When It’s Good for Writers Not to Write

Anyone who has written something enviable will have gone through some unenviable experiences to have done so. The most acclaimed generation of American novelists were those who were of an age to fight in the Second World War. These included Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden, and JD Salinger, who was at Utah beach on D-Day.

Most good writers have not fought in a world war and, contrary to stereotypes, did not necessarily have miserable childhoods. But good writers are resilient.

In some walks of life, newcomers are subjected to all kinds of brutal initiations. As recorded in the song ‘The Apprentice’ by bawdy balladeer Kevin Bloody Wilson:

Singed me eyebrows off with an oxy torch stuck an air hose up me arse,

Pinched the wheels off me f***in’ push bike peirced me ear with a rivet gun,

He’s only the apprentice and we’re only havin’ fun.

The literary world does no such thing to its young. It doesn’t need to. Aspiring writers do enough violence to themselves. Another thing writers tend to have in common is being oddballs. My new year’s resolution as an aspiring writer is an odd one. It is to NOT work on my novel in the coming year, having started it over three years ago.

In most professions, to abandon a years-long project is seen as an unequivocal defeat. But two writers I have studied under – Sean O’Reilly and Ashley Stokes – have written about doing just that and feeling fine about it.

Why I Write Fiction

Most writers have an inspiring story behind why they write. I don’t.

It was late November 2013, on Lamma Island, Hong Kong. I woke up feeling comprehensively terrible about myself, despite not having drunk enough to be hungover. I was weeks away from turning 30, and a few seconds after waking up, I began to recollect why I felt this way.

I was staying with an academic friend Chester (not real name). The previous night he had gone on the offensive about how I was wasting my life writing ‘ridiculous’ songs, when I had a master’s degree and should be using it to hold down a high-status career.

By most conventional metrics, he was more successful than me. He was fully employed when I wasn’t. He was married while I was single. And he was making his own way in one of the world’s most competitive and expensive cities, whereas I had never had a high salary or been associated with a prestigious institution.

That day he doubled down on his claims about my songs and my master’s. One monologue, in which he wore a self-satisfied grin, displaying the confidence of a professional who worked with governments and NGOs, ended with the clear statement that if I continued on the creative path I was on “you’re a loser”.

When I asked what he suggested I do instead, he said “I think you should market yourself as a short story writer”. My Master’s degree was in Creative Writing, kind of. I completed it in 2006, three years before I met Chester, and I have never held an opinion in my entire life with as much conviction as Chester held his opinion about my master’s degree.

Subsequently, becoming a published short story writer became on obsession.  

I did partly ignore Chester’s advice. I’m nuts but not that nuts. I got a job in a multi-national company that he described as ‘selling out’, I did fine in the job but was never fully engaged because of my fixation on short stories.

Two important books I read early in the journey were by authors of about my own age. ‘The Incarnations’ by Susan Barker is set in China and is the kind of book that aspiring writers should probably avoid because it will make them feel inferior. The other was short story collection ‘Spoiled Brats’ by Simon Rich. It had a mixture of technical accomplishment (which I was a long way from acquiring) and unpretentious joie de vivre (which friendship with Chester had knocked out of me).

Eventually, after countless drafts, bleeding onto the page every working day for three-and-a-half years, and spending thousands of pounds on tutors and mentors, the acceptance letters started to arrive.

Most short story writers are used to being annoyingly asked when they will finally write a novel. Learning to ignore overbearing people has never been my strong suit, so I set about beginning one in late 2018.

Literature is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing, so it was time to write my magnum opus.

The Novel Itself

My novel (working title ‘Fallen Souls’) is a psychological thriller in which a woman is relentlessly stalked by an anonymous internet user who knows intimate details about her everyday life and claims to have known her through four previous incarnations.

It has had multiple beta-readings, including from Darling Axe, Fish Publishing, and The Literary Consultancy. Each rewrite has been more polished and fleshed out than the last.

Aside from bringing it up to standard, there are other reasons why it will be very difficult to ever get published. The viewpoint character is a woman of colour from another culture. She is also a sex worker who does not unequivocally hate her job. The more I rewrote it, the more I side-stepped these problems. The different culture that Lotus is from is a fictional one, so no need for a sensitivity reader from a nationality that doesn’t exist. The portrayal of the sex industry is even-handed, neither relentlessly bleak nor breezily positive.

Also, the more I rewrote it, the more prominence the male antagonist received. If I ever complete it, the novel might spend as much time in his shoes as the heroine’s. This would help either embrace or evade accusations of the male gaze.

Even so, nobody ever wrote anything good by pandering to trends in the publishing industry. And issues with marketability are not a good enough reason to abandon a creative project. When a subject is taboo, there is all the more reason for writers to write about it. So why am I abandoning it?

To work, a piece of writing needs to be unpretentious, it needs to flow out. It also has to be necessary. At this point, I cannot think of a reason why continuing with ‘Fallen Souls’ in the near future is in any way necessary.

Why does anyone write anything?

There are many bad reasons to write a book. These include fame, fortune, and a place in history. There are far more sensible, less laborious ways of achieving those things.

The only good reason to write is that creative people are wired to create, as cats are wired to hunt. Few people understood this better than Gustav Holst, who wrote “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you”. The most creatively fertile periods of my life happened when I didn’t force it.  

In all good stories, the central character goes through big changes, and my journey as a writer is a more neatly-structured story than any fiction I have written.

Writing has caused me to pick up a lot of valuable habits, including to finally start setting standards for the company I keep. The first person I formally cut out of my life was Chester. In a good story, every character wants something. Chester wanted to be listened to and be thought of as wise and sagely. I listened to him very carefully and reached the only conclusion I possibly could – he is about as sage and as wise as that bloke on the Internet who fucked a horse and died.

The best advice I have ever received came from the literary translator Bruce Humes, who won’t mind me sharing this:

To say that the time spent on this novel was time wasted would be like saying that time spent on training for a marathon was wasted by every competitor who didn’t win.

I once had a summer job selling books door-to-door in Illinois. Our rather cultish Tennesseean employers gave us a special vocabulary to describe our situation. Getting the cops called on us was called “the blue light award”. “Executive exercises” were a ritual similar to the New Zealand Hakka that we carried out in the Denny’s car park every morning. A zero-sales day was known as a “character building day”.

Writing a novel is as character building as it gets.

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