Now, when I say I’ve always loved to write, I’m not kidding. I was one of those nerdy kids who loved to write in school --- in elementary, in junior high, and in high school. I was always excited whenever the English teacher would announce that the net assignment was to write a story. And I wrote for myself. At home. In my spare time. But I never made it out of short story country, much less into novella territory. And certainly not into novel country.
(What’s the difference? you ask. Well, I always used to tell my students that short stories tend to range from 2000 to 10,000 words, novellas 10,000 to 50,000 words, and novels anything over 50,000 words. But today’s attention-deficit/challenged youth and educators might say that’s too much. Pffft. I discard them.)
Flash forward thirty years or so. I was teaching English at the high school level and was deeply unhappy at the school where I taught. In the interest of trying to stay professional, let’s just say the school’s administration and I had fundamental, irreconcilable differences of opinion in terms of what constitutes good educational philosophy and good governance. One day after school, as I sat in my empty classroom, I was musing despairingly over how to get out of the toxic atmosphere of the place. I looked idly at the classroom’s exterior wall --- part of it had windows, but there was also a substantial part that was simply blank wall, and I began fantasizing what it would be like if a door suddenly materialized in the wall, a door that could take me away.
I’ve used writing as a self-therapeutic tool many times in my life, and that night I sat down and put that little scenario down on paper. I don’t really know why I was motivated to do that, other than to say that writing about things that trouble me often makes me feel better about them. So, the door appeared, and the teacher (I was writing in third person, not first) opened it. There were, I don’t know, maybe 500 words to the thing. And for some reason, I came back to it a number of times over the next several days. It was like a mental house guest who refused to leave, although even then, I had no sense I was writing a novel. It really wasn’t until my computer informed me my word count was in the neighbourhood of about 14,000 words that I took note and sat back and thought, “Whoa, what’s happening here?”
I reread what I’d written and thought it was a pretty decent story --- and, more importantly, I wanted to find out where the whole thing was going. So, I continued. And it grew and grew and grew… (rather like Professor Tolkien’s remark at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. Not, I hasten to add, that I am in any way trying to compare myself, a pathetically ordinary mortal, to a literary demigod like Professor T.)
Eventually, several years later (nobody will ever accuse me of writing in haste, but in my own defence, life kept getting in the way of writing), I finished the first draft, and it clocked in at a bloated 202,000 words. Except I didn’t realize at the time that it was bloated. My attitude was rather like a scene from Amadeus, the Oscar winning film about the life of Mozart. At one point in the film, the Austrian emperor tells Mozart there’s ‘too many notes’ in his opera i.e. it’s too long. And Mozart is genuinely bewildered, replying, “I don’t understand, Majesty. There are just as many notes as are required, neither more nor less.’ And I felt much the same about my book. But at the somewhat less than gentle prodding of my wife, I began to change my attitude. And therein began the hardest thing about making the novel (aside from finding the time and the creative energy to shoehorn the thing into my life, as I’ve said): editing it.
But I sat down and started going through it, and as I went, I realized that yes, dammit, there were things that could be trimmed, things that could be cut, things that could be tightened. And as Stephen King recommends, I wound up cutting 10% off that first draft. Then I went back and did some more. And even though I also added elements to the narrative, I eventually wound up with a story of about 186,000 words. A story that was much more tightly written, much less sloppy in its use of verbiage, much better overall.
Nowadays, I actually quite enjoy editing --- which seems a fairly contrarian view among writers, who mostly seem to moan about it. But my favourite part of writing --- then and now --- is watching the story unfold. I may have an idea about what’s going to happen next, but I’ve found it’s only very rarely that things wind up going the way I have planned or anticipated. Why? Because the characters are real people, and they frequently have their own ideas about how things or going to go, and they’re not shy about telling me that no, thanks, they’re not going to do things the way I’ve planned, because they’re doing it their way. C.S. Lewis once said he never actually wrote a book; he was given things to say. And I’d say that writing, at its best, is like that for me, also. It’s wondrous to watch things unfold on a page, not necessarily knowing how things are going to turn out. You feel a whole lot less like an omnipotent Creator, and a whole lot more like an interested observer who can’t wait to see how things wind up.
Which, frankly, sounds more interesting.