In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.
What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.
But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality. For that same reason, I will never throw a touchdown pass in the NFL, no matter how much I may want to.
So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.
I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.
I will finish and they will not.
The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.
I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.
You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.
I don’t do regrets. I don’t have to do regrets. I finish. So let me give you some practical advice from a regret-free life.
The most important thing is habit, not will.
If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.
Easily said, I guess. So let’s give it a practical framework of the here’s-how variety: Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.
This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!
Maybe think of it as a stairway. To get to your book, to make contact with the characters and situation, to capture the rhythm of the language, the gist of the scene, the way it fits into the larger arc, you have to climb a few steps. You can do it whistling “Dixie” on one foot backwards blindfolded if you’re used to the path, and nothing gets you used to the path like 139 straight days. A day off makes it six steps, two makes it 36, and I can’t multiply well enough to tell you what 36-squared would be. Suddenly effort is required.
Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.
Another helpful tip: F--- research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.
Next station of the cross: Wait for it to get good. It may not be good at first. Hoo, boy, do I know this one! At one point Point of Impact was 750 pages long, mostly meetings and gunfights. No plot, no caper, no characters. Bob Lee Swagger was a tracing and I had no idea in hell who Nick Memphis was. It was a catastrophe. But because I had such great faith in my—no, actually, I had no great faith in anything. But I kept hacking away, even though I was deep in the slums of suck city because What Else? It was the only book I had. It was that or nothing. And gradually, each bloody step after another, it finally improved until it was at last above the Mendoza Line. It’s baseball, not football—a long season, slumps, errors, humiliations, bad feelings, bad weather, jet lag, all that stuff, and you just grind it out. You believe that in the end, the numbers (whatever they would be in our business) will show that except for that O-for-31 in May, you had a pretty good season.
Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”
The cruelest truth of all is that in the end, you may not be good enough. You may not get over the Mendoza Line. But you’ll never know that for sure unless YOU FINISH THE GODDAMNED BOOK.
Stephen Hunter is the author of more than 20 novels, including, most recently, G-Man, published in May. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. His novel Point of Impact was adapted for film as Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.