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A Novel Approach

I’ve been a writer of some variety or another for most of my life. In school English and everything in its orbit came easily to me, and I was that annoying kid who on the first day of a new grade had read everything required by the summer reading list and then some. Never a good student generally, but I could pop out an essay or ace a word question (plague of most math students, but my panaceas) nearly without effort.

Studying English in college brought the first simmering bubbles of a thought to perhaps pursue writing professionally, but it would be quite a while yet before that urge came to a rolling boil. It was the publication of a short story in early 2012 that crystallized the real possibility of being a professional writer. Concurrently with that realization, I began work on my first novel.

It actually began as a novella, predicated on three ideas, one conceptual, one egocentric, and one that seemed at the time rational and measured, but now looks hopelessly naive. The concept: the post-apocalypse’s first novelist. The ego: most male writers are weak at writing female characters, but I was going to have a female protagonist. The naive: this was going to be easy.

Well the concept came easily enough, even expanding with far less effort than I expected (more on that at the end of this paragraph). The ego, I say in all humility, was actually right, because if you asked me now to pick my premiere novel’s greatest strength I wouldn’t hesitate in choosing my protagonist and her voice. But that third, shifting little shit of an assumption? I don’t need to tell any of you fellow novelists–at whatever stage of your own work you might be–that it was very, very wrong. In fact, the very first blow to the assumption came in light of the concept, as it became clear very quickly that there was no way this story would be told in the under 50,000 words of a novella.

Ah, but naivety was not done with me yet. “Oh,” it said, “well it’s not as if a novel will be that much harder than a novella.”

Wrong. Writing a novel can be easy, in the moment. But it’s not when writing’s easy for you that it matters, it’s when it’s hard. When you don’t want to write is when you must, otherwise you move at a sluggard’s pace, which feeds doubt in your capability to tackle the whole monumental enterprise, which in turn fuels procrastination, which slows you down, which feeds… you get the idea.

My first idea, the concept which had seemed so strong and supportive initially, now seemed at times to have grown fangs and turned on me. Every time I sat down to write it seemed like there were more ideas, and the length just kept increasing, which made the whole thing feel ever more insurmountable. It sometimes seemed as if the finish line receded further and further the faster I went. At times I flagged. There were stumbles, days when I set my laptop down with my coffee cup still half-full and warm. There were probably more hundred word days than there were two-thousand ones.  More than once I paused for weeks at a stretch, my characters stuck in a moment while my creative fields lay fallow.

Looking back on it now, though, I see how I was growing as a writer. What I took as a receding finish line was, in fact, my capabilities growing ever so gradually towards my ambition. My talent and my craft moved in tandem with my novel.

It took me a shade under three years to finish Dust. In the moment that seemed an arduous, stagnant swamp of time. With a little research I see now that it’s about average for a debut novel; one that actually gets finished, anyway.

I wrote some short stories even as I worked on the novel, including most of those featured on harpsmith.net. Yet as I went on I wrote more on Dust and less on anything else (including this blog). By the last few months all of my efforts were on the first novel, excepting those times I was slacking off to work on concept for the second one. More on that in a bit.

A while back I wrote a post here about the emotional highs and lows of writing as an artistic endeavor. What I realized as I wrote, even when I lay fallow, was that Dust had taken on a new dimension from that wonder drug sort of aspect: it had become the physical–well, electronic, but you know what I mean–embodiment of my desire to be a professional writer. When I worked hard on it it was because I had the passion, the drive it would take to make way in this notoriously tough field. When I wasn’t it was because I was weak and worthless. Most of the time I was somewhere in between, and I suspect that is, in fact, precisely where the majority of work on the majority of novels has gotten done.

Dust, this novel I have at last finished, might not be great literature. It’s certainly not bad, but I doubt it’s great. What I do know is that the next will be better. And the third? Well, that one might actually be good enough for the old noodle.

I encourage you to check out the first chapter, already posted here.. In the weeks ahead I intend to post a nice, tidy list of what I’ve learned from this first novel, and how that has affected Citadel, the upcoming second. Suffice to say, progress on that one is coming a whole lot faster and in a far more organized fashion; I’ll have a preface chapter up before you know it.

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts, and remember: words matter.

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