Finished the first draft of my fourth novel: Study Machines

Okay, right, so you’re reading this on Monday, but I am writing it at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning. I woke up at 7 AM yesterday and wrote for approximately 540 minutes (from 8 AM to 9:30 AM; most of the time between 2:30 PM to 6 PM; and then from 9 PM to 2 AM). During that time, I produced 14,500 words (my highest-ever single-day wordcount). And that 14,500 words was the last sixth of 93,000 word contemporary (i.e. not sci-fi or fantasy) YA novel that is tentatively entitled Study Machines.

I started the novel on December 18th (though it’d been percolating in the back of my brain since August) and wrote it over the course of 31 days (I took off December 23rd to revise my short story “A House, Drifting Sideways” for GigaNotaSaurus). During those 31 days, I wrote for a total of 4,596 minutes (76.6 hours). That’s approximately 148 minutes per day.

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This is obviously just a first draft, but I feel pretty good about it. If you’ve been paying attention, you might remember that I spent the fall blogging about my efforts to revise another novel (my third: Boom). Well, in late November, I abandoned that novel. I was trying to revise it, and I just couldn’t get over the idea that it was terrible. I mean, the structure was nice and some of the situations were interesting, but it had no personality. The writing was dry as hell.

It was hard to abandon it. After all, that was half a year of thought and effort gone down the drain. But it also felt very freeing. Because I wasn’t committed to it, the revision was really dragging out. It looked like it was going to take forever to get out there. My second novel (which is the only one I’ve ever submitted) only took 7 months to go from the first word to its first submission to an agent.

Inevitably, I always spend my next novel trying to correct whatever problem I had with the one before. This one has a lot of personality. I am glad. Voice is one thing that’s hard to add to a piece later on.

On this one, I was going to go slow on this one and do a little research (I checked out so many books from the library). But whenever I abandon a novel or novel attempt (which has happened three times now), I start to get super antsy and think to myself: “Oh my god! I’ve become someone who just fumbles around and never finishes anything!” and I find myself compelled to start something new immediately. So around December 18th, I felt this incredibly strong compulsion to stop faffing around and do something NOW.

Even after I started writing, I planned to go slow. I allocated myself almost 90 days (from mid-December to mid-March) to complete it. Obviously, that did not happen.

My problem is that I just don’t write slow. No matter what, I’m generally putting out around 1,000 words an hour. For short stories, I do a lot of rewriting: often 5 or 6 complete drafts, so it’s like I’m only writing 200 words an hour. But with novels, I haven’t yet quite figured out how to do the rewriting. I usually just start with the first word and write word after word (sometimes doing a very minor amount of backtracking) until I reach the end. Maybe, now that I know what happens, I should do a complete redraft of the novel. But…you know…I tried that with Boom and it was just deadly boring. I don’t know.

I’m not really happy with my line-level writing, and I think it would generally be improved if I went a little slower, but what can you do? In the bottom of my mind, I just don’t feel like there’s any point in writing good lines when it’s possible that all this stuff is going to be mooted by later revisions to the story. The problem, of course, is that good detail-filled lines generate new possibilities through their denseness. I did try to slow down and explore things a bit, but at some point my fingers just flew out of control and I could no longer exercise restraint.

I have a lot of fears about this novel. When I was on the plane home from India*, I wrote a list of 25 things about it that I thought might be bad. Then I tried to write a list of things that I thought were good, and I only came up with 21 things (though some of them were kind of a stretch). That’s a deficit of 4 badnesses! My intuitions about the deficiencies in my writing tend to be pretty accurate. For instance, when my summary blog post about Boom, I wrote that I felt like the writing might be bad. And it was.

But…I really do like this one. Some of its flaws will be fixed in revision and some will be unfixable. But, you know, it has its good points too. And novels don’t need to be perfect; they just need to be interesting.

Also, writing it was a hell of a lot of fun. When I write short stories, I usually approach them from a very cold and mechanical place: some idea that I want to work out. And that’s what I do with novels too, but novels…they somehow get away from you. Despite everything, the characters take on a sort of life. That’s a really enjoyable feeling.

*Yes, I wrote the bulk of this novel (approximately 74,700 words of it, while I was in or on the way to South Asia).

