The 31st of January 2019 may mean nothing to you. Fair enough. But it means a hell of a lot to me. Everything, really. It was the day I finished – truly, conclusively ‘finished’ – my first novel. A considerable self-imposed pressure was lifted from me that day. A pressure which I had felt squeezing my bone marrow into thin stringy pulp for quite a long time.
Before I get into why that was, first some background information.
The story of its creation begins as a disjointed one. As was perhaps unavoidable. Because I was asked to start writing a novel, rather than independently choosing to. So it’s not like I just sat down one day and resolved that this was the life goal I was going to tackle next. (Though it was, as with most writers, a vague ambition of mine. Whose start-date was set for some unspecified tomorrow.) And therefore it kind of just… came about. An external impetus set things in motion. But then I let that momentum sweep me along until, before long, I had my head down and I was running so much faster than the fading tidal wave behind me…
Okay, don’t wanna get ahead of myself. Let’s back up all the way. At university, I majored in English Literature and minored in Creative Writing. To be frank, I did not enjoy the in-person CW classes themselves. I want to be careful with my language here, so as not to overstate the matter. They weren’t a… horrible experience. They were generally just kind of a chore, and not very useful.
I disliked how some teachers would try to impose rigid rules (sourced from either received wisdom or their personal preference) about how one should write onto their students. Whenever they introduced one of these rules, my imagination reflexively conjured up a bunch of instances where defying it could work out well. And, alright, maybe I just have an overly rebellious cast of mind. It is true I’ve never loved being told what to do. But given that this ready abundance of counter-examples was obvious to even an inexperienced writer like myself, I think it was only fair to be dubious. I’m sure I was far from the only student there who was.
Now, I don’t for a second doubt these teachers were well-meaning. It’s just that their approach was, I believe, a very poor way of helping young people discover or cultivate what kind of writer they want to be. There is an adage which states that one must be deeply familiar with ‘the rules’ before one is entitled to and competent enough to break them. On the face of it, this seems to make sense. And such knowledge, when not inculcated as dogma, is indeed usually a benefit. To be consulted as one option among many; not a sacred yardstick. Yet it has long been my suspicion that it’s very dangerous to ever immure yourself inside that staid, conventionalist mindset. Before you know it, those perfect walls will suddenly seem so… homely. Aye, far too neat and straight and comforting to permit any impulse to start chipping away at them. This complacency isn’t just a novice’s bane either. No no no. It has seduced much, much better writers than you or me. And only towards the end of lengthy literary careers have they clawed through the brittled drywall and screamed their mistake through that gaping, jagged hole. I propose we heed their cautionary tales. These were, it should be said, offered for our benefit. If nothing else, it would be rude to spurn such a gracious gift.
Anyway, where were we? Well, the other aspects of my CW classes weren’t much better. A far-too-common occurrence was these silly, throwaway little writing exercises meant to… uh… stoke one’s creative energies, I suppose. But, really, it was just a way to pad out a lesson-plan with a nice big block of time where a teacher doesn’t have to do jack shit. A lull where they can just swipe away on Tinder/Grindr or check Bitcoin’s price and ponder whether it’s finally time to jump in to this whole, like, crypto thing or whatever. I couldn’t help but be irked by this. I can do gimmicky writing exercises at home. Especially because it was rare any real attention was paid to what you produced anyway. But I’m paying tens of thousands of pounds in tuition so that an expert – alas, we had some substitute teachers who force me to use this term so lightly it’s made out of graphene aerogel – will teach me. Ideally by imparting knowledge about the craft and helping me mould my own writing style. And given they only have a couple weekly lessons with each set of students, it’s a real affront to waste time on anything else.
Finally, to round it all out, some of my fellow students were – I say this without judgement – a very young sort of eighteen years old. I’m sure you know what I mean by that. And, hey, that’s just one of those things: it’s not even really ‘bad’, it just happens sometimes. Still, it did mean that soliciting feedback from peers was, particularly for any piece of writing which ventured off the beaten path, not a resource I was overeager to utilize. Perhaps a brief illustration of what I mean?… If you insist. For one class, I started working on a short story which had a sci-fi bent to it. And I vaguely recall that one of the comments when I had to explain it to the class was something along the lines of “umm, honestly, I’m not sure how interesting this story would be, because it doesn’t really seem like the type of thing that would happen in real life.” Needless to say, I took that under advisement. With all due solemnity.
Nevertheless, the thing I did love about minoring in CW was that the graded assignments were almost entirely – because of my careful class selection – freeform writing projects. So it was really just an excuse and a motivation to write the things I mostly would’ve wanted to write anyway. Which, to state the obvious, I was pretty psyched about. It had the dual selling points of being both easy and very enjoyable. Giving me a welcome break from the endless analyzing and essay-writing of my literature classes. (Although such rules-bound tasks do contain certain pleasures – sometimes even greatly so – they can also feel very much like a grind at times. Oh boy can they ever. To the point where you’re just… staring… at the clock. Not to will the passing of time to speed up. But because you’re contemplating tearing off the minute and hour hands and stabbing them in the corners of your eyes to lobotomize yourself.)
And I had a CW class in my second year called, which will come as no surprise, ‘Novels and Novellas’. It was centered around a single project: write the opening to a novel. Like I already alluded to, I didn’t really have a go-to idea for a novel which I’d been dying to start or anything like that. Yet, as any fiction-writer will relate to, I was of course always nursing a swarm of inchoate concepts for potential stories. And one of these story-germs in particular had been a persistent, enticing presence floating around my mind for quite a long time at that point. This made it a frontrunner. But something else tipped it over the edge. It had a… special significance for me. Because it was inspired by a very memorable and affecting experience I’d once had. (I don’t mean to be cagey here. It’s just that to detail it would be a plot spoiler.)
