Postmortem: Submitting my first manuscript
Writing fiction is difficult. This has always, in theory, seemed obvious to me but in practice, the shock of confronting the fact broke my spirit. Writing a manuscript, editing and revising it, with a deadline in mind, and finally submitting it in time, broke me to pieces, physically and mentally. The toll was unbelievable and the trauma was real. Never in my life have I had to work so hard, with such sustained intensity and for such a long time.
Last month, I submitted a novella to the Kwani? Manuscript Project, a pan-African literary contest run by the Kenya-based Kwani? Trust (which at this point is essentially, and somewhat lamentably, even though laudably, the singular voice of literary Kenya). Kwani? have mentioned that they received close to three hundred submissions and that the winners will be announced in December 2012. That means that the judging panel (whoever they may be, as yet undisclosed) have approximately sixty days during which to read three hundred texts. Mercifully, about a month before the deadline (17.09.2012), Kwani? cut the minimum acceptable word-count in half, thus allowing the submission of novellas, which are what I imagine most first-time writers submitted. Still, even if each submission is no more than fifty thousand words, that is still a lot of reading to be done. Unavoidably, a lot of work will slip through the cracks of insufficient time and too much fatigue.
Literary competitions are notoriously difficult to officiate (and thus neglectfully officiated)1. All that those of us who submitted can hope for is that we are each given a fair chance. The first chapter of each book should at least be read before the text is discarded from the slush pile and sent into the flames. As such—and this is also obvious from the writer’s perspective—that first chapter should be the best chapter of the book. In my case I grabbed a middle chapter that I thought was the strongest of the lot and slammed it in the front, labelling it “Chapter 0,” plot mechanics be damned. God help me.
I’ve been working on the manuscript that I submitted for almost a year. However, only in the penultimate month of writing and editing did I truly find my style, and the voice I wanted the story’s narrator to have. Obviously, that was a disastrous situation to be in. For the last month of writing, I was working in twenty hour shifts, sleeping for four hours, rewriting much of what I had written earlier. I was close to collapse in the last two weeks so I took the plunge and cut the novel in half, taking what was slightly over one hundred thousand words and using only fifty thousand of them. There was simply not any time in which or strength with which to edit the rest of my material. I wrote an approximately one thousand word ending two days before the deadline and settled on a conclusion to the story that I had not envisioned months before.
I can imagine that there are those A+ students who were perfectly organised in everything they did, had outlined meticulously and had transcribed (I write on paper, thus a necessary step), edited, proofed, rested and reviewed their manuscripts a month before the deadline. I remember those kinds of students because in school, I hated them for their mercenary efficiency which I simply couldn’t duplicate but that seemed a prerequisite for success in anything. My body, my work, my life are all of a piece: messy. I have learnt to accept myself for what I am.
I learnt, during this ordeal, that I had to be strong in the chair. I sat, and over time, my body became a new kind of organism, moulded to the wood of the chair, hunched over the table, huddled around my laptop, my pulse throbbing to the cadence of the fan. Earlier in the year, I injured my lower back. I never thought that I would again be able to sit for long periods in a straight-back chair without having to medicate away excruciating pain but at some point during those twenty-hour shifts, my body became the chair. Sitting in the chair became more comfortable than lying in bed, more natural than standing, more rejuvenating than breathing. On the morning that I submitted the manuscript, I looked at the ceiling and had the sensation that I might, in troth, never ever leave that chair, that I had somehow become a part of the earth, planted in that space, for eternity, and I felt a sense of peace unlike anything previous. But as soon as I clicked the “send” button, my back began to hurt and as I stretched and went through the movements that I was instructed would maintain a healthy spine, I heard uncoiling tendons snap and pop like petrified cartilage.
