And So, I finished writing a novel last week.
A nice accomplishment, certainly, but at this point it is only a first draft; a rough hewn thing at best, held together in some places by bailing wire and duct tape. But, as a writer who has struggled with the novel form over the years, with so many false starts and burnouts, it feels good to have a novel-length manuscript in my hands that is more or less a complete story arc.
I cut my teeth as a writer on short stories, and while I can’t say I’ve mastered that form either (my dearth of pro-sales speaks to that), they are at least something I’ve managed to churn out on a regular basis. But becoming a novelist has always been my ultimate goal, and thus one has to attempt such efforts even if they (me) find it a struggle. In the last five years, the time period in which I’ve been pursuing a writing career full time, I’ve started several novels, got quite far with a few, but ultimately, all have either bogged down or been unsatisfying to me. Now, five years might seem like a long time to pursue something with the only success being a few short story sales, but—I’m nothing if not determined, and I’m in it for the long haul. Some of the pro-writers I’ve met on my journey have informed me that in their experience, up to ten years is a time frame that one can expect for it to take to ‘break in’ or have a modicum of success in the field. I’m sure a lot of that is learning craft along the way to learning the business.
So, what have I been up to in those five years? Well, I wrote a few hundred short stories, about five novels in various stages of in-completion, and blog posts and journal entries and writing practice and whatnot, all totaling over a million words of writing. (I think I hit the one million mark last year—yep, I track my daily word count) There’s an old writing maxim that’d been attributed to several different writers that when you’ve written a million words, you can throw those out and start over, for by then you’ve maybe learned something about how to write. I don’t know if this is the case or not, but I do feel I have certainly improved over the last few years.
The novels I’ve written, or partially written, are all dear to me, but it may very well be the case that these will end up being mere training experiences on the way to other things. I sort of hope not, as I like some of them, so I hope I’ll gain the skills to go back and hammer them into shape. Some of them are listed in the ‘In the Works’ section of this blog, if you want a summary of them. I’d been sort of alternating between working on two of them for most of this year, and was feeling very bogged down. So, come mid-June I was just finishing up a reread of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is one of my favorite books. As I read the last pages, I sort of reflected how this Roman à Clef novel was really just a fictionalization of many of Hemingway’s own experiences from the summers before he wrote it. That got me to thinking that it might be fun to attempt something like this of my own, but what to do—I hadn’t run with the bulls of pursued a British aristocrat’s wife recently—what personal life experience would I mine for fodder?
Well, the first thing that came to mind was my travels. I’ve made almost twenty overseas trips over the years, most when I was in my twenties and thirties, though I’m still making some now, just at a slower pace. Most were to Europe, a place of fascination for me, but there were a couple to Oceania, and one each to South America and Africa. Now, I’ve read some travel writing over the years and enjoyed it, people like Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, so I figured this might be an intriguing project—to take some of the places I’ve visited and events I experienced and the people I met and distill them down into a work of fiction. I don’t know why, but this got me very excited. That very afternoon (June 13) I sat down and wrote up a plan of action, and the next day I started writing the novel itself, just taking the plunge of letting myself go and see where I ended up.
Five weeks and 83,000 words later, I had that aforementioned first draft of a novel on my hands, and I also had something that I felt very good about. Sure, it needs lots of work—but I’m excited to begin that work. Now, five weeks is an awful short time to write a novel in, especially since I’ve worked for years on some of the others, but of course it is not unheard of. Once I began this project, I had a real passion for it, and the muse really seemed to be singing for the first time in a great while, so I just went with it and tore it up at a blistering pace, sometimes writing long into the night. I usually write in the afternoons, and try to do a thousand words a day of whatever, so I guess in the case of this work I averaged about 2,300 words a day, so a little over double my output. Anyway, it was some of the most joyous writing I’ve done in a long while, joyous anyway for the writer himself as he was creating it. I think this stems from the fact that I was writing about something I dearly love, travel, and revisiting some of those ‘first time’ events that I experienced when I was traveling to new places way back when.
Anyway, what I’ve got on my hands now is something quite different from anything I’ve written before. I usually write speculative fiction—science fiction and fantasy—though I have done some mainstream before. I guess what this novel could be called is travel fiction-- I don’t know if such is considered a genre unto itself, but that’s what comes to mind. I think it’s quite a unique piece of work, and in searching out similar novels I can’t seem to find one that is close or very similar to it. It is a novel about travel, certainly, but also about new adulthood and romance and laughter and the rare thing that it is to be surprised by joy when you least expect it.
So, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. One of the realities of writing something this long in such a short time is one often has to gloss over some things or whatnot, build rickety bridges between the parts that you know are working. So now I’ve got to go back and shore up those bridges, and make the whole thing sound, and this, I figure, will take a whole lot longer than five weeks. But, I’ve got time, and patience, and I’m looking forward to it.
I'll let you know how things come out.