First comes the madness.
You should do this.
There is space on your bookshelf—between Michael Chabon and Kiran Desai, or between Teju Cole and Arundhati Roy—that is just for you. You could be camped out next to Junot Diaz. You could be boys in paperback citizenship.
You can do this.
All it takes is a few thousand words. That is all.
But how does one start? Simple. Write a short story. Then write another. And then another—make it a collection. Yes, that is what is to be done. No, not a short story—it has to be longer. What is that hipster word? Novella. Make it a novella. It can be done.
You will do this.
It has to be a novel. It must be a novel. That is the real deal. That is where the prestige lies. Novelist—it sounds good coming off the tongue. That is the kind of moniker that will turn heads at a party. Novelist. What a word. That is the cologne of choice.
There has always been this story that has floated in your head. Story, actually, is a big word. You have always had this idea, and this idea has, at different points in your life, been quite clear to you. There were instances when the idea was so sharp that it cut through the bullshit of everyday life, telling you that this is the fundamental truth of the universe—this is what holds everything together. This is it, and you—yes, you, buddy—found it. There have been other times when the idea has been elusive. What was that thing that you thought of yesterday? How did you phrase it? Why did you not write it down? Fool.
Keep a pen handy.
You buy a pen, a good fountain pen. You buy a new writing book. Fresh starts need fresh starts. You will sit and write down this idea. You shall wrest it from the blue ink bottle and all of the corners of your brain and press it onto the page. It will obey. It must obey. The first hesitant strokes of the pen are scratched out.
After a few hours the idea is there on the page, a thought bound in your neat script. It makes sense and you can see where it can be tightened and sharpened and polished. But the idea is there. And what an idea it is. Here is the start, here is when that thing happens, here is when things go wrong, here is when it all comes together. Here is the applause. This is the part where they put it down and this is where they pick it up again. Here is the novel.
This here’s a motherfucking story.
Good Lord! It is a story. You have a story.
Then comes the arrogance. But before you know it for what it is first you entertain a little humility. You approach the masters for advice. Atwood, Hemingway, Leonard, Orwell, Pound, Steinbeck, Twain, Vonnegut—they all have wisdom to share. Everything makes sense. Plan, then execute. Relentlessly. Write, then rewrite again, and again, and again. Polish until it cannot be polished. Your favourite, Zadie Smith, says you can only hope to bring it as close to the idea in your head. She is brilliant. But you are brillianter—you will make it a word. Perfection is impossible, they say. Otherwise no one would write.
You are perfect.
Of course you are. You have a Plan, with a capital “p”, and you have the Fire Eternal.
You are you and ain’t nobody done it the way it’s about to be did, homeboy.
This will be but the work of a month, or two. At most it will take a season. None of this writing for years type of crap. You look at the calendar. Yes, this seems like a good day to become famous.
You write the title. And then that byline that will not let you sleep peacefully in the months to come.
A novel by Rémy Ngamije.
Oh shit! It is so on. You look at the Plan, the one with the capital “p.” Yes, yes, it is all there. Fingers kiss the keyboard. Tick-tick-tick-tack-tick-tack! Tack-tack-tack-tick-tick! The first five hundred words are easy. An hour later, one thousand-five-hundred-and-seventy-one words have poured out of you. Everything is going according to the Plan. You are that one writer in a million.
Told you, kid.
You keep writing. Late afternoon passes into early evening, and then night. Food is for the lesser species, sleep for the weak and uninspired. Finally, it is time to stop. The first chapter on the first day.
And He looked upon what He had created and He was pleased.
The next day dawns. You read over what you wrote. Yes, this is where you continue. You look at the Plan. Okay, it makes sense. Fingers brush the keyboard. And then the whole universe fucking explodes.
Whoa! Whoa! Why is this character saying this? He needs to stay on script. Why is she doing this? Where did all of these background stories come from?
Creation has turned to chaos. Quick! Get the Plan! Get the Plan! Pull it together. Breathe. Breathe.
Okay, try again.
Fuck, shit, tits, and bollocks!
But they are running away with everything.
Who is running away with everything?
Them, every single one, on the page.
Who? The people?
But they are people. People are going to keep people-ing. In life, on the page. Man, you thought you were going to rule here absolutely?
You look at the Plan. Okay, here is the first climb, and if you go through the woods in this direction, crossing this river, and turning by the lighting-struck tree, and scaling this small cliff then you should wind up in the general area.
Once more unto the breach!
Minutes and hours vanish. You come up for air. So far, so good—sort of. You are now camped in the foothills. Tomorrow you will make the great ascent. But tonight you need rest. The second chapter on the second day.
And He looked upon what He had created and He kinda wanted to have another crack at it.
So you do.
Huge fucking mistake. The pages are a mess. You are steering away from the goal. Now you are getting angry.
Just shut the fuck up while I fix this, okay?
The third day ends. You have cut back to where you were yesterday but the backtracking has taken its toll. A friend drops you an email and tells you to fuck forwards. You tell her you will. But, shit, man, you want everything to be perfect. You are that writer in a million. You pocket her advice and forget it the next day. Which is also the day when you nearly throw your laptop at the wall. And it has only been four days.
Four? You’re trippin’, fam.
Day five is better. The third chapter is done. You are behind schedule but you can still make up the time. You begin the climb to the fourth chapter. The words are coming. You are halfway up, giddy from ascending so quickly. But you keep on climbing and writing. And then you are at the top where the air is thin but the words are so rich. You write a word and it becomes real. Like, really real. It is pulled from the aether, ready to respond to your command. Oh! This is power and these are the days of wonder. Accio words!
Boom! The fifth chapter is done.
