My running joke about my inability to write prose fiction was always the same. I would tell people that I was good at writing fiction, save for two things: character development and narrative arc. Really, I would say, other than those two, I'm fine. Most people just looked at me sadly at that point.
But I've written the first draft of a novel now, just over 270 pages, in fact. The obvious question is about what changed in the past 17 years to cause me to be able to actually sustain a narrative for that long. Here are a few thoughts.
First, I simply began to take writing more seriously during the intervening years. When I was an undergraduate, I started trying to write poetry because I thought that's what English majors did. I was not a natural at English, and I struggled through my first few years. This was at least one way I thought I could try to be like those whom English came naturally to. I even had one of my poems published in the student literary publication, though, looking back on that poem, I have no idea how. I wrote intermittently throughout the next decade or so, often quitting for long stretches of time, maybe writing twenty poems and a handful of stories or essays in a year.
Once I began to take my writing more seriously (I had a poem published in a journal I didn't think I could get in, which was the catalyst), I started developing discipline about my writing. Donald Hall has a quote I love: "Anyone who loves accomplishment lives by the clock and the list." I needed to learn this lesson, so I began trying to write more regularly. I did a project where I tried to write a poem a day for a year (I ended up with about 250 drafts of poems), which helped tremendously.
Now, whenever I take on a project, I find that I need to write on it every day, if at all possible. With this project, I was able to do that (save for a few days for travel). I took Sundays off to do other writing, but I was at the computer six days a week otherwise. I didn't generate a great deal of material every day, as my goal was simply one single-spaced page, which works out to between 550 and 750 words (roughly) a day. Some days I wrote more than that, but I seldom wrote less. At 2 pages (double-spaced) a day, I knew I could write a draft in roughly 150 days or 5 months.
However, the increased discipline doesn't explain the switch to prose fiction, which was a greater problem, given my trouble with the genre. One thing that helped was that I wrote a memoir a couple of years ago. That showed me I could sustain a narrative over a longer period of writing, and it was easier in the sense that I was not having to create the world of the book. Since I was drawing on personal experience, many of the details were already there for me. I needed to shape that narrative arc, but taking away the need to create something from nothing freed me to focus on that arc.
Also, I took a year and tried to write short stories. I repeatedly told myself that the stories were simply practice, that if they never get published (which is true so far), that wasn't the point of them. In each of them, I tried to focus on creating characters, as that was my other major weak point when it came to fiction. In fact, I had once tried to write a story where the reader was supposed to feel sympathy for the main character. When my wife read it, she assured me she felt no sympathy at all; in fact, she didn't like him. I definitely needed the practice with character. Those stories gave me the practice I needed to feel comfortable creating a character who could change and grow over the course of a novel.
Most importantly, in the 17 years since I last tried to write a novel, I have read hundreds of contemporary novels. It helps that I teach a course in contemporary literature, so I spend my summers reading some of the more recent books. Even though I never really thought about them from a writer's point of view, I was certainly beginning to learn what worked and what didn't in a long fictional narrative. Then, when I decided to take on this task (last October; for the record, attending the Southern Festival of Books and hearing Allan Gurganus read provided me with the inspiration I had been looking for), I started looking at stories and novels differently. I started to ask questions about how the authors did what they did, to break down stories and novels to see how they worked. Whenever writers are asked for their advice about writing, they always tell people to read more. That's good advice.
Overall, I needed discipline, practice, and models. Those all seem self-evident, but most of us forget about most, if not all, of them. We forget we need to just make the time (and, yes, we all have the time if we truly want it) to sit down and do the work. We forget that the first try at anything is going to lead to failure (or learning, which is a much better way to look at it). We forget that there are many others out there doing what we're trying to do, and we can learn so much from them.
Even if this draft never gets published anywhere, if no one other than my wife and a few friends read it, I'm glad I did it. If nothing else, it was simply fun. I enjoyed walking every morning, thinking about my characters and their world. I loved trying to solve the problems that came up in the writing, how my characters were going to get where they were going and how I could pull that off as a writer. I enjoyed it so much, after the revisions and another poetry project, I think I'll try to write another one.