The Keyboard Is My FuckMonkey:
As I type this, I’m about two weeks clear of finishing my next novel. (That’s for any given, ill-defined value of “finished”, of course — let’s not over-egg the pudding.)
It’s been seven months in the drafting, plus or minus a week of gibbering inactivity or three, and at this critical tail-end — when you might expect a metaphorical Second Wind to be kicking-in, or that Final Sprint Up The Straight to be adrenalising my typing fingers — productivity has ground to an agonising, continental crawl.
It’s a difficult thing to describe to someone who hasn’t done it themselves. This precipice of extraordinary power and change is looming — and it truly is a world-altering thing, to evacuate a daily routine after so long — and it’s tempting to reach for the obvious metaphor by way of illustration: the expectant mother, nine months in, waiting for a watery rush and a panicky cab to the hospital…
There are similarities: true. Both situations involve a one-off, long-gone instant of joyful conception followed by months of tottering, teetering progress beneath the strain of an endlessly-increasing burden — with all the petty irritations, spontaneous miseries and explosions of over-protectiveness that implies. Plus, the further into the process one strays, the more inclined one becomes to drop everything at least once a minute to go take a piss. (And, really, it’s no exaggeration to say the outcome of the whole tortuous process will change and define your life for a long time to come.)
But the similarities stop there. For instance, I — in completing this manuscript — am not anticipating 48 hours of screaming agony, sweaty beds, epidural injections, vaginal ripping and accidental shittings of the bed. Equally, our hypothetical mother isn’t expected to spend the next year obsessively evaluating the entirety of her pregnancy: analysing and re-analysing every day of the gestation solely to tweak history and soothe-away every cramp, every weird craving, and every hormonal meltdown. You can’t rewrite maternity.
Besides: I’m trying to engender sympathy for my blighted artistic struggle, here. Relating my prosey torture to the Miracle Of Childbirth™ smacks of impugning the snowflake uniqueness of Woman’s Suffering, and that’s the sort of territory where Angels Fear To Tread. Watch me Back Away.
The fact is, this novel is a lot more like molten chocolate than pregnancy. It’s rich, it’s kept me awake more nights than I care to recall, it’s turned me into a fat, sugar-addicted cunt, and the further into the fucking stuff I wade — and the more solid it gets — the harder it becomes to press onwards.
To be fair, that’s partly down to the genre. A mystery-thriller lives or dies on the execution of its climactic scenes; wherein — as tradition would have it — the outwoven subplots are deftly in-woven, the final twist is deftly twisted, and the proverbial Last Piece Of The Puzzle is sniper-rifled into position in such a way that it not only completes the jigsaw, but takes a triumphant Polaroid to show the kids, sweeps it back into its box, and packs it away in the closet beneath That Monopoly Set We’ll Definitely Get Around To Playing Some Time Soon. Deftly. The last chapters are tough.
But — more specifically — the Struggle is down to Reverse Inertia. As the end looms into sight this nervous scrivener realises that all the momentum — which sustained his narrative through those claggy conversational chapters in the middle, and kept the ball rolling through every unforeseen plot-hole — has dissipated like smoke from an arty fag, and all that’s left is a fire-lidded eye of attention, gazing balefully at the words on his screen, and whispering out loud:
You’re Going To Have To Let Someone Else Read It Soon, Mate…
And oh: the horror.
The final chapters have grown longer and longer. The lesser-spotted Adjective — normally a hated pest to be weeded-out wherever it dares proliferate — has bred like a bi-wombed bunny and held the Finishing Line at arms’ length every day. With each extra word the certainty has grown that every one which preceded it was culled directly from a purple-lined sewer of convoluted, clichéd bilge, and that the plot they’re messily hung-on is at one and the same time ludicrously over-complicated and as brainlessly predictable as a Christmas cracker one-liner. Which should be impossible, but isn’t.
It’s been, in short, a Tall Fucking Order.
