You can feel young again when you begin writing a novel. Barely sketched scenery brings you to intriguing, enigmatic characters whose crucial inner secrets have yet to be revealed. Things surprising, exciting things happen without cause or connection. As slippery slopes go, this is better than a theme park water slide.
But after a few days or weeks, you look back over what you’ve done and all that effortless creative energy skids to a halt. A character who utters an ominous riddle on page five has not returned by page 100, when, according to what someone (a teacher, a famous novelist blathering at a book signing) told you the novelist must have introduced and developed all important information. A glimpse of water flowing uphill has not been explained. A quick count reveals you have too many characters and an odd number of point-of-view shifts.
Or you’ve written the climax and every incident preceding it leads away, rather than toward, what you want to be the novel’s ultimate scene.
Or–worst of all–you’re thumbing through the offerings on a streaming service and find that a vital element in your story is the essence of the latest Netflix original.
You read what you’ve written and it’s all…hopeless.
For me, the moment my inspiration expired was always on, or somewhere close to Page 161. I’m not sure why this number was my taking-stock-before-despair point. It could be a post-traumatic-stress flashback to my first computer, whose hard disc would intermittently crash just when I thought I was doing my best work.
Or it could be a bit of novelists’ lore I’d heard somewhere, that, because a typical novel is 75,000 words or 300 typed, double spaced pages of approximately 250 words each, you’re supposed to introduce all characters, establish the setting and the “arc” of the plot in the first 100 pages, add complications that are ONLY based on what was in the previous 100 pages and then, by page 200, narrow and focus the basic conflict until it rockets to a nail-bitingly suspenseful climax at page 295.
In other words: no matter how much you enjoy the discovery and adventure of bringing something new into the world, your novel should resemble every other mass-market success, or the gatekeepers won’t consider it. If it is considered, and published, it will not sell because entertainment-consuming public only wants minor variations of what it previously enjoyed and, despite what they told you in college, is not willing to trust an artist enough to tolerate side projects, major changes in style, or experimental departures from established norms–even if your pop culture heroes got away with the very same thing. The novel is a commercial art form. It exists because publishers recover the costs of printing, binding, cover illustration, alcohol-soaked lunches at trendy urban boites and summer homes in Vermont by selling a small amount of goods for a small amount of money, many, many times.
If you book doesn’t sell, fewer gatekeepers will consider your next work and you might as well do what your father told you to do: find a busy corner of your neighborhood and open up a donut shop.
Why is every great creative rush followed by a melancholic slump? I used to think there was something wrong with me, and that other writers, by the need to make money, an urge to please a muse or by an unquestioning faith in themselves, blasted through such self-imposed obstacles, wrote unusual, atypical, experimental, critically praised and COMMERCIALLY SUCCESSFUL books that are now milestones in literary history.
We tend to think that our work isn’t any good unless it resembles something that we think is good, or achieves what we imagine is worthwhile.
Now I know that there is nothing wrong with me, other than a fear of making mistakes that hasn’t gone away, regardless of how many successes I have produced. I’ve learned that many people who do imaginative things are overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, catastrophe and inferiority. After a while, those feelings fade, These people either continue the work that aroused such enthusiasm, or they do something else.
I have a few uncompleted works that have not gone past page 161. I used to feel they were lost, until last night, I went down to my shelf of books-I-bought-long-ago-certain-that-I-would-read-someday, and extracted a thin volume by an author–judging from the comments on the flap–was the salvation of the literary universe.
I opened the novel and discovered that it is exactly 161 pages long.