A few years ago, a fellow novelist gave me a piece of advice I didn’t give a lot of credence to at the time, having only started “The Royal Wulff Murders” and not really knowing what lay in store when the initial flush of excitement wore off. “I learned that if I wanted to write books the first thing I had to do was stop smoking dope.”
As a child of the sixties I have to take the fifth when asked about partaking banned substances, but at the current stage of my life the advice seemed irrelevant. Of course he didn’t mean it literally — well, he did, but what he was getting at it was this: You need a clear head. A novelist puts a lot of balls into the air over the arc of a story, characters pop in and out, story lines start, stop, and start again, relationships change, tensions build, and everything has to be assigned a frequency of appearance as well as a specific gravity. Another way of putting it is that a cloud forms over your head, and your job is not only to form the raindrops but to release them from the cloud in a precise sequence and correct their trajectory so they hit the ground with the right force at the right time.
When you start a book the raindrops come really easy. It’s fun, or as fun as writing ever gets. Then, thirty or forty pages in, it becomes work and stays work until you see the spot of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Then and only then does it become fun again. If you succeed or fail it’s usually because you didn’t have the perseverance it takes to wade slog through the unfun parts. Or you smoked too much dope. There are a lot of fifty page starts to novels collecting dust in a lot of desk drawers or taking up space on ancient floppy disks (remember those?), hard drivers, and flash drives.
So my advice to aspiring novelists is keep a clear head, keep the raindrops coming, don’t expect the middle part to be easy, and finish the damned book. It will be the hardest work you’ll ever do without getting blood on your hands — which might go to field dressing and boning a bull moose by yourself in the wilderness. But that’s another story.