The Life Cycle Of A Novel

Were you to take a freeze frame snapshot of my current writerly existence, you would find a still image of much juggling. No, not bowling pins, chainsaws, and rat terriers but rather a flurry of writing projects — and, as it turns out, a goodly portion of those projects are in fact novels.

BLACKBIRDS is at the publisher. I just finished the first draft of something with a codename POPCORN. I’m in the midst of doing a final editing pass on DOUBLE DEAD. I’ve got word count down on MOCKINGBIRD. I’ve got a bucket of notes on a little something-something called THE BLUE BLAZES. I’ve got the first novella in my Atlanta Burns series done with the second in the conception phase.

All this fails to mention the dozen-plus novels existing across various outlines and synopses.

Fuck turtles.

It’s novels, all the way down.

And so I thought, for those of you looking to write novels, that this was a good place to pause and have a look around. Let us gander at the wondrous miracle that is the birth and life of the common novel.

1. Crash Of Cymbals

An idea falls from the sky. A burning nugget of possibility tumbling out of the bleak black nowhere like a meteor. It slams into your brain. “A goblin love story! Wacky hijinks with two space detectives! The presidential campaign and political ambitions of the common Corsican nuthatch!” The idea blooms swift, like a rose in super-fast-forward. “This will be my opus,” you think. “A big advance. Book awards. Respect.”

2. Sinister Plotting

You plot and scheme to whatever level grants you solace. Maybe you write a 400-page “story bible” for a 350-page novel, a treatment so thick you could bludgeon a Cape buffalo with its weight. Maybe you just write a single index card in thick black Sharpie featuring some cryptic phrase that only makes sense to you as the storyteller: “CHRISTMAS SKELETON FAILS THE LSAT.” Hell, maybe it’s all in your head.

3. The Cold Vacuum Of Space

The blank page. Tabula rasa. Endless possibility. A million-billion ways to jump with the first sentence, first paragraph, first page. A finger hovers over the keyboard; it swiftly retracts as if stung. No. Yes? No. It’s like standing on the wing of an airplane in mid-flight. The wind. The empty air.

4. Hyperventilating

Panic attack. “Oh, Christ, I can’t do this. What do I do? The first page has to grab them. It has to grab them by pubes and perineum. The first sentence alone has to fucking sing. I don’t know what to do. What to say. I can’t feel my legs. Am I dying? Is it hot in here? Cold? My lips are numb. I can feel my teeth. Is this a palsy? Did I have a stroke? OH GOD WHAT IF I FUCK THIS PAGE UP.” Cue lots of sobbing and twitching.

5. The Eagle Has Landed

Swift is the realization that the first page doesn’t have to be perfect; it merely has to be functional. And suddenly, it’s like uncorking a bottle. A bottle which contained a rambunctious demon. Time to write.

6. The Tango Of Mirth And Shame

Day by day, a roller coaster. A whirling dance. Some days it’s 4,000 words that unmoors from your heart and soul the way a glacial shelf will suddenly shudder, crack and fall. Other days you barely carve off 1,000 words, and each word feels like a tooth ripped from the jaws of a snarling poodle/alligator hybrid (new on SyFy, THE GATORDOODLE). Some days you’re high on your own stink, huffing your word-fumes in a brown paper bag. Other days all you get is a swirling hate vortex living in the space between your heart and your gut, threatening to eat both. On Tuesday you’re king of the castle. On Wednesday you’re a fraud and a fool who will be found out. This way, that way, this way, that way…

7. Lost In The Woods

Late middle of the book. Everything’s come undone. You feel unfettered. You’re a lone pair of underpants hanging on the line, flapping in the wind. Where to go next? Does any of this make sense? It’s all coming apart. You’ve no sense of things. No grasp of placement. The character seem like strangers. The plot seems foolish. You can’t find the thread, can’t see the throughline. Is this a swamp? Where are your pants?

