My friend Rick, who has been designing and building custom bikes for over 30 years, says that building a bike for someone is like walking naked down the middle of the street: Putting all of your knowledge and skill and sense of design out there for everyone to judge. I’m thinking writing a novel feels pretty much the same.
Sometime around the end of this past January, I started writing a novel. I have written pages and pages of summaries, outlines, character profiles, and scene sketches. Not a word of the novel yet; all background prep so far. I wanted to document the process for myself and for anyone who cares to follow because more than anything, writing a novel is all about process. At least for me. At least so far.
To begin with, there is the process I allude to above: all the background work it takes to make a reasonably long-term project cohere as it progresses. At the same time, I view the process of writing a novel as a step in learning how to write novels. That is, this first effort is not so much an end in itself – a quest to produce a marketable work of fiction – as it is a way of learning how the process works so I can write a better novel next time, and a better one after that. It may not turn out that way. Maybe this will be the best, or the only, novel I write. But I have to believe that writing long fiction is a lot like most creative endeavors, and that you get better with practice.
Another part of the process I have been struggling with is admitting that, yes, I’m working on a novel. Because what’s the first thing everyone says when you tell them that? What was the first thought you had? “You’re writing the great American novel, huh?” There is so much baggage accompanying that phrase. It’s much easier not to say anything and tell people work is slow and I spend a lot of time taking over childcare duties. Which is all true; it’s just not the whole truth.
But in case you’re wondering, No, I am purposely not writing the great American novel. I am aiming to write a good summer book. The kind you read at the beach, enjoy, and forget about moments after. Why? For a few reasons.
First, it takes a lot of pressure off. Second, I think at this stage of my writing ability it is as much, and probably more, than I can hope for. And third . . . because it’s fun. Every aspect of it. Researching facts, evolving characters, working out holes in the plot, reading other writers’ blogs, following writers’ tweets . . . All of it. Just fun.
For this first book, I am going with the most common novelistic trope there is: The Amateur Sleuth. I am basing characters on people I know and the plot on situations I’m familiar with because I think that is easier than dreaming up an entire world. And for this first time out, I think it’s reasonable to use a few crutches to help me hobble along.
Because let’s face it, writing a novel is a shitload of work. We’re talking 70k-100k words, which at 250 words per double-spaced page, is somewhere between 280 and 400 pages. And even in a simple novel you have to create believable characters readers will care about, sustain that believability through a series of occurrences in the plot and sub-plot(s), write in a style that sustains the “vivid and continuous dream,” in John Gardener’s words, and in the end, make it look like it was easy.
All of which leads to a more subtle part of the process of writing a novel. And that is my insecurity. What if no one really cares about the things I write about? What if the things I find moving others find sentimental? The things I try to make funny fall flat? What if I offend everybody? What, ultimately, will people who read this novel think about me?
If I could be Stoic, it wouldn’t matter what people thought about me (“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”). Hell, if I thought I knew what I was doing it wouldn’t matter. But neither is the case. Which is why the hardest part of writing a novel, so far, is being willing to tell anyone that I am writing a novel.