Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, May 21, 2007

On Ennui

As I'm sure you know by now, Miss Snark has announced her retirement from blogging, and I'd like to extend my own appreciation of her talents and service to the publishing community. Miss Snark singlehandedly transformed this blog from a dusty Internet watering hole into a slightly less dusty Internet watering hole with a mere passing mention, and the resulting epic deluge of queries sapped all of my free time for two months. She will be missed.

So now you're probably feeling the bitter taste of ennui, you've lost a friend, your sense of disillusionment with the world has been piqued, and your color palette is trending toward blue. Life sucks, man. (That is, until you remember that the Bachelor finale is tonight). If you're feeling on the down and outs, I have a message for you: write about it at your own risk.

Perhaps the single most common query I receive is for what I call the ennui novel: a protagonist, usually a man, is stuck in a boring job, upset with the world, realizing that he's not going to be a movie star/rock star/literary star, and fed up with his life. So he either a) goes on a crazy road trip, b) engages in some CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES-style lunacy or c) stays in his state of ennui and broods until he is shaken out of his stupor by a quirky but utterly charming female character who falls for him despite the fact that he has no prospects and is pissed off a lot (think Natalie Portman in... well, pretty much every role she's ever played).

If this sounds like your novel...... don't give up hope! (Ha, tricked you. Also, this is totally awesome, but there are footprints on just about every ceiling. No, serious, you'd be surprised how many times you'll see footprints on ceilings. Ha! Tricked you again!!) The ennui novel is the source of some of the greatest works in literature, and will continue to be a source of great inspiration. ULYSSES, THE SUN ALSO RISES, CATCHER IN THE RYE, FIGHT CLUB... you name it. There are some pissed off, depressed men out there, and darn it if they don't make good protagonists.

But here's the thing about ennui novels -- they are common (at least in my inbox), they tend toward the boring, and they are often used as a vehicle to explore the vagaries and eccentricity of life, man. In other words, they tend to be plotless.

Starting with someone who is feeling a deep sense of ennui is not a plot. You have to find a completely unique spin on the genre, and let me tell you, you're up against a whoooooolllle lot of competition. There's even more pressure to come up with something really really good, and really really unique. Like a fight club. But that one's taken.

So yeah, write about ennui at your own risk. And while you're at it, you might want to get to work cleaning those footprints off of your ceiling.






27 comments:

David said...

A guy who's drowning in ennui and suddenly discovers that he can walk on the ceiling...

Hmm. Might be something in that.

Merry Jelinek said...

Gee Nathan,

So what you're saying is my prolific 300,000 word tome exploring inertia through the eyes of a tormented would be rodeo clown who takes off with the bearded lady (uniquely spunky Natalie Portman type... you know, minus the sex appeal), lobbies for clown's rights, and finds the true meaning of life in the arms of a transgendered neo-nazi pagan... that's out, huh? Drat! :-)

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I've never gotten the whole "boredom angst midlife crisis" character. I don't want to spend much time with those people (namely, me) in real life, much less in my made-up one.

Katie Alender said...

I tried SO HARD to keep myself from looking up at my ceiling just now. I told myself it was LIES, made-up LIES, that it was a trick, that it was all falsehoods...

When you pull that on someone in real life, do you karate chop them in the throat while they're looking up?

Len said...

I really don't have the energy or interest to write a novel about a guy with ennui.

Of course, you've heard the joke about the fly who has just given birth? "How's the baby?" she's asked.

"Are you kidding?" she replied. "I was up all night walking the ceiling with it."

Dave said...

Ennui, ennui?
You guys don't know ennui. I divorced my second ex-wife for constantly telling me that the ceiling needed painting during sex.
Now that's ennui.

bhrvy said...

Aw, dammit. I have an ennui novel. Or screenplay; it hasn't decided which it wants to be yet. And it has a crazy road trip! *sob*

But there's a plot. Sort of. Not really structured plot, but, uh... at least stuff happens. Mostly firey, sexy, or bloody stuff. Sometimes all three at once. So it's not completely hopeless, is it?

