The Infamous Manuscript
Just now a woman stopped me on the Go Train platform to tell me that her nephew had finished his novel. Oh, and he’d published it too.
“It’s on the shortlist for the Jiller prize,” she told me.
“Giller,” I corrected. “Good for him.”
“How’s yours coming?” she asked me.
I felt a lump forming in my throat. “It’s coming along,” I told her.
She looked at me with what could have been sympathy but might just as well have been pity. “Good,” she said, nodding. “Good.”
She was asking because she’s ridden the same Go Train as me for several years. And as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.
And I felt bad because as long as she’s known me I’ve been working on this novel.
This morning – the same day, mind you – another Go Train friend told me about a friend who had just published a novel.
“How’s yours coming along?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Almost done.”
“It’s been almost done for four years,” she reminded me.
“Yeah,” I said, and slunk off.
Recently a relative said, “I don’t tell anyone about your book any more. It’s embarrassing. You need to just finish it.”
Later that same evening one of my daughters said, “Just finish it, Daddy. I’m sure it’s fine. You don’t need to fix it anymore. Here, let me read it.”
“Another pass and I’ll let you read it,” I told her, and slunk off.
The fact is my novel isn’t done yet. Last summer – or was it the summer before – I thought it was. I convinced myself it was done. I was tired of writing it. So I gave it to a few friends to read. Four of them professed to like it (one even graciously copy edited it for me.) I’m still waiting to hear from one (I don’t blame him – I consider it a great imposition to ask someone to read my work). One said he couldn’t get past page forty (yes, he’s still my friend, the jerk).
While I was waiting I read it over again myself. I liked it. But I didn’t like the ending.
So I went back to work.
And that’s what I’ve been doing since, correcting the ending. It’s a lot better. But I still have a few pages to go.
James Michener once wrote that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is finishing it. Many others have expressed similar sentiments. One of Michener’s favourite novelists only ever wrote one book. Except that’s not exactly true – late in life Michener looked him up and found out he’d actually written three others, but never finished them. Late in this fellow’s eighties he was still working on them, trying to make them perfect. As far as I know, he never did.
I have always been afraid of being that guy.
Once I was mad at George RR Martin for not finishing the next book in his Game of Thrones series in a timely manner. I met him in Montreal two or three years ago. I wanted to say, “Finish your damn book, sir.” Except I knew better, and I knew what it was like trying to finish a novel you care about.¹ You can’t just finish it. The book is the boss. It will tell you when it’s done, not the other way around.
George RR Martin
Another of my favourite writers, Vernor Vinge, took ten years to write one of my favourite books, A Deepness in the Sky.² He had a full time job, like me. I’m eight years in since I started working on this book seriously in the Fall of 2005.³ So by that standard I still have two years to go.
So yes, in case you were wondering I know it’s completely ridiculous that I haven’t finished my novel yet. I’m sorry. Believe me, nobody wants to finish it more than I do. Increasingly when people ask me about it I just want to weep at the pathetic-ness of it all.⁴
Will it be worth it after all this time?
I was going to write that I don’t know, because I have no way of knowing whether it’ll ever get published, except to say that my efforts to get it published will equal my efforts to make it good.
But the true answer is of course it will be worth it. It’s already worth it.
Because I have loved every instant of writing it.⁵
¹In the end I just shook his hand and told him how much I loved his books. “Thanks,” he said. And that was the extent of our relationship.
²Don’t hold me to that figure, I’m not exactly fact checking here.
³Although I put the first words to paper sometime around nineteen eighty-seven, I think.
⁴Except, as I have written before, I don’t, because I’m a man and as such have never wept and probably never will.*
⁵Except the first draft. I hate first drafts.
*Yes, the bit about weeping and being a man is meant to be ironic.