The case of "The case". Why did I spend 7 years writing a 27000-word novel
A couple of months ago I finished the first part of my first self-published novel which I had started writing 7 years ago, at the age of 25 (I am 32 now if you are too lazy to do the math). I am not a fast writer, but I can still write the same amount of words in a few months, so why did it took me so long? This is the story.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Seven years ago, I was a somewhat promising young author - I had published a couple of short stories, I had a blog and I had made some attempts at writing longer fiction which some people were encouraging. One of the writers who inspired me to take up writing was Stephen King. I did not want to copy his style, but I wanted to be hugely successful, prolific and loved by everyone like him. Last but not least, I also wanted to have an interesting and challenging profession, So I followed his advice, contained in the book On Writing (which I still think is great) and set out to write my first great novel.
I designed a protagonist who was supposed to be a version of me which would also be a bit like Sherlock Holmes. The story was also going to be similar to Sherlock’s adventures, except it would be in the future where crimes would usually be solved by computer algorithms, which would provide the moral conflict for the story and allow me to include some interesting thoughts on the topic of technology, which interested me. I thought my premise was perfect - my protagonist would be as brilliant a detective as I thought about myself as a brilliant writer.
“But I haven’t done anything illegal, and nowadays the false flags are very rare. So why are you here then? The next most probable explanation is that you are looking for help. But this is not a standard practice. So to do it you must be in very senior positions, possibly even C-level. That would explain your age too, as most of the people who work with you are pretty young. I admit that my last proposition was a bit fuzzy,” he continued after a while, “so you can easily question its validity. You may, for instance, say “But no one has killed anyone in this city for years” and you will be right. You may say that there is a huge unsolved crime from just a week ago, and your remark will be valid. Still, it is my firm conviction that there is only one kind of crime that can cause such radical alteration of your way of doing things. Only one kind of crime that can lead the leaders of one of the biggest organisations in this city in my humble office. And apparently, at least when it comes to our current situation, I was correct.
I dedicated a lot of effort to the project, but the more I was progressing, the more I felt that it wasn’t going anywhere. My character wasn’t looking as brilliant as I was imagining him to be, and (what was even scarier) not that different from everyone else. Also my character lacked motivation, which was probably because my own motivation as a writer was depleted: I had started my first full-time job and also had gained some insight on how the publishing world works and with that came the obvious realisation that my “talent” was not a ticket for a pleasant and a care-free living, if not the other way around. But I still kept on writing, as all writing guides advised me to do.
At some point in his career, Arthur Conan Doyle started hating writing about Sherlock Holmes. He even tried to “kill” him in one of his stories (only to revive him later due to the public interest). He hated writing about him because he felt that his character was too rudimentary. At the stage of my life which followed, I felt in the same way about myself - I felt like a one-dimensional character in the film about my life. And that didn’t help my writing. At one point the mantra that writing is what I loved, so I had to keep doing it stopped working because I no longer liked writing and I no longer could do it, even if I wanted to, not to mention that the topic of my novel at the time was my love for writing, so writing it without feeling satisfied felt immoral in addition to impossible. I didn’t yet have the writer’s block but I got something even worse from a productivity standpoint - I would open my draft and would start deleting stuff from it because it all felt too fake. So my text got shorter and shorter every day.
“Look, if you want me to help, I need to-“
“My friend,” Pankill interrupted him, “there are over two million people under our jurisdiction, there are around two hundred of us, and the unsolved crimes are two or three per month. We no doubt have our imperfections, but believe me, we don’t need help, nor do we plan to alter our approach. Quite the opposite - you too, if you work at our scale, will have to follow it. So from now on just accept this thing here,” Pankill pointed to the PC, “as your partner.”
My inability to be productive helped me realise once more how much I really liked writing - I felt like shit when I was not doing it. But still, when reading my text, it seemed to me that my character wasn’t being honest with himself as to who he was, as I wasn’t being honest with myself. I wasn’t a careerist. I wasn’t really a conflict-free person who always knew what he loved to do. And I did not write just because I loved writing - I actually wanted to be famous simply because I felt insecure about myself.
My initial impulse upon realising all this was to embed this layer of insecurity that I was experiencing in my character. making him a brilliant person who was secretly insecure. This was my initial impulse because that is how I felt about myself at that time. I figured that removing my character from his pedestal and making him a real person would make him more relatable for both myself and my potential readers, thus killing birds with one stone.
“I didn’t want to be mediocre,” Ayer spoke fast and stopped only to take a sip from the cup of Cappucino that Vince had brought him. “I wanted everything I do to be perfect, but at the same time I had no idea what that meant and how could I achieve it. As a result, I missed most of my youth. I was apathetic - I went to study in a university after finishing school because that’s what everybody did, I worked the job that my father had arranged for me because it was the easiest thing I could do. I spent my free time reading books and I thought that this was making me better than everyone else, actually, it was more like the opposite,” Ayer was smiling as he was speaking, “Although, to be fair, it helped me immensely.”
