It’s a melodramatic scene lifted straight from a literary version of an AA meeting. And it’s been jangling around in my head for some time.
A dozen or so institutional-grey metal chairs are positioned strategically in a ‘covered wagons’ style semi-circle. While clearing their throats and taking in a series of quick breaths, one by one each occupant of the chairs first stands, introduces themselves and then utters the most dreaded, god-awful phrase they prayed they’d never hear themselves say – “I’m a writer… but I’m never going to write a novel”.
Does it even need saying the undisputed Holy Grail of the literary world is without doubt the long-form novel? This Everest of words, this most prized version of narrative nirvana is the benchmark for success for writers world wide. And it’s been that way since at least as far back as the 18th century.
Yet sadly I will never know the triumph of this unique form of extended self-torture. For now all eyes have come to rest expectantly on the one person in their grey metal chair yet to rise. That person is me. Mustering every morsel of mouse-courage I have, I stand, blink rapidly for a few seconds and then hear myself say in a low but surprisingly calm voice – “My name is Glen Donaldson and I am never going to write a novel”.
AND HERE’S WHY…
Not counting life itself, I’m not known for my participation in ultra-marathon events.
As much as I love words – and it’s taken me some time to realize this – what I love more is ideas. The shiny, unclouded purity of ideas – especially the good ones – before they’re translated into mere words – is for me where the real magic lies.
Whether those ideas come from the field of medicine, philosophy, aeronautics, sport, the construction industry – it matters not. But good and even great ideas alone, as any writer will tell you, don’t necessarily make, or in most cases, come even close to making a worth-ploughing through novel.
File this one under ‘C’ for consideration if you like. I have more respect for other people’s time than to try to foist my at best mediocre hobby writing on them in a gargantuan, read-a-thon-sized dose.
Last time I attempted that – with a mere peanut-sized short story – sent in the general direction of a couple of my nearest and dearest (should have known better!) I got something close to the following response…
The number of self-published books released annually topped the one million mark back in 2017. Each year that has followed, another at least one million ‘amateur’ offerings – each one no doubt representing some budding author’s much-sweated over and loved literary pride and joy – have hit a market that, thirty years back, would have been labelled ‘super-soaked’.
In other words, every man and his dog, cat and frill-fested canary not only firmly believes they have a book in them but is now actually going ahead and writing that book. To go through the effort of grinding out 80 000 words with the lofty ambition of actually entertaining other human beings, I would want to be rewarded with no less than the keys to the city.
Throw in a couple of boast-worthy accolades like a TIME magazine cover or two and … let’s dream big here… a six figure cash advance, and I might actually begin thinking all the toil and agony and hand-wringing it would take to produce that number of artistically sculpted words might be worth it.
But to embark on an intrepid word journey of this mind-frying magnitude only to be greeted at the end of it all with just a handful of obligatory family and friends cheers and slaps on the back, deafening silence from anyone else and a mere 250 digital copies sold (that’s the average number of sales IN ITS LIFETIME for a self-published, digital only book) – is simply – ‘in my book’ not worth the effort – not to mention the self-abuse and self-delusion it would take to pull that feat off.
Three little words – one big problem: SAGGING MIDDLE SYNDROME. Let’s take the last novel I read as an example. THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman was published in 2020. The first 80 pages of that story are possibly among the most perfectly manicured, witty and polished prose I have ever had the good fortune to read. And then I hit the sagging middle – all 50 000 words of it.
Result? That story and I parted ways long before the final chapter. Do I really want to inflict my sagging middle, and for that matter probably sagging beginning and end as well, on unsuspecting punters? Some people would call that being considerate.
Rather controversially I’ve now reached the conclusion that gifted writers are born not made. I can train and train until I’m sleep-deprived and I will NEVER EVER make it as an Olympic runner. I simply do not have that within me.
Likewise with writing. There are whole galaxies of on-line courses, books and personal writing mentors happy to try to convince me they can turn me into a better writer. And, in one sense, they’re all probably write…er, right.
Thing is that degree of ‘better’ is still not going to be anywhere near good enough – no matter how much money I hand over or how long I stick at it – to write something of a sustained length like a fully-blown novel that will actually do what it sets out to do – entertain the socks off people.