That’s why I was happy to flesh that idea out in something (hypothetically) long-form. Though the funny thing is, given the wordcount limit, I ended up writing an opening which preceded even the establishing-event that was the crux of my idea. Luckily then, in my third year I had an open-ended CW class where the focus was on a writing project of your choice. And, fatefully, it was permissible to continue the ‘novel’ started the previous year. Which I did. This time moving on to write the part which really kicks off the whole story. That made a big difference. Because it finally gave me a real feel for what – as a full-length book – this thing could actually be. I could just barely glimpse all the compelling possibilities for where the story might go. That’s when it got its hooks in me very deeply. I’m talking puncturing-talons-getting-tangled-in-my-nervous-system deep. (Though I don’t think I realized this had happened, or its significance, at the time.)
After university, when at long last I had a chance to just breathe and reflect and decide what I wanted to do next, I discovered that I cared most about finishing the novel. Actually, let me clarify that. Because ‘finish’ is somewhat misleading, with its implication of one last big effort to bring something nearly-complete to a conclusion. Whereas, in point of fact, the work from both my CW classes had only furnished me with about 1/8th of what would eventually make up the finished book. And, as fate often gratuitously mandates that the difficulty of already-difficult things must be compounded further, this early work would have to be revised and improved anyway. Meaning it’s way more precise to say that I merely had the beginning of a novel I was now determined to bring to full fruition. Beyond that aspiration and sense of ironclad commitment though? I had next to nothing. I’m not kidding about that. Let me be totally honest. I didn’t have any detailed conception of exactly how the rest of the story would unfold. I didn’t know how long I wanted the book to be, let alone how long it would turn out to be. I just felt that I had to write it. Partly out of obligation to something unfinished. Partly because I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete such a large project. But, most of all, I was enthralled by what I’d be creating. Even with only this first portion to go on, I had already fallen madly in love with my characters and the rabbit-hole they were tumbling down into. I longed to build these things into all they could be. To imbue them with the depth, the vividness, the complexity they deserved.
It was intoxicating, the prospect of realizing that potential. And there was an unshakable conviction which resulted from it too. One reassuring me that writing this book would be the most creatively fulfilling thing I had ever done, by several orders of magnitude. Looking back, I now grasp why that dangling carrot was so irresistible. I believe I was secretly craving a feat which could silence my self-doubts about whether I was really serious about or committed to making art. I needed to show myself that I had what it takes. Definitive proof of not just being a dabbler.
And so, during the two years which followed I began steadily working on the novel. Expanding it into what it would eventually become. In the latter half of that period, I began allocating more and more of my time to finishing the book. To the point where it was almost all I was doing. It really consumed my life in a way I would never have imagined. I didn’t think I had the capacity for such obsessive dedication. All the same, there it was, on full display. A pleasant, yet also slightly disquieting, discovery to make about oneself.
With that mound of context out of the way, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts I have on the experience of actually writing the novel. They won’t necessarily stitch together in any kind of order or chronology, and they won’t be comprehensive either. I really just want to get at least some of these reflections written down while they’re still relatively fresh in my mind.
I perhaps ought to offer a disclaimer here. Obviously it would be a little silly for you to take advice on novel-writing from someone who has, at current count, written… uhhh… one of them. Which is why I wouldn’t dream of being foolish enough to present any of the following as prescriptions to you. (Should it ever sound like I am, I assure you I’m really just talking to myself. Posts like this are always just me staring into a mirror and scrawling self-commentary and reminders in crayon onto the glass.) Nonetheless, I did just write that aforementioned novel, and I do have thoughts on the process. And I didn’t create this website just for the – oh gosh – truly loins-tingling pleasure of watching that hosting fee leave my bank account. So I’m going to spill them out here. In the manner of what is sometimes called a ‘post-mortem’ (i.e. a retrospective dissection of how a project went.) Maybe just for my own benefit going forward.
So, the novel… Hmm, y’know, I think I sometimes instinctively say ‘the‘ instead of ‘my‘ because soon after it was done, I was very acutely aware that I’d stopped being the he (or, rather, any of the successive he’s) who actually wrote it. That may seem like just an academic point. But it sure doesn’t feel like it to me. It has already produced a minor, yet very tangible, disconnect. This novel is definitely mine, yes, but it was once even more so mine. There are tiny slivers of both wistfulness and jealousy which materialize because of that. And though they might not make sense, they still have sharp edges. Leaving papercuts on the interior membrane of your hardwon satisfaction. So that you must beware of seepage.
Alright, let me get back on track. I should probably say up front that the completed novel is almost 190,000 words long. That is, one can’t help but fear, a faintly egregious number of words to inflict upon a reader in one go. I’ll put it another way. As the wordcount of any given piece balloons, the stakes also rise precipitously, wouldn’t you agree? When you’re asking the reader to grant your work a certain amount of their time to consume it, the more you’re demanding, the worse it is if that work should be… very ill-made or boring (to put it no higher). I’ll try to delineate some notches on the scale to show you what I mean. With a poem, it’s nothing, barely more than showing someone a few errant brushstrokes. With a short story it is – because the unpleasantness is still relatively, well, short-lived – a mere regrettable blunder. But with a novella? Now you’re starting to enter the territory of a misdeed. With a novel the transgression becomes even more severe. And, lastly, with a thousand page tome, it mounts to the point of being… unforgivably wicked. Comparable with – oh, I don’t know – burning down a blind-kitten orphanage staffed by saintly seeing-eye dogs. And my book is much closer to where that scale ends than where it begins. Which makes me just a bit nervous. Still, there is something to be said for the thrill of being pot-committed. Until someone calls and you’re forced to show that your hand is merely an off-suit two and seven, that is. Ouch.