I have learnt that there is no defeating the mathematics that governs production (and productivity): If I have a target word-count, I must first translate that into time. I know that I write x words an hour and that I type y words an hour and that I read z words an hour. I must calculate how long I will take to do the basic work, and make a prudent estimate of how much time I will need in order to bring it to completion. I didn’t do this the first time round and thus compounded my suffering no end. Unfortunately, there is no way to time how long I will take to achieve a certain creative goal, how long I will take to find a tone and texture that can characterise the prose.
I have learnt that I must include in my calculations an additional week for editing and another for proofing. A text, like a seared steak, apparently needs to rest. Because I went directly from transcribing, to editing, to proofing, to submitting, I am now, a month later, still finding the most outrageous and egregious typographical errors (for instance, instead of “anodyne” to describe the ameliorating effects of one character’s presence on another, I used the word “bromide”; “he’s” and “she’s” blended into each other, and so on.) I have learnt that planning additional time for contingencies eventually leads to a schedule whose duration tends towards infinity.
Initially, I had hoped that I might have, as part of my process, someone other than myself read the manuscript prior to submission. Well, everyone is busy and the only way to do that is to pay someone or press-gang others from my writing group (I don’t have one) into doing it as part of their obligations to the group. I no longer believe that such a stage is necessary. I know my novel best and my goals are to satisfy my current level of taste and literary need. Besides, it is really gauche to expect anyone else to want to read my manuscript and to expect feedback. That’s just crazy.
I have learnt that professional writers (who produce quality prose consistently—maybe they get remunerated for it; consistency and quality are the watchwords) are heroes in every sense of the word. Consider: you spend the bulk of your day and energy and nights in some state of literary alertness; you are either writing, reading or taking notes. Even if you have, and you surely must have, a day job, you are always working, within yourself, towards the goal of your vocation. You spend your nights in painful hours working to produce a text. Your wrists and fingers suffer muscle spasms and cramps; your joints have intermittent and uncontrollable stiffness; your arms and the muscles under your armpits twitch with pathological menace; the pads of your fingers are chafed; from time to time migraine flashes and nausea make it impossible to work; and this over a year, perhaps longer. Eventually, you produce your work and you can read it from start to finish without envisioning and wishing for your own death. Then you have to put your completed work in a drawer and forget it because there is no one who will publish it and not even your spouse, who loves you for all that you are, will read it2.
I have learnt that in the question of “Who am I writing for?”, I have to realise that I am writing for myself. It would be nice to be read by someone but the goal of my exertions is to engage in a sort of dialogue (in the Harold Bloom sense) with the writers I love and who have done me the tremendous honour and benefit of writing the books they have written. I am writing for them, to thank them, and to talk to them and their work. It is not necessary that I ever be read. It is necessary that I read and write well (writing being, after all, merely the completion and continuation of the process of reading).
Before I resolved the question of “Who am I writing for?” I went through lengthy doldrums. I considered and planned on ways to kill myself. I imagined giving up everything, focusing on securing a career and never touching a book again. I remember the late nights and the physical and emotional pain. I recall wanting very seriously and very urgently to do away with myself. I recall crying as I wrote and wishing someone would help me achieve prose of a kind that would not dishonour everything I hold dear and that would not reveal me to have not only failed myself in this pursuit but also squandered my life as a whole and jeopardised my entire future. I recall panic attacks, heart palpitations and feeling that my body would shut itself down. I recall anguish, feelings of inferiority, hopelessness, despair.
I have learnt that burn-out is a very real phenomenon.
I have never worked as hard as I have done this year. I have never exerted myself to this extent. I have never before watched my body wither under the pall of an obscure but resonant dream. Now that I know what it takes to be a writer (that is, someone who writes—I don’t know how to be one who is paid to write), I know that it’s the only life I can aspire to and remain true to the deepest movements of my spirit.
I have learnt that I want to write another novel. But before that I want to spend this month revising my current manuscript in order to get it to the length and scope that I had originally intended.
I have learnt that writing is only pain. There is nothing else to it except the beauty that is paradoxically inherent to all genuine human suffering.
I have learnt that I can create something and be reservedly proud of it in spite of its flaws and my failings.