|Book signing for “The Dark Age of Enya” c. 2005|
So you want to write a novel . . . great! Lots of people do it every day. But the difference between writing a good novel and writing a stack of pages with words on them is the difference between riding your bike around the block and competing in the Tour de France. People have this strange delusion that anyone, with no practice or education, can simply pick up a pencil and paper and churn out Moby Dick. Nobody thinks that about playing the violin or painting by oils or sculpting by chisel. Most people understand that to play the violin proficiently enough for people to pay you, you need years, possibly decades, of practice; writing a novel is no different. A good novelist spends thousands of hours at his craft, having written hundreds of poorly constructed stories, and more often than not, a number of books that end up on the sentimental shelf. I am no exception. Before I wrote Ages of Aenya, I typed, on a typewriter, something called The Dark Temple. It was crap, thirty pages of run-on sentence with lots of fighting and magic and hardly no plot or character. My second attempt, which I actually sent to four publishers when I was fourteen, was Dynotus’ Adventures. It wasn’t absolute garbage, but it still stunk (read it here, if you like). For a while I abandoned the novel completely, proceeding with many short pieces about Dynotus, until I made another stab at it with The Nomad. Grammar, character, and plot were all present . . . and while some of my high school friends enjoyed reading it (mostly for the sex, I think), it lacked the spit shine that comes from experience. Sentences were terribly long and awkward, dialogue was often stilted and unrealistic, and just because I knew something about character and plot didn’t mean I could do it well. I later got into fan-fiction, winning fans with my He-Man stories, and finally made a fourth attempt at authorship with The Dark Age of Enya. I sincerely thought, This is the one—it’s good! And you know what? A lot of other people thought so too, including fans, friends, and a couple of magazine critics. But it still wasn’t good enough for mainstream publishing, for shelf space at Barnes & Nobles, and so it was another failure. This is why I am continually annoyed by the sheer number of junk novels sold as e-books everyday—most of these books are given away for free or for pennies, because the hard work that goes into making something worth money is just that, hard work. Here’s the problem. With no musical training you have no clue how to play the violin, but you can write notes to your friends on Facebook, in e-mails, or at the very least, you can make a grocery list, so the thinking goes: If I can do all that, how much harder can writing a novel be?
I’m not here to give writing advice. There are plenty of books for that. If you’re serious about the craft, you should know the basics: setting, character, plot. You should know the difference between scene and summary. You should understand dialogue and how best to use it. It’s like learning how to hold the violin, knowing what strings make what sounds and what those little knobs on the end do (see, I know nothing about violins). After the basics, the possibilities are infinite. There are as many ways to write a book as there are books, but every one of those ways involves hard work. To give you an idea, I am now going to describe how I approach writing a novel.
Before any writing takes place, novels are birthed from ideas. What if I mailed myself in a huge box? That was an idea I had when I was six, which I turned into a story. Ideas can come from books, movies, or better yet, real life. But one good idea doesn’t make a story, which is why my mind works 24/7 looking for inspiration. People always think I am aloof; half the time I can’t even remember my coworkers names. I suspect this has something to do with the amount of brain power reserved for story telling. Whether at my other job as a restaurateur, or driving, or in the shower, I am always working on writing. I’ve woken out of bed just to get a sentence on paper. The idea gathering process is ongoing and never ending. Once gathered, potential stories float in the filing cabinet in my head. I may need a name for a character one day, and my subconscious will pull it out. Often, I don’t even recognize where the name came from; it might be from something I heard as a kid. Until recently, one character in my book was called Duncan Oakenshield, and then I saw the Hobbit film and remembered Oakenshield was the lead dwarf in that story. Many ideas go to waste—because they simply don’t fit anywhere. For example, I’ve always wanted to write about a three-handed giant, since the notion of a three-handed sword amuses me, but I can never find a place to put the idea. Some things fit whatever story I am writing at the time, while others lay dormant, decades from inception. When I’ve gathered enough ideas that can be linked together in an interesting way, and if I feel excited by the story’s potential, I begin the brainstorming process, writing bits and pieces down in a little notebook. I may write descriptions of characters and places, pieces of a plot, maybe even entire passages. Unlike Stephen King, I like to know something of the end before I start. As of this post, there’s a notebook full of information regarding my latest, The Princess of Aenya, and I haven’t even written the first sentence yet.