8. The Nattering Of Goblins And Crows

A chorus of goblins and their crow-faced consorts stand just behind you, whispering new ideas in your ear. They smell your confusion. “Don’t write that,” they say. “Write this.” And they parade before you a cackling Conga line of shiny new novels. It’s a ruse. A trap. They’re the sirens drawing you away from your current work and toward the crushing rocks of ruined productivity.

9. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy

You see the light. You find the path. You karate-kick the sirens in the face, stab the goblins, shoo their crows — you’ve found your way. Possibility and potential once more reveal themselves. Churn forward.

10. The Water Breaks, The Baby Is Coming

Writing the ending is you, duct-taped to a mining cart as it speeds down through the underdark, faster, faster, you can’t stop it now if you wanted to, it is what it is, the ending shall be what the ending shall be, you’ve lined up all the dominoes, they fall as they must, the hand-brake is broken, you emerge. The ending is written. The manuscript broadcasts its inchoate existence to the world.

11. Bliss

Oh my God. It’s done. It’s done. Ha ha! Ha ha ha! HA HA HA HA HA! Eeeee! Woo!

12. Ennui

Oh my God. It’s… it’s not done. Is it? This was just the first lap. It’s all uphill from here. Oh. Oh, no.

13. Overwhelming Dread

The realization hits like a nail from a nail gun: you’ve got a lot more work to do. The boulder must be pushed up the rock again. And again. And again. Your book is a boat anchor whose chain is wrapped around your ankle. It weighs you down. It’s a brick. A bludgeoning brick. Bricks and boat anchors and boulders, oh my. Dread assails you. Fatigue nibbles at your marrow like an army of tiny chipmunks.

14. Exile

Fuck that novel, you say. You piss on it and shove it in a drawer. You can’t stand to look at it anymore lest you kneel and sing a technicolor hymn to the porcelain god. Fuck that novel right in its wordhole.

15. Wake Up In Tijuana And Realize It’s Time To Go Home

It’s been weeks. Maybe months. You’ve been whoring it up with short stories, blog posts, social media, Facebook games, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, a fifth of vodka, and a drilldo named “Mister Sprinkles.” You stumble back into the house, and there it is. It’s escaped the drawer. The pee stains have dried to a crisp sepia crinkle. You pick it up. You reconcile. Your exile is complete.

16. Second Draft

You’ve got a meat cleaver, a micro-torch, and a jar full of maggots hungry to eat dead flesh. The second draft commences. Repeat after me: to fix something, I must first break it.

17. Third Draft

The third draft is there to fix the mistakes of the second. The second draft went the wrong way. Somehow the second draft just fucked things up worse. You walked the maze again and this time the minotaur didn’t just eat you, he sat you down for a long talk about a time-share. Then he made you do his taxes. Then he made love to you. Then he killed you. The third draft now has to walk the maze again. Beware of minotaurs.

18. Seventh-Fifth Draft

OH MY GOD SO MANY DRAFTS. You didn’t know writing a novel might need this much tweaking. What the novel is now looks nothing like what the novel was then. Same characters, same idea, same story. Roughly. But so much else is different. Every pass a new tweak. Writing, plot, theme, plot, new character, plot, writing. Dizzy-making. Still. By the end, you stand atop the hill next to the boulder. You suddenly realize: it didn’t roll down this time. You made it to the top. You and your boulder friend. From Sisyphean to Herculean. From impossible to improbable. From victim to hero. Holy fucking shit.

19. The Reader’s Report

Don’t get too excited. The reader has to weigh in. Maybe more than one reader. Stuff you were sure worked didn’t. Stuff you were sure didn’t work did. Up is down. Cat is dog. CRAP MORE DRAFTS.

20. The Editor’s Cocked Eyebrow

Don’t put that rage boner back in your pants. Because now a proper editor is going to look at it. Someone with a real critical eye. Someone who knows things the readers don’t. Someone who’s done this before. This is the forensics pass. Where the editors shines a UV light over the whole of the manuscript and shows you all the hidden blood spots, jizz drops, and other uninvited fluids.