Which leads me to my next point…
Via ‘duty reads’, I’ve trudged through at least a couple of full length novels over the years written by hobby writers. While I admired the tenacity of those people to pen that many words, as a reading experience they were – how to put it? – carob-coated to say the least. And I have zero reason to think I could do any better.
I’m acquainted with a person who wrote a god-awful heaving mass of black and white pudding he deemed a novel (it’s ok, I know this person doesn’t read this blog) only to have the good sense to realize he should stop after the one go at it.
That person has since turned their attention to short story writing and morphed themselves into a short-story writing teacher. Make of that what you will.
And speaking of short stories, let’s consider for a moment the harsh-reality, unforgiving maths. The time and effort it would take someone the likes of me to amass 80 000 words for a novel – would be far more pleasurably spent producing 80 separate, one-thousand-word short stories. And that’s something I know I could do.
For someone with as short attention span as mine to be stuck with the same characters and scenarios for a full one to two years – the time it would take to write such a monstrosity from start to finish – is an excruciating, pain-ridden thought.
Stephen King said it best in ON WRITING (2000) – “The feel of the new – nothing beats it”. I recognise I derive far too much enjoyment from that feeling of wrapping up a project and moving on to the next one to get bogged down with the same story going round and round in my head for months and years.
If I look at my own reading tastes, I’m a non-fiction guy head to toe. For every novel I’ve made a start on (note I stop short of actually committing to using the word ‘read’) I’ve devoured 30 non-fiction works – biographies, memoirs, true accounts of war-time battles etc.
With a lopsided ratio like that, the odds are further stacked in favour of me never writing a goddamn.. what do you call it…
If you thought I’d trot out the old chestnut about not having enough time to write a novel, you’d be wrong. But don’t think it didn’t cross my mind.
Just the other week I had a completely brilliant short story of mine (tee hee) knocked back by one of those super serious on-line lit mags with 12 monthly readers. This little word concoction of mine took all of about three days to chisel out so the fact it didn’t get a thumbs up, well… no biggie.
But imagine spending a year or so pouring your heart and soul into writing a gosh darn walloping great novel and having that knocked back a couple of hundred times to the point where you completely gave up on the idea of it ever seeing the light of day for an audience.
Yeah, that’s gonna hurt.
Why deny it? I enjoy the background research aspect that frequently underscores good fiction writing – the journalism component if you will – way too much!
The thought of having to go off on a never-ending series of writing tangents all in the name of a multi-layered plot and just so I can make the 80 – 100 000 word length, leaves me, I don’t mind saying, absolutely stone frigging cold.
The disproportionately large ‘filler’ component of so many novels reminds me of some of the music albums I used to buy as a teenager. One, or two if you were really lucky, decent tracks and the rest unlistenable and just plain lousy.
I reckon we’ve all read a novel or three that goes into passionate detail about certain events that ultimately have no bearing on the plot. The reader is essentially mislead into believing that future events will relate back to these things, leading to confusion when apparently significant happenings vanish like a stone into a lake.
Would I want to do that to unsuspecting readers? I would not. Consideration, once again, wins out!
If ‘getting my name out there’ via publication of a novel was ever the goal, I know now I’d have far more chance of hooking an audience and finding maybe a slither of fame along the way through writing by becoming the neighbourhood graffiti artist.
There are many reasons why people write. And by write I mean creatively. For me, above all else, the act of writing is a thought release. It gives my hounddog mind something to latch on to.
As far as writing ambition goes, these days I’m pretty much kicking a ball around the local park – not someone trying to make the New Zealand All Blacks (football team).
To use another analogy, I’m just a guy strumming his guitar in his bedroom – while now and then pretending his hairbrush is a microphone – not someone trying to make it on Broadway.
So novel? Who needs one of those?
My final reason for knowing I’ll never write a novel may very well supplant all the other reasons combined. And that reason is… I can’t! I simply don’t have it in me to write something of that magnitude with the accompanying complexity of your average computer’s internal wiring, circuit boards and hard disks combined.
How do I know this? Because I’ve tried.
And just in case anyone may have received the mistaken impression this post was tinged with the crestfallen tone of hurt and bummed-out defeat, may I point out the title of this blog was most definitely NOT – Reasons I’ll Never – And I Mean NEVER – Write A Book.