by David Edgerley Gates
I wrapped the rough draft of a thriller called EXIT WOUNDS yesterday. The start date was 07-13-13, so about six months to write. It clocks in at 60K words, which is quick and dirty compared to the two previous books, both of which ran to 100K, and took longer. The more curious thing is that although it gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction, I'm feeling somewhat bereft, or adrift.
My general habit is that after I finish a book, I'll buckle down to some short stories, and I try to hit a deadline of a week to ten days for each story. David Morrell is fond of quoting Carrie Fisher, "The problem with instant gratification is that it isn't quick enough." The difference between a story and a novel isn't simply word count, but stamina. A short story is like sudden, fugitive sex. A novel is a relationship.
Writing a book, you're waking up with the same person every morning, and some days they're happier to see you than others. You're familiar with their contours, even if you sometimes wonder what possibly prompted you to fall in love with them in the first place.
I don't know about you, but I need to have a project of some kind going all the time. I like doing stories, because you do get that quick, energizing, empowering hit, and you know right away whether you got it right. Still, a book, where you're in it for the long haul, has a rhythm, and a kind of tidal pull, because you're navigating deeper waters, and uncharted shoals, often without a compass, what might be called dead reckoning.
A short story may come to you fully-fleshed, and all of a piece. A novel doesn't, in my experience. You may try on every piece of clothing in your wardrobe, until you find the one that fits. And there's a lot of second-guessing. Did you start down a blind alley, with no exit strategy? Or is such-and-such a scene proving impossible to write, simply because it's in the wrong book? On the other hand, the most intractable issue can suddenly resolve itself, when you hold it up to the light. You never know. The struggle is part of the gain. This, of course, is exactly why I'm feeling this let-down. The process is consuming, and exhausting, and at the same time, exhilarating, and then you run out of road.
The other part, obviously, is that it may not turn out to be the book you meant to write. There's the observation Auden or Berryman or one of those guys made, that a novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it. This is maybe more true of a literary novel than a genre one, but it still applies. We see the soft spots, inconsistency or structural weakness, the easy choices and cheap effects. I have a friend who says he won't go back and read his older stuff, he's afraid it will make him cringe.
We set the bar higher with every book or story. We're less willing to settle for watered wine. We all have a bag of tricks, whether it's wisecracking dialogue or evocative physical description or heart-stopping violence, but as we mature (I mean in the sense of sharpened skills), it's no longer as simple as having a guy come through the door with a gun. Not that some devices aren't tried-and-true, but we're not as likely to use them reflexively. We rehearse the play longer, we take greater care to hit our marks, and we hope opening night sells out to standing room only.
With that said, on to the next sordid affair.