It’s pretty surreal for me to look at that wordcount figure. To me, it really feels like, uh, quite a lot. Or rather, to shed any prim-and-proper affectation in the interest of total candidness: it seems like an ungodly fucking fuckton of words. (I mean, granted, it’s not a patch on, say, Atlas Shrugged or Infinite Jest. Which dwarf everything. But, then again, I’m no Ayn Rand or DFW.) I almost can’t believe that I bashed a keyboard long enough to dredge that amount of words out of the ether. Especially because my previous output in terms of fiction had almost entirely been confined to >10k word short stories. Yep, I didn’t progressively work up to writing a novel with longer and longer pieces (as would probably have been wise.) I just decided that I would leapfrog all that and pen something that was at least nineteen times longer than what I was used to writing.
I guess I never really even considered the profound differences in the creative process that would entail. The thing about a short story is you can easily mentally encompass all of it. But a novel-length work, being so massive and various, is a very unwieldy thing. It’s extremely difficult – if not impossible – to hold it all in one’s mind at any given moment. This makes it tempting to just focus in on one part of it at a time, and tackle that largely as an isolated thing. That’s far more convenient. Far more manageable. However, if you want the totality to be consistent and deeply, deeply interconnected (as the plot of my book demanded), that will not do. For everything to fit together perfectly, you have to force yourself to do it the hard way. The way which has made novelists crabby, high-strung insomniacs for centuries. Which means keeping a hell of a lot of stuff in mind while you’re writing it. And doubly so when editing it. During the final-edit in particular, your mind must be crammed full with all of it at once. This can be a draining and discombobulating experience to repeat day after day for a prolonged period of time. To put it mildly.
That necessity of brain-as-overflowing-vessel is just one of many things I discovered as I went. Because, in truth, I wrote this novel without reading or following any guidance on how to write a novel. I didn’t mine books or articles or videos on the subject. I didn’t seek out authors talking about their own process. And although the CW class I mentioned earlier was nominally about novel-writing, whatever instruction was offered therein most assuredly did not penetrate.
To be honest, the idea of consulting formulaic guides for how ‘best’ to structure and develop a piece of fiction makes me wince. (i.e. “Yes, see here, a good novel should have three acts whose respective aims are… Your main characters should fulfil the following functions… Throughout the plot, the zig-zagging line on the reader’s emotional polygraph should look like this…”) It just seems so artificial, so derivative, so soulless. A factory-line blueprint for assembling a book. Personally, I’ve always thought that you should let whatever piece of writing you’re working on teach you how it should be. It needs to be what it needs to be. And if you’re even minorly perceptive, the contours of those desiderata will reveal themselves to you the more intimately your time-investment permits you to understand the piece.
So, with this in mind, I just started writing the novel. And kind of figured it out for myself, groping in the dark, as I went. It was… one part intuition. And one part recalling, in a very abstracted and anonymized sense, jumbled memories of having read countless other novels. And seven parts trial-and-error. And one part luck.
Even in hindsight, I cannot decide whether this was a wise move. It is, no doubt, somewhat of a blithely arrogant approach. But then youth is – is it not? – a wellspring of overconfidence, for better and worse. And that certainly applies to what happened in this case. I concede, I can think of no other very big, long-term project I would undertake (especially if the final product was meant to be shared) where I’d presume to dive straight in without consulting any sort of tutelage. But with writing? I was just quietly, inexplicably sure that I could do it. Or at least piece together how to do it on-the-fly. Additionally, I’ve always had a headstrong inclination towards chasing originality. I don’t want to look up how someone else did it and then merely emulate that. To be blunt, I think that there’s all the difference in the world between paint-by-numbers and proceeding by innate artistic judgment. Even if the two resulting paintings should come out identical. And that was why, though it may prove more difficult and impractical and time-consuming, I resolved I’d much rather cobble together my own creative-process. In order to hopefully produce something I can truly and wholly call my own.
Again, I’m ambivalent about the possible foolishness of this decision. There’s a lot to consider. Pride can be very valuable. Truly. It can be the whalebone ribbing in the corset of your creative integrity. Keeping you upright when you’re tired and you long to slouch towards half-measures. Ego has its value too. In the face of formidable challenges, it can grant you an instigating advance-payment of self-assurance before you’ve done the work to earn that. Getting your ass off the couch, and imparting some can-do oomph. But this pair of traits also have a way of inducing you to make imprudent, self-defeating choices. I know that well enough by now. And perhaps they did so here. Perhaps I made the process more baffling and grueling for objectively incommensurate gain. That’s strikingly plausible because, shit, it wouldn’t be the first time. Or the hundreth. I’m a slow learner.
I will just say that, whatever the downsides, there is still a benefit at the end of it all. I do indeed feel an even bigger, even deeper sense of ownership over the finished product because I figured it out for myself, because I learned-by-doing. This may not matter to some. That’s fair. More power to you. But I think I’ve realized that it genuinely is worth a great deal to me.
In fact, this same desire applies in a different way too. It may sound narcissistic, but I have to admit that one of the things I really love about the idea of writing a novel is that it’s inherently just your creation. By contrast, hundreds (or even thousands) of people work on making a television show or a movie. Whereas, generally speaking, only one person produces a novel. It’s therefore their direct brainchild.
I also admire that that makes novel-writing distinctly…. hmm, I’m not sure what word I’m looking for here. Democratic? Egalitarian? I mean, anyone can write one. It’s totally accessible. If you can create it in your mind, the omnific elasticity of words means you can find a way to reproduce it on the page. There’s something so romantic about that! It makes me kind of tingle inside. Moreover, anyone can equal the greatest literary feats in history if they only have the talent to do so. Which I find very heartening and inspiring. For example, look at something like J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ books. They’re renowned as an incredible, masterful achievement. In terms of the charming prose, the storytelling, the insanely elaborate and detailed world-building, and so on. But if you happen to be as skilled as Tolkien in all the requisite areas, you can equal his accomplishment. You can write a series of books that are just as good, just as fascinating, just as impressive. Besides a surfeit of free-time, all you technically need is a pen and a towering ream of paper. And what’s that? Twenty dollars worth of materials? On the flip side, look at the big-screen adaptation: Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. They are also a spectacular achievement, no question. But they required hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of other people to make. As well as a perfect confluence of location availability. Thus, you may be just as talented a filmmaker as Peter Jackson, but the average person cannot replicate his feat. Given the gigantically prohibitive cost, it’s simply… impossible.
