Just Typed “The End” on a Novel

For roughly the last 18 months, I’ve been writing a novel, and trying not to tell anyone about it. I began out of frustration with the number of rejections I was receiving (well, and also the hard disk crash that cost me three months of work on short stories that probably wouldn’t have sold anyway). I kind of sensed that one problem with my work was that my protagonists were somewhat unlikeable. I found this annoying. I didn’t particularly dislike my protagonists. I thought they were people who were doing their thing, acting sensibly, reacting appropriately to extraordinary events. Anyway, I thought that if I wrote the same kind of story, with the same kind of protagonist, but made it 100,000 words long then the extended closeup would allow readers would be able to look at things from a different point of view.

I don’t really know if I succeeded in that goal. In the process of writing this (my first) novel, I discovered all kinds of difficulties inherent in the long form that don’t really come up in short stories. Probably the biggest were (unsurprisingly) the differences in pacing and structure. I wrote 30,000 words, and then restarted the novel, which helped immensely. Once I hit 60,000 I probably should have restarted again, but by then I was more focused on proving to myself that I could actually finish something this long (before I began this novel, my longest completed story was 7,100 words long. My longest fragment [a never-finished novel] was 18,000 words long)

The end result clocked in at roughly 95,000 words. I typed “The End” on it a few hours ago. I can’t really say that what I have is a “first draft”. It’s 95,000 words that starts with Chapter One and ends with the words “The End”. But it’s full of bracketed notes to myself like [add some words here].

But I am happy about having “finished” it. Writing a novel was always a very vague ambition for me. It was one of those things that I would have to do eventually if I wanted to have a career, but it didn’t seem terribly appealing to me. I liked short stories. I liked reading them, sure, but I also liked writing them. For a writer, short stories seem to carry more of the pure magic of invention than novels.

For me, the pleasures of writing are in beginnings and endings. Short stories are mostly an ending jammed onto a beginning…but novels are mostly just middle…tens of thousands of words of middle.

Still, a novel provides its own pleasures. Like…when you have a novel on the boiler, you never sit down and worry “What the hell am I going to write about”. You just write the next scene. Of course, then you wonder, “Why exactly is this the next scene? Why not some other scene?” But that’s a different kind of problem.

Also, it’s somewhat intoxicating to have the space to expand upon things. Short stories are always so very devoid of the stuffness of life. If you add in too many flourishes into a short story, people start to wonder what relevance all this stuff has to the plot. Novels are full of the stuffness. Even the most direct and action-based novel is about 1/3rd flourishes: descriptions, banter, digressions, walk-on characters, sideplots. All that stuff is kind of fun.

Anyway, I wrote a novel. Everything about it, including its title, is still totally under wraps. I kept silent about it in order to avoid killing the whole endeavor with too much chatter. But I figure that I deserve a little break in radio silence after completing such a major stage in the process. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I was going to revise it, or just abandon it and move onto the next thing…but now I think that I should probably revise it, even if it’s as nothing more than a lesson to myself. I’ll probably start doing that next year. If I finish the revision, there might be another post.

5 thoughts on “Just Typed “The End” on a Novel

  1. Alex J. Kane

    Congratulations on the first novel! That’s very exciting.

    So…I was unaware that you were a graduate of Clarion. Do tell: Is that something I should consider applying to next year (as I’m about to graduate college next spring)? Or do you think I would maybe benefit more from an MFA program? I’m very torn between the two paths. Anything you can share about your Clarion experience would be a huge help. 🙂

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Hey, Clarion and an MFA program are not really mutually exclusive paths. As in, it’s very possible to do both. However, they’re also not really the same thing.

      First of all, you shouldn’t go to an MFA program unless you can get a funded slot, with a tuition waiver and either a fellowship or teaching assistantship that can give you a living stipend. Otherwise you’re just spending a truly gargantuan sum of money (from $10-$40k in tuition a year, plus maybe $15-20k in living expenses) on something that isn’t going to get you any jobs or necessary lead to publishing opportunities. Getting a funded slot is not easy, but it’s doable. Some programs are fully funded (as in every student gets funding), but most have some funding available. If you want to research programs in more depth, a good site to start with is the MFA blog ( http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/ ). Other than that, I don’t really know that much about them. They’re reputedly not very friendly to genre writers, but plenty of well-respected genre writers have gone to them (especially in recent years), like Joe Haldeman, Kelly Link, Rachel Swirsky, Alan DeNiro, Kevin Brockmeier, etc.

