Writing a novel – a terrible experience or a pleasure?

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”  Flannery O’Connor

For some writers, writing a novel is a terrible experience. You sweat blood and tears getting it down and then when you are finished you feel aged and exhausted. You have no friends left because you’ve been locked away for so long that and everyone thinks you’ve left the country. You’ve even started talking to yourself and your family whisper about you behind your back. BUT eventually it is done. Your finished manuscript is in front of you. One delicious stack of pages. A smile stretches across your face from ear to ear.  Time to celebrate! Then, for no reason, you pick up the first page and read it one last time. Little by little the smile disappears from your face. The voice of imperfection screams, “You are not done!” You read another page. And another. “The words are turgid!” “The plot is pathetic!” “The characters are flat!” You scream silently. “It is not done! It is not done!” You throw yourself in your chair and sob.

But that voice of perfection is also the voice of oppression – as everyone knows, only God can make things perfectly. Besides, striving for perfection is not the same as being perfect. Yes, there is always more you can do but sometimes you need to know when enough is enough. And when is that? Enough is when:

You have weeded and pruned and rewritten all turgid language.

You have, as William Faulkner famously advised, “murdered your darlings.”

Like Michelangelo, you have “carved away everything that isn’t the sculpture.”

You’ve started at the right place.

You’ve finished at the right place.

Your novel is the best it can be can be stylistically, conceptually and dramatically because you have “pegged away.”

“One of the great secrets of success is ‘pegging away.’ No disappointment must discourage, and a run back must often be allowed, in order to take a longer leap forward.” Amelia E Barr

You’ve cut the bullshit because your Ernest Hemingway ‘built-in bullshit detector’ was switched on.

You’ve given yourself an essential  ‘cooling off’ period, reread your novel afresh and then checked you’ve done all of the above again.

“That cooling-off period is essential to revision.” Ursula Le Guin

Your novel is as well laid out and presented as possible – meaning there are no typing errors, it is presented on good quality standard white A4 paper, typed on one side only, using a simple 12-point font (like Times New Roman), with consecutively numbered pages; double-spaced with clear width margins and with your name and the title of your novel in the header or footer of every page.

Assuming you have done all of the above, which you will have, it is time to dry your tears.  It is over. Take a deep breath. Move on to your next novel. And why would you repeat such a terrible experience? Because, while it may not seem like pleasure, as Alice Munro says,

“… for some of us there is nothing more pleasurable in the world than telling our story as wholly as we can tell it, of finding out, in fact, what the story is, by working the different ways of telling it”.


*a version of this article was first published in The Leither Magazine called How To Murder Your Darlings: http://www.leithermagazine.com/2013/05/24/how-to-murder-your-darlings-and-other-stories.html

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6 Responses to Writing a novel – a terrible experience or a pleasure?

  1. Louisa Dang says:

    Great post, Marianne! I don’t think I have seen a better description of the grueling-yet-thrilling process that it takes to produce a work of fiction (or perhaps ANY work!!)! I especially like the points: You started in the right place. You ended in the right place. Gives me hope for my writing! 🙂

    • Thanks, Louisa. Just me waffling on but glad you enjoyed it 🙂 As it happen I am coming to the end of writing my Fiji novel and the getting out at the right place is proving to be a challenge because I am not sure where it is – ha ha ha! I will find it, though! I will! 😉

  2. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Great post Marianne!

  3. Marianne, the writing is a pleasure, surrounded by imaginary friends and building castles in the air.

    The hard slog of editing it into something halfway decent? Hmmm. Feels like hard work, that part. 😉

    • Hi Belinda 🙂
      For me the hard part is the getting the words down and the best part is the editing it into something halfway decent. However, as the editing usually isn’t straightforward, , the best part of the writing process can often feel like the worst part. Ha ha!

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