I wrote the final chapters of my fourth novel this weekend, an enterprise that’s been in the works for four or five months. This isn’t a long time by any means, but as those of you who write will be aware it’s a process that often seems like a Herculean struggle. There are the early days, in which you watch your word count go from 4 to 8 to 11,000, then you hit the heart-breaking stretch between 20 and 30, past the point of no return but far, far from your goal. Once you get beyond 50 you start to see the end in sight, and one morning you’ll have a look and see 66,000, and you think, Damnit, I’ve gotta be close!
This is what it comes down to, unfortunately, and I would hazard that there isn’t a writer out there who does not zealously check their word count. Unless your name is Bohumil Hrabal and you’re banging out a novel in fifteen days on a typewriter from the roof of your garden shed, I’m calling you a liar if you say you don’t check. If you’re out to lose weight, for example, you probably weigh yourself on the scales morning, noon and night; you don’t simply go from 120 to 80 kilos, stepping onto the scales one morning to say, Right then, I’m done. We fanaticise over progress, but this is a very human thing. I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy or unnatural about it, but I do wish I could look away. It does lend the exercise of writing a novel an extra smidge of anxiety that might otherwise be avoided.
I obsessed for a little while over word counts, poring over lists of books, classics and otherwise, to gauge the similarities and differences in their varying lengths. Sci-fi, 120,000 and up, Epic, 250 to 400,000… some of these people must be maniacs.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ll never be a writer of epics. I do believe that a book must be exactly long as it needs to, but I hope – pray – that I never begin to write a story that requires 400,000 words for the telling. God forbid. A novel of 70,000 is tough enough. Think of what comes after!
Given what I do (how I write, the style, the stories I tell), this will likely never be a problem. I write relatively quickly. If I’m not mistaken, none of my previous three novels has taken longer than five months to complete. Editing takes longer. Perhaps six or seven. And I do love editing. I love the process and like to take my time over it, one month between reads, carrying it towards its final form until I’m ready for that first proof copy. What’s more, as a self-published author, I have continued to edit my books long after their publication date. Small tweaks, but edits nonetheless. Doing that with a 400,000-word epic – no thank you. No, I like my books short, my chapters snappy, and that is how I tend to write em.
Now I’ll take a few weeks, maybe a month to breathe. And after that, I’ll jump into the editing. After a month or six weeks I may have the first inklings of a new novel bubbling up, and when that time comes, I’ll be compelled to sit down and begin all over again. Until then, I’ll be up to my neck in the editing process. But that’s just fine. Somehow the editing isn’t as fraught with anxiety as the writing, and I find it easier to take simple pleasure in it.
I’m finished, but unfinished. I’m there but I’m not. This is the essential paradox, one that will recur endlessly and will always have within it the same destabilising dichotomy. But it doesn’t have to be like that. All I need is to be more zen about it. You know like those monks, who create a mandala from coloured sand over the course of weeks or months only to destroy it with a single sweep of the hand? I’m not burning my books, fuck off, but I could really use some of their poise, their equanimity. And once I have that, won’t that new serenity manifest itself in my writing?
I’m finished. I will never be finished. The wheel has simply begun a new cycle. I’m tryin to get okay with it. Tryin.
(Word count: 734. For all the maniacs, with love and sympathy.)
‘On Being Finished and Unfinished Both’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.