Every writer’s path to publication is different, and most writers have at least one novel that for one reason or another didn’t quite make it. Robert Lukins has 24 of them, but none of them were ever intended for publication. In this guest post, Robert reflects on how and why he wrote a book a year — only to file them away or burn them — before plucking up the courage to write for an audience.
My debut novel was published in February 2018. My first novel was completed in February 1994. Between these two dates I completed a new novel each year; each one printed, economically bound, and placed under my bed without being seen by anyone other than the person at the counter of the photocopy shop. I was teaching myself how to write but, I now realise, I was also avoiding the act of stepping into the world for fear of the consequences.
When I say that my first novel was written in 1994, I mean really that I finished my first novel-length piece of writing. Importantly — to only me, of course — this was never intended to be a thing that I would attempt to get published. Somewhere in childhood I had attached myself to the idea of becoming a novelist and this was a job that I was prepared to spend a lifetime readying myself for. Just as a musician might not expect the first song they ever wrote to end up on the radio, so I didn’t expect my first attempts to end up on a bookshop shelf. So I would not write novels but novel-length exercises. I was going to learn to write by writing, and suspected this may take some time.
My first books (and let’s generously call them books) were all conscious attempts to ape my writing heroes. This seemed a logical step: when getting to grips with guitar I started by learning to play my favourite songs by my favourite bands. So then, I wrote bad versions of the great novels. It was an extension of a much earlier habit of typing out my favourites: I would sit at my typewriter and copy out, word for word, comma for comma, the books I most adored. I wanted the feeling of being in the writer’s mind or perhaps just to feel what it was to have writer’s hands. So the next step was writing my own stories but making them as near as I could to the style of my greats. You’ve never read a bad novel until you’ve read a knock-off Don DeLillo written by a Sunshine Coast teenager who has an X-Files poster above his bed and no driver’s license. A bad Charles Dickens. A bad Edith Warton. Later — while traversing the first of many perfectly disgusting Brisbane student share houses — a bad Andrew McGahan Praise and an unbelievably bad Garner Monkey Grip.
This was all, though, the plan: I was learning to write.
The second, longer phase was one of writing a book (again, that generous term) each year, that attended to a specific self-set challenge. Can you have the adult and child characters in your story switch minds? Can one strip one’s novel of every kind of expression of heightened emotion? Can internal thought processes be spoken and, what would be verbal, internalised? Can you set a whole novel on a bus? Can one be set in a single, completely empty room containing no characters (and written in second-person perspective, for good measure)? The answer to these questions, and all the others I plucked from the sky, is yes, but it does not mean they will be novels that are interesting, innovative or entertaining, and certainly not that they should be sent to a publisher with a note attached: urgent!
So this went on and all the while it seemed like progress. All this writing was done in as near to secret as I could manage. It became part of the process that I was not proclaiming to the world that I was a writer. I didn’t go to writing classes. I didn’t join writers’ groups. I didn’t enter competitions. This was the plan: that I would learn until I was ready.
However, the years ticked over. Room under the bed diminished. There were moments of silly melodrama; manuscripts were made into unimpressive little pyres and set alight in the backyard. Where the self-flagellation was ramped up and I completed the task of writing three books in a row where at their completion the Word file was simply deleted from my computer. The poor things not even making it to the Office Works printing queue. It was proving something to myself, it seemed.
This went on and it became 2013.
The realisation came not like a thunderclap but rather like a steadily rising flood that this was all an excuse. All this work, just noise. I was writing novel-length things because I was terrified of writing my first novel. What if I couldn’t do it? I had constructed my life and psychology around the idea of writing novels. What would happen if it were all a lie? The truth is I had never found the courage to write that first. All the words, millions in the end, just treading water.
So, for the first time, I would write.
Looking at The Everlasting Sunday now, I find it curious that it is a novel that seems to have abandoned all the things I thought I was learning with my previous exercises. There is no hyper-analysis, no trick. It’s a novel written peacefully and on what felt like pure instinct. Gone was all the self-torture. I simply did what you’re supposed to do: pluck up the courage to try, and try your best.
I don’t regret all the years (lonely ones, really, looking back at them) and I don’t regret all the abandoned words. The truth is that I likely did learn a little craft from all those unreadable books and, for the most part, I took great satisfaction from writing them. And we’re all just looking for ways to cope; mine was simply working to avoid trying. I wish though that I’d joined the world a little sooner. Trusted a little the lessons available from other writers and readers. Because I’ve now taken my first steps into the world and I’m finding it a hospitable, forgiving place.
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