As an FYI, the novel I was writing in this 2001 Whatever entry was Old Man’s War.
JULY 16, 2001: “Working on the Novel”
What a wonderful phrase: “Working on the novel.” Writers know exactly what the means: Not a damn thing. Everyone who is a writer, was a writer, or wants to be a writer is “working on the novel.” There’s not a single journalist I know that isn’t always “working on the novel” — usually a crime thriller in the journalist’s case, don’t ask me why. I think that’s just what journalists are supposed to write, much in the same way women who have lots of candles and listen to Stevie Nicks are supposed to write fantasy novels, or Bennington alumni are supposed to write about their nihilistic drug and bisexual experiences. However, there’s a vast difference between working on the novel and, say, actually writing the novel. Writing involves actually typing. And we all know what a pain in the ass that is.
Working on the novel, on the other hand, merely involves thinking about the novel in a pleasantly detached sort of way. Coolly observing the scene, you know. Taking notes. Discerning the little nuances in behavior others (i.e., people not “working on the novel”) miss. And so on. That takes up a lot of time. And given the typical writer’s disposition and ability to rationalize any behavior in terms of generating raw material for writing, one is more or less always working on the novel. The drawback is that time spent coolly observing is not actually time spent writing, and if one is not careful one can coolly observe all the way to the grave. You can see that epitaph: This is great research for my novel.
Writers feel compelled to state they’re working on a novel for the same reason your waiter feels compelled to inform you that he also acts; it supports the idea that one is doing something noble with one’s life (or has plans to), even if what one is really doing at the moment is entering in box scores or fetching you your iced tea. There’s no real harm in it, as long as the box scores are entered and the iced tea delivered, but the fact is, until you have the novel in hand or the play on the stage, very few people care what you’re doing in your secret, offstage life.
I try to be honest with myself regarding “working on the novel.” If I’m actually writing, then I’m working on the novel; if I’m not writing, then I’m not working on the novel; I’m procrastinating, screwing around or (as the civilians like to call it), “having a life.” I think that in a general sense, writers who are not actually physically working on writing a novel shouldn’t say they are; the Writing Police will not beat you with truncheons if you dare to state that at the moment you’re not working on a novel, nor do you have plans to do so any time soon. The Writing Police don’t exist, anyway, because if they did, Tom Clancy would be serving hard time in a SuperMax facility, and fashioning a shiv out of his toothbrush for an encounter in the yard. And he’s not, damn the luck.
If you want to write a novel, don’t “work” on it — write the thing. It’s a simple enough process: Turn on the computer. Write for 90,000 words. Stop. Then comes the rewriting. And that could take years.
Hey. “Rewriting the novel.” That sounds ever so much better. But for the record, I am working on the novel. And for what it’s worth, I also act.