Somewhere, right now, there is a guy typing feverishly into a laptop, haunted by a deadline either real or imaginary. Mine was always “must write first book before the age of 40” (fail). He is surrounded by clippings from newspapers (remember those?), pictures and articles from online sources, and volumes of tangentially relevant errata saved to data-retentive devices and/or the ubiquitous cloud. We call this, rather grandly, the ‘concordance’. His brow is furrowed with dread because this poor sorry bastard decided, back when he was still living with his parents, that he wanted to make a living from his writing.
Because it’s easier than being a pure fantasist, where everything must spring from imagination, his novel is anchored in the real world. So he will be laying down the skeleton of a story, a bare bones chronology of events that any halfwit could lazily glean from hundreds of media reports and ‘eyewitness’ accounts of an actual event. If enough of these unverified voices are shouting the same thing, then he reasons it must be true. This constitutes a bone. So, as the structural basis upon which all else will follow, the writer confidently assembles the bones of his story: “Antagonist A went here and did X! And, oh my god, protagonist B went there and did Y!!”
Having amassed a pile of bones the writer now looks for connective tissue: what are the relationships between these people, places and events? Trolling the ‘net, frustratingly absent any real facts, he uses ‘logical inferences’ to substitute tendons of plausibility in the place of sinewy particulars. And so he stitches his bones together. Instead of admitting he doesn’t know what happened, he writes: “Well, terrible incident G happened at location X, and we know that A was at X, so therefore it must have been A that caused G, the bastard!”
Now the hard part: if he wants his frankenstein monster to get up and dance then it needs muscles to give impetus to action. But here the writer is utterly on his own. Pure speculation, running high on the whispering interwebs, provides him with ideas. Among the Chinese whispers (“What if it wasn’t evil organisation W behind A’s actions, but a shadowy conspiracy by our own government!?”) he picks out the most dramatic skeins and lays them down on the body. He steals half-ideas, and what he can’t steal he invents and claims as poetic licence. Soon the bones are buried in flesh; but his narrative is a monster resembling a flayed burns victim.
He needs to take a step back here — forget the deadline — if he missteps it will be ruined. Regardless of the shortcuts he took earlier (dodgy inferences, specious reasoning, flawed logic), this next step could potentially hide a thousand sins.
It’s also where he fails.
His antagonists are stereotypes, the action overblown, the violence gratuitous, their dialogue stilted cliches, motivation shallow and unconvincing. His victims all resemble his target audience, the Kindle-toting mums of middle-America, Australia and the UK, who presumably all want to read about evil brown men ravaging innocent white women, but getting their asses handed back to them by buff, significantly younger white guys wearing uniforms, who can barely repress their long-hidden desire to sample the forbidden fruit of mature womanhood.
So the writer stitches on the skin and raises it to it’s feet. If he has an editor, he calls her. It is alive. And now for the first time he stops to consider what he’s done. He is conflicted — pride and shame commingle — but if he were truly any good he’d beat this creature down with his laptop and kill it with fire. The world needs less frankenstein monsters, not more, but by the time the writer realises this and reaches for his MacBook, the door is open and the creature is gone. All he can do is hope it dies in a ditch out there somewhere, unnoticed, and that the carcass of this horrible thing is never traced back to him.
This is how a first book feels to most of us. It’s how my first book felt to me. The only real way to make amends is to make the next one less monstrous. Frankenstein needs no bride. Try harder, take your time, and be honest. Maybe it could even be time to ditch the dream. Maybe it’s even time to admit that you aren’t any good. don’t give up that day job, there are mouths to feed. Nothing wrong with enjoying writing just as a hobby. Taking my own advice for once — I am pleased to announce that I am 151 pages into a novella that is a chapter or two shy of the finale. I am sitting on 40,000 words, and doubt it will go past 50. I actually think it is pretty good. But I have the matches and gasoline ready, just in case.