21. Draft #3000

You’ve run the gauntlet. You’ve carried the novel through a hundred doorways ringed with fire. The work has been forged and reforged. Purified and refined. It is as good as you can make it. It is time.

22. The Novel Goes Off To War

Go forth, little novel. Duct taped to the novel are all your hopes and dreams. The novel flies far and wide. Agents big and small. Publishers big and small. Or maybe you do it yourself — get the cover together, format the book, and send the book to one of the many e-book marketplaces. The book must dance for its dinner, sing for its supper, suck dick for its dessert.

23. The Passing Of One Geologic Epoch

Nothing moves fast. Takes forever to hear back from an agent, then hear back from a publisher. These are books. Not Chicken McNuggets. It takes time to write them, and it also takes time to digest them. Even putting the book “out there” yourself isn’t fast. And the response isn’t overnight. Everything is slow. It is the forming of stalagmites and stalactites — one mineral drip at a time. A game of inches.

24. Conquest Or Castigation

YAY! You got published! Or BOO, you didn’t. Or maybe you got published and didn’t sell. Or maybe you got an agent but no publication. Or maybe you’re a bestselling author with a Rolls Royce literally cobbled together from rare first edition novels. You came and conquered, or you arrived and were promptly crushed by Hannibal’s elephants. Or you fell somewhere in the middle, in the hoary zone of the midlist. Or maybe you’re almost there, if only you’ll do three or four (thousand) more drafts…

25. Reflection

You look back over the last seventeen years — the length of time it took to get all this done — and ask yourself, was it worth it? Was it really truly worth it? Will you ever do this again? You can think you won’t. But you will. Of course you will. This is who you are. This is what you do. You couldn’t stop if you wanted to. You are writer. So get back to work, will you? This life cycle won’t live itself.

* * *

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31 comments

  • This is all nonsense. When I finally deign to write my novel, all will go smoothy and the first draft will be perfect. I will sell 14 billion copies without needing to do any marketing because it will be so amazing it will sell itself. And I will be instantly rich and famous. You must just be a rubbish writer, to have to much trouble.

  • I love how by the time I finish every one of your posts on the writing game, I feel pumped and motivated “LET”S DO THIS!”

    But I have to admit, it’s this life cycle is what’s keeping me from really getting to work. Since I already know it’s going to be hell, I’m still dancing back and forth between “Exile” and “Second Draft”.

    It’s when I see all that you’re doing, that you’ve done that I realize…what the hell am I doing?!

    Time to get to work. Thank you!

  • Wow… just… wow. Here I am, my rambunctious demon comatose at the wheel as the last 20,000 words await and you Chuck, you, are working not on one novel but four, with a fifth at the publishers… I am humble in your writing shadow.

    One question: how do you do it all? Specifically how do the pixies of “look at the shiny new idea” not stop you working on the older novels when you’re writing a new one. I have fought with those pixies, there has been blood and I’ve stuck it out with my current novel. But they tempt me. Oh, how they tempt me. But I’d love to learn how to work on more than one novel at once – I’d get so much more done!

    Any and all pearls/boulders of wisdom will be mucho appreciated.

  • Yeah, that’s pretty much a blow-by-blow account of my first novel’s progress – except that I’m still in the middle of Step 24, waiting for my magnificent octopus to be published to wild applause. Or cat-calls. Your guess is as good as mine. (Hopefully a bit of both, tbh. If I haven’t offended someone, I’m not trying hard enough.)

    Book Two is still on Step 7/8 – the goblins are starting to natter about the deadline for the synopsis of Book Three, but so far I’ve fended them off with promises that they’ll get my undivided attention in October. Roll on Step 9/10, because nothing beats that buzz. Except maybe hard drugs, or so I’m told. BTFO!

