Inhuman Swill : August 2010

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August 12, 2010

Novelophobia

I don't know why I've spent so much of my life being afraid to write a novel. All these years I've figured I was afraid of failing at it, that the short story was my natural form as a writer.

That was all ridiculous, and easily disproved had I stopped to think about it. Back in 1994, I wrote a 170,000-word novel in about eight weeks while I was between jobs. I holed up in my apartment and wrote eight to twelve hours a day. On my most productive day of that period, I wrote 8,500 words. The Revivalist was a huge, sprawling, shambolic, undisciplined thug of a novel, but it wasn't entirely bad. I never sold that book, but I also never did the subsequent work that was necessary to turn it into something saleable.

Clearly I didn't have a problem writing. What I had a problem with in the years that followed was getting off my ass and committing to doing the work.

Don't get me wrong. I did a lot of work in those years. I wrote a 250,000-word memoir, which through subsequent drafts I revised down to nearly half that size. I wrote and sold a bunch of short stories and a couple of novellas, but my one or two longer projects ran out of gas. I kept psyching myself out with the idea that I didn't know how to write a novel, and for the most part I kept that fear to myself.

My wonderful wife Laura forced my hand, though, by moving us to Chicago where I could be an almost full-time writer. I'd had an idea in my head for some time for a science-fiction novel about a kid who develops apparently magical powers, and one day I forced myself to just start writing it, without having worked out all the details of the world or everything that would happen along the way—things I usually like to have done before starting something. Laura's inhumanly patient encouragement and forbearance kept me going, as did a wealth of encouragement from friends and fellow writers, many of whom were setting a great example for me simply by sitting down in their chairs and writing and selling novels and expecting me to do the same.

I'm a little stunned, but on Tuesday night I typed END OF BOOK ONE at the bottom of page 805 of my novel manuscript. Endgame, in its current 175,000-word state, is a huge, sprawling, shambolic, undisciplined thug of a novel, but I have enough confidence now to believe that I can whip it into shape.

Along the way, I've finally debunked that crazy idea or fear I've had that the short story is my natural length. I can see it a little more dispassionately now for the nonsense it is. Every short story I write comes out twice as long as I expected or intended it to be. Every book I've tried to write has emerged a behemoth. My natural length is the natural length of whatever story I set out to tell, times two. I don't have to worry about not being able to write enough. I have to worry about writing too much.

I think for my next novel, which I miraculously am already itching to get started on, I'm going to cook up only enough plot for a 40,000-word novel. Then I won't be so troubled when it weighs in at 80,000 words.

The biggest fear I have now is that I'm never going to want to write another short story.

endgame | neuroses | novels | science fiction | writing

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William Shunn

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