Fragments of a frozen dream

Get over your novel's imperfections and get it done.

Image source: VinnyCiro - / License: CC0 Public Domain

No matter what method we use to make peace with our uncertainty, no matter how much backup we have, sooner or later we’ve got to pull the trigger. Otherwise, the characters we’ve created, their world, their struggles and yes, their love will never be enjoyed by anyone but ourselves.

It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and I’m staring at a computer screen glowing in the predawn darkness. Outside, the wind chill is hovering around -25 C, -13 F or freaking c-c-cold by universal stick-your-frozen-nose-out-the-door measure.

I’d like to say that I woke in the dead of a deep winter’s night out of a sense of duty, an urgent need to race to my keyboard and hammer out a few more tidbits of carefully-considered narrative. But I’m a writer, and we writers are a little more scattered in terms of routine, or determination for that matter. No, there’s a much more mundane reason for why I’m here so early.

The fire alarm went off in our building.

When it happened an hour ago, I knocked on my son’s door and we hauled on our clothes. I grabbed my laptop (we could be having a nuclear war and I would still save my work) and we decided “what the hell, might as well get breakfast”. We drove to McDonalds.

The fire trucks were gone by the time we got back. A false alarm, as usual. We came in the front door, sucking in our first warm breath in half an hour, and headed for the elevators. The building super shuffled by, clad in pyjamas and bed-head, muttering unintelligible curses under his breath. Back at the apartment, I peeled off my traditional Canadian garb – nine layers, gloves, a twenty-year-old toque and mismatched wool socks. My son, the sane one, tossed his breakfast burritos into the fridge and went back to bed.

Mornings like this are the variation on a theme for most writers. Mired in the silliness of everyday routine, we labor to create something extraordinary, a collection of words that we hope will transport a reader from the chores and the commutes and the angry bosses and the bills that need to be paid, to a world that moves them.

We write just about anywhere. From the corner of some little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop to the bus to the kitchen table, we carve a few moments from the day, whenever we get the chance. I myself have written a lot of stuff while on break at my day job, seated at a desk perched on the edge of a loading dock amid the din of forklifts, whistling doorbells and the rumble-snap of paper tape machines.

That’s how you write a novel. You find inspiration wherever it happens to be, one moment at a time. If you’re following Jack London’s advice, you’ll be going after it with a club. You capture fragments of thought, dialogue or description, stitch them together and pray that someday you’ll be left with a seamless story.

I’ve been doing this for two and a half years. As of this morning, my little Scrivener stat meter tells me that the manuscript is 123,866 words long. In the process of producing that manuscript, I’ve written at least double that word count and cut over half. This is typical, especially for a pantser working on his first novel, but I have to keep reminding myself that sooner or later, I’ve got to publish this thing.

There are authors who produce book number one after eight years and fourteen drafts. Some take longer. That’s still okay, because sooner or later, they publish the thing. If that statement seems self-evident, consider that for every writer who successfully shepherds a story to the bookshelf or the Amazon listing, there are roughly twenty who spend twenty years of tinkering before they fall by the wayside. Or, they give up after the first draft. Or they waste a good idea and never write the first draft in the first place.

Yeah, I know – there are a lot of authors who don’t put much credence in the idea that talent is an acquired skill. Those misguided individuals are a lost cause. But when the newbies really go for it, but fail anyway, the reason is almost always fear and uncertainty. We’re faking this thing, people. We really don’t know what we’re doing. And for every day that the writing goes well, there are a dozen more where the fight for every syllable is a pitched battle in the trenches of literary warfare.

Listen to me, I sound so profound. Ten bucks says that last sentence earns me entry to the Metaphorical Devices Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, it goes nowhere in proving that I’ll make it as an author. I rest my case.

Writing is solitary. We labor in a vacuum, and the occasional feedback from a critique group can be discouraging, mostly because of the human tendency to focus on the negative. Some authors, like yours truly, can’t afford the services of a professional editor, so we rely on what Stephen King referred to as “letting the dough rise”. That is, taking the work as far as we can go, then putting it aside for a couple of months so that we can erase our brain’s built-in auto-correct and discover it as a new reader.

Writing is a risky business, and it’s not just because the book might not sell. We need a thick skin. We pour our hearts into our work, and when we send it into the Indigo-colored universe, we leave it exposed to fierce criticism. Or outright ridicule. Or the worst of them all – The Shoulder Shrug of Death.

Writing involves the artistic mind, something that can work against new authors, because if they’re good, they’ll be hobbled by the one characteristic shared by every artist regardless of the medium – perfectionism. In a former role, I corresponded with many digital artists, mostly in Japan and other parts of East Asia. Not one of them could say that they were completely happy with their work, even after it was done and posted. Writers are like that too. Some published authors can’t stand to open a finished copy of their book because they cringe at all the things they could have/would have/should have done, if they had only been given another year or ten to work on it.

Writing involves a lot of self-criticism. That can be a good thing, since we are our own most vital critic. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll be driven to improve our craft. Like any artistic endeavor, the more practice we have, the better we get. But a review of work done in the past leads to the inevitable face-palm and a lot of soul-searching: What the hell was I thinking? Maybe I’m not a such good writer after all.

Perfectionism is good, but not if it leads to paralysis. Looking back can only be helpful if it gives us a sense of accomplishment over the stepping stones we have crossed to get where we are today. If it means shoving our current project into a drawer, it’s probably better to just look ahead to the writer we want to be.

We want to know in advance if our story is to be well-received. We want our readers to love us. So, we peer into the future, pursuing feedback from groups, partners, beta readers and editors. But, no matter what method we use to make peace with our uncertainty, no matter how much backup we have, sooner or later we’ve got to pull the trigger. Otherwise, the characters we’ve created, their world, their struggles and yes, their love will never be enjoyed by anyone but ourselves.

I know that the odds of success are slim. But most of us didn’t become authors for the money or the fame. We did it because we had a story to tell, and because we just couldn’t picture ourselves not writing.

A published novel can be a dream as frozen as the morning air, or it can be a reality. It all depends on intention and execution. If you’re a novelist hovering at one of those many moments of choice, don’t give up. Have fun with your characters. Keep shaping the world you’ve created, find your fragments, stitch them together, make your story shine, and when you’ve done all that you can – publish the damn thing. If you hesitate for too long, you’re doing a disservice to your readers, and to yourself.