Recently I just topped 300 pages and 100,000 words on my novel in progress. I am at the very last few chapters and with each new addition it seems a little more unreal that not only am I going to finish something but It’s going to be something I am actually proud of.
It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do with my life.
Not only has this kept me almost entirely uninvested here, it’s also had a stifling effect on my reading. My shelves are literally full to the brim with cool new science fiction of which I have heard very good things and of which I am very eager to read and yet when I try and pick it up, I find myself unable to commit to the work. Within the first paragraph I am disgusted, overly critical, or simply distracted. It’s like some sick form of ADD that only effects the things I love most to read. Non-fiction has become my relief. Somehow, reading it seems less invasive, allowing me to stretch my speculative wings over the real world concepts elucidated in each page. But sci fi reading is strictly off limits.
Which is disappointing. I think I have some genuinely interesting things to say about Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect as well as Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora but for the time being everything in that realm is utterly unapproachable.
So instead I thought I’d spend a little time here talking about the horror of writing a novel and what I’ve learned about doing it.
The first thing I’ve learned in writing a novel is that it’s never good enough. Never.
Now matter how much time you spend trying to polish something you’ve just put into the novel, you will never be satisfied. If you somehow cross that threshold and become satisfied, you will forget about it for a week or two and when you come back you’ll see once again just how awful it is.
Which leads me to the second thing I’ve learned and maybe the most important one: as soon as I finish a chapter, I must never go back to revise it. Not until I reach the end of the book.
Had I not put this stricture in place, I’d be talking about my novel here now except I’d be talking about how I had a really fantastic first thirty pages and the most wonderful set of ideas for the next 400. Revision, as far as I can tell, is literally the worst thing you can possibly do on a novel until you’ve reached the end. Even if everything has gone catastrophically wrong and the second half of the book operates on a completely different premise than what the first half has set up, you’re much better off finishing first before attempting surgery on your golem.
Perfectionism is a blessing as much as it is a curse. It keeps my standards stringent enough that I always have something functional by the time I reach the end of a chapter. But it also nags at me like a cocaine addiction whenever I see blemishes in the text I’ve just gotten down or a turn of phrase that annoys me. It dares me to go back and tinker and tinker away. Which would be fine. Except that the lie contained within that temptation is that tinkering achieves something. We tell ourselves we are revising. But tinkering is not revising. It’s noodling around with your love of language. This is the curse of perfectionism. The best cure I’ve found is an attitude of flippancy towards my own text, one that decides that quantity is much more important as quality. The longer I can inhabit this falsehood, the closer I can get to the end. And when I get to the end, I can take the blinders off.
The strange side effect of this is the continual voice in my head reminding me that really, let’s be honest here, most of what you’ve written is garbage, unreadable garbage, and why would anyone ever want to slog through that mire? With adjectives like that? Surely, you must be kidding yourself. You’re not writing a novel anymore. It’s a compost.
This voice comes with the most bizarre disonance because the satisfaction of finishing new text is nothing less then joy which it then consumes and turns into lies. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art (Read it! Good Lord just read it!) calls this voice, this feeling, The Resistance. It’s a very satisfactory definition. It resists. It tries to tell you that what you think to be progress is useless and con you into believing that what is useless (tinkering) is progress. Cheeky little bastard. Perfectionism is a separate thing I think, but it has a dubious relationship with The Resistance. At first, perfectionism will be more than happy to go along with The Resistance’s schemes to satisfy its own insecurities. But once you’ve actually finished something, it becomes a kind of second wind, birthing the story out of the ugly egg you’ve created.
Perfectionism is the little voice that will be my guiding light when it comes time to polish this monstrosity. For now, it is the little devil, whispering inability into my ear and daring me to redo the paragraph six or seven times instead of getting on to the next one. I believe perfectionism to be a necessary quality in every great writer, but it is a quality that must be first overcome in self-denial and then catered to with utmost attention once you have finished.
The third thing I’ve learned is that the best writing I am able to produce comes almost entirely from places of personal vulnerability and negativity.
Many times, I find myself hating my work because of the horrible things it reminds me of in my own life: my own personal failings, shames, egotism, mistakes, cowardice, and on… I wrote all of those into it intentionally because I realized that if I didn’t, they would consume me and I’d wind up destroying myself. While I don’t like them as reminders, if I consider my work to be of any value at all, it is entirely because of the self-hatred it examines and how it has allowed me to express and confront that darkness within myself.
In truth, more and more, I am beginning to notice that I am not particularly impressed by my world building, plotting, or even characters as much as I am satisfied by the honesty of the text at hand and how it has become a personal chronicle of myself. All of this could be seen as vile egotism on my part to which I say: yes, you are correct. But I am sharing these things, these blemishes, unselfishly with the world so I think there is humility in it as well.
I don’t actually think many authors have dared themselves to write in this way in science fiction. We relegate this kind of despair and honesty to places like memoir and literary fiction. But sicence fiction, for reasons I don’t fully grasp, seems to play a game of avoidance with the truth of life experience, either exaggerating it into dystopian parody or ignoring it into pulpy adventure. While I can still enjoy science fiction that avoids this hard terrain, it is a passing fancy. Those works which have really struck me have the unmistakable mark of the personal in them. Without something intensely personal in nature, I can be entertained by a work but never really touched by it. And long ago I decided that the only two important goals in writing were to be honest and to touch someone.
Increasingly, I find myself drawn to in science fiction that has the author pouring his or her life into the story, not letting the reader escape into it. So escapism I have come to equate with failure, not because it is unentertaining, but because it does not challenge the reader to confront their own shortcomings. Likewise for the author.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious to me that this was what I desired out of books. I have had the ultimate example for more than a decade and I find myself coming back to it, time and again, like a moth to its favorite flame. To me the greatest work of science fiction ever produced is Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hideaki Anno, director and creative force behind the TV series, described Evangelion with the following quote:
“Evangelion is my life and I have put everything I know into this work. This is my entire life. My life itself.”
How incredible to be able to say that as an artist about something you have produced. I am not sure I will ever be capable of saying anything as bold about my own work but it is my heartfelt desire to do so.
Soon these words and pages will conclude and I will revise and scramble for an agent and a publisher and royalties and a thousand other incidental things that come with a whole other set of goals. But regardless of whether those other goals are achieved or not, I will feel no accomplishment in any of it if I cannot have some semblance of what Anno grasped in creating Evangelion.
I want to reach the final page and say, “This is my entire life. My life itself.” I will know then that I was honest, at least.