One thing is for sure, I can remain poised on the horns of the same dilemma as long as anybody. I can do it for years. I do this effortlessly, and to no particular purpose, but I do it very successfully in terms of shear ability. “Keeping the ball in the air” might be a good way to describe it. I believe that the Japanese call the phenomenon, “massaging the idea.” Whatever you call it, it's a way of delaying a decision. Whatever you call it, I can do it indefinitely.
For instance, I got through about half of a first draft of a novel about ten years ago. Just about half, something like forty or forty-five thousand words. It was a stressful time for me, and I found the writing stress-reducing. When my stress level became manageable, I stopped writing. The deeper into the process that I got, the more I could see that the effort was lacking in many ways. Finishing it up would require quite a bit of study and a great deal more work. I also reminded myself that I have no talent for marketing, and no one would publish the book anyway. There was no traditional path to publication for a shy, unpublished sixty-year-old's first novel, so why bother? I was probably right.
Times change, though, and now there exists a path to publication that is simple and direct no matter who you are, or how old, or what you're previous experience might have been. It's almost free, and they never turn a writer down. I've never entirely given up on the idea, and I find myself being drawn to the idea more strongly than ever. Maybe my recent brush with mortality added some impetus to the idea. One thing that we can all agree on: if I'm going to do it, it better be soon. I ain't getting any younger.
But why would anyone do such a thing? Even in the age of Amazon self-publishing, it will almost certainly never repay the frightening amount of work that goes into a genuine novel. Ah, the “almost.” There's the rub. Somewhere between none and slim there is a sliver of daylight showing on the spectrum of possibility.
I've always been glad that I made that halfhearted go at it ten years ago. I've been reading novels at a pretty good pace since I developed the habit at the age of twelve. I've read a lot of good ones, a handful of the classics, some very professional genre fiction, a lot that were mediocre but entertaining, and quite a bit of total crap. I have always enjoyed book reviews, so I've read a lot of those as well. I went through a period when I regularly read literary criticism. But until I really immersed myself in writing a novel of my own, I had never really come to grips with exactly what a novel is, what it must be, what it must do, not what and not how, how is a novel constructed, how can the pieces be made to fit, and certainly not why. What followed was ten more years of reading many novels, as usual, but reading them with a more critical eye to what the author was doing. I had been sailing through them for pure entertainment, seeking only their outer beauty, but after my effort I found myself looking deeper, trying to include the bones of the novel in my vision. Hey, if I never write one of my own, having a go at writing one enriched my reading experience. I've learned a lot, and I enjoy novels more than I ever have. That has been a net-positive already.
Long ago I read an interview with a newspaper writer. She was a youngish woman, and I had enjoyed her work. She had published books of her usual newspaperish things, essays or something, and she told the interviewer about the time that she had attempted a novel. She finished it and a publisher friend agreed to read it. When they met to talk about it, the friend said, “it's a good story, but nothing happens.”
The newspaper writer was confused by this. As far as she could see, there were three-hundred fucking pages of things happening. She expressed this frustration to the friend, who kindly told her, “yeah, but something has to happen to somebody. Somebody has to be changed by the things that happen in the story.” This was my first real understanding of the meaning of the “psychological dimension” that is required of a novel.
That's good to know, of course, but the reading public takes a view that is very different from that of the critics and a publisher like the friend. For instance, people love mysteries. I've never understood the attraction myself, not of the who-done-it variety of so-called mystery novels. The Agatha Christie type of popular books. Maybe I was unconsciously looking for that something that is supposed to happen to somebody. That rarely happens in who-done-its. Many things happen, but it's all a cheat. The author carefully lays out the clues, and some red-herrings, and then boom! All is revealed! It's like Sigfried and Roy's disappearing tigers. I don't really care how it's done, and I know that it's a trick. I am not amused.
I suppose you could say the same thing about the popular genre of thrillers, you know, the Tom Clancy books, Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, things like that. God knows they sell like hotcakes. They make good “railway novels” too, they will help to fill the time while one is riding the train to work in London. They are too full of certain things happening, while nothing important happens at all.
Characters don't change.
No one matures or learns anything.
No genuine attitudes are revealed.
I've read a lot of those books, and I've enjoyed a lot of them, too. They were fine as time-fillers. I don't regret reading them. I wouldn't want to spend the huge investment of time required to write one, though. This is almost certainly a mistake, because genre fiction is probably easier to sell on Amazon. That's me, however, I wouldn't know my best financial interest if it jumped up and bit me on the ass. If I make the effort, it will be to write something that I can be proud of.
That would be a novel with a fine story arc, good characters whose attitudes are reflected in the things that happen, a main character who starts out in one place and ends up in another, and I don't mean California. There'll be some excitement, for sure, and a bit of mostly off screen sex, chances will be taken, someone could even get murdered! Who knows? It might be fun.
It could happen.