Why It Took Me 20 Years to Write My Novel

Twenty years seems like a long time. And when I look back on my life and all the different paths I have taken (college professor, self-employed, startup founder, marketer, technologist, and more), it makes perfect sense why I wrote a novel 20 years ago and never published it. But let me explain that in a bit.

To some, this might appear crazy. I mean, I finished the novel 20 years ago, right? How many people can even say they’ve written a cohesive work of 450 pages with a beginning, middle, and end? A magic realism, post-modern work of literary fiction? Why wouldn’t I have been trying to get it published all that time? Why wouldn’t I have died trying to get it published? Well, I did have my opportunities but I was fresh out of college at the time. I thought I knew everything and that included weaving my way through the tangled morass of the publishing world (gleaned through a few months at HarperCollins) without an agent. The long and short of it? I fell out of love with writing because of what I saw as the evils of publishing. I didn’t want my book bastardized by some editor. Don’t ask. It’s not something I’m particularly happy with in my life but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Regardless to say, I found other loves to fill the void that I thought writing would do. And so the book, and my writing career, gathered dust.

But the passing of my father a few years ago (the novel revolves almost solely around a father-son relationship) gave me reason to reflect. Here I was, wrapped up in the world of technology, in the world of instant gratification, wrapped up in my life (a wife and four kids, a job, a house in the suburbs), when I stumbled upon the book. It had only been a month after his passing and I came upon it as I was cleaning out folders on my hard drive. For some reason, his passing kick-started this “take stock of your life” moment as I’m sure all passings do. And you can imagine the moment, I’m sure (nostalgic music playing in the background, a glass of wine at my side, tear-filled eyes staring at the screen). Of course I opened it. Of course I began to read through it. Of course I realized that much of it was poorly written (or what I would, from my present perspective, judge to be poorly written). But I also realized something else. In a flash of insight, I recognized the real reason why I hadn’t published it in the first place.

You see, when I convinced myself as a child that I wanted to be a novelist, it was all about the fame and fortune. It was about the instant gratification. You write book, you get famous, you get rich. But that’s not what writing is really about, at least not the writing that you love. You do it for the joy of writing, for the joy of telling a story, for the outside chance that you get your reader to reflect on the characters and, by that token, themselves. And when I finished the book and presented it to the editor at HarperCollins (I was referred to him by a friend he published so I had an “in”), I thought “that was that.” I’m going to be a famous writer now. What I didn’t realize was all the hard work that still needed to come, the countless edits, the negotiations with the editor on the story and the characters. In short, all the detail work. I didn’t fall out of love with publishing or writing. I fell out of love with completing my story.

And that’s where the death of my father comes in. Just as we close the book on chapters in our lives, I recognized with his passing that I had left a chapter open. I had left this book, over which I had toiled for four years in college, unfinished. I had left out all the really hard work. Writing a book is actually really easy. It’s everything that follows which is hard. And part of that hard work was really understanding the story I had written, understanding what parts of it were actually real to me, understanding how completing it was really about closing the chapter on my own relationship with my dad.

We often start projects with a clear end in mind. It may be something for work. It may be something for ourselves. Regardless, our lives are haunted by deadlines, for arbitrary dates when our projects are supposed to be finished. I had one. My novel needed to be done so that I could graduate. It was my senior thesis at the University of California, Irvine. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the deadline wasn’t the real deadline. My life was missing all of the experiences, the self reflection, the pain, the angst, the love, the happiness, the hope, the disappointment, and most of all, 20 more years of relationship with my dad, to finish. What I thought was done wasn’t really done at all. It was a story half-told. I could finish it on the surface but the real meat of it all, the part that connects all the dots in a way to be meaningful to a reader, needed to come much later. Needed to come now.

Whether you are a closet writer, a professional writer, an artist, doesn’t matter. This project, as you may have realized, was much more than just writing the book. The project was about dealing with my relationship with my dad. The book itself was just the outlet. Which brings me to my nugget of wisdom about life and the personal projects with which we saddle ourselves, that fill the gaps in our life, that vie for our time and our attention. My advice? Finish them quickly and then let them sit. Live life. Enjoy. Love. Regret. Come back to them after you’ve had time to reflect and think about what the project really means to you…and what it canreally mean to other people. But don’t get caught up so much in the details that you can only see the short-sighted goal of finishing it as a “project.” Because it’s only through life’s experiences, some of which may happen over a decade or more, that we can bring an understanding of life to everyone else and that, ultimately, is what we, as artists, hope to do.

Where am I at now? Half way through the final edits with a planned self-publication date of March 21st. Yeah, this project finally has a real deadline, one that I’m happy to say will close this chapter of my life and let me move onto other projects.

Like the next book…

p.s., 20 years is a bit much. I don’t recommend letting a project sit that long 🙂

Have you started a project and finished it years later? What made you come back to it? Are you in the throws of a personal project now? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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