I’ve entered a phase of novel-writing which partly resembles novel-writing and partly resembles something else—something furtive, like low-level espionage, or a secret drug addiction.
For the past two months or so I was writing full time, flat-out, or as flat-out as you can get in this age of modern distractions like Twitter and Kingdom Rush and babies-who-for-some-reason-don’t-feed-themselves. Now I’m back at work.
But when you’ve got enough momentum going with a novel, and you’ve got a bunch of deadlines for that novel that you’ve agreed to, in writing, you can’t just stop. So you don’t stop.
Instead you go dark.
For example: in the mornings I work from home for an hour or two before I go into the office. Not because there’s any particular reason for me to do that, except that by the time I hit the subway rush hour is over, which means I can probably get a seat, and if I get a seat I can crack open my MacBook Air and steal 20-25 minutes of writing time.
I’m always on the lookout for little gaps like that in my schedule: anytime I can get a block of 10 minutes or more, I take it. I write in waiting rooms. I write in cars while other people are driving (this is very boring for them, but I do it anyway). I write while pasta is boiling.
Sometimes when I’m taking care of my kids they fall asleep, or lose consciousness for other reasons. The second they do I’m at my keyboard. Ninja writer strikes! Then I go back to changing diapers.
It’s not ideal. It’s tough to keep your concentration, with your time chopped up like that. But on the plus side you tend to come at your writing from new angles, freshly, the way you would somebody else’s book. And there’s plenty of time for your subconscious to process things and toss out ideas while you’re distracted by other things. I get my best ideas 10 minutes after I’ve stopped writing and gone on to something else.
And since you’re writing in the spaces in between work, your brain automatically categorizes writing time as play. Which is as it should be.
But it means leading a bit of a double life. I don’t always feel great about it. I don’t know who said, ‘books are written with time stolen from other people’ (Paolo Bacigalupi? Anyway I heard it from him), but it’s true. I’m engaging in petty time-thievery, all day, every day.
If nothing else, it motivates you. What you’re writing had damn well better be worth it.
p.s. People sometimes ask me, don’t you make enough money off your books at this point that you can quit your day job? Answer: Yes, theoretically. But [personal stuff].
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 aid order Ambien online 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!”
This started out as a bullet point from yesterday’s post about how the new book was coming. But then I got too interested in it, and it broke free and took on a hideous life of its own.
As far as I can tell there are two kinds of fiction writers: those who read no fiction while they write, and those who constantly read fiction while they write. Let’s have cute names for them. We’ll call them Soloists and Thieves.
I’m the second kind. I can’t function as a writer unless I’m reading somebody else — somebody better than me — and stripping off parts and reverse-engineering special effects and so on as I go. Maybe I need somebody to compete with, or just somebody to remind me that things that seem impossible are in fact possible (for other people).
Maybe it’s an Oedipal thing a la Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence — I need that primal conflict with a father-in-art in order to be productive.
A more charitable friend — and fellow Thief — calls those other books “sponsor texts.” I just think of them as companions-in-arms. They fight beside you, loyally, and then when things get tough you wait till they fall asleep and then you mug them and roll them for whatever they’ve got.
I don’t understand how the Soloists do it. (more…)