Two years ago, I started writing a novel for an idea that I had come up with more than five years earlier. The original idea was simple, just an image that had popped into my head in early college (circa 2007-08): a talking-dog character who wore glasses and would ride around on trains talking with people. These conversations would be, per my younger-self's idea, about God, life, art, culture, etc., and the book would be a kind of montage piece full of curiosities and thought-provoking themes along the lines of Richard Linklater's film Waking Life (because that's the sort of thing I was into at the time).
The idea laid dormant in my brain for quite some time, because 1. I wasn't exclusively interested in writing at the time. I was in a crappy film school program and wanted to be a director or a musician someday, and 2. All I really had was an image and a loose, loose idea for something. There was no background, no real premise, and thus, no story. Still, the thought stuck with me and was something I wanted to flesh out in some form or another.
A couple of years passed (meanwhile my tastes changed and I started being inspired by things other than films that made me weep with their MIGHTY ARTISTIC DEPTH AND GREATNESS), and I recognized that the 'montage of conversations' wasn't a very good idea; it was too high-brow, too snooty, and honestly kind of a lazy way to tell a story. Yet still, I liked the idea of this dog-character and wanted to do something with him eventually.
In early 2012, the idea came back around and I felt I had figured out a good path for it to take. At the time that I decided to start writing instead of doing music or film (it took me a long time to realize that writing fiction was what I had always wanted to do) I was very determined about the manner in which I would go about it. My plan was to first write two long-ish short stories 'for practice' (which sounds so silly to me now, but it's what I really thought), then I would write the novel about this dog with the glasses. Those two shorts became Michigan, Ten Cents and Clara's Quilt which I self-published, and shy of a few issues I am still quite proud of how they came out.
In October 2012, I began writing the novel under the (horrific) working-title of Ralph, Who Rides Trains; I didn't share that title with many people, because I was constantly trying to come up with something that didn't sound like a sketch on Sesame Street.
The story had evolved considerably over the years. It is told in the first-person by Ralph, a White Labrador mix, who can talk but is terrified of doing so for fear of being exploited by humans. The only person who knows his secret is a three year old girl named Nancy, the youngest of three children in the family that cares for Ralph. Ralph loves reading books, watching movies, and is generally fascinated with human art and culture. However, he has bad eyes that are growing increasingly worse, yet he cannot communicate this to his family (and he isn’t sure that eye appointments for dogs are a real thing anyway). His eyes get so bad that he ventures out from home alone into the city to search for glasses (digging through dumpsters behind eyeglass stores and optometrists' offices is all he can think to do at first) and winds up meeting Clarence, a homeless ex-priest of the Catholic church with a warm heart and a rough history. They become friends and end up searching the city together and having many life-and-God-pondering conversations.
I had intended the book to be a mixture of 'coming-of-age' (though I loathe that term), literary, humorous, thoughtful, appreciative of some very specific nooks of literature and media, and ultimately redemptive and glad; a straight-forward story with ups and downs and characters who undergo change. I wanted to make something modern, artsy, and heartfelt like the books that had inspired me, such as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Then We Came to the End, The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Grapes of Wrath, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc. Ralph is a very thoughtful dog, but also insecure and unsure of himself. He’s curious as to why he can talk when no other dogs can. He has questions about whether he has a soul. Also, I went into it knowing there have already been a billion books written about talking dogs, and I tried desperately to make mine unique and different and good.
I finished the first draft in October 2013; it had taken me exactly a year to get about 85,000 words. I took a break where I didn't look at it for two months and worked on other things, then started fresh into draft two in January 2014. I had settled on the title The Trouble with Seeing Clearly, which I liked for its literary-sounding quality and how it worked on several levels. I had thought re-edits would be swift, but my daughter was born in the middle of them and I didn't get through the second draft until June 2014—I wasn't just slashing sentences here, either; this was a significant re-write.
After finishing the second draft, I let it sit again for a couple of weeks, then revisited the opening chapters… and was devastated. The book seemed childish to me, and like it was trying too hard; too gushy and corny and cloying. I had felt a certain confidence with my previous two stories that was utterly vacant with this one. Ralph’s character at the beginning didn’t seem to be the same dog as the one at the end. I had grown as a writer—I hope—even over the course of a couple of months, and my earlier structural errors mocked me from the pages. The story as a whole seemed stupid and tired and overdone, and to present it to any intelligent reading adult would be an invitation to be laughed at in the face.
In essence, I realized I had just spent two years writing a shitty book.
Okay sure, but that’s only two drafts; why not just do a third? Even great authors have taken ten years or more to perfect a novel, and even then they probably feel like piddling with it. I would do a third pass, but at this point the thought of looking at the manuscript again nauseates me. What if I got through a third draft and changed my mind about the book’s direction in that span of time? The process of re-writes could become an endless loop. I am weary of this book, I don’t care about the story like I once did, it seems outdated and amateur and not worthy of the current audience of our world. And yet, for some reason I spent all this time on it! Something in there must matter to me.
This post is not a plea for a pity-party; truly, it isn’t. I don’t mean to sound whiny or be self-serving in drawing attention to myself. It’s kind of a: ‘well, damn it,’ sort of post. I feel like I have wasted my time (which is a discouraging, sick-to-my-stomach feeling), and I’m so tired of looking at this novel that I’m not sure if I have a clear, objective view of it anymore.
Here’s the way my brain works: What if I tuck this book in a drawer and clean my hands of it, and start fresh on a new idea that I’m really excited about right now. Say that new book takes two years to write, and by the time I’m done with it, I’m so embarrassed of it that I can’t bear to show it to anyone, and then it just becomes a drawer-novel too. Is this just how writing works?
I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question. I know that I will continue to write, and hopefully I will continue to get better at the craft. I know that I will write other novels and short stories and be proud of them. But as a first-time novelist, I’m just struggling with this particular one. I do believe there are reasons that this story is so important to me, they just may be the reasons of an earlier version of me that the current-me finds somewhat… juvenile.
Yesterday, I realized that I needed to get over myself and over my fear, so I sent out the second draft to a handful of family and friends to get their reactions (which felt incredibly vulnerable). Maybe they’ll come back and tell me that, yes, I’m right, this book is crap and I should probably move on to something else. Or maybe they’ll have some helpful words that will reveal the book's weaknesses and I’ll get re-inspired to mold it into better shape. Or maybe writing this book—and failing at it, or so it feels—will have been good practice for future books to come.