It’s Always the First Time

Heian LadyI don’t know who said it first, but it’s been said before and it’s the absolute truth—“I don’t know how to write a novel. I only know how to write the last one.” There’s a lot of Zen in that statement, because the clear implication is, as the Zen masters would say, “It’s always the first time.” It certainly applies here. I’ve written either ten or eleven novels before now. I honestly do not remember the number. I could go to my works list and count them, but the exact number isn’t the point, because this applies whether it’s one novel or a hundred plus. No, the point is that I now know how to write those novels, because I’ve already done them. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I’m in the process of learning how to write the current novel. By the time I’m done, I’ll have figured it out and, having figured it out, I won’t be doing it again. A tad ironic, yes, but there it is.

Almost sounds like a problem, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s a long way from being a problem. I’d even go so far as to say it borders on the miraculous. How can you get in a rut if it’s always the first time? How can you get bored if, in a practical if not literal sense, you’ve never done this before? No, the only way it would be a problem is if, each time, you had to learn how to write all over again. And you don’t. You may still be learning how to write, and that’s fine. You can’t improve if you’re not learning. But you haven’t forgotten what you’ve already learned by writing everything you’ve written up until now. That’s still with you, and you bring it along.

The new book, on the other hand, is not still with you, because it never was with you in the first place. You have to go get it. You have to figure out what it wants, and how to provide it, because you are in service to the material, not the other way around. If there’s a book to be written, then in a metaphorical if not literal sense, it wants to be written. Its existence until now is wraithlike, and like any wraith worth its salt, it wants to manifest into the physical, and have an effect. That’s where you come in. It’s a mystery, and it’s your job to solve it. Every single time, and then go looking for the next one.

Last week the current project passed the 40,000 word mark. By SFWA standards, that technically makes it a novel. I mean, sure, good luck selling a novel that short, but it is so classified. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it that far. When I first started the project, I was going gangbusters. I passed the 20,000 word mark without breaking a sweat, and that’s only because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’ve discovered that I can only write really fast if a) I don’t know what I’m doing or b) I know exactly what I’m doing. I hit the point in the novel when neither one applied. I knew too much but not enough. It’s not that what I wrote to that point was wrong. It might have been, but it wasn’t. I just realized that I didn’t understand what any of it really meant. I hadn’t thought through my own implications. I didn’t understand why my characters were doing some of the things they were doing. I churned for about a month trying to figure it out, getting daily word counts in the hundreds (if I was lucky) rather than thousands. Now the book is moving again.

Have I figured it out? Maybe, some of it anyway. I know more than I did. I know enough to write the next section, but I still think the book will surprise me. After all, I’ve never done this before.