Reader Quit: Writing a Novel (by Rob Farquhar)

It’s odd just how much we put stock in ideas of ourselves that, unique and weird though they may be, we don’t really own. We worry so much about what we think we ought to be that we don’t even notice when we find out what we really are.

You’d think that “novelist” would be right up my alley, eh? I’m a creative type. I have an active imagination. I’ve been a reader since who-knows-when. I have no real interest in current affairs, whether locally, nationally or internationally, preferring to visit worlds I’ve read about, seen on TV and in movies, played within in games and even made up on my own.

So how come writing a novel is what I’m quitting?

I couldn’t tell you when I first had the idea of writing a novel. I think it was one of those answers I gave to that horrible, horrible question that grownups always ask kids: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Seriously, how the hell are we supposed to know?!)

The answer made sense. I’ve daydreamt since as long as I can remember; I love the fiddliness of words and the English language. Those make me a good writer of fiction, right? So, naturally, if I want to make a living doing what I love, I should be writing novels, right?

Yet what have I done all this time of nurturing the idea of being a novelist? Subscribed to podcasts like I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. Interviewed authors, from indies to capital-P published writers, for my podcast. Fiddled with Scrivener, the go-to application for novelists. Read Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for making working novel plots and whacked my head against my inability to finish it.

The one thing I do least often is write fiction. Sure, I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. I finished it once, and failed it twice. I’ve got up early to write. I’ve written in the library, in cafes. I’ve carried notebooks around and scribbled all sorts of ideas in them.

But for roughly two decades of Wanting to Be An Author, I have very little to show for all that work. Definitely nothing I’d be proud to slap my name on. Of all those ideas, there are only a bare handful I’m interested in exploring further.

The one thing I’ve done over those years, more than writing, is guilt myself.

I’ve felt horrible whenever I’ve thought of being a writer, listened to another podcast interview, read another article about the artist’s struggle, about how it’s meant to be bloody hard work. There are times when I’ve guilted myself for sitting on the couch with my wife and watching TV when I know I should be upstairs in front of the computer, trying to wring more scenes and chapters out of my uncooperative imagination. I even kick my arse for not starting with something smaller, like a short story.

Yet for all that guilt, there’s been this voice in the back of my mind that’s whispered: “Why do these people insist on spending so much time being miserable if they profess to love what they’re doing so much? Why do you?”

There’s this part of me that, when I sat down to work on writing fiction, dug its heels in and pulled the other way. Hard.

The saddest thing is, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I thought it was that “resistance” thing that all those authors kept name-dropping Steven Pressfield about. It was an example of my lack of work ethic, of all the virtues I kept hearing all these authors talking about. It wasn’t that I wasn’t an author; it was just that I was lazy.

So I kept on not-writing, feeling guilty, destroying my self-esteem, going with what my intellect told me I should be doing.

It began to change early this year, when I started two things.

The first was a new habit, a new reason for getting up a little earlier: Meditation. Okay, I’d started it a few months before, but this year marked the first time I did consistent 10-minute stretches of it.

Then there was the second thing, a returning to a creative outlet I’d not used for around 12 years: Drawing.

I used to read web comics all the time, and back in 2001, I entertained the idea of creating my own web comic. I didn’t have the confidence then to do more than a single strip — I think we showed it off to Mum and Dad, which usually killed my enthusiasm for anything back then. But in January, I picked up paper and pencil and in short order was quartering A4 sheets of paper for four-panel comics.

That was when it very nearly came off the rails again. Why? Because I started trying to write a novel again.

My first strips were based on the characters for my dormant novel, Slamdance, and as I regained confidence, momentum and skill, I started trying to do mini-plots. Up came Scrivener, and I was creating four-panel scripts as scenes, and bringing the rest of my characters in, and trying to work out how it was all going to go…

…and, suddenly, drawing was something I was guilting myself over again. When I got a new computer and was finally able to download and install XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I abandoned drawing almost entirely (I’m thankful for workday lunch breaks, or else I’d have done nada) for over a week.

Again, two things happened around the same time. For starters, I started coming toward the end of Enemy Unknown’s single-player campaign, and for seconds, I actually realized that I was trying to write a novel again — and that it was the true roadblock to my creativity.

I ought to mention my wife Vickie here. See, she always knows me better than I know myself. A while back, I was fleshing out the universe that my lead character, the titular Slamdance, inherited. I kept working on the novel’s plot. I needed a villain, right? A doer, trying to reshape the world to his or her benefit and damaging the things Slamdance held dear. I needed to explain where Slamdance came from, and whether and how it tied into the villain’s plot. I wanted to explain how a 300-kilogram, seven-foot, red cyborg clone, could convert himself into a six-foot, 80-kilo human being, and came up with a crazy, music-based magic. I tied that into Slamdance’s love interest, who became a magical demon hunter who wanted to kill Slamdance but was falling for his human alter-ego. I had the sister of Slamdance’s best friend and landlord (Slamdance lives in a junkyard, you see) become a blogger who wanted to uncover the truth behind Slamdance, and a race of cyborg clone slaves who were going crazy, and…

…and Vickie asked me, “Why not just tell the story of Slamdance and his friends pal-ing around in the junkyard?”

Funnily enough, the Slamdance strips I created that really work? That’s all they’re about. As soon as I tried working all the rest of that crap back in there, it stopped working.

