I vividly recall the decision to write my first novel. It was about this time, four years ago, in the spring of my 23rd year. I’d made my first professional sale (to Nature) about a year before. Since then, it’d been nothing but rejection (I’d have another year to go until I made another one). Furthermore, in their rejection letters, editors kept telling me that my characters were unsympathetic. I was getting pretty tired of hearing about that. What did they want? Some wide-eyed orphan who was getting kicked around by an evil stepfather? Some square-jawed hero whose only problem was that he loved justice too much? Some good-hearted heroine who single-handedly supports her parents and keeps getting dumped in favor of the blonde tramp? What was the fun in that?
So I threw myself on my bed and cursed those magazine editors for their conservative tastes and decided that I was going to bypass them! I’d write a novel! At novel-length, people would finally be able to see my characters (the amoral wretches) for the beautiful, complex, and utterly sympathetic made-up caricatures that they were. And I’d put them in front of the eyes of an entirely new set of people: book editors—people who actually cared about the bottom line and who were, thus, willing to take a chance on a new and provocative and bold voice.
This actually wasn’t the first time I’d attempted a novel. Like most aspiring fiction-writers, I started one during my freshman year. I had the whole plot mapped out and everything. I wrote 8500 words the first day, 5000 on the second day, 2000 on the third day, 1000 on the fourth day, and nothing on the fifth, sixth, seventh, and all subsequent days.
But the summer of 2009 was different. That summer, I had purpose. That summer, I started writing a novel. It was a bold, high concept science-fictional premise featuring a bunch of awesomely epic setpieces and a whole mess of gunfights. That summer, I abandoned the novel and then restarted it. That summer I got a third of the way into the second draft of the novel before losing steam and petering out. I didn’t really write a word of fiction between September 2009 to January 2010 (during this period, I also applied to eleven MFA programs). However, the following summer, I picked up the novel again and barreled through, completing it in November of 2010. Time from beginning to completion of a draft? Eighteen months.
Six months after that, I sat down to revise it and realized that I didn’t really want to put in the work to make it publishable. A week or so later, I got the idea for another novel, but I didn’t want to waste another two years of my life. I swore to myself that I’d only do it if I could write a complete draft in less than a month. And I did. And that novel became This Beautiful Fever.
Since completing the revisions on TBF and sending it out (about sixteen months ago), I’ve started three novels and completed drafts of two. But I still find it very difficult to think of myself as a person who writes novels. It all feels very strange and foreign and unreal to me. Short stories still come much more naturally to me. Every novel I’ve written has felt like some kind of interlude—a break from “real” writing.
But I’m glad that I’ve taken those breaks. It’s really weird how we reap the rewards of past impatience and foolishness. If, as a 23 year old, I hadn’t been so anxious for success to come right now, then I’d be in a much worse place right now. But my 23 year old self would probably be disgusted in the sheer waste involved in these last four years: the hundreds of thousands of words that’ve been discarded—the months that’ve gone by without any appreciable progress. Actually, now that I think about it if I hadn’t been so impatient, two years ago, to produce a sellable novel right now, I’d probably still be revising that first novel. Who knows, though? Maybe that novel would’ve ended up being spectacular.
I just don’t understand how life works. Sometimes you make all these impulsive, crazy decisions and you end up broke and homeless and friendless…and sometimes you make all these impulsive, crazy decisions and you end up with novel drafts and a growing confidence in your own abilities. But…to some extent…both kinds of craziness feel the same. My decision to start a novel was ridden with anger and resentment and laziness and every other bad reason for doing something. But it still worked out great!
That’s the thing about optimism and pessimism. We pretend that things can either have a good outcome or a bad outcome. But that’s not accurate. Things can have infinite outcomes. And it’s very difficult to predict which of those outcomes will actually come to pass. Both optimism and pessimism break down when we confront the fundamental unknowability of the future.