On realizing I’ve been writing two novels, not one

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Kelsey Newman, the narrator of Scarlett Thomas’ forthcoming Our Tragic Universe, aspires to literary greatness but actually ghostwrites YA thrillers. Her descriptions of the ever-evolving Serious Novel she’s been writing for years remind me so much of my own experience, laughing at them feels like laughing at myself.

“I realised a while ago that I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life,” Kelsey says, after describing, in hilarious detail that I probably shouldn’t quote from a galley, its transformation.

My own plan has been to write one novel* and then turn my attentions to something else: literary biography, reportage, an accessible book on tax policy (don’t laugh!), becoming a private investigator

Many writers who take their own experiences and twist them into fiction only have one story in them but publish many more, of ever-diminishing worth, after their first book appears. I’m deeply afraid of becoming that kind of literary natterer-on.

The trouble is, though, if you decide you’re only going to write one novel, you will want that book to be the best it can possibly be — not just for right now, but for all time. Down this particular obsessive-compulsive road lie many interesting developments. A completed manuscript is not one of them.

Recently I’ve been hacking away at my novel draft, and last week I finally admitted to myself that what I’ve been writing as one book for the past six years is two different stories.

The prospect of wrangling them separately fills me with nearly as much dread as relief, but part of being a writer is tricking yourself, again and again, into investing in each new epiphany. So I’ve given myself a deadline to finish the first book. We’ll see how it goes.

The photo above is of Scarlett Thomas’ contribution to the Significant Objects project, which I won in the third round of auctions (benefitting Girls Write Now).** The object itself was chosen by Paola Antonelli, and you can read Thomas’ brief story about it here. (A copy of Kate Bingaman-Burt’s 20×200 print depicting the candles and other recent Significant Objects is for sale here; proceeds, again, benefit GWN.)

When I do complete the draft, I’m going to open a bottle of champagne and light the candles. Even though I’ve only read forty pages of Our Tragic Universe so far, I have a feeling Kelsey Newman would approve.

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* You can read an excerpt from the beginning in Narrative Magazine.

** I contributed my own story to Significant Objects, and I sit on Girls Write Now’s Board of Directors.


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