      On the other hand, Clarion (in either San Diego or Seattle) is a six-week summer course that costs about $5,000. I attended in the summer of 2006, and the acceptance rate for our class was like 22 people out 100 or so applicants. There are usually 16-20 students each year. Basically, each week gets taught by a different professional SF/F author (or editor). You spend around five hours a day critiquing manuscripts that get turned in by your fellow students. Your instructors critique too. Sometimes in the evening your instructors will lecture at you or there’ll be free-form discussion. There’s usually alot of interaction with the instructors.

      The format of Clarion, in terms of workshop mechanics, is pretty much the same as every writing workshop you’ll ever take. The main thing that distinguishes it is that the pacing is completely brutal. In most workshops, you’ll submit, at most, two stories a semester. The stories are generally assumed to be something you’ve worked over, revised a little, etc.

      But at Clarion, the general assumption is that each student will write, and submit for critique, one story every week. That means you’ll often just barely dash off a first draft, proofread it for typos and grammar errors, and then the class will deliver their critiques on it within three days. It’s difficult to describe the kind of exhilaration and angst that this can inflict on a person. There’s a huge pressure to perform. And if you get terrible critiques on a story, you have to go back and write another within a week. And if you get terrible critiques on that story, then you have to go back and write another one within a week. There’s not really any space for rest or for recovery.

      There’s also a sense of competitiveness. Unlike in undergraduate or graduate writing workshops, alot of people at Clarion are: a) emotionally, financially, and chronologically mature; and b) pretty sure about what they want out of their writing career. People are really very serious about their writing in the way that most college students (yourself excepted, I think) find themselves unable to be. And while that means they’re really trying to do their best, and it means they’re generally pretty good writers, it also means that there’s alot of ego involved in Clarion. There’s a very real sense that this is a test run for the competition you’re going to have to face in order to make it as professionals in the SFF field.

      All that having been said, I’d recommend it as a place to learn how to write. The stories I wrote during and after Clarion were much better, in every respect, than the ones I wrote before. You also get taught by some really good writers. They keep it real. When you’ve got six different writers coming in, they’re going to lay down some wildly different and mutually exclusive pieces of advice. It not only shows you how many different ways there are to go about things, it also shows you that there’s no right way to do it. For instance, Joe Haldeman said that he only writes 400 words a day, in longhand, in a moleskine notebook, and then at the end of 18 months he has a book that he doesn’t really revise very much. Whereas Michael Swanwick rewrites the same passages over and over, in different Word windows, as if he’s still writing on a typewriter, and then slowly progresses a little farther with each iteration.

      But really the thing that teaches you most is just the relentless pace and the sheer number of critiques you’ll get over the course of six weeks. Something very much like fear eventually builds up in you – fear of getting panned in workshop yet again – and that the voice of that fear helped me to internalize a lot of basic storytelling structures.

      Generally speaking, I think that it’s better to be relatively young and a relatively worse writer when you go to Clarion. First, youth means that all-nighters, dorm-style living, etc, don’t take nearly so much of a toll. Second, you’re more used to schoolwork, more used to critique, more used to rejection than relatively older people are. And third, I think that Clarion has the potential to put better writers off their game a little bit. Either the class doesn’t get what they need and they get really negative critiques that make them afraid for the wrong reasons, or they get really positive critiques that don’t really help them do what they want to do. However, since I, personally, was both young and not that good, I benefited enormously from the workshop.

  2. Alex J. Kane

    Thanks for the info. It sounds like perhaps attending Clarion the summer after I graduate would be the ideal path, which is sort of what I believed already. I’m glad you mentioned that MFA programs are reputedly less friendly to genre writers — that’s something I was concerned about. An MFA isn’t something I’d really ever considered, but a couple of my professors who have seen my work have urged me to consider it. I’m not sure that it would be fair to my girlfriend, so that’s one factor leading me toward Clarion (where some of my absolute favorite writers began their careers). Also, I would absolutely have to get a free ride to the MFA program…already going to have a fairly substantial student loan for undergrad school.

    Thanks for the insight.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Some are reputedly more friendly to genre-type work than others. Reputedly Brown, Syracuse, UC-Irvine, Houston, Alabama, UNC-Greensboro, and Arizona State, amongst others, are more willing to accept people who write genre-type work. However, I say “genre-type” work, because the kind of genre writer who gets into those programs is more like…Jeff Vandermeer or Cat Valente (neither of whom went to MFA programs) than, say, Charles Stross or John Scalzi. It’s hard to explain the difference, but if you read the work of genre writers who went to top MFA programas, you’ll instantly understand it.

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