Aspirations to write a novel aren’t unusual. In fact, teenaged females are particularly vulnerable to such hankerings. It has yet to be determined whether or not many of these hopeful writers even begin, and it’s quite uncertain whether more than a handful ever finish.
So when I decided to take the step, a good two and a half years ago, I imagined first of all that it would be a fabulous book if only I could finish it. And all that I had to do was force myself to write.
Outlining? Outlining is for wimps. First and foremost, I wanted to get things going, to start the actual process, to meet my characters. That was my first mistake.
After due deliberation, I decided on the novel I would write: a Cold War espionage adventure/mystery based on the U-2 crash over Russian territory in 1960. I named the main character after my cat. That was my second mistake.
It just so happens that historical novels also require research. Research is hard.
I found myself searching for everything from glove etiquette to 1963 CIA budget information. My internet search history could have been either that of a murderer or an author: how long does it take for a person to bleed to death from a gunshot wound to the shoulder? How did Soviets torture people? What lethal poisons are best disguised in alcohol?
Writing a novel alters your mental state, it’s safe to say. Strange things start happening. Even when you’re working on it by yourself, you start saying things like “we’re planning on making the fifteenth chapter the showdown” or “our story is …”
As it turns out, products of your imagination blend with your mind. The story makes you a stronger person, if less of a sane one. You don’t always learn to solve problems, but you do learn how to create them.
Unfortunately, you also learn interesting ways to get rid of people. You learn how to destroy everything that is dear and good to your main character, to leave him in a situation so bleak there appears to be no way out.
The events of a good adventure novel ought to leave the main character, reader, and author with lasting emotional scars. Otherwise it probably isn’t worth reading.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how most authors become insane.
I discovered early on that if you’re totally confident in your storytelling capabilities, you most likely shouldn’t be. Approaching a novel or a story with humility is the first step in learning to identify weak spots and lousy characters. You’ll probably develop some sort of an inferiority complex when it comes to creative writing; and the worst part is, the writing is so bad at first that it isn’t a complex, it’s legitimate embarrassment.
Despite computer crashes, the loss of an important notebook, and several bouts of intense hopelessness, I finished the story. Now I hate it and never want to speak to it again. After talking to a few other writers, I learned that this too is normal.
To be a writer, you write. In a way, I was right that finishing a story would mean “fabulousness.”
Your first essay wasn’t perfect; your first sentence wasn’t either. Most first novels are the stuff of nightmares, and not because they’re horror stories. Communicating, storytelling, and writing all get better with practice.
And now: on to the second novel. Some of us are just gluttons for punishment. It probably has something to do with our brilliant insanity.