Six weeks ago I finished the rough draft of a new novel. While I was writing it, this book felt perfect—a spitfire of a story. When I reached the end, I knew that, barring minor edits, it was ready to rumble. I was more confident of it than any other rough draft I’ve written. I sent the manuscript to a small cadre of trusted beta readers and waited for the kudos to roll in.
Hmmm, they said.
Hmmm? What do you mean, “hmmm”?!
Well, they continued, the characters and set-pieces are fascinating, it’s buzzing with big ideas, there’s a lot of awesome stuff here, but can you clarify this small question about the premise?
The floor fell out from under me. I didn’t have answers to their questions—holes that should have been obvious, holes that bored straight through the foundation of the story. If the inconsistencies they pointed out didn’t make sense, then the context for the whole story didn’t make sense, even though the events and relationships within the story were compelling.
I’ve spent the last few weeks grappling with these problems, dreaming up solutions that seem airtight, only to see them collapse on arrival. I ride the merry-go-round back to square one over and over and over again. Is this manuscript not a novel but a compilation of three separate novels that need to be teased apart and further developed? Or is it a singular story that needs to be rewritten from scratch? Am I missing a crucial surgical intervention that might clarify things? I started diagramming the structure, trying to find new angles. My desk is covered with so many enigmatic narrative equations that at a glance, you might mistake me for a deranged mathematician.
Part of what makes this book tough is that it’s very different from the last one. Veil had one point-of-view protagonist. This has five. Veil grew from a single, specific “what if” question. This has many different themes and ideas that ricochet off each other—more mosaic than portrait. Gene Wolfe nailed it when he said, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” I’m finally, and probably prematurely, feeling like I’m on the brink of learning how to write this novel.
That lesson applies to many creative projects. If you’re doing something you already know how to do, you’re not being creative, you’re being productive. It’s only when you throw caution to the wind and yourself into the unknown that you’ll discover what you’re capable of and learn what the project has to teach you.
This story might be broken, but that doesn’t mean it’s irreparable, and maybe, just maybe, it can grow to be much, much more than the original seemingly-perfect-but-crucially-flawed vision I had for it.
Here’s hoping I’m up to the challenge.
Complement with creativity is a choice, cultivating a sense of presence, and what’s worked for me as a novelist.
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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.
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