I’m in the thick of it with The Magician’s Land.
The best description around of what it’s like to write a novel is Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling.” You can find bootleg copies of it on the Web, but if you want to read it you should really buy the book that it’s in.
Here’s a taste, from the section called “Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking”:
By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9am, you blink, the evening news is on and 4,000 words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago.
It’s hard to stop quoting, it’s all so true.
But that’s just one phase of writing a novel. A good phase. There are worse ones.
One of the weird things about novel-writing is how different it is from what you’d think writing a novel is like, based on the experience of reading novels. When I read a novel the overwhelming impression I get is of how easy it must have been. I mean, come on, people: it’s obvious what comes next. It’s obvious what she would say in that situation — what else could she possibly have said? Sheezus. When you’re reading, writing doesn’t feel like writing, it feels more like transcribing.
Whereas: when you’re actually doing it, when you’re writing and you’re in the thick of it, it’s totally different. It’s like taking a drug, a relatively harmless hallucinogen, say, and discovering that you’ve been burned on the deal, and it’s been cut with some violently psychoactive shit. You ricochet from divine arrogance to crippling depression, from inspired certainty to total disintegrated confusion to listless boredom. It’s not obvious what happens next; in fact at every given moment you’re violently confronted by an infinite number of possibilities for what could happen next.
And strangely, despite their being infinite in number, every single one of these possibilities is wrong. The right possibility sits outside that infinite set, glaringly obvious to other people, but somehow unfindable by you, the writer.
Fortunately you won’t remember any of this later. Afterwards, when you’ve got the finished book in your hands, all you’ll be able to think is: “My goodness I’m clever!”
That and, “Let’s do that again!”