Now a word on something I noticed. The whole time you’re working on it, the novel feels like a living document… for lack of a better term. And by that, I do not mean it’s like the U.S. Constitution, where ‘living document’ is a euphemism for endless disparate re-interpretations based on transient whims and pressures. Nor, by ‘living document’, do I mean a piece of paper engineered – at great cost, and with no practical use – to be entirely composed of benign bacteria cells. Please, if you’d stop bringing up these silly suggestions for one second, I’d get to what I’m trying to say. Okay? Okay. What I actually mean is that the unfinished text felt… alive. Even somehow needy.
It felt like I had a grave duty to tend to it, like it was some half-finished Frankenstein. It was crucial not only that I completed it, but that I gave it literally everything I had to give. And so I was habitually dwelling upon that damn novel, right up until the day it was done. Thinking about where to take the story, thinking about how I wanted to mould the characters, thinking about how to improve certain segments of prose. So on and so forth. Breakthroughs, big and small, could come at any time. I’d wake up in the middle of the night. Or pause in the supermarket. Or lay down my fork and push my dinner aside. Because something had occurred to me. And it seemed imperative that I grab my phone and note it down. This could enter into real micromanaging territory too. I might merely have thought of some tweak to a single sentence. Yet if that stood to make the thing better, even in some tiny way, it was sanctified gold-dust to me. To be collected at all costs.
Sometimes for inordinate amounts of time, I’d consider and second-guess these tiny refinements which the reader would hardly even notice. Dissect them thoroughly in my head, imagine every other permutation. It was an exhausting obsession. But I felt it was only right to pour the whole of myself into the act of creation. When I look back on it, it’s not hard to trace the behaviour back to its source. I can see now that I was overcompensating for my insecurity and anxiety about possibly failing to craft something of any worth.
Something which was impressed upon me very greatly was the importance of putting what’s best for the novel ahead of your own conflicting desires. The prime example of this for me was realizing that… okay, let’s say I fucking adore a certain sentence or paragraph. I think the writing therein is just so poetic and exquisite and perfectly worded. (I expect any writer will know the moment of blissful frisson you get upon typing out just such a thing. It’s akin to being fed a spoonful of Belgian chocolate Häagen-Dazs blended with a few drops of heroin.) Well, that’s great. That’s real swell. But that can only ever be a second-order consideration. What must be the first and foremost priority is whether it’s right for the book. It has to fit. You can’t just shoehorn it in because it’s so pretty it makes your heart race. You have to cultivate restraint. And also appreciate that there’s an artistry to be found in the clever application of that restraint.
This may sound like an elementary point. And maybe it is. But before I wrote this book, I think I suffered from far too much of the childish inclination to show off with some flashy turn of phrase or elaborate metaphor whenever the slightest opportunity arose, even if it wasn’t in the overall best interests of the piece I was working on. The idea of taking out anything I thought was in any way impressive or interesting was anathema. No, I wanted to cram as much as I possibly could in there. To demonstrate what I could do. So… conspicuously half-decent or better? Oh best believe you made the cut, you darling little sentence, you.
Via a conscious effort, I really left that unhelpful proclivity behind with this book. (Or so I’d like to think.) I have a separate document which I refer to as my ‘cutting room floor’. It’s where I pasted anything I removed from the novel, or detached snippets I wrote with some chapter in mind, which I thought was too good to outright delete. I just checked and it’s 13,000 words. It pains me – really pains me! – to let all that worthy material go to waste, so to speak. But it was best for the novel itself that it be removed or replaced or what have you. Less is more. You never want to put a hat on top of a hat. Et cetera. So you just bite the bullet and do what has to be done. The novel comes first. Always. You owe it that.
Let me tell you about the sadistic difficulty-multiplier that is OCD. Because it was a big factor throughout the writing and editing process for me.
Unfortunately, I’ve so far found nothing which really ameliorates my OCD to any significant degree. I’ve tried a few psychological techniques to little avail. And I’ve tried some pretty intense medication; no dice either. It might just be, I’ve come to suspect, an inextricable and armor-plated part of my mind. Like a very hardy tumour, with its own blood supply, embedded deep in the anatomy of how I think. I fear that everything else has kind of grown around it at this point. And so trying to just rip it out would cause unforeseen ruptures and hemorrhages all over the place.
Still, I do consider myself lucky that my OCD only flares up most severely in a couple very specific contexts. For example, it only materializes as a generalized obsession about cleanliness or imagined-contagion in small and occasional ways. This is a mercy I have done nothing to warrant, but one which I’m continually grateful for. (Incidentally, I have enormous sympathy for those who have to endure that in its stronger form. When it’s able to present itself all through the day, it can be truly debilitating. And I can only imagine that kind of impediment and torment.)
However, one of the activities where my OCD does appear, and in fact kicks into overdrive, is writing. Which is… unideal. To be sure. I wish that it would only pop-up in stamp-collecting or skydiving instead. Because those I don’t do very often.
I’ll go ahead and dispense with any delicacy. Look, my writing OCD’s a real motherfucker. On the one hand, there’s the usual unappeasable perfectionism, which provides a constant stream of discouragement. As well as engendering a resentful inferiority-complex towards the hypothetical version of myself who nails everything. On the other hand, nothing is quite so infantalising as sometimes having to slowly and painstakingly re-read a sentence fifteen times before your petulant brain will accept that you’ve actually ‘read’ it properly. That’s not just a made-up example either. That was actually what I was dealing with. I know it makes no sense from the outside. In fact, it makes no sense to me either. Alas, compulsions aren’t really predicated on them having ticked checkboxes like that. Furthermore, when my OCD was at its very worst, I’d have to redo that repetition for near enough every sentence. So that paragraphs became marathons. And pages became Everests. And chapters became unspannable galaxies.