Then, when I started drawing comic strips again, Vickie asked why I was doing Slamdance instead of Fraser Road, the original, from-life web comic I started back in 2001. The answer was that I was having Slamdance comic ideas and none for Fraser Road — but the idea that the comic had to be Slamdance and only Slamdance was another one that was between me and creating something I truly enjoyed.

So I set all the plotting aside and just went with the ideas for single (or double) comics that were falling out of my brain, whether they were Slamdance or something else (I’ve actually turned an idea that’s been knocking around in my head for a little while into two strip scripts based on XCOM: Enemy Unknown), and lo and behold: I started drawing again. (I even had what could well be a Fraser Road idea earlier today.)

The really good bit is that on the way into work last week, the penny dropped:

I’m actually happy in my own skin now. So much more so than when I was trying to be a novelist.

I’d like to tell you that telling the difference between the things that are truly yours and the things that you ought to be doing is easy, but if it were, I would have stuck with exploring my creativity with pencil and paper after trying it years ago. But I think I can pass on some other things I’ve learned:

More than anything else, any lessons in technique or stick-to-itiveness, I reckon you need to be comfortable in your own skin first. Invest your time in those things that will help you be at peace with the weirdo that only you are. (Tweet!)

Jog, meditate, whatever it may be. I feel the urge to advocate meditation over all else, as it’s inherently peaceful and that, to me, seems to be the whole point, but I fully (o.k., mostly) accept that for all I know, I know very little, and certainly next to nothing about you . But before you put your nose to the grindstone on whatever endeavour — mainstream, alternative or out-and-out weird — that your brain tells you that you ought to be doing, take as much time as you need (and then a little bit extra) to find out whether it really comes from you.

Like me, you could be trying to fulfil some need for fame, or financial security, or approval. Is there a little of that in what I’m doing right now? Sure. But juggling the keyboard and the pen with the pencil and the mouse to create illustrated moments feels more right than trying to build worlds and construct extended narratives.

I wonder what will feel right for you?


Rob F.Since Cordelia posted his last Quit, Rob Farquhar has made good progress toward living a happy life. After adopting the philosophy that it’s better to try something than put it off and wonder, he changed his blog’s name (again) to The Society for Doing Things. On it, he writes about how the things we all do — from little to big, frivolous to serious — all contribute toward building the skill and courage we need to do the things we really want to do in life.

Though he’s currently on a web comic kick, Rob has also recorded a podcast where he interviews folks who have turned passions into incomes, whether sideline or self-supporting. It’s called The Paid to Play Podcast, and you can like it on Facebook or subscribe to on iTunes  (You’ll be sure to love his interview with Cordelia for Episode 15!) He fully intends to get back to recording more episodes. You know. Soon. Ish.

Rob does the 9-to-5 helping a newspaper ad sales team beat targets (sketching more comics on his lunch break), then returns to his wife and their home outside Cairns, Queensland, Australia, where he juggles meditating, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on TV, exercise and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (naturally, he’s better with the TV and the game).  Check him out on Facebook or Google+ or follow him on Twitter!


Interested in submitting a Reader Quit of your own?  Check out how here.


Image: Drew Coffman on Flickr


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  • Cordelia’s Mom

    If I may jump in here, I’d just like to say that what I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that creativity in any form must come from the heart. The best blog posts, photographs, drawings, etc. are usually done because the writer or artist wants to share, or feels a need to create as a personal outlet, not because the writer or artist is just trying to gather followers or promoting himself or herself. Personally, I would make a lousy freelance writer because I can’t write for someone else’s schedule or someone else’s viewpoint, and I would be a lousy novelist because I doubt I could put together any writing over 1000 words or so. As you say, you’ve become comfortable in your own skin, and I think that’s the most important element of creativity – knowing what your heart tells you and then just doing it.

    • Hear, hear!

    • Rob F.

      Thanks, Cordelia’s Mom! 🙂 I’m still messing with the idea of freelance work, and I take your point about not being able to write for others – maybe that’d make me a better editor.

      Still, I wonder whether having an outlet that’s capital-M Mine would help me do stuff that’s maybe not 100% me, because (a) that stuff would be more about the people I’m helping rather than the work itself and (b) I’d still have that outlet of my own.

  • Yeah, writing a novel used to be a dream of mine. And who knows, maybe I’ll have a brilliant idea for one one day, but for now I don’t!

    • Rob F.

      I know what you mean! 🙂 So what’re you rocking in the meantime?

  • Pingback: Reader QUIT on Cordelia Calls It Quits: Writing a Novel » The Society for Doing Things()

  • I read your post at a perfect time, Rob. There are so many things I’ve been hanging onto as Things I Really Want to Do, and then I guilt myself for not doing them. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I really want to be doing, what brings me crazy amounts of joy, what’s really a priority. Just this morning I was thinking how it feels like a few goals are emerging at the forefront and that maybe I’ll try letting myself dive into them, without guilt, for a while and see what happens. Let go of the rest, for now at least. Thanks for sharing your journey!

    • You’re welcome, Erin, and I’m glad to read you again! Sorry it took me a while to find this here.

      I know what you mean about paring down to the few thigns you’re really into right now – we only have so much time in every day, after all! How did you go with it?

      • Still very much a work in progress, for sure, and a constant struggle. But awareness is a big part of it, eh? 🙂