April 30, 2024

Same Old Story

Obviously I'm a sucker for any essay headline promising the narrative of a novelist who spent a decade working on a book, or who rewrote their novel a dozen times, or who tried to sell five different finished manuscripts before finally getting a publishing deal. I've linked to many such essays in this blog over the years, and I've read countless more.

This is a frequently told sort of story because it's a common experience. Probably more published novelists could recount some version of that essay than the number of authors who published their first attempt at a novel after only a draft or two in a year or two. Novels involve a great big hunk of ideas and words to imagine, reimagine, write, and rewrite. Generally even if some of those stages go quickly, others require a lot more time.

Today I read the latest iteration of the essay to appear in Literary Hub, where I often encounter these. "The Pilgrim's (Lack of) Progress, Or, Sorry I Took So Long to Finish My Novel, Or, On the Value of Restarting" is the headline for Justin Taylor's account of writing REBOOT (which used to have even more subtitles than the essay). He explains:

Depending how you reckon, writing it either took me nine years or it took me a month.

I started it on New Year's Day 2014 and the first thing I did was write longhand for a week. The second thing I did was fail for seven years. I don't mean that I spent seven years trying to complete a draft. There were plenty of drafts. I mean that I spent seven years trying to make work something that would not work, that I felt increasingly certain could not work, and yet found myself revising and restarting time and again, always in a state of perfect hopelessness except for when I came to my senses and abandoned the project once and for all, which I did at least once a year.

When Taylor eventually writes the draft that works,

...the only way I could allow myself another attempt was to first make a rule that I would not revisit any of the old material. Drafts, outlines, character descriptions, the handful of passages I thought were good: all off-limits. I would not even peek at them to refresh my memory of what they contained. I had to start from absolute zero—a hard reboot, if you will—and anything that survived from those prior drafts would be there not because I'd salvaged it, but because I'd created it from scratch all over again.

I finished the first successful draft of the novel on April 3, 2021, twenty-eight days after I started. Though there would be another year of revision before I sold it (year eight), and then a year of working with the editors who bought it (year nine), the novel was basically done.

I found much about this identifiable, though my version of the experience follows a different sequence of steps. Most crucially, I haven't yet achieved that decisive story beat, the publication of the novel that occasions the publication of an essay about the arduous journey that's now in the past.

The scale of the journey has been on my mind as I turned another year older this month. When described in hindsight, a long road to publication seems impressive, even mythic. But in the middle, well, it's not a story until it gets an ending.

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