Writing/editing when my OCD was like that definitely came at a high personal cost. It was really fucking hard and miserable and upsetting and dispiriting and infuriating and humiliating. Like hugging an emotional fragmentation grenade close to one’s chest, sans pin. There was an astounding level of self-discipline I had to summon up to keep putting myself through that (which I was surprised I even had inside me). Especially because the effort-to-progress ratio was so wildly, exasperatingly disproportionate. I’d get up after seven or eight hours of editing and just be appalled by how little work my OCD had permitted me to do. I hated that feeling of vague failure. And so I’d try to compensate for that forced slow work-rate by just throwing as much time into the woodchipper as possible. As if to bellow at that broken part of my brain which was trying to hamstring me: “you think you can stop me?! Just try me! I’ll dump a hundred hours a week into this shit! I don’t give a fuck!” It’s very distracting and taxing to maintain this bravado, this bellicose posture. And the thing about warring against your own mind is that, in truth, you are the casualties on either side of each battle. Or, to put it another way, you are always your own collateral damage. This epiphany rather tempers your taste for the fighting itself.
So how did I induce myself to muddle on through with the editing, despite it often becoming almost comically difficult? (I say almost because it’s just a scintilla less funny when it’s happening to you. Working twice as hard to achieve the same level of progress never seems particularly amusing in the moment.) Is it because I’m a masochist? Could be. But there was another, much more motivating, component too. I often tell myself, in various creative pursuits, that ‘the fleeting pains of your efforts are nothing; the finished product lives forever.’ And when I was able to believe in the promise of this refrain, I’d find a hidden last-resort reserve of strength to siphon from. (I sometimes fear it might be a non-renewable resource though.) Then I wouldn’t hate or fear the parasitic relationship I was servicing. I’d just get it done. The novel demands things from you; you have to give it them. It’s that simple. And you emerge, at the end, the lesser. Depleted and wearied. With only the faintly bolstering hope that the work was worth the sacrifice.
I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of the claim that ‘your first novel is always really just about yourself.’ It’s the type of remark which grizzled veterans of the scribbler’s profession bandy around with a knowing smirk, as if it’s some deep insight that only decades of experience and unflinching self-reflection can grant you. In actuality, I think that it only applies to a lot of writers, not all. And even to the extent that it’s still therefore accurate, it’s a mere truism. Because I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that the thing a lot of writers will be most eager to write about at first is themselves. It’s what they know best in the world. It’s the most readily accessible source material. It’s what they’ll be most fascinated with initially. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing is, after all, a way not just to document yourself but also to figure out who you are. And self-discovery is not the same as self-absorption. Besides, my guess is that it’s generally just a necessary first step. You put yourself on the page, heave a sigh of relief once all that crap isn’t just obnoxiously percolating in your head anymore, and then turn your attention to the world around you.
All that being said, my protagonist is not a self-insert. Not really, not truly. I suppose that, from a certain perspective, she’s who I might have been if twenty or thirty dice rolls had come out differently. A distant cousin, if you will. But a distant relation is still a relation. I wouldn’t ever even think to deny that. Nor the extent, or depth, of the similarities that do exist. I mean, in that varied mixture I poured into a mould to make her? Sure, there’s a… uh… generous helping of shavings from my own DNA. Which end up being embodied in some obvious and some very unobvious ways. It’s actually a little disconcerting to consider what I’ve given over to this novel. To make a mental accounting of all the personal truths encoded in the thin disguise of fiction. (And to shudder at all the details which might be mistaken for them.) It elicits a subtle euphoria and a subtle terror when I think about the significance of that psychic investiture. Because I have realized that… in a way… there are things which once given, cannot be gotten back. Things which if you want to draw out of yourself and suffuse into ink, therefore have to be relinquished. I didn’t realize at the time that this was the bargain being struck. And perhaps all that sounds melodramatic. But unlike most melodramatic statements they also have the virtue of being true.
I now look at the novel a little askance due to this. It’s a bit like if you woke up one day and found a transparent safe. And there was a post-it note attached to it which said you had unwittingly agreed that a whole bunch of items with great sentimental value be locked in there. You can still look at them, even very closely. Which means things aren’t much different than when they were sitting on a shelf or framed on a wall. They’re still technically yours. You retain full ownership of them. But you cannot ever open the safe and take them back out. It’s an invulnerable safe, literally made without a key or combination. Oh, and one more thing. The safe has to be situated on your front lawn, so anyone else who cares to can look into it too.
Do I resent that I have now stored fragments of myself in this kind of repository? No. Not as such. I think I don’t really know quite how I feel about it. Besides a little uneasiness at the phantom-limb sensation left in their place. And a wish that if this was in fact a disemburdening, the relieved lightness of being might soon become a lot more palpable.
When the first draft of the book was written – essentially, anyway – and I started going through it to edit it as a whole, I wrestled with some interesting problems of ephemerality.
I mean, as aforementioned I wrote the opening way-back-when for a university assignment. I was twenty-two. Skip forward three years later and I had it open before me again. Now, yes, it wasn’t identical to its original form. It had had some minor improvement here and there, a little additional material retroactively grafted onto it. But at its core, it was the product of what I could do at that time. And when you’re still finding your footing as a writer, three years can mark a huge improvement. Which means you’ll look back at those past efforts with flickers of embarrassment and disdain. As though they were fingerpainting doodles you can’t believe are still taped up on the fridge.