Upon beginning the revision of my new novel, I realized it was kind of…poorly written

Orientation was really great. I mean, it was a long slog, but it was a bonding experience. I really enjoy everyone in my program, but I won’t write more about that because I think that some of them read this blog. And now is the first week of school! We have our first fiction workshop this evening and in the morning I’m teaching my first class. Obviously, I can’t really blog much about the workshop or about teaching, but those are definitely things that are happening.

On the book front, we have a ton to read for our literature class and another ton to read for the teaching / critiquing portion of the class, so I’ve decided to cut myself a break (at least for a little bit). I’m only going to read trashy, easy books. Right now I’m reading The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. It’s a terrifying book. I don’t know if it’s bad writing or what, but it feels like nothing good ever happens to these kids. They’re junior existentialists; every so often one of them will look at the world around him and say to himself, “Well…I guess that life is nothing more than an absurd, unutterably dull slog towards death.”

But I enjoy it a lot. More on that later, maybe.

On the writing front, things are…interesting. I’ve been reading through my novel (Boom) and marking it up. I’d intended to have one rewrite in order to fix up any structural problems, but I wasn’t expecting the novel to be so…awkward. I don’t know what it is, but virtually every paragraph has some kind of groaner in it. And many of the dialogues just need to be rewritten entirely. Structurally, the novel is better than I expected (although some chapters do need to be rewritten entirely). But on a sentence-level, this novel just needs to be better.

I’m not sure why I perceive so many faults in this one. I think part of it is that this one was so complicated on a conceptual level, that I didn’t have the mental energy to make everything sound pretty on the first pass. But I think part of it is that I’ve just become more discriminating. To a large extent, this can perhaps be blamed on reading slush. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of submissions to Strange Horizons, and it’s possible that I’m subconsciously starting to realize what mediocre writing looks like.

I think that’s probably the answer. Lately, I’ve been dissatisfied with all of my writing, and it seems unlikely that I’ve become a worse writer. However, I’m glad to be making this perceptual shift. Earlier this year, I said to myself, “These are the best stories I’ve ever written. I’m not sure I can ever write anything better. If these don’t sell, then I’m just sunk”…and those stories did not sell. Obviously, that was a bit of an unhealthy attitude. With my new set of standards, I’ve started to carve out some room for improvement.

In any case, I’m fine with this. Part of me does want to just abandon this novel and move on to the next shiny new idea, but I don’t think that’s the right move. I think that I can systematically revise the novel and make it much better. And that doing so will teach me a lot. But I am placing a time-limit on this. I intend to have a submittable draft of this thing by January 1st. I do not want to carry this load into the New Year.

Actually, it’s comforting to have a task like this. It’s somewhat orthogonal to the MFA process (which is mostly about writing and submitting short stories), so it’s not something that’s likely to be derailed by workshop critiques and such. And it’s a long, slow task that I can make progress towards even when I don’t feel particularly inspired.

A little bit more about that novel that I just finished writing (oh yeah, it’s called _Boom_)

The most hits that my blog has ever gotten was on May 3rd, which was the day that a very dejected Rahul announced that he was giving up on the novel that he had triumphantly begun a mere four days earlier. That day was definitely not a good day for me. I had gestated the novel idea for years. I had planned the novel for months. I had pages and pages of notes and observations. I had written a full novel synopsis. I had cleared a full two weeks from my schedule by freeing myself of both social and work obligations. And during four days of work I had made startling progress. The novel was over a third completed by the time I finally realized that I just didn’t want to write it anymore.

But I woke up the next day with a tremendous sense of relief. Thank God! I did not have to leap out of bed and mash the keyboard for eight hours so that I could add another ten thousand words to that monster!

Instead I lay in bed and browsed the internet. I did a little reading. And then I took a walk around the lake. While I walked, I tried to plot out my writing projects for the rest of the summer. Originally, I had planned to devote the post-novel period to a little short-story writing. And I guessed it was possible to just skip ahead and do that.

Except…when would I write my next novel? I mean, my current one is complete. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s not going to get any more revision (unless, I suppose, an agent or editor makes a really good case). And whether or not the current novel ever sold, I’d still need to have another one eventually.

