When I was twenty I wrote a novel. No one has ever read it.
And there’s an excellent reason that I haven’t allowed anyone else to read the manuscript — it’s awful. Heck, it might even be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Amnesty International could report me for depredations against basic human dignity if I posted it online.
Sure, it has a few moments of quality prose (I like to think that I had a little bit of talent back then) but anything worthwhile is suffocated by painfully misguided crap and unearned pretention. It makes my skin crawl to this day.
Of course, after writing this (very bad) novel, I was faced with a choice: Do I try to make it better, or do I start something new. This is, actually, a difficult decision. Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a major undertaking. It is exhausting, and emotionally draining. Tossing it aside is not an easy thing for anyone to do.
Thankfully, I had the wit about me to notice that it was, in fact, not very good, and I didn’t waste my time sending it to agents or publishers. But I also had the good fortune to be taking a writing class from an established novelist at the time. And he let me in on a critical insight: books are not about authors, books are about readers.
In other words, while it may feel good to exorcise your demons by writing a book, what matters is whether someone else would want to read it. If you want to clear your mind, write a diary, or write a journal for yourself, and don’t worry about the craft. But writing for an audience is about performance. In the end, someone will need to care about what you have to say — they will either want to be entertained, emotionally involved, or informed by your prose. And if you can’t figure out a reason why anyone would want to read that thing you wrote, put it aside and write something new.
In other words, while it is important to please yourself with your work, all writers need to learn how to please others in order to find an audience. When I thought about that first novel, I realized that no one would find it interesting. It was nothing but an extended, surrealist whine. I could “improve” it, but that wouldn’t make it any more attractive to someone who wasn’t, say, me. So I put it in a drawer, and there it has remained as a reminder to me of what not to do when writing fiction.
And then I picked up my pen and started writing something new.
In addition to the books I listed here, check out these other fantastic books that influenced the creation of The Secret Root:
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.
One of the remarkable things about American Gods is that it manages to be a profound meditiation on what it is to be an American while simultaneously being crazily entertaining. The depth and introspection of the characters still resonates with me long after I read the book, but I also recall my desperation to find out what happens at the end. This combination of literary chops and entertainment should be the goal of every writer.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
No, I’m not just choosing books made by folks named “Neil” or “Neal.” The remarkable thing about the Diamond Age is that it managed to be a work of “futurism” while remaining anchored in a vision of the past. Time is a maleable thing in The Diamond Age. But perhaps even more significant was Stephenson’s treatment of a young girl, Nell, who grows up during the course of the book despite incredible hardship and dislocation. The vision of a young person as competent adversary was a valuable one for me — to be young is not simply to be dependent.
In the interest of space this will be a continuing series, so stay tuned! More to come…
So what books influenced your writing, or your life?
This sounds amazing.
Regular contributor and occasional husband Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is out today. Marcus is currently on tour. Believer interviews editor Ross Simonini conducted a conversation with Marcus, “Human Beings Are Making a Comeback,” for Salon. Many of Marcus’s contributions to the Believer, including his luminous review of the Jet 708521 JWP-12DX Portable Planer, from the magazine’s first issue, are available online.
The most difficult part about writing a book is the lack of any immediate response. Writing, like playing music or painting or photography (or any art form you can name) is all about performance. You are, in some primal, basic way, communicating something to an audience. And whether you’re communicating an emotional state, or a complex theory of political philosophy, or an explanation of why you couldn’t get a date when you were fifteen, you want to know that you have reached at least one member of your audience. When you’re writing a book, the wait can be excruciating.
I’ve played in bands for a long time (far too long to admit to on tumblr!) and one of the great advantages of music is the immediacy — when you’re on stage playing for hundreds of people, you know instantaneously whether they are receiving your transmissions. When things go well, it is transcendent right now.
I first started writing The Secret Root in 2004. We’re working on the book jacket right now, with a release set for September. That means it will have been almost 8 years between the first words and distribution. Of course, folks have read the book in the meantime — I’ve had friends, and reading clubs and random people I’ve stopped on the street read my novel. Many of them have provided fantastic comments, criticism and clarity. But no one has read the final version except for me, and my editor.
So, in other words, the suspense is killing me!
So, I’m working with the designer on the book jacket, and the first try he provided was…well…disappointing. So disappointing that I’m not even going to post it here. But I find it interesting to see the extent to which the “misses” he has provided have been amazingly useful in clarifying what I really do want.
It is, after all, difficult to know what you want your book to look like until you see — with utter certainty — what you don’t want it to look like. Having seen that (and, to be honest, vomited a bit) everything now makes a lot more sense. I suspect that the next iteration will be great.
Oh, and did I mention that I can’t wait to show all of you a completed book jacket?
One of the most difficult things for any writer is to accept that the words that flowed out of her head may not be perfect. Collaboration with readers, editors and hostages (e.g. family members) is critical. It is easy to fall in love with language that simply doesn’t connect with the rest of your story. It is easy to believe that an extraneous character is central to your entire project. Brutal honesty (and the willingness to accept the criticism and make changes) is the only way to write a quality work of fiction.
Here is my list of completed YA series that everyone should read:
1. His Dark Materials, (three book series) by Philip Pullman
2. The Bartimaeus Trilogy (three book series) by Jonathan Stroud
3. Harry Potter (seven book series, of course!) by JK Rowling
4. The Hunger Games (three book series) by Suzanne Collins
5. The Maze Runner (three book series) by James Dashner
6. Eragon (four book series) by Christopher Paolini
7. Incarceron (two book series) by Catherine Fisher
(And of course, you should definitely read The Mesh Chronicles when book one, The Secret Root, arrives later this year…)
That’s always a tricky question — how do you describe a 100,000 word novel in a way that doesn’t make you (the author) sound either like a jerk or a pretentious loon. I think the easiest way to approach the question is to be simple: the book tells the story of three teenagers who disappear from our world and placed in a future that may or may not be their own. They must figure out how they got there, and how they can get back — but they also may have a more important job to do before they return: they need to save the world.