Shaun Levin

Neglect and the Novel

In Writing on March 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

You’ve neglected your novel. For months you’ve been distracted, done other things, made excuses, promised to come back, until eventually you’re here again, at your desk. You’ve got time and no excuses. You worried that either of you may have lost interest, but neither of you have. Your novel wants to be written. You try to remember why you abandoned it in the first place. Things were going well when you started out, you’d accumulated experiences, anecdotes, scenes based mainly on things that had happened but with quite a bit of fictionalising. There was a light touch to it all, humour, and you liked that; you didn’t want heaviness, or the melancholy and death pervading the last few things you’d written, all that suicide and madness and the horrors of the First World War you’ve been writing about for the past seven years.

This was going to be a joyous novel, and you enjoyed writing it. You thought it would be like this until the end, that finally you’d write a book with a light touch to it, and humour, and something mildly interesting to say about the state of the world at this point in time. You hit 60,000 words, more than you’ve ever managed for one novel in such a short time. Then you abandoned the book.

Now, coming back to it, you see that it is very much an anecdotal book – “But I knew that already!” – and you notice that there’s something missing, that a strong thread is missing to hold it all together. A rope. The way things stand now, there’s nothing stronger to hold it together than the passing of time. Sometimes that is enough, but in the case of the novel it’s not.

You’re back in the novel. You’re turning up at your desk every morning, showing up, seeing that the book is far from finished, that it wants to go deeper, to say things you hadn’t planned on. Time and distance have given you perspective. Your novel is posing a challenge and you can choose to take it on or not. Are you prepared, willing, brave enough to follow it to the murky, complex unsettling places it wants to go to? What do you do with a novel that wants to take you somewhere, to show you something, to demonstrate that perhaps you can do something you’ve never done before.

You think of the word “lure” but that’s not the right word.

“No” is always an option. Force the novel to go somewhere else, impose an agenda, ignore what it’s saying. Walk away. It’s easy to walk away, but the more you become aware of what you’re doing, the more you see it’s a choice, it’s as simple as doing it or not doing it, as simple as turning up and sitting down. At some point you have to meet the novel head on.

You’re always abandoning things. You start something and then at some point you walk away. It’s how you operate. You have a stable of unfinished stories. Some of them want to be novels. Some of them want to go the whole way, but you’ve said stop. They call out to you: Write me. They say: We want to unravel, to unfold, we want to expose the full drama of our stories, and if you let us, you won’t have to keep carrying us around with you, we’ll stop nagging you and reminding you of all your Unfinished Business.

Maybe “neglect” is the wrong word. Maybe “abandon” is the wrong word, too. Maybe that’s how you work, and in the end you always come back. Maybe that’s a rationalisation, but at the moment you’re back and you’re writing and the novel feels good and scary and rich.


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