Like a lot of people who want, in a confused, abstract sort of way, to “be a writer”, Teenage!Me read a lot of books about writing novels. If you’re interested in writing, you’ve probably read a few yourself. In my experience, they’re very soothing: they usually address you as A Writer, or at least A Writer In Training, who need only complete the tedious formality of actually writing something to receive your badge, membership card and the respect and envy of those around you. And then they go ahead and spell out exactly How To Write A Novel.
Of course, there is no one way to write a novel. In fact, I would hazard that there are as many ways of writing a novel as there are people who’ve written them. That’s the beauty of the “how to write” book: there are lots of them, with more being written all the time. Enough, in fact, that the really committed procrastinator could quite conceivably go a whole lifetime without having to write anything at all.
One thing they never seem to address, though, is why to write a novel. And I guess it’s not a question the reader is asking. I mean, if you’re reading a book on how to do something, you already know you want to do it, so what does why matter? But I’m close to finishing the two-and-a-half year process of writing my first Serious Attempt at a novel (although apparently never as close as I think) and my main conclusion is this: why makes a huge difference to how.
There are vastly different schools of thought regarding what writing should be, what good writing is:
- From some of the books about writing, and from reading some of my favourite authors on their writing processes, I learned that writing is re-writing and that the books I loved were carved from rough drafts and hard work, by chipping away all the bits that didn’t look like an elephant.
- At university I learned that good writing is impenetrable, ambiguous enough to keep academics in a job for several hundred years, and never, ever any fun. (I’m being reductive, but let me tell you: literary academics are not open to the possibility that famous dead writers, no matter how many d*ck jokes they came out with, might have been writing to entertain first and make philosophical points only incidentally.)
- And from self-publishing blogs and forums, I learned that good writing is fast writing that sells, and that the way to improve is to just keep writing – but to sell as you go, not leave your early work in drawers and shoeboxes to gather dust. (“Blogs and forums” might not seem much of a source – especially compared to a university – but, for all the drama and misinformation I’ve seen on them, I honestly believe that those are where the future of publishing is being shaped.)
These can’t all be right. There’s no room in a monthly release schedule for painstaking rewrites, and you can’t simultaneously titillate academics and hit the Amazon bestseller lists with multiple books a year. But none of them are wrong, either. They’re just right for different people.
I think a lot about success and if and when and how I’m going to find it, and what it will look like. I have this habit, whenever I come across someone whose work I admire, of feverishly googling to find out how old they were when they started to be successful at producing that work and getting it noticed. (I hope I grow out of that soon, because it’s not like it will ever get less depressing.) The nice thing about writers, from that perspective, is that a lot of them get started relatively late. I don’t know why that is, but I’m beginning to wonder if one reason might be that it takes a really good understanding of yourself to be a writer. You need to be comfortable with yourself to spend that long working alone, for one thing. And, for another, if you’re going to put in all the effort it takes to write a book – and take the very real risk that it will never pay off in any measurable way – you need to know yourself well enough to know what you’re getting out of it.
All I knew two-and-a-half years ago was that I wanted to write a book. Everything else I know about it and myself, about my priorities, I learned through this seemingly interminable process of redrafting both the manuscript and my expectations. I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn, but there’s also a lot I already know, and I’m excited to use it next time.
However, this whole process? Has sucked butts. That’s why today’s Learn From My Mistakes lesson is this: write whatever you want. Write however you want. Write to make money, write so that the book you always wanted to exist exists and has your name on the cover, write so that the academics of the future will have something to endlessly argue about. Write to make yourself or someone else proud, write to prove you can, write just because you feel like it. Write. But, for the love of everything that is good, pure and/or deep-fried in this world, know why. Before you put down a single word, know why.
IN OTHER NEWS
Hey, Tory, you seemed kind of weird last week. And this week, come to that. And literally all the time we’ve known you. Are you okay?
Oh, rhetorical construct. Always looking out for my wellbeing.
Here is the story of what happened after my last post:
- I got a large chicken McNugget meal. I put Baileys in my milkshake. I regretted nothing.
- On Monday, I printed out my entire manuscript and read it. (Don’t tell the ebook revolution, but I actually don’t really like reading novels on a screen.) Conclusion: actually not that bad!
- Then I wrote myself a 2000-word To Do list. This sounds pretty bad. I mean, last week I was saying that, if I only hadn’t been so tired, I could have finished everything that was left to do in a day. Now I’ve given myself more work. Okay, yes, it is bad. But they’re good changes and it’s a very specific list. Monday!Me knew what she was doing.
- I booked some time off work for this week.
- I kept writing. I kept going.
I am no longer freaking out. I’m more sort of… grimly determined. I will finish by next weekend.
Or, alternatively, the atoms in my body will abruptly part company, crumbling me into stardust that will float away on the breeze.
But I think, on balance, I’ll just get it done.