Back in 2013, I began an epic novel. For the next three and a half years, I consistently worked on this project. Its working title changed at least three times, before I finally settled on Dreamers.
The novel got longer and longer. Then longer still.
As I wrote, I felt there was no end in sight. It eventually turned into two novels. I kept on, feeling a little like Frank O’Hara in his poem ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’, only more epic:
Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.
Eventually, I had written over 200,000 words, most of them more than once. I then spent months rearranging chapters, reworking the beginning, adding more characters, taking others out. Nothing worked. I just couldn’t get it right. Finally, I printed out the whole damn thing and put the pile of paper on my desk to read through and annotate. This time, I told myself, I would finally do it. This time I would finally hammer it into the shape I wanted it to be.
It was only at this point that I realised the novel was flawed in its very conception. I was never going to get it right. It didn’t matter how often I rewrote each sentence, how radically I restructured the narrative – it was never going to be the book I wanted it to be.
It was the first time I had worked on a novel without reaching the end. But once I realised what was wrong with it, deciding to abandon the project barely cost me a pang. Maybe because of all those hours of work, I knew that I wasn’t giving up because I hadn’t tried hard enough. I had definitely tried.
I began work on another book pretty much straightaway. This one was on a much more modest scale and, unlike the first, was for younger readers. It was an old idea: I had written the first chapters several years before, as I often do, waiting for the obscure signal that tells me it is time to begin work on a novel and find out what it is about.
This one only went through two titles, finishing up as The Threads of Magic, and this time I finished it. It will be published next March. It is not long – about 70,000 words – but when I think back on the process of writing, it feels like a marathon.
That is because writing this book has been so deeply bound up with the long, frustrating and ultimately abortive process of the earlier novel. Although they are very different projects, the two books have several things in common. Both, for example, inhabit an imaginary city that draws on pre-revolution Paris. I also pillaged a couple of characters from the failed novel, adapting them for younger readers.
Most importantly, both novels switch points of view between multiple characters, which is a tricky thing to do in a story. But my long struggle through the endless drafts of my failed epic taught me how to weave narrative between different characters in ways that don’t disrupt the overarching story. In short, I couldn’t have written The Threads of Magic without the disaster that preceded it.
One useful thing that writing teaches you is that nothing, not even a botched 700-page epic, is a waste of time. I knew this before I dumped the manuscript of Dreamers in the recycling bin, because I have dumped a lot of work before. Maybe it wasn’t a failure after all, although it certainly wasn’t a success. Maybe, like most things, it was neither.
We think of failure and success as binary opposites. Certainly, our society frowns on failure; from the beginning of our school lives, we are taught to be ashamed of it. Failure is only celebrated if it has a narrative of later success, like my aborted novel teaching me how to write a different book. Worse, it is a character flaw. To fail is to be a loser, and who wants to lose? Meanwhile, success is – what?
The truth is that I have never been quite sure what either of these things really mean. They are both matters of perception, after all, which inevitably changes with the angle of view. How do you tell if something has succeeded? Is success the same as accomplishment? Is something a success when someone else says so? But what if other people claim that same thing is a failure?
It is all very confusing. No wonder people like to use money as the ultimate measure of success. It is easier than working through the complicated mess that is living, where we succeed and fail in every moment, neither one thing nor the other.
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