“Now when you speak about your job, you are referring to the dry-cleaning place where you met Robert?”
However, that did not work out. It did not fit into my narrative and as much as I admit it, and despite my best attempts, it was still dishonest. But I felt I was onto something - at least my new writings were relatable, something which cannot be said about my older ones.
And so my next plan was conceived - change the genre of the book and centre it entirely on my main character’s personality - it wasn’t going to be pulp-fiction any more, but an abstract revelation about finding myself, with many allegories. So with an ability to attack problems which is probably one of the few really positive qualities that I possess, I set out to examine my novel, as my protagonist examines his suspects, and find the seed for version 2.0. My efforts to do that were not successful. As many people do, I was only searching for myself at places where the answer that I would find would be rewarding and the transition to the new state - effortless. I imagined that my inner self would be a perfect attachment to my persona and discovering it would enable me to say “Yeah, of course” and to continue writing the narrative that was my life with one dimension added to the protagonist. But I found nothing, like a person who when searching for a rhinoceros goes to his room and opens the first drawer and when not finding what he seeks, opens then the second drawer. No, you cannot find a rhinoceros without leaving your home. In order to find a rhinoceros (yes, I know that the metaphor is a bit weird) you have to go to the jungle, risk your life, learn about things which you did not think you’d know and, also prepare to face a rhinoceros.
And while I was getting ready to do so, my real persona was watching me through my pages.
She sat upright, with her toes touching the floor with a posture that made her look like she was about to attack him. Both her toes and her nails were painted with dark nail polish - perhaps to hide signs of biting, but the layer was so thick that he couldn’t be sure. She looked like she was about twenty, but she was dressed and made up as a much older woman, indeed, the level of sophistication of her wardrobe was unlike what he had seen by people her age. Perhaps this was a way for her to show character or exactly the opposite - to conceal her character from him. If the latter was true, she was doing a perfect job of it - the amount of traits she managed to hide from him was astounding. This was probably the smallest he’d ever known for a living person in a long while. He looked at her and smiled while trying to relax himself with the fact that it was probably her race that prevented him from seeing a clearer picture of her.
This was where my true writer’s block began. Opening my editor was scary and depressing at the same time. I tried to write some stupid blog posts but I failed again, which felt even more depressing. Some of you are probably thinking why didn’t I drop this whole useless project. Or what is this mythical “writer’s block” anyways, and why is there a special name for it, when it is clear that you can encounter the same feeling when you practice any other activity only when you have been a lawyer for twenty years and you suddenly feel appaled by everything that is related to your profession, you don’t say that you have the “lawyer’s block” and be all whiny about it, but you just move on to something else. The answer to that question is simple - my novel contained stuff that was personal to myself, so scraping it would mean scraping myself.
Faced with the writer’s block, many writers make an attempt to write against their will. Can’t imagine why. maybe its because they still feel that what they say might be important for someone, (even though it apparently is not too important for themselves). Or maybe this is just an excuse for not wanting to get better, both as writers and as people. Probably, the explanation is that all of us tend to like sticking that “me” label to all kinds of shitty sets of beliefs, and keep it there as a manifestation of our freedom to define our own individuality. We rarely get rid of old habits, even ones which kill us, simply because we are too attached to them. And because we don’t like to admit our weaknesses, we dress them in pretty clothes and claim that they are integral parts of us.
With thoughts like this one, I identified the main source of my writer’s block - from an internal conflict - one side of my personality wanted to write and another saw no point in doing so. I started revising my book with the thought that this conflict was interesting and valuable for the reader. But it was not - a conflict by itself is not valuable - its resolution is.
At that point, I realised that if I had to finish my book I had to change - if I was really strong enough to model my values and my whole personality into whatever I liked, I had to model it into something beautiful, in a way that is conflict-free, and that made sense for me and other people to (the keyword here is “other people”, as a person who is alone does not have personality). In other words, I had to resolve my conflict, in order to help my protagonist resolve his. Such conflicts are generally not too hard to see - mine was that I was desperate for the attention and approval of other people on one hand, but I also was (and always had been) an elitist, who did not care about other people on another (the secret aim of some of my earlier writings was to feed my ego and to establish me as some of these people whom everyone respected and with which no one can argue with). The solution - I had to start caring more.
He kept thinking why had he lied to her at the end. Or perhaps the real question was rather why he contemplated on telling her the truth, as opposed to what he did to all people who’re behaviour he couldn’t diagnose with a fairly high level of accuracy. Perhaps it was because what he felt towards her was quite different from what he felt to the other members of that group - while everyone else in it was in some sense alien to him, Den was there because she was, in many ways, similar to himself. As himself, she was a foreigner to her environment. As himself (and her sister), she chose to live without technologies. And she probably did it for the same reason as he did - because she still had hope for a world which was not completely soulless. He wanted to be close to her, but at the same time, her behaviour was scary for him, as if she was exposing to him, his own self with weaknesses which he didn’t know he possessed.