  • I have a friend who is stuck at #14. I’m going to have to forward this on to her to show her she is not alone.

    Also, I’d love send you my rat terrier for juggling, though it might be less dangerous for you to stick to the bowling pins and chainsaws.

  • “Some days you’re high on your own stink, huffing your word-fumes in a brown paper bag. Other days all you get is a swirling hate vortex living in the space between your heart and your gut, threatening to eat both.”

    YES. Sweet fancy java beans (NOT fava beans), YES. That is a feeling I know all too well. Great post.

  • I am the personification of step 8. I am the master of the half-assed and half-finished. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and have a good old chuckle, for they mostly tail off around the 10,000 word mark when a shiny thing fluttered through my head and dragged me away to make my brain its lovemonkey…

    feh…

  • Gatordoodles are seriously the worst.

    Where’s the step in which you lie awake in the dry, cracked darkness as all the half-formed characters and stunted plot turns leap around you, gibbering ridicule and endless taunts? I get stuck on that one a lot.

  • Great post! Like many others, I’m stuck around point 8, between at least 2 novels, with many more stories and etc. etc. on the go. Time to get the ass into gear: it’s been a long time since I had a date with a Minotaur.

  • I’m in-between step 8 and 9 in one novel and at step 20 in another. This is so true to what I went through I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.

  • I’m at stage 17 tempted to continue 14 and cowered by 4.

    That means my primary project is on page one of its third draft, but it has been in exile a few months now because I hyperventilate when I look at it.

  • 75th draft? Skirt.

    For my 2nd novel, I created a synopsis, character outline and chapter outline. While I don’t delude myself that I’ll probably flush the whole first draft, I feel more confident going in. At least this time I have a smudgy sketch of where the story could go.

    Step 3 – 5: This is the best part since I know the first draft will be a horrific mess. Knowing this, I’ve decided to write only in notepad so I don’t have to be intimidated by red squigly lines and all those interruptions Word throws at you.

    Also, before I begin will make a loud HAAAIIEEE like out of a Kung Fu flick. Off to work HAAAIEEEE!!!!!

  • … What does it say that I am splintered between SEVERAL of the middle items on this list? Am I distracted? Am I progressing? What the hell am I doing? Does this look infected to you? Where’s the half and half? Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?

  • Wow, between this post and yesterday’s awesome Secret Menu of Writing Advice this is shaking up to be my favorite week ever on website. I always love seeing the actual details of the mindnumbing work of writing that never really gets talked about. Keep up the good work man.
    Beard the fuck on.

  • ACK!

    I paused to read my regular blogs while procrastinating between draft 2 and draft 3. Literally.

    ZOUNDS! Thy wisdom hast caught me out!

    I shall now retreat to my editing, whimpering only slightly.

  • I don’t know what you’re talking about. What is this “draft” bullshit? It’s all about the artistic endeavor, the flowing of melted muse butter onto the gilt edged page.

    I wrote my novel on the back of a whore’s panties in red lipstick and sent it to my publisher the next day, whore’s butt and all.

    That’s how you do it, bucko.

  • I would like to rename #7 the “Mid-book Crisis.”

    Which with my current project is where I am right now. At least I’ve shaken off all (ok, MOST, don’t judge me) of those other shiny ideas.

  • ‘You’re a lone pair of underpants hanging on the line, flapping in the wind.’

    I could love you forever just for that line. I’m just crawling out of that stage with the current opus. (Can you crawl out of a pair of line-hanging underpants?)

    And I want to know what a drilldo is but I’m scared to look it up…

  • My new baby is at #5. (With a constant stream of more ideas and further note scribbling. It’s my happy marriage of plotter and pantser in one brain.)

    I love this part.

    My *other* book…the one that’s done and doesn’t wholly suck…that one is out to agents (for the second time after that shit in June) and editors for various forms of validation. Crash and burn or ego strokery will ensue.

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