No matter how well I prepare, the actual book writing is always preceded by a level of dread. What if I’ve forgotten how to write? What if my mind goes blank? What if none of my ideas work? These thoughts plague me until that blank screen appears on my laptop. For up to eight hours, I sit possessed, tapping away. Reality melts away and all that exists is the story. Sometimes I can smell the grass, feel the wind, hear the voices of the heroes. If I write something particularly poignant, I’ll catch myself weeping. This is the only romantic part of my job. After eight hours of intense focus, reality comes rushing back to me; I stretch, because my back and neck hurt; I’ll be hungry, thirsty, and have a need to pee, and I am left with about eight pages of text blinking back at me. My immediate feelings? It’s garbage. I suckered myself into thinking it would be good. That passage I was crying about? Melodramatic drivel. I become my own worst critic. So I reread it again, and again, and again. I get a Frappuccino and read it yet again. I read it backwards to unfamiliarize myself with it. And then, simply because I am exhausted, I shut the damn thing off and go home. I’ll work on it tomorrow, I promise myself, and then begins a second day of editing, where I chip away at sentences, adding and deleting words like Michelangelo hammering raw material into what will become the Pieta. Sometimes there will be a third day of editing, and then I’ll move on to a new chapter, not because I’m satisfied with the first (I still loathe it, and hate myself for sucking at writing) but because if I don’t move on, the novel will sit in my brain forever like a cancerous tumor. This process continues, chapter after chapter after torturous chapter. All the while, I am still gathering ideas, many for sections I’ve already finished. I then have to go back and rework those ideas into old passages, reediting chapters I’ve already edited to exhaustion. Throughout this ordeal, my perspective shifts and changes, so what I think is good one day becomes terrible the next. Being a writer is a perpetual paradox, because you are constantly battling your own subjectivity; you are constantly trying to do the impossible, which is to judge your work as if you hadn’t written it. By the time the novel has an ending (notice I said an ending) many years may have gone by, at which point I experience a new level of dread as I must read the whole thing from the beginning. What if none of it makes sense? What if it doesn’t read emotionally? And who the Hell wrote this first chapter? The novel I hold in my hands very rarely resembles the story I wanted to write, because novels are organic things. What seemed great in my notepad reads terribly within the larger context. The characters often want to do their own things, the story wants to take detours I didn’t plan on, and the finished piece is an utter mystery. If you sincerely aspire to becoming a writer, this next part may disturb you, because, after all that self-afflicted mental torture, you may just have to throw the whole thing out and start over. This isn’t editing, by the way, this is rewriting. Why the Hell would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: by the time the final chapter is down, I’ve become a much better writer. It becomes terribly obvious as I read through the first draft. The writing quality steadily improves as the novel progresses. Even after thirty eight years on this planet, thirty of which I’ve spent writing, I am still finding things to learn. By the time I was sitting at Barnes & Nobles touting paperback copies of The Dark Age of Enya, I knew in my heart I was better than what my wares suggested, that I could rewrite the book and improve it by leagues. When will the learning process end? Maybe when I’m dead.
After all this, you may be wondering, why do you do it? It may seem a fruitless enterprise, a grueling, thankless profession, and it is. At the same time, whenever I am not writing, I feel that I am wasting my time. I may work forty hours at the restaurant, play Mario and do homework with the kids, but by Sunday night, if I haven’t managed to put thoughts on paper, I feel like a lazy slob. For me, life doesn’t have meaning without being written, because it’s art that gives life meaning. People like to say, Everything happens for a reason, because it makes them feel good, but I am here to tell you that’s crap. Meaning is a uniquely human concept. It’s something we create for ourselves, to help us endure shit like the Sandy Hook massacre. Even religion, with it’s fanciful stories of gods and angels, is nothing more than fiction dressed up like truth. And so I am compelled to add to the global dialogue of the human race. Now that may sound lofty and inspiring, but 90% of the time, it feels like a mental disorder. Writing is a compulsion, something I have to do to get through the week. That’s what I call the writers’ disease. You want my honest advice about writing a novel? Don’t trouble yourself. Pick something easier, like medicine or law or coal mining, or just about anything.
Still there? Really? Are you seething with rage? Are you full of anxiety? Are you ready to ram your keyboard down my throat because . . . you really, really want to be a writer? After all, who the fuck am I to discourage you? Well, if you’ve read thus far and you still don’t want to give up—if you can’t even conceive of giving up, because it’s in you, in your blood, in every fiber of your being, then by all means, do it. And good luck. Just don’t sell it on Amazon for 80 cents. Now you’ll have to excuse me. I have to reread this post several more times.
As always Nick, you speak sincere, and from the bottom of your heart. Thank you for the strength you have granted me to go on. Thank you for all your advices, and all your suggestions. Thank you for the light you brought forward, when all of us, all aspiring authors, were lost.
I am glad I can be of help. I suppose that if you are really adamant about writing, you'll find my article helpful, and if you are on the fence about it, you might find it discouraging. I remember a book called “Outliers: The Story of Success”. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, argues that to become a master of any endeavor, you need ten thousand hours of practice. For me, this was hopeful. I thought to myself, “Ten thousand hours, I can do that!” By the way, Aris, I am still waiting for sample chapters of your novel!