10 Jan 2023

In the latest issue of Robin Sloan’s newsletter, he points to a page on the website of writer Marcin Wichary, titled ‘My Book and What It Means to Me’, of which Sloan writes:

it’s both a beautiful reflection and a compelling invitation, and it’s got me wondering if perhaps every author ought to produce a page of this kind.

That proved to be the nudge I needed to write about something I’ve not discussed here before, and which those of you reading, whom I don’t know IRL, may not know. Back in 2018 — at the age of 37 — I finally achieved something that had been a goal of mine for pretty much as long as I can remember: I completed the first draft of a novel.

I have wanted to be ‘a writer’ since childhood. And, whilst my relationship to that concept, that label, and that practice, has complicated over the decades, I still count writing amongst my few ambitions1.

I am fascinated by writing as an activity, a state of mind, and a mode of thought; in my experience, nothing is quite like it. No practice is more clarifying than sitting down to write out one’s thoughts on a subject (as I am doing right now). Amongst other things, it forces you into an assessment of each statement’s veracity, and allows you to build a path of sense-making, stone-by-stone, at the same time as walking it.

I can also say honestly that there is almost nothing in the world that I love more than stories. Just this Christmas, my father recalled asking me when I was eight years old, why — in my otherwise fastidiously neat room2 — there were more than half a dozen books littering the windowsill. The reply he received — “Those are the ones I’m reading at the moment” — baffled him, but makes sense to me even now, as someone who has openly confessed my struggles with literary monogamy. Books, film, television, theatre, video games — I have an abiding love of each form, and I’ll happily witter on about poetics, or cinematography, or ludonarrative dissonance at the drop of a hat. But, the deepest-set hook that each of these artistic forms has in me, is that of narrative. I will let slide uninspiring direction, endure poor acting, and wade through all manner of lacklustre gameplay if you have a good story to tell me. Stories, stories, stories. I cannot get enough of them, and I am unashamedly omnivorous about where I get them. I have taken as much pleasure in this regard from films starring Elvis Presley, as I have from some productions of Shakespeare.

All of which has informed a lifelong desire to make a contribution of my own to the great collective pool of stories. That feeling, at the end of 2018, of reaching completion on a draft of a novel, is something I won’t soon forget. I have lost count of the number of my abortive previous attempts: projects that failed as early as the outlining stage, and as late as being half written. One of the things I felt when I completed that first draft, was relief at how much that successful project had pulled from those that had flickered out before it. A good number of ideas, characters, and plot threads, surprised me by surviving the early demise of the stories that had been their genesis — reappearing, to my delight, as I progressed with the draft that was ultimately to succeed.

And I use the words ‘succeed’ and ‘successful’ advisedly above. To my mind, the fact that that story was taken from start to finish, and exists in a fully readable form, is a success. Shortly after completing that first draft, I made an EPUB version, and gave it to six people, all of whom were kind enough to read it, and offer a few notes. But that, as the saying goes, was that.

In his excellent craft memoir On Writing (2000), Stephen King recommends that, after completing a first draft, the writer puts the manuscript in a drawer for a few months, so as to return to it with relatively fresh eyes when undertaking a second draft. To the best of my recollection, that was my intention in 2019, when I took those notes from early readers. But the months stretched on until they became years. And in that time, though I’ve not done much more than peek at the document myself3, the problems with that first draft multiplied and metastasised in my mind to the point that even the idea of wading back in to try and fix them, felt increasingly daunting, and perhaps futile. Overmatched by the problem, I did not touch the novel in 2019, 2020, 2021, or 20224. That’s a lot longer than Mr. King recommends, and I am almost certain that if I were to return to it now, I would be doing so not only with fresh eyes, but with a relatively consistent sense of surprise — for better or worse — at what I had put on the page.

And I’ve resolved to do just that. Following a four year fallow period, I’m going to sharpen my pencil once more, and venture back in to the world of the novel, to see what needs to be done. I anticipate a great many cobwebs, some pretty gnarly, overgrown vines, and perhaps even a partial collapse of architecture I had once considered sturdy. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on at this juncture, however, my anxiety over the presumed scale of the task has (largely) given way to something like intrigue. I’m genuinely interested to know what I’ll find when I pry the lid off this well, and climb down inside.

Let me be clear from the outset: I have no illusions around this novel getting published. I also have no intention of self-publishing it — at least not through what have become the mainstream channels for such pursuits. In truth, I don’t yet know what form the outcome of this work might assume. My sole aims at this stage are, first: to bring this story closer to what I consider its finished form; and, second: to make it available for more people to read.

It would be my pleasure if you’d tag along with me whilst I hack at the vines. I’ll post updates here when I have progress to share. Wish me luck!

  1. Lack of ambition is perhaps a topic for another time, but know that I have never wanted to climb Everest, go to space, or make a six-figure salary. I hold only a small clutch of aspirations, and perhaps the most long-standing amongst them is the idea of being ‘a writer’.  ↩︎

  2. Some elements of our natures reveal themselves early!  ↩︎

  3. I’ve certainly not re-read it!  ↩︎

  4. Save for one — quite meaningful — exception, which we may discuss here in the future.  ↩︎