The temptation to radically rewrite and reimagine these earliest sections written for classes was… strong. So strong in fact that I came close to doing so. But, after stewing on it for a while, I realized that would be folly. I felt I had to respect that it came out the way it did back then. After all, those creative choices were made for a reason. Even if these reasons may not be as apparent or persuasive to me anymore, I figured I ought to credit my past self enough to trust his judgement. And preserve, to the greatest extent possible, what he had worked so hard to create. Because when I wrote it, I was trying to authentically capture something. It’s hard to explain exactly what. It was… a feeling, a mode of being, a sense of absence. Though I just didn’t feel quite as close to that thing anymore, I could still see the value in him trying to capture it in words.
This decision entailed some new obstacles. I still had to find some way to edit and refine and expand these early chapters. Given that to grapple with them properly meant trying to put myself back into the mindset of three years ago. (A little like trying to restore a painting with meticulous and stringent reference to the artist’s original intention.) Yet, that wasn’t all. In a sense, it also meant reconnecting with an even earlier version of myself. As the originating idea for the book was drawing upon certain emotional currents in my life when I was like eighteen. Yeah, I know. What a tangled mess to unravel post-facto, right? Believe me, I get that. Trying to recall the thought process of all those previous versions of myself was not only hard, but sometimes also unnerving or even upsetting. Make an exercise out of thinking like the younger version of yourself for long enough, and you’ll start feeling their angsts and sadnesses and insecurities too. The dead-pains which made them who they were. The dead-pains which had rightly been buried with them in their temporal tombs, as though diseased viscera kept in the ornate canopic jars of the ancient egyptians. You will, in other words, become the desecrating grave-robber of who you were. An unpleasant trade to take up. Let alone get good at.
And that was just the emotional price which had to be paid. There were practical challenges too. I’m talking about trying to re-engage with the old writing itself, to work on it again. Because its age meant it was tough not to view it as already… set, like hardened cement. One has to find a way to wet it, to make it soft and malleable again. Otherwise how can you play around with it freely? How can you hope to re-mould it rather than merely chipping off pieces? And so I had to force my mind to really treat it as a work-in-progress. That was the only way to once more see the unexplored possibilities in the prose. To see not just what it was, but what it could become. A simple thing to say. Much less so to achieve. Basically, the key is persistence. But do not shun ostensibly simple tricks used in conjunction with that, for they can sometimes work wonders here. Even just changing the font and chopping up paragraphs can dupe your brain into defamiliarizing the text itself.
There’s something else about all that which bothers me too. Even to the extent that I was successful in preserving the heart of the opening chapters written years ago (by simply polishing and building upon them instead), I wonder what it is I’ve actually won. It’s strange to think about the role they play. They are the antechamber the reader must walk through to enter the house of the novel. And therefore they are also what must hook the reader. I’m not sure how to feel about this.
I’ll spell it out. Naturally, I was the best writer I’d ever been when penning the last chapters of the book. (Age and practice contributing to skill as they do.) But to get to this part I’m probably most proud of, you have to read through the product of when I wasn’t as good a writer. It’s like if a musician released a new album, and was super happy with it as their finest effort yet, but anyone who wanted to listen to it had to first sequentially listen to their albums from five years ago when they were still finding their groove. I think that might bug them. Understandably.
I don’t know. I guess long-gestating novels are just weird. There’s something so revealing about it all being stapled together into a single thing like that. It’s akin to looking at the layers which make up a core-sample, and a progression being presented by the detritus of different ages. With my novel, because it was written in a linear sequence, each chapter gives you a snapshot of who I was as a writer at that time. Not just my competency, but my perspective and inclinations too. This is an embedded photo album I never realized I was including.
I learned a lot of hard lessons whilst finishing this book. One of the most important and impactful ones is that if you let a piece languish too long, take too long to finish it, spend too much time obsessing over it…. you’ll end up kind of souring on it towards the end. You’ll resent it for the drain, the dampening effect, it has exerted on your life. Plus, once you’ve stared at something for hundreds and hundreds of hours, its flaws become unbelievably magnified. It’s really quite amazing. They’re almost all you can see.
I know because I felt these effects very acutely.
And that love-lost really fucking sucks. I’d posit that one of the greatest, albeit most narcissistic, pleasures vouchsafed to the artist is the fervent, almost giddying affection he feels for his creations. (Seemingly granted to compensate for the pains of the creative process.) There’s more than a hint of self-satisfied back-patting in it, of course. But there’s also a sort of selfless awe for something that may have come from you but stands outside of you now.
Perhaps its most crucial function, I hasten to mention, is that it’s a brilliant stimulant for future work. A propelling, invigorating, heartening nostalgia, which you’re trying to live up to once more.
And this attached-benefit is what I risked eroding for this novel. All because for the first year after university, I worked on it in a somewhat unhurried and haphazard fashion. (The following year is when I finally felt a sense of urgency and kicked things into a very high-gear indeed.) What’s more, while I was working on it, I did not really permit myself to write other things. This was the most self-destructive approach I could have taken. But I did feel like I had to give the novel my undivided attention, to channel into it my undiluted creative energies. And so that was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
I just didn’t anticipate how much I was going to miss producing other types of writing (especially poetry and essays.) Or how I was subconsciously going to hold this against the novel itself.
Ah well. It’s a mistake I will not repeat.
Where am I now? What happens next?
At the moment, my girlfriend Samantha is reading through the finished manuscript, giving notes as she goes. This would be a nerve-racking experience to begin with. But, in addition, she happens to be a frighteningly talented and perspicacious writer. Which makes her reading any work of mine doubly daunting. Welp. Despite this, it has been super cool to hear her feedback. I’ve really enjoyed our end-of-chapter discussions. After having this novel solely be my 24/7 imperious mental-roommate for a few years straight, it’s no exaggeration to claim I know every inch of that fucking thing through and through. So I’m excited to finally be able to live vicariously through someone experiencing it for the first time with fresh eyes. I don’t really write using the – I would say fairly treacherous – compass of how I think (or hope) a hypothetical reader will react. But that doesn’t mean I’m not very curious to see how they do react.
