‘The novel is a beast that consumes its creator. A killer, ask any novelist. I would prefer to write more works, at shorter lengths. I think a lot of writers would, given the choice.’ Julian Gough, Author
With my novel still unfinished some four years after I started it, this sentiment is one I can easily relate to. Many years ago I turned to short story writing myself after two completed novels failed to find publishers. I admit that neither book was very good, but both had nevertheless consumed vast tracts of my life, and although I loved to write I just couldn’t face wrestling with a third ‘beast’.
As short stories usually amount to 5000 words or less, they are much more manageable than novels, which weigh in at around 100,000 words. There is a theme, a setting, one or two characters and a beginning, middle and end that are easy to keep track of. A novel has the theme, but multiple settings, a host of characters, and a structure that inflates and deforms and often refuses to cooperate, especially if you leave it alone for too long. But whilst there are magazines and competitions prepared to consider your short stories, if you want to have a book of your work published you’re probably going to have to write a novel.
The years I spent on short stories not only helped relegate the pain of my failed novels to a dim and distant past, they also improved my writing, and eventually I reached a point where I wanted to attempt a novel again. I was determined to be professional about it, aiming to produce 1000 words a day, pushing for 2000, but a few months and 35,000 words in, I realised that my book had morphed into something I didn’t want to write. It was veering off in a thriller/terrorist direction, which might have been good commercially if I’d been able to pull it off, but without a passion for pulling it off that wasn’t very likely. So the pain of novel-writing returned early on when I decided to delete every word and start all over again.
After that it took around two years and a compositional trek of Himalayan proportions to produce the first draft, and even then I knew I had a mountain of editing still to climb before it would resemble anything like a finished book. If only I’d come across a helpful article* on novel-writing before I started, and not afterwards, I might have been able to keep the beast under control instead of letting him run amok for all that time. Events I changed at the beginning of the book influenced those at the end and vice versa, characters repeated themselves in different chapters, their motivations altered when I hadn’t considered them for a few months, they often acted in inconsistent ways. Getting a short story under control is like taking a puppy for a walk; it can be troublesome but at least it’s small. Editing a novel feels like you’re wrestling with a T-Rex.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of experience and my next book – if there is one – won’t be so hard to handle. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d written every day for a few months, instead of putting the book aside for weeks at a time and then for more than a year. At last I’m back into it again and a quarter of the way through what seems like the first real edit. On good days I feel like I’m finally in charge of the beast. On bad days I feel like he’s having me for breakfast.