Mind you, one peculiar note of relief did arise this week. It came in the form of a novel gathering dust in my When You Get Around To It pile of bogside books; finally fished-out and completed. Generally speaking I’m wary of reading other fiction when I’m stuck in the process of novelising: it risks heaping all sorts of obstructive, obfuscating influences onto an already stretched brain (as, I think, I’ve blogged before). Nonetheless this particular title had been staring at me with an especially accusatory gloss ever since I was given it by a colleague at a comic show, and I finally succumbed to my own internal Peer Pressure.
I suppose you’d describe it loosely as a Sci-Fi novel (and therefore safe, I thought, from infectious viral stylings), written by an author whose name comes complete with a genuine ring of industry-wide (or at least Simon’s-Circle-Of-Peers-wide) excitement, respect and even idolisation. He, it’s often declared, is part of the New Dawn of sci-fi writers who will Save Speculative Fiction From Its Own Excesses; releasing novels which are at once universally accessible and uniquely imaginative, forward-thinking and Smart. I was anticipating at least an enthralling, un-put-downable blast through tomorrow’s world (if only because the cover-quotes were all penned by reassuringly Not Wanker types, and that’s what they told me to expect), and at most the sort of brilliantly unbeatable piece which leaves one both awestruck and vaguely suicidal on the grounds of Never Being Able To Come Close.
But it wasn’t like that at all. It was… well. Just, sort of. Not Very Good.
Now, I don’t for a second celebrate the failings of people who — even if I really overstated my own successes, and you took a holistic it’s-all-one-industry-and-there’s-only-so-much-money-to-go-round sort of view — could only loosely be described as my competitors. I was more disappointed at the novel’s failure to meet expectations than anything else, and slightly narked at the amount of my time I’d wasted on it.
BUT let’s not pretend there wasn’t a flicker of pleasure down in there somewhere. Let’s not pretend we’re above that sort of negatively-enforced Confidence Booster, because frankly we’re all Grown Up enough — aren’t we — to admit that we’re all still basically children.
This novel — this award-nominated, critically adored, industry-shaking piece of (supposed) literature — was so jam-packed with all the exact problems I’ve spent the past six months convincing myself are infecting my own work like herpies, that it performed the psychological equivalent of slapping me round the face three times, shouting at me to stop feeling sorry for myself, and Get The Fuck On With It.
I’m not quite saying I’ve since become a blur of productivity, but it’s better than it was. And I feel… well. I guess I feel sort of guilty about that. As if I’ve sunk to a shameful new low, and vampired a dose of Pep from an artist brought low by the unfair expectations surrounding him. (Or, fuck, maybe his novel is a masterpiece and the failure to admire it lies entirely with me. Either way, the dividends are being paid in my court, not his, and that seems somehow unfair.)
So what do we think of all this, loyal friends? Is it really legitimate to take inspiration from the failures and mediocrities — or at least the conspicuous Lack Of Glories — of others? Even when we should be focusing respect and admiration on those same people?
I don’t see why not, frankly. It’s a seedy sort of schadenfreude, which can all too easily get out of hand — (I recall, for instance, a web community to which I used to belong, which professed to be a dedicated fan-site for a particular comic-book, but whose users were notorious for the pleasure they took in tearing said publication a new shitter whenever they got the Review bug, and whose joyous battlecries, all too often, were “I could’ve done better myself…”) — but for the most part it’s a harmless, if slightly grubby way of extracting some Self Help encouragement out of work which, really, Should’ve Been Better.
So: legitimate, yes. BUT beware: if one allows oneself to get drawn too deep into that mire — endlessly judging your own worth according to the work of others, claiming some sort of abstract victory every time a hero fucks-up — one quickly discovers it’s a two-edged sword. For every Intimidatingly Brilliant Genius Master, who cheers you up by producing a Big Plate Of Shite, there’s a host of quietly industrious Nobodies — who you’ve always liked but never feared — suddenly producing radiant nuggets of Glory…
As Gore Vidal put it, with painful honesty: “Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
Bottom line? Writers are petty, smallminded creatures. But we’re just so very fucking good at it.
(And, speaking personally, the more I agonise over uncomfortable moral home-truths like these, the less time I’m spending wrestling with the soupy, unbearable weight of My Fucking Novel. Long may it continue.)
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