I feel a very crowded mix of emotions now that the novel is finished. It is – to namecheck just a few from the throng – exciting and scary and bizarre all at once. There were moments during its creation where I was so overwhelmed and dispirited that it seemed like I’d never complete it. And then, suddenly, one day it’s just… done. Over. Behind you. Goodbye. Goodnight. Godspeed. Sayonara. Of course there’s a great (though slow-acting) sense of relief which accompanies that. But there’s more than a little sadness too. I mean, you spend so much time building another world and birthing its inhabitants. An act of lovingly painstaking invention. So how could you not feel a very peculiar, abstract sort of grief when having to abruptly step away from that and leave it behind forever?
It is very strange to think that although I have written a novel, it does not even really exist in the world per se (as of yet, anyway). It’s just a set of files on my hard-drives. There is, I must admit, something kind of morbidly fascinating to me about something so important resting on that knife-edge of existential fragility. Case in point: if I wanted to, I could select all those files (and back-ups) and tap the delete key… and the thing itself would be obliterated. At least a thousand hours of work just gone. As if it never happened at all. The only trace of it would be the memories in my brain and my girlfriend’s brain. And once even those neurons are composted, there would truly be absolutely zilch. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is just interesting (as terrifying things often are) to ponder in a chin-strokey what-if sense. I obviously would never do it.
In fact, if a pack of rabid mountain cats stood between me and a computer with a countdown timer racing to zero, at which point the files would be automatically deleted? Well… hopefully in this alternate universe I’d also be a travelling steak-salesman and I could just throw my burlap sack full of sirloins at them as a distraction. But if that were not so – I know, how inconceivable – I suspect I could make my peace with the only alternative. Which would be finding something very sharp to wield in one hand and something very hard to wield in the other, and then wading into the fray to try and save those files. A grisly business. And should I miraculously make it to the other side, it would be with furrows clawed into every inch of me and several organs hanging out. But, hell, I think I’d probably still consider it a worthwhile tradeoff. This thing I made means the world to me.
You know, I’ve realized that I’m really, truly bad at giving myself credit for having accomplished things, large or small. Usually by downplaying the importance of whatever it is or chastising myself for imperfections or looking past it to the next challenge. This is definitely not healthy or productive, to put it plainly, so I’ve been seeking to actively work on that.
To which end, I’m trying to actually let myself feel proud of having successfully stuck with two long-term projects, something I’ve been consistently terrible at in the past. (Trust me, I could fill a skip with all the different pieces of writing I’ve simply lost interest in and left in a half-finished shallow grave on Google Docs.) Those two are, namely, completing my novel and so far having recorded about 125 hours of my podcast. They are the first large, time-and-effort intensive creative projects I’ve ever brought to fruition. And it’s just so annoyingly hard to step outside of myself for a second and recognize that. To give myself an attaboy and feel good about what I’ve made.
Although, I think that out of the two of them, it’s much easier to do so with the podcast. (Even though, pound for pound, I suppose I am prouder of having written the novel.) Because in that case I’ve actually completed the very last step of the cycle and thrust it out there into the world. Every time we recorded a new episode, it was posted online very soon afterward. So you keep getting, over and over, that little thrill and endorphin-hit of having released something. Whereas with a novel it’s the exact opposite. You spend years working on it, keeping it to yourself. And only at the end – or possibly quite a significant amount of time after that, depending on someone else’s schedule – will it finally see the light of day.
And so I guess maybe some part of me is still holding its breath, just waiting for that much-delayed payoff. The day where I’ll seize the last token of closure by finding some way to release the novel.
Which neatly leads me to…
Getting the damn thing published?
Look, I’ll try. I mean, what else can one really say when it comes to this dreaded part? Especially as a first-time author. Because I basically have no idea how the realm of publishers and literary agents (and so on) really works. I purposely chose to hold off on researching this stuff until it was actually go-time, to avoid psyching myself out or being preemptively depressed by my findings.
I am very trepidatious about having to win over a third-party in order for my book to be deemed worthy enough to grace traditional distribution channels. When you’re trying to sell something so personal and meaningful to you, it’s… ahem… you’ll have to forgive me for resorting to an overused metaphor. Because it does feel a little like nervously trotting your child (your firstborn even!) up to a marketplace and praying some stranger will find them lovely or fetching enough to buy. A very surreal, gut-wrenching predicament indeed. And not just that either. The child has to be marketable to other customers down the line. The child has to be able to stand up to the harsh scrutiny of the professional child-appraisers who write for magazines and websites.
When it comes to art, words such as ‘sellable’ make me very uncomfortable. (Dry mouth, breaking out in hives, the whole thing.) As I’m sure is true for most every other artist. To some extent, it reminds me of the word ‘electable’ being applied to or revoked from politicians. Because it brutally dispenses with all pretence and niceties. It just drills down to the true nature of the game being played. And, look, I’m not some head-in-the-clouds idealist. I get it. Printing presses don’t run on good intentions. Publishers and bookstores have to make money. Artists have to pay rent. And I obviously understand that a book can simultaneously be a commodity, as a physical product with a barcode, and a piece of art, because of its contents. I imagine I’m just intimidated because I know so little about the world of commerce. So it means stepping into a domain whose rules and practices and principles, which I presume to be harsh, are alien to me. Such adventures are famously fraught with ambushes and pitfalls.
I just don’t know to what extent my novel can fit in a neat, saleable little box. In some ways, I don’t think it will be too round-peg-square-hole. For example, my style of writing isn’t particularly eccentric or opaque. Nor is the plot’s subject matter hugely obscure. But then there are some problematic areas. Like, I genuinely cannot think of what genre or subgenre it could be classified as. Maybe I’m just not familiar with all the more hyperspecific or recent ones, but to my mind even the closest matches are distinctly ill-fitting. Also, I’m not sure how one would write a blurb for the novel’s story without disclosing major spoilers.