Appalled by my narcissistic personality, which had started this idiotic book in a way to gather attention, I started divorcing from many aspects of it which had prevented me from finishing the said book. While doing so, I discovered that there indeed were things in that text which I genuinely wanted to say to other people - I just needed to find the correct writing paradigm in which my ideas would flourish. And after some time I found it, in the writings of Marcel Proust.
Proust’s one and only finished novel “In Search of Lost Time” is famous for being one of the longest texts ever produced by a human being. Ironically, though, you need to only read a single page, any page, in order to see its value. At first glance, it would sound like the endless blabber of one pretty confused guy (the author) about his insecurities, secret desires, his friends/lovers etc. The book is famous mostly for the sheer dedication with which he did that (the fact that it contains some of the finest pieces of prose ever written in my opinion comes second).
When I started reading some more I was just impressed by the meticulousness with which this person exposed what I thought were his weaknesses - he did that with the same meticulousness with which most people try to expose their good sides. He spent long passages in describing what were essentially errors of his, but without actually offering any way of correcting the said errors. For me, it read like an elaborate confession. Only most confessions, including the one I was writing, end with either a plea for forgiveness or with some expression of real or concealed pride over the deeds confessed, like, “that is who I am, and if you don’t like it…”- something something. In other words, confessions aim to integrate the author’s thoughts in the common system of values which we call society. What I see as unique about “In Search of Lost Time” is that it had no such aim. In fact, it was very hard for me to say what its aim was. It seemed like the whole work was a celebration of everything that is different and unique about the author, and yet it looked nothing like I imagined that such a work would look like, just like being an artist, or a person who has chosen to embrace their differences, felt nothing like I originally imagined it would feel - it was largely confused and lonely with genuine contacts with people so rare that they are not nearly enough to motivate you to go on, except if there isn’t something serving as a constant reminder that they sometimes do happen.
And then it hit me - this was precisely what “In search…” was for and what art was for - to serve as this reminder. As such, art should be as personal as possible, and also as non-conforming as possible, ignoring any social constructs, which would make it easier to understand but at the same time weaker in its capacity to connect. To me, art is to say something without knowing what your listeners would make of it, or think of you for saying it. It is this primitive form of expression which keeps us sane and happy, as opposed to delivering beautiful but empty promises for future happiness.
And the artists’ irony is that the more we want to talk, the less we are heard. The more we care about other people, the less we can identify with the society which those people form.
He went through the list of future occupations like a poker player going through his cards. His speculative abilities made him feel like he could visualise how he will spend his life if he went with each of them. As if all he needed to do is ask himself, say, “How would I feel if I decide to have a family?” and he could already see the double bed. He saw his wife decorating the living room, he could feel the thoughts running through his head when he was looking after his child. He could see everything, and everything seemed perfect. There was, however, one problem - he did not feel any enthusiasm, about doing any of these things. He wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about his freedom. And without enthusiasm (he realized that just then) the sparks of light which came from good experiences would never be enough to compensate for the eternal darkness which everything consisted of.
This paradigm may seem weird to you, but what’s the alternative to it? In its extreme form, it is to stop trying to actually express our thoughts to other people, and to the society as a whole, and to embrace the self-preserving cliches that make our society work - things like integrity, bravery, honesty etc. In this case, the role of art would be to merely retell these cliches in the most entertaining way possible. Which seems kind of demeaning and, at least for me, sad.
It is not that creating such modern fairy tales does not have value - such stories can help millions of people deal with their issue and come together, albeit in a somewhat superficial way. And trying to expose your weaknesses and differences would not bring you far - weird and insecure characters make up for lousy books. I myself am not sure if I’ll have the time to finish part two of my book. But even if I don’t, I would still feel more satisfied that if I’d started the whole thing wrong.
If he could read this last paragraph, my 25-year self would probably see me as the stereotypical egotistic artist who secretly thinks they are superior to everyone else. I really am not - I just think that there is value in listening to what each person, including myself, has to say and I believe that, given enough time and effort, I can make myself understood.
If my past self could read this, I’d tell him that, although it does not look like it, it is actually him, the aspiring best-seller writer who wants to conquer the world, who is self-centred. A person producing a work which retells some well-known myths aims to either sell the said work and/or stamp his name on the said myths. Any consideration for the public, such as wanting to write prose that is more relatable, are just result of the above aims.
It may not look like this, but its actually “the crazy ones”, the rebels, the weirdoes, the people who are not afraid to show their different views and openly exhibit their quirks who care most about others. People who disrupt the status quo do so not because they don’t care about other people, but precisely because they care enough about them to think that they deserve better. Because everyone has differences. And while it can be beneficial for you to just hide those differences and not talk about them, what is really needed to advance our society is for someone to show that having these differences, all different kinds of them, is OK.
About this article
Thanks for reading, this article was my attempt to advertise my novel. The chapters in the article correspond to the chapters of my novel from where the quotes are. Each chapter of the novel was written roughly at the stage described in the corresponding chapter of the article. You can see how my understanding of my characters developed, particularly in the last chapter.