15 tales and is only waiting for me to edit it again before I shoot The Whole Art of Detection off to Otto Penzler. Writing these is always a joy, but I've been unnaturally drawn to Sherlock Holmes of late, wanting to do nothing besides tinker with stories about him, because I know exactly who he and Watson are and what they are to one another. I know what they sound like, what they look like in my head, what they act like, what London is like, and aside from coming up with the deductions and the case solutions, which is very difficult indeed, at this point in my life I could sneeze at the keyboard and a Sherlock Holmes story would emerge. It's comforting. But it's not the work that needs doing right now.
Finally, I realized I was writing the wrong book.
I don't have to start research over, or find a new protagonist. But I have to scrap the entire plot, and I'm now so very at peace with that. When I sit down to write books, they aren't ones with obvious villains or unconflicted heroes, and the plot I had boxed myself into, while on the surface a perfectly acceptable adventure story, was simply that...acceptable. Not the book I want to write.
Setting this down marks a turning point for me, but I also want to share the experience in case other writers have ever felt they were losing their grip. It's possible with a lot of hard work to write a novel--I know, I've done it five times. Hard work counts for a lot. Books are about sweat equity. But it's also possible to beat your head against the wall until you figure out what's wrong with your story, and take the steps to get you back on track by smashing it with a sledgehammer and starting over.
It's messy. It's not a proud moment. Because you feel as if all that "work" was "lost." Listen to me and listen good: no work you ever delete is "lost," because 1) it gave you experience, and 2) if you'd never written it the wrong way, then you would never figure out how to write it the right way.
So I am going to take a deep breath, have a cup of tea, and get back to work.