Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The novelist talks about his n_v_l

Perhaps you've heard this before? In an essay called "Why I Write," George Orwell claims:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

There are no style guides that would advise treating a one-sentence excerpt as a block quote, but we're doing it anyway because it must stand emphasized. Orwell is absolutely right and it is absolutely true.

I am working on what will hopefully (I'm not religious, but I might start praying anyway) be the final draft of a new n_v_l. (It does not get to be called a "novel" until it it is a printed book or etext in somebody else's possession. Until then it is either a "n_v_l" or a "manuscript.") I am about 60% of the way through and let me tell you I am running on fumes at this point.


1.) Monomania = Productivity

I'm finding that in order to write a longer piece, it is necessary to maintain some degree of (perhaps) unhealthy obsession. The times a project gains serious traction are when it's what I'm thinking about what I wake up, what I work on all day, what I think about as I'm falling asleep, and the first thing I think about when I wake up the next morning. Naturally, things like my personal hygiene, circadian rhythm, social life, and job performance take a hit. But if I look at a piece and don't see a whale, and if I examine myself and don't see Ahab, then the project can only be puttering along.

2.) The first draft is a piece of shit that nobody should read.

Self-explanatory. I feel bad for my friends whom I've cajoled into reading my rough drafts and am thankful they still talk to me afterwards. Now more than ever before I believe that where the writing is concerned, the inspiration and initial phase of composition constitute only the visible chunk of the iceberg that is The Process. A novel is made by way of revision.

3.) The quality of an editor is directly proportionate to the consternation inspired by her suggestions.

To the same friends who have offered their suggestions and insights I am profusely grateful. However, there comes a point where you're not looking for somebody who will offer nitpicks and general praise. You need someone who will turn the fucking thing inside-out and make you look hard at the stuff that just doesn't work and point out the necessity of making painful, onerous changes. A colleague of mine (incidentally the same one mentioned in that earlier post about transhumanism) was gracious enough to read the whole thing over (all 55,000 words of it) and fill the margins with suggestions and criticisms. On more than one occasion I responded to her feedback by scribbling GOD DAMN YOU GOD DAMN YOU under her notes. But having reworked the piece according to her feedback (taking and leaving it as necessary), I look at it now and see something that comes very, very close to adequate. Less deficient, at any rate.

4.) Even when you expect the project to take longer than you expect, it takes even longer than that.

I started writing this thing in 2011. ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO. It obviously wasn't the only thing I've been working on since then, but if I had expected it to take this long I might have thought twice before casting off. Sheesh.

5.) Shorter Book ≠ Easier

The Zeroes (my first novel) was 111,000 words. This one is half that long. It was also a lot harder to finish, for many reasons. Note that I said harder to finish, not harder to write. The shorter the piece, the greater the weight that every scene, line of dialogue, and word choice brings to bear upon the ultimate scheme of the thing. I had more freedom to meander with The Zeroes; it grew how it needed to grow, and I guided and pruned it as necessary. Working on this project, it was more often necessary to stop and deliberately hammer parts of it into shape.

6.) Writing beyond what you know:

The Zeroes wasn't easy, but it didn't exactly require a lot of research on my part. I'd worked enough retail jobs, had enough friends in punk bands, and lived in Jersey long enough that I could just scrape my own brain pan for the necessary information. This project required me to plant myself on the shoulders of two people whose lives and perspectives differ tremendously from my own. For instance: the main character for the first half is a woman. I've never great at writing female characters, so this was a challenge for me. I had to ask for a lot of help -- thrusting the manuscript into the hands of female friends and asking them to let me know what I was getting wrong. (The number of shoes in a closet was something I botched. I have since been informed that women own many, many more pairs than I imagined.)

Part of my research led me to get acquainted with the ideas of B.F. Skinner. I went in with the intention of getting a sense for a certain kind of perspective of human beings and how they act; I never expected to become a veritable convert to the radical behaviorist perspective.

Anyway. If what you can write most capably is that which you know, the cause of the aspiring writer might be best served by knowing everything.


7.) There is no such thing as finished.

Eventually you arrive at a point where you look at the piece and are aware of its shortcomings, but no longer have the will or the wherewithal to do much else with it. I hope it's different for other writers, but that's how it is for me.

The closest I get to "yes, finally, it is complete!" is "well, it's not gonna get any better than this." A piece is only finished until you open up the Word document and start adding/removing commas and switching words around, or until you guess it might actually look better if you knocked half of it over and rewrote it according to an idea you just had in the last week. The pursuit of perfection can be counterproductive to the pursuit of a finished project. (Ahab never actually slays the whale, after all.)

There was more. We'll get to it later.


  1. Ah, I always thought n_v_l was a reference to the reverential YHWH or G-d or the like. Interesting!

    Best of luck, and however it comes out, I'm looking forward to reading what you put out there.

    1. Ooooh. That never even occurred to me -- though it really should have, given how most of my workday consists of shelving and schlepping books on religion.

      I guess it's more a case of not wishing to give myself credit until credit was due. A manuscript and a finished product are not the same thing.

      And thanks! I'm really pleased with how it's turning out. Hopefully it'll be available sooner than later.