I’m a recovering dilettante. A former fake writer. And the regrets from that, they’re eating at me some. Regrets are useless, of course, except maybe as motivation. Or as a lesson. So for you youngins out there, let me haul my creaky ass up into the pulpit.
The novel thing, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, all the way back to grade school. And I’ve always had what a teacher once referred to as a “remarkable utility with words.” But I suppose I should relay the entire conversation. I was a freshman in college, literary criticism class. Professor Tom McBride at Beloit College. And he could be a scary dude. It’s a small school, small classes, so there were maybe twelve of us, and we’d sit around this table, and he would walk around interrogating us about whatever we were supposed to have prepared for the day. Now, I always did the reading. I mean how hard is that, right? Reading? But I didn’t really do the work. Didn’t really THINK about the material before class. Figured I could just skate on my bullshit. But when I said he interrogated us, I meant it. He’d push our assumptions, challenge our positions, make us defend out theories. So he got to me that day. It was toward the end of class, so I knew there wouldn’t be time for too much back and forth, and I let loose with a stream of BS that I thought was pretty damn good. And he smiled and he said “That’s very glib, Mr. O’Shea.” And I smiled, thinking that was a compliment, and then he suggested that I look up the word glib whenever I decided to make the acquaintance of a dictionary because it wasn’t a good thing. And I must have looked like I was pouting, because he pulled me aside on the way out and told me that I had a “remarkable utility with words.” Told me that, up until now, in high school, in other classes, that had probably been enough. And that, through much of life, it probably would be enough. That I’d be able to skate along on the surface of things sliding on the frictionless scum of my verbal effluent, but that I’d always know it was shallow, and that I had to decide whether that was all I wanted to be. And also, that I wasn’t going to get away with it in his class. So I actually did the work. I found out it was far more satisfying to use my words to adorn the foundations of actual thought than it was to just toss them around like shiny baubles. I learned how to work. I hear Professor McBride is retiring soon. And that’s too bad. Because I suspect he’s put a fair number of bullshit artists straight over the years.
And I did work at writing while I was in school because I had to. I had assignments. And I worked at writing when I graduated, too, because it was how I earned a living. I started out in the usual editorial flunky jobs, but by my late twenties I was making pretty good coin writing and editing stuff in the professional services area – accounting firms, law firms, some political work. Then, when I got fired the day after my third kid’s baptism (another story, another lesson, some other time), I hung out my freelance shingle.
And that went pretty damn well for a long time. I was fortunate to have a couple mentors who gave me some very good advice, the best of which was don’t start cheap thinking you’ll get your foot in the door and then work your way up. It’s damn hard to change the market’s perception. So I took a deep gulp, set my rate at $75 an hour (this was in 1990) and prayed. I started getting work almost immediately. And I didn’t BS my clients. I learned their businesses. I dug into their markets. I found the narrative arcs that connected what they did to what their clients wanted. I gave good advice and good copy.
And all the while, I fiddled at the novel writing thing. I’ve got bits and pieces of crap going back almost 30 years. I’d talk about my book. I’d make excuses why it wasn’t done. The kids took time. The job was going good, and I had to take care of paying deadlines before I did any spec work. I made some stupid assumptions. Like, for instance, I wondered how long a novel actually had to be. When I first asked myself that question, it was back before the net, before you could just Google that shit, and it was late at night when I asked it so I couldn’t just run down to the library, so I figured hey, you’ve got books in the house, count up the words on a few pages, average that out, do the math. I don’t know what books I looked at or what pages I counted or how I fucked up the math, but the number I came up with was 300,000 words. For the longest time, that was the number I had in my head. 300,000 words. At that point, I had maybe 30K done, and I was feeling like I was maybe a third of the way into the story. And now, suddenly, I was at ten percent. So I started padding. I started bolting on subplots left and right. I really fucked things up. And I’d have these spurts where I’d crank out stuff for a few weeks and I’d think I’d turned the corner, and then I wouldn’t work on it one day, and one day would turn into a week and a week into a month and . . .
I only had one writer friend. My best friend, Brian. We’d talk about our respective books, respective ideas. We were our own little enabling universe, impressing each other while we got nothing done. And then, a few years back, Brian died. Car crash. And that shook me up pretty good, hammered that first real mortality nail into my virtual coffin. Made the point that we are all on the clock, and that the clock was ticking. And I realized that, if I ever wanted to be somebody who actually finished a novel instead of just talking about it, then I was going to have to write one.
So I did. Took a couple of years. And I was just as busy when I wrote the damn thing as I was all those years that I used being too busy as an excuse. Now, my dilettante period, it may have had some blessings. For one thing, it meant I’d read a few thousand more books, and you do learn from that. I was older, I’d been through more, and you do learn from that, too. And I was writing all that time in my professional life, so I was developing my skills. So, when I finally finished my first novel and started querying with it, I got an agent pretty much right off. Thought that meant it was going to be easy. Goes to show what I know. That book, after a major rewrite, is still being shopped around. But I’ve written another one, I’m well into a third.
Still, the regrets do eat at me. I now know I could have written a novel twenty years ago. Probably wouldn’t have been very good. But I’d have known I could do it, and then I could have written a better one, and whatever talent I have now, I had then, and the publishing industry was a hell of a lot more receptive to new writers twenty years ago. Tough shit. You fuck up, you pay for it.
I’m pretty much in the habit now. I’ll keep at it. Maybe I’ll get my break, maybe I won’t, but I’ll do the work. And if you’re reading this, and if you’re waiting for something – more time, your muse, whatever – that bus ain’t coming. Pick a direction and start walking. And it’s not as far as you think. That 300,000 words? Turns out 70K to 100K will do just fine.