I have never run a marathon. I suspect, somehow, that I never will. I’ve never been enthused by the notion of pushing my body to that extent, and I’m not a big fan of running for no particular purpose. Don’t get me wrong: I go to the gym. I spend so much of my time sitting at a computer that if I didn’t go to the gym someone would end up cutting me out of my chair in the not-too-distant future, hacking away with a saw as the chair arms dug painfully into the rolls of fat at my belly and my thighs lay compressed like great wads of pale dough and . . .
Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I do worry about these things, you know.
Anyway, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have some concept of what marathon runners “the wall”. As most of you are probably aware, it’s that point at which the runner feels that he or she just can’t go on, when energy seems to dissipate and the legs begin to feel like lumps of iron. The urge to give up is incredibly strong, yet most runners struggle through it. They know it’s coming up so they prepare themselves mentally for it. It’s harder, I imagine, for first-timers. They don’t know what to expect, even though they’ve been warned about it, so when they hit it the shock is probably quite considerable.
I can’t speak for other writers, but there is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. The point at which it occurs varies from book to book, although it’s usually around the halfway stage or just beyond it. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows. I find all kinds of distractions to keep me occupied rather than face my desk and the empty computer screen. My office suddenly becomes very tidy. E-mails assume massive importance. I listen intently for the arrival of the postman so I can deal with my mail. Yet, in the end, I still have to turn on the computer and eke out at least a thousand words a day. That, or give up and start all over again.
You’d think that, by now, with eight books written, those doubts would have become less intense. After all, I’ve been through it before. I know that I’ve had these concerns about other books and in the end those books have been written and published without bearing any obvious scars from the turmoil that went into their creation. But there is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again.
I attended a public interview with Michael Connelly a few years back, in the course of which he told the audience that he had experienced just such a dilemma during the writing of his novel Void Moon. He had been forced to scrap tens of thousands of words after realising that he had written himself into a creative dead end, and had no choice but to go back to the beginning and find an alternative path. At least he had the confidence to do that, based, I imagine, on the experience of writing the eight or nine novels that preceded Void Moon. A first-time novelist faced with the same difficulty might have greater difficulty coping with that moment when all seems rather lost. I suspect that’s why a great many would-be novelists abandon work at about the 40-50,000 word mark, because that is typically the stage at which doubts begin to set in, the point at which a new idea becomes potentially more compelling than the current one.
I’ve been trying to remember the circumstances of the writing of Every Dead Thing, my first novel. Did I encounter similar difficulties in writing that book? I must have, although it seems so long ago now that I’ve largely forgotten most of the day-to-day details of its creation. There was less pressure then, I suppose. There was nobody waiting for the book. I had signed no contracts, made no commitments. Delays hardly mattered until it began to near its end, and even then I was compelled less by outside agencies than my own desire to finish it after years of work. Now there is less time for mistakes, and a false start could mean postponing publication of a book for six months, even a year, with all of the difficulties that would then present for my publishers.
Anyway, this week I hit the wall with the current novel. It’s a Parker book, to be called The Unquiet. The doubts began creeping in on Thursday, and became a full-blown crisis by Friday morning. Even writing about it makes me feel a bit uneasy, as though by confessing the problem I’ve given it substance and made it more real. Still, I forced out those thousand words yesterday. They weren’t good, and I doubt that they’ll survive into the finished novel, even in a heavily revised form, but I wrote them. I kept writing. And on Monday morning I’ll start writing again - a thousand words, maybe a little more - in the hope that I can work through this.
What I have learned from those eight books is that if I were to abandon a novel unfinished then I think it would be the kiss of death for my writing. Better to see it through, even if it does prove to be a false step and never sees the light of day, than to toss it to one side without a conclusion, because if I begin giving up on the writing of a book when it gets difficult then it could prove to a be a habit that’s hard to break.
I’ve had these doubts before. They will pass, they will pass . . .
This week John read
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Cell by Stephen King
and listened to
The Decline of Country & Western Civilisation by Lambchop
At War With The Mystics by The Flaming Lips
The Drive-By Truckers live in Dublin.