Kim Stagliano said...

Dave, would that be known as a "touch" up? Thanks for the laugh!

mkcbunny said...

Nathan,

What percentage of those ennui projects feature a female protagonist?

(My novel is not about ennui, but it is about a creative woman's imaginative handling of fear and loss. Fortuately, it has a plot, so I'm only a tad worried.)

Thanks

Nathan Bransford said...

mkcbunny -

Great question. It's tough to put a percentage on it because it depends on what type of tropes you want to lump in. The female ennui novel a major variation of its own: the "I'm not going to take it anymore" trope, where a female protagonist leaves behind her abusive/inconsiderate/unsuitably interesting husband for something more.

I'd say you're out of the danger zone with a theme of loss, though and that's great that you have a plot.

jonkysit said...

I am glad to report people (both men and women) trapped in boring jobs not only have great potential as literary characters, but also are starting to create wonderful artwork of their own, and I just found this blog full of great examples of this.

Dan Leo said...

And let's not forget that master of ennui, Chekov, particularly in the plays. Oh, and then of course there's Tennessee Williams. But we must remember that probably more bad plays have been written under the influence of Chekov and Williams than...uh, bad plays written under the influence of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

So here's the secret: go ahead and write your ennui novel (or play) but first just make sure you're a genius.

Ozal said...

I'm not cleaning the footprints off my ceiling. It took me ages to get them there.

Anonymous said...

You're probably being sarcastic but if not.. I'm glad I'm not the only literary person in the world who loves watching The Bachelor. It's a great source of personality quirks and physical details and so damn much fun. Not one of my friends knows I watch it. The big question is (based on the very structured editing) is: can a 30 year old man think with both heads?

Anonymous said...

I have footprints on my ceiling. Have since I moved in. No idea how they got there. Guys stepped on the drywall before they put it up or something...

Michele Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele Lee said...

Deleted and reposted due to a terribly embarassing typo.

So, how long do you think it'll be before someone tries to pitch you a book featuring a literary agent character that blogs anonymously?

j h woodyatt said...

If it's alright with you, I plan to stick with the "defeat the villains, rescue the love interest, save the world (or at least the good parts of it)" story.

I realize you probably also get too many of those to count, but I like them a lot more than stories about ennui, drug romance and sexual dysfunction. (Don't worry— you probably won't see my query, anyway. I don't think you handle my genre.)

alternatefish said...

So, how long do you think it'll be before someone tries to pitch you a book featuring a literary agent character that blogs anonymously?

Just as soon as I get my anonymous-blogging-agent ennui spy-spoof fantasy novel done, I'll send it over!

Good thing I'm a genius, eh? Otherwise that might be an awful book.

Lionel Richie confesses said...

They're mine. Size 12.

Bernita said...

Too many people toss their rubber boots around...

Adrienne said...

Grr that whole young girl falls for old boring fat guy for some uknown reason is one of my ultimate pet peeves in any story!

And another Grr.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm so dense, but what is the significance about the footprints on the ceiling and the guy with angst?

Strikethru said...

A sobering post. Thanks for the reality check.

Laura W. said...

Ennui even creeps into popular YA fiction. Bella Swan is bored with stupid old Forks and her boring old purposeless life---until she meets handsome charming Edward Cullen, who falls for her for no particular reason and who also happens to be a vampire.

Misery by Stephen King is also an interesting take on the male ennui theme, LOL.

Cinthia McCracken said...

What about a dude drowning in ennui who suddenly realizes he is acually in a coma and his body is held prisoner in an alien world and is being used as a gateway by the aliens!!!? HAHAHAHAHA!!!!

No, seriously? Loved Fight Club but I never really figure out why? (Perhaps the whole psychotic break and violence thing, hehe.)

Cinthia McCracken said...

Wait-- I just realized my vampire king is in this category-- crapola!! My other vampire is in the pissed-off category, but he gets a break-- he has an excuse because he has one. I don't want to go into details, hahaha! Maybe the main female character is a bit on this category...Hmmm. This is not good. I am also in this category!!!@#!

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