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.

“The Other Realms Were Built With Trash” in LCRW #26

The 26th issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet has printed and, I believe, has shipped. It’s also available, at that link, as a PDF.

This was my fifth week story at Clarion (which I attended in the summer of 2006). Kelly Link, who had been one of my favorite authors since I picked up her collection Stranger Things Happen my freshman year in college, was coming to be the instructor for our final two weeks. This story was the product of me walking around for three weeks being all like, “Oh my god, I have to write a fantasy story for Kelly Link”.

I mean, I had written fantasy stories before. But they were all like, fantasy stories with swords and wizards and stuff like that. I knew that I could be bringing that sort of stuff. I needed to write some hip contemporary fantasy filled with the strange and inexplicable. Except…I didn’t really know how to do that.

What ended up happening was I took an SF story I’d been planning to write about a garbage dump and India’s untouchable castes, mashed it up with some fairy mythology, added a nuclear war, and created this story over the course of one all-nighter. The next day I showed it around, realized it was somewhat incomprehensible, grabbed two hours of sleep and pulled another all-nighter to revise it.

Even in final draft, the story was still somewhat garbled, and many of the scenes were just somewhat perfunctory placeholders for scenes that needed to be there and things that needed to happen. But I accomplished my goal, in that Kelly Link liked it in fairly unequivocal terms. I promptly became totally burned out, and was unable to write anything for the final ten days of the workshop.

A year after Clarion I revised the story and sent it out to a bunch of places before finally selling it to ‘zine edited by Kelly Link and her husband Gavin Grant.

At one point, this story was alot of things to me. It was a huge departure for me in terms of content. It was the first time I’d tried to add an Indian cultural element to a story. It was my first contemporary fantasy. It was my first extensive revision. And it was the first time anyone ever intimated to me that I might have some kind of potential. At the time, and for a long time after, I despaired of writing anything better. This story profoundly altered the kinds of stories I write and the way in which I write. In particular, I don’t think I’ve written a careful, extrapolative SF story since this story showed me what I could be doing instead.

Rereading it now, I’m not sure how I feel about having it out there. I have written better in the four years since. In the last year I’ve probably written stories that were many times better. But, you know…I am happy that it’s been published.

I’ve found that, over the years, I’ve had stories that were an effort to write, ones where I reached for something new and which, once completed, inspired me with the highest of expectations for their future reception, and then I’ve had stories where I just sort of fooled around for a few afternoons and didn’t expect to sell at all. Inevitably, the stories I have sold have been the latter. I have my own theories as to why this is the case, but I am happy that for once one of the former is going to see the light of day.