On failing to write a novel for twenty years

Whenever I finish a manuscript, I have it printed and bound and add it to the pile beside my desk.

There are four novels there now, in various states of completeness.

I’ve been thinking recently about how they got there. Because, for as long as I can remember I’ve been writing, and for probably the past twenty years I’ve been wanting to write a novel, and up until a few years ago I would have said I just couldn’t do it.

For most of my life I have written short stories, poems, essays, letters, diary entries, fragments, scenes, chapters, chunks. I have written endlessly but been unable to write the thing I most wanted to; the thing I, as a reader, love most deeply.

Obviously, something changed.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it was that helped me go from wanting and trying, to being able to write a novel. This is partly for my own curiosity, but also out of hope that it might be helpful for people who find themselves similarly stuck.

Maybe something in my experience will save you a decade or two of effort.

Write lots and read lots

This is commonly given and unquestionably valuable advice to any wannabe author.

I have read a literal mountain of books, across almost every genre, waded deep into difficult literary works, rejoiced at classics.

I have written reams.

But for me, this wasn’t enough.

And given how much I have read and written, I didn’t understand how I could fail so completely whenever I tried to write a novel.

For a long time, that’s where it stopped. I read and wrote and read and wrote and I’m so glad that I did, but on its own it didn’t get me to where I wanted to be as a writer.

Learn the craft

The turning point for me was when I began actively and analytically learning about the craft of writing. And more specifically about story structure.

I took a course that focused on using classic structure to write a novel. I’ve forgotten most of the detail we learned now, but something in it stuck.

I learned to write scenes in which things happened – characters changed, and the story began to move. I learned to string scenes together in a coherent way to develop the story. I learned to follow the internal and external arc of my main character – as they struggled against obstacles in the world and in themselves in an attempt to reach a new state or place.

I tried it the way I was taught and then threw that structure away, let myself write freely, without being consciously bound to it. And for the first time, the story found its momentum; for the first time, I felt like I was beginning to understand how it was done.

Finding community

For many years, I pottered away at writing on my own. I did it in secret, because I was scared I would fail. And I did fail: nothing I wrote would stick. It would always seem to fade away and fizzle into nothing.

Certainly, one of the barriers to building my skills and learning to write a novel was fear – fear of it being awful, fear that my ideas weren’t good enough, fear of people hating what I did. I doubted the stories I wanted to tell and let the doubt stop me, every time.

Finding a community of writers has been a powerful antidote to fear, and had given me a sense of belonging and comradeship in what is often a most lonely endeavour.

In 2012, I threw myself into Nanowrimo. I found bunch of wonderful people who I still occasionally catch up with, and then in time built online support networks too. These are the people who sustain me through the long haul that is writing a novel. Having a tribe of writers in my life has helped me endlessly with the daily grind of sitting down and putting words on the page.

As much as I dream of a hermit’s life with no distractions and no interruptions, I don’t know that I could do this on my own.

Purpose

Two things transformed my ‘wanting to’ write a novel into a laser-sharp sense of purpose (that sometimes even scares me a little).

The first came from profound loss. After years of trying, I fell pregnant and then miscarried. The miscarriage was made harder by hospital fuck-ups that meant I had basically no medical care. I was on my own and it was unimaginably awful. From the darkness of that experience I emerged with a profound belief that, whatever else happened in my life, I was meant to write.

And I did.

Then, a few years later, facing the prospect of turning 40 and the sense of the years slipping by, I was determined that I would properly finish one of the things I had written, that I thought were broken beyond fixing. I decided I would finish it to the extent that I could send it off to publishers.

I worked hard. I faced the terror of giving my work to beta readers. I discovered the immense benefit of receiving honest and constructive feedback. I reworked it and reworked it and edited it and dreamed about it and eventually it was done.

And once I’d done that, I realised that some of the other things that I’d put in my drawer with a covering letter saying “IN CASE OF MY DEATH, BURN THIS SHIT” were actually worth taking another look at too.

It came as a surprise, in a way. I discovered that the novels I’d dreamed about for so many years had snuck up on me, after many, many, many hours of patient work, and lots of despair. There they were, waiting for me to face their brutal imperfection and do the hard work of rewriting and editing.

I keep them right next to me, on my desk, to remind myself it can be done. To remind myself that I can do it, because I still seem to forget, every time.

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