But when could I write it? Later in the summer, I was going to be moving cross-country. In the fall I’d be starting graduate school, and I was sure that life would be too hectic for any sustained effort. And over the winter break I’d probably have familial obligations. And that meant it’d be spring semester at the earliest before I could start work on another novel! Somehow, that just did not seem right. It felt like I was creating a gap where there shouldn’t be one.

There was a reason that I was writing a novel now, in May, rather than later. It was literally the last available time for it.

So, on my return trip around the Lake, I started thinking about this other* novel idea I’d been kicking around.

Last summer, I read William Whyte’s 1950s polemic The Organization Man, which is about how Whyte thought that young men had become risk-averse and unimaginative. As I was reading the novel, I realized that what Whyte was actually writing about–though he didn’t know it–were the natural results of an economic boom that was almost unimaginable in its magnitude and scope. The 1950s–horrible as they were too many people–were a time of untold expansion in this nation’s material wealth, and the effects of that expansion ushered in social patterns of a sort that have since disappeared. After reading his book, I wrote a short story entitled “Boom” that was about an economically stagnant near-future Earth which suddenly discovers an infinite supply of empty alternate Earths. When I was revising the short story a few months ago, I realized that it wasn’t really that good. There was too much talking and not enough action. And the talking wasn’t of particularly high quality, either. But I realized that this was a premise and a setting that could easily support a novel.

While I was still a mile or two from my apartment, I decided to write that novel. And by the time I reached my front door, I’d decided that I wouldn’t repeat the premise of the short story. Instead, my novel would be about a young woman from a close-knit urban neighborhood who marries a young middle manager for one of the newly-flush multiplanetary companies and then sees her society blown apart by the firehose of money that is blasted through it.

But the novel is still called Boom (unless it’s called Between The Recessions). It’s kind of my love-letter to French and American Naturalism/Realism. It’s a blended mix of Cather, Steinbeck, Zola, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair. And I guess there might be a dash of J.G. Ballard in there too (if I was feeling more honest, I might say Robert Heinlein).

Anyway, I came home and started writing the first chapter. I decided early on that I was going to proceed slowly and stop and rewrite if I needed to. At least three times (in Chapters 2, 7, and 11), this stopped me from making some pretty bad mistakes. But since I finished in 35 days, I don’t really think I can say that I went that slow.

It was not easy. I walked that lake many times, desperately trying to figure out what should happen next. Several times, I almost gave up. I think that if I hadn’t been so afraid of having two failures in a row, I might’ve tabled the novel. I often was a little angry at myself that I’d committed myself to this second novel without any planning or any foresight.

Nonetheless, it’s over now, and I’m fairly happy with it. It’s a novel in three parts. The first and second parts are not too bad, but the third part has a certain lack of harmony. I’ll probably need to extensively rewrite the third part. But I know (from having completely rewritten the first third of my last novel) that rewriting is not too bad.

I am also afraid that the writing itself isn’t good. I think that my own sensitivity to bad writing has just gotten higher as a result of slushing, so that I now perceive faults that I never perceived before.

But I never got the hopeless, unendurable whiff of badness that I got from the abandoned novel. On the contrary, I am extremely happy about this novel. There’s a reason that this novel is the first novel whose premise I can share on my blog without feeling weird. It’s a good and fresh premise. There’s not much else out there that’s like it. When I wrote my last novel, I knew that I needed to write something that looked, sounded, and felt like a novel. And I succeeded. But when I started thinking about my next novel, I knew that I needed to be more ambitious. And while it’s too early to say whether I succeeded (I am not kidding when I say that it needs alot of work), I am happy that I made the attempt and I will be happy (in a few months) to start revising it.

This is also my first novel to have no gunshots in it. My first novel had approximately eleven thousand gunshots, my second novel had a single gunshot, and this one has zero. I remember an interview in which some author (who I want to say was Alastair Reynolds) talked about how he really wanted to write a novel without a gunshot in it. I sympathized wholly with him on that. For years, I’ve been steadily eliminating the gunshots from my work, and I think it’s a lot better for it.

*Actually, there was another novel idea that I was considering: a heist / chicklit novel about ripping off the Federal Reserve. I decided that it would require a bit too much plotting and research for me to approach during just two months, though.