Doubtless, I am, as I said, speaking from a place of ignorance. So the answers may well all be very simple and untroubling. And anyway I don’t want to worry about – to rework the idiom a bit – whether the chickens will fit in their coop before they’ve even hatched. I can sweat the small stuff later. When it might actually be warranted.
I know that most novels, having been turned down at every knocked-on door, go unpublished or get self-published. Obviously, I do not think of this as any kind of embarrassment or disgrace. Nor should anyone. At this point, to assume some connotation of lesser credibility or quality because of such things is beyond silly. But… of course… I do still want that de facto rubber-stamp of validation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting that. After all, it’s kind of just conditioned into you. The authors I read growing up who profoundly impacted and inspired me? Look, I wasn’t downloading their free eBook PDFs from their hokey websites. (I’m fully aware I, unintentionally, seem to be throwing stones far up in the air above where I one day may have to build a glass house…) I purchased a copy of their books, which a publisher had deemed worthy of the expense of printing and binding between two covers. And so, the subconscious association which forms as a result is strong and enduring. Can’t really help that.
I don’t mind saying that my strong assumption is that no-one will want to publish my novel. Because I am inherently a pessimist. And also because the simple reality is that mine is just one of thousands of novels which will be jockeying for any scrap of publisher attention at the time. Consequently, I can feel the unfavourable weight of probability bearing down on me. It is a sizeable lodestone sitting on my chest, ripping the microtraces of iron from my bloodstream and enervating me. A cruel impediment that. It’s preemptively making me tire before I’ve even begun the striving itself. Because there’s a tiny part of me whispering “facing such crappy odds, what’s the point?” But, as goes without saying, the attempt must be made all the same. The attempt must always be made. An unproud solicitation issued to the universe, without any hint of either begging or entitlement. So that maybe… just maybe… its rippling fabric – the speed and height of whose waves are sometimes called existence – might see fit to briefly nestle you in some kindly crease.
Yes, I want it. But I also kind of fear it in some small, weird way. I fear what it will entail, what it will require. The alterations or excisions an editor may demand, for instance. I’ve heard it said that some writers will intentionally hold off on the very final editing/polishing pass for a given piece, to leave some obvious fat on the bones for an editor to content themselves with trimming. This seems a bit much to me. (And surely risks doing a disservice to the book itself.) But who knows? Perhaps once you’ve gone through the process of getting half a dozen books published, the sheer necessity of that cynical move becomes undeniable. At any rate, I shan’t be partaking in whatever benefit it may hold. That’s for sure. I gave my novel as many editing passes, of increasing ruthlessness, as I possibly could without driving myself mad. And then I gave it one or two more anyway. Because I foolishly value my writing more than my mental health. So, all in all, I think it’s going to be quite hard when/if I’m asked to pare the text down even further.
There’s something else I’ll lament having to give up. I’m extremely, extremely fond of the title my novel has had since very early on. I think, and probably always will, of the novel by that name. But I predict there’s an approximately zero-point-zero percentage chance that any publisher would retain it. For obvious reasons, it would be unwise for me to share it with you here. I’ll just say that it’s two words long and ends with a question mark. These two words are wildly archaic or little-known, respectively. Despite this, the title tells you exactly what the core of the story is about. (Ironically, this is antipodal to the seemingly simple and plainspoken, yet infinitely vague, novel titles which are very much in vogue again. Countless examples abound on booksellers’ shelves. Hmm, ‘The Girl In The Red House’. Oh okay, sure thing. You had me at the first monosyllable…) All of these choices are so on-brand – I wish there was a better, less douchey synonym for that – for me it’s ridiculous. Which is probably why I love the name so much.
And then there’s a whole host of other, tangential things to consider. It’s silly, but, I mean, what aspiring writing hasn’t whiled away some idle moment with happy fantasizing about… say… what their dedication would be or what their book might look like. The cover, especially. Because there is some amazing cover design out there – the type of thing which demands an extra few seconds of eyebrows-raised admiration as you’re walking around a bookstore – and then there’s quite a lot of its… uh… opposite. And, yes, I think most writers won’t lose much sleep over their books receiving a dull or lame or samey cover. It’s not ideal, no doubt. But it’s a very, very small price, almost nothing really, to pay for your book to reach a reader’s hands. However, I wonder what it must be like to have to live with a truly godawful cover. The type of eyesore which people can’t help but snigger at or let out an involuntary ‘eurgh’ of mild loathing upon seeing. (Or if you’re a writer yourself: an empathetic twinge of pity and the murmuring of “oh you poor bastard…”) These covers do seem to be a bit rarer nowadays. But they’re far from extinct. There’s a fair number of them still lurking out there on bookshelves across the globe, like bear-traps of ugliness for your unsuspecting gaze. And though it’s ultimately a trivial concern – I promise, I do grasp that – I still hope any book of mine won’t be added to their unsightly ranks.
Brief final thoughts
There’s no good sign off for a long, messy, multifarious piece like this.
I suppose the painfully obvious thing to do would be to hint that I’m already working on the next novel. But I’m not. (I’m actually just excited to finally write short-form fiction again.) Nor am I especially eager or sanguine about putting myself through all the emotionally-roiling shit it took to write this first one again. Although maybe it’ll turn out to be a tiny bit like childbirth. Mothers go through all that pain, and swear to themselves they’ll never, ever, ever endure it ever again. Then time passes and the memory fades and all they really remember is how glorious and worthwhile the end result was. Cue kid number two or three or four or five. I have a sneaking suspicion that novel-writing might have a self-perpetuating function/amnesiac loop too. Which I guess means that I can look forward to eventually forgetting all about how when I lost myself in months of non-stop editing, the stress felt like I was floating (and respiring) in a whirlpool tank of frigid quicksilver. Golly. That would be nice.
Either way, all I can really think to say is that I really want my novel to be a thing which exists out there in the world. And hopefully one day soon it will.