You are he who pulleth sword from stone, m’lord.
Thud! The seventh falls.
Everything that the light touches is your kingdom!
Crack! The eighth yields.
You shall bring balance to The Force.
Sizzle! The ninth and the tenth roll onto the plate at the same time.
Now you’re just showing off.
You look back the way you have come. Quite impressive. The word count, the phrase turns, the chapters—it is going well. You are now well and truly on your way. You have gotten the hang of it, or so you think. You descend into the next valley to begin the assault on the next peak. You are better prepared. There are some hiccups along the way but nothing you cannot overcome. Each day yields that most precious of writing commodities: progress. Forward, forward, forward.
The charge of the Write Brigade!
Wow, that is cheesy.
Whatever, you know you like it.
The second climb is easier and the air is even richer. This feeling, this feeling right here, is what it is all about. Everything knits together well. Morning, noon, and night you are writing out your little aspiring novelist heart. Eat, sleep, write, do life occasionally. The days flee before your roving pen. From the top you can see how the Plan unfolds in its totality. It is truly grand. When you descend from the top there is no valley.
Now ’tis time to sail, friend.
The fading coastline lets you know you are now further than you have ever written before. Every word from here on out will be a milestone. The first couple of days are smooth, the breeze is stiff and pushes you along. There are one or two days when the water is choppy, but nothing Odyssean. When the wind stops you do not even notice. It will pick up in a couple of hours.
Except it does not for two weeks. Despair is almost immediate.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Whole paragraphs of fucks. No, seriously, that is all you can write. There are whole days when all you can give are fucks. Every writer has a process. Yours is panic. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
And above all else, do not lose hope.
Fuck Yan Martell. And fuck hope. You had a Plan. The world must comply with it. Otherwise what is its function?
It’s more like a basic guideline. You know, it isn’t the full map.
You refuse such cowardly counsel. You walk to the deck and scream at the heavens. Any direction is a good direction at this point. “If I be unworthy then strike me down, but if I am then send me the goddamn words.”
The words do not come. What you get is a kraken. Work—oh, you have a job by the way—churns your life into a mismanaged maelstrom of assignments and deadlines. Days pass without you being able to wriggle a minute from the deluge of being a taxpayer to put down some words.
Actually, there is time, you just do not know how to fight for it, how to centre your day around the things that must absolutely be done to keep you sane. Like writing. So it is jettisoned to feed the beast that is employment. The kraken’s tentacles retreat beneath the waves. But before they leave you swear you heard them say, “Après nous, le déluge.”
First a funeral—and the total loss of words. Then the dying throes of love—so many words, except the ones that matter. Even your cat dies.
Okay, who ordered the swirling tempest of motherfucking doom?
It is some biblical shit and when it hits you go below deck and wait for everything to be split asunder and the world to be made anew. If you are part of it then so be it. If not, then fuck it—you tried.
Hell spits you back out because your worthless soul has not yet done enough to be coveted. The return to life is quiet and peaceful. No writing, no expectations—best of all, no disappointments. When you are asked how the novel is going—fool that you are, you disclosed this information and now the mob bays for progress reports—you smile and say it is coming along. You are just taking a break from it. Wan smiles and tepid encouragement follow you around. It becomes dinner conversation. You he-he and ha-ha politely at the required intervals—it is expected.
What you thought would take a day, took three weeks, and then two months. The season changed but the end was neither nigh nor in sight. But that is fine because now you have peace. Not peace, something better: silence. Ultron was right all along.
Then come the sleepless nights, racked with the thought of the heavy word count you managed to lift in the shortest time in your life. Surely that counts for something, right? You did write all of those chapters, and you did come to know all of the characters and their backgrounds. You could see the story arcs. Surely it is still all there. One day you open your word processor too quickly and accidentally open up the draft where you left it. The sentence is incomplete. You scroll up to read the paragraph. You laugh. That is funny. Now you are scrolling up to read the whole page. You scroll back three chapters and read all the way to the end again, winding up at the incomplete sentence. It hovers, unfulfilled.
Ey, yo, we gonna write this shit or nah?
Fam, you’re halfway, maybe just a little bit past. Don’t you want to see how it ends?
Maybe you should grow a pair.
You thought it was going to be easy? You’ve come too far to quit.
Nope. Too far is just about right.
Homie, the idea is there. You just need to keep at it. That’s all. Come on, man, let’s get this shit rolling again. It was getting interesting.
It feels too long.
A story is as long as it has to be.
There were too many conversations. I was getting lost in all of them.
So pick out the most important one and build everything else around it. Just one truth, man. Just one.
Where is all of this going anyway?
To the end, of course. That’s where all writing should go, to the end.
You spend a couple of weeks mulling things over. You look at the arcs and the conflicts. Things are not so bad. There is life in this here thing yet. The pen comes out. So does the writing book. Each day focuses on getting you to the one or two hours where you sit at the writing desk, just corralling the words together. It is peaceful. You sleep well. The expectations have vanished—all that matters now is the craft. You look back at what you have written. Hmm. It looks like something.
You have a plan.
You look back at the calendar. The deadline looms large.
The first couple of days tapping away on the laptop’s keyboard are peaceful. You have the grace and pace of a Kenyan marathon runner. You take breaks, you eat, you read, you meet people, you sleep. You do the whole life thing. There are snags, many of them. But you take them in your stride. You put little red marks next to parts that need rethinking, but you have the good sense to let them be. You will come back to them. You write, and then you write again. Even when there is nothing to write about there is something. The madness is never far away and every once in while the arrogance comes to the fore. You need them, but you are no longer their slaves. You are not that one writer in a million.
You are the writer, part of the millions.