I still find it really weird to think of myself as a novelist

confusionI 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.

9 thoughts on “I still find it really weird to think of myself as a novelist

  1. sunscald

    This explains a great deal about why I like your work. I too have received a slew of personal rejections about my unsympathetic characters. Question: What changed? You mentioned that discovering voice was something like a writing epiphany for you (I think; I may not be remembering that correctly…was an aside in a previous blogpost about epiphanies)–was that it? Anyway, I’d be curious your thoughts on the sympathetic character problem. I think most people are awful, myself included, and that tends to show up on the page. Corrective measures would be appreciated.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Well, honestly, I’ve learned to pick my battles. Nowadays, I tend to steer clear of choices that–even if they don’t bother me–would tend to really bother most readers. For instance, if the character has to bite the head off an animal, it’ll probably be a lizard, rather than a kitten. If something bad happens as a result of the character’s actions, he/she will at least make a motion towards feeling guilty about it. Also, I write more first-person narratives: it’s easier to identify with a character, even an amoral character, when you’re in their head. I’m also just a better writer, so I can make the plot move and the ideas sing even if people don’t like the characters.

      I think I also can’t underestimate the extent to which I myself have softened over time. When I was 23, I was much more pitiless than I am now. I feel the sadness and the joy of the world to a greater extent nowadays than I ever did then.

      And, to some extent, I haven’t overcome this problem at all. I think my stories are often _still_ rejected for having unsympathetic characters.

  2. Casey

    Something I have been trying to reconcile myself with lately is letting go of that idea of “wasted work.” Is the hundred thousand words of unfinished novels I’ve written really wasted if it’s made me a better writer? The answer of course is no, but sometimes it’s hard to think that way. I know of one YA author who wrote TEN novels before she sold the first one (which has done very well).

    re: unsympathetic characters, I am suddenly reminded of how the first two stories I wrote at Clarion starred completely awful self absorbed women without much redeeming qualities. I still think they were okay stories though mostly at the time I was worried that all these new people I was meeting would think they were self reflective or something. :-p

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Even if they are reflective of yourself, what’s the big deal? We are (and were) all terrible people!!!

      Personally, I am fine with thinking of work as being wasted in retrospect, but I am absolutely unable to initiate work with the idea that it’s just practice. While I am writing it, I expect every novel and every story to be brilliant. After it’s done, I try to think of it as a sunk cost. If anything, I feel like I’m toooooo ready to abandon my work rather than put in the effort to revise it.

      1. Casey

        I’ll join you in the hating revising club. Once I’ve written a first draft if I don’t think it’s really good already then I’m unlikely to put in further effort. Which is perhaps kind of self-defeating since in theory revising could make it good…

  3. mattllavin

    This is a profound blog post. I really enjoyed it. It’s interesting to consider, since it’s so impossible to control the outcomes, that the success of any approach ultimately justifies the approach. In every real way, your approach is tied to your success with the novel. The thing that seems like a constant for everyone is the emotional component – which I guess I’m assuming, unless there really are people for which beginning to write is super easy and gives them no uncertainty. I doubt that. A lot. There is a kind of craziness to it, or forgetfulness, or maybe even a delusion – this time will be different, this time it’s real love (etc.).
    And then, once it is different, the delusion was never a delusion, was it?

    Also – “This Beautiful Fever” is an awesome title. Great choice.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yep. Given different results, it’d be just as easy to say that any of the above was a horrible mistake. Well, not horrible, since there’s really no writing-related task that can lead to genuinely horrible outcomes. But you know what I mean.

  4. Tracy Canfield

    think a lot of published SF/F would be better if it didn’t divide characters so neatly into good guys and bad guys. I’ve often thought what grabs me about a protagonist in a story’s opening is whether they’re making an interesting decision, not whether I’d trust them to housesit for me.

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