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  • Writer's pictureVincent Heeringa

Writing a sci-fi novel was so much harder than I thought

Like all good ideas, it started over lunch.

I was sitting in the garden with my wife speculating on just how much money we had spent on sci-fi and adventure novels for our kids. Mortal Engines, Eragon, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Percy Jackson - on went the list.

"We could save some money by writing one ourselves. I mean, how hard would it be?" I asked. Sarah looked at me with a grin. "I don't know Vince, how hard?"

Well, the challenge was laid. I had been a journalist and magazine publisher for years. I'd published 11 books for a university press. I'm a fan of sci-fi. And I had four bookworms for kids. If anyone could, I could, right?

Hmmm. After a decade of inspiration alternating with stagnation, I'm finally holding the book in my hands. Handsome, fat and (hopefully) a ripping yarn, Road to Abaddon has been a triumph of grind but also a sobering lesson. Writing a novel is hard. Much harder than I expected.

Why? I write for a living. Day in, day out, the words just flow. I’ve got more than 30 awards for them. What made a novel any different?

I’ve reflected on this for some time. I think I’ve got the diagnosis but the symptoms were manifold, starting with hating my work. My writing was dreadful. I found the cliches kept coming. The metaphors got mangled, like a knot twisting in the breeze. My dialogue was unrealistic. The action sequences were, well, inactive.

What’s more, I was lazy, critical and easily distracted. I would start to write. Hate what I written. Switch to drumming tutorials on YouTube. Find a reason to clean the fridge. Do my day job. Go to bed early. Sleep in. Watch Netflix. Re-read last weeks' writing. Hate it. Tweak what I’d written instead of pushing on with writing new material.

On and on it went. I'd moan out loud how hard it was. Bore my family with readings. Be crushed by their lack of adulation.

I dropped it for months, years. It sat on my computer, judging me. My friends would ask when it was likely to be finished. Oh, I'd laugh. How about never?

In short, I was a giant baby.

But why? I don’t act like this at work (much). Sure, I struggle with copy like any self-respecting writer does. But for a decade? In hindsight, I think there were three things going on.

First, a novel is long. Really long. 86,000 words long. It was a never-ending nightmare of obligation. Instead of eating the elephant one bite at a time, I was overwhelmed by the task.

Second, writing fiction was new. As a journalist I was basically parroting what other people had to say. This time it was me and only me. Doing anything new is hard. You make mistakes. You feel stupid. You’re learning on the job. Writing fiction was like throwing a ball with my left hand. Totally unco’.

All of which is easy to fix if you’ve got self-belief. I didn’t. It took the coaxing of family, friends and professionals whose opinions I trusted to eventually steel myself to just get it done.

Which is the third lesson. At work we have deadlines and budgets. We live in the real world of imperfections and mistakes and an acknowledgement that our work is ‘fit for purpose’.

That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to be shoddy. But we have to get the best work possible done in the time we have available. The biggest barrier to greater self-expression is fear of failure – and doesn’t that inner critic just love to point those failures out. We believe we must be perfect before we’re good enough to be seen or read or heard. As a result, nothing much happens.

I’ve got a mate who makes it his duty to do one scary thing every year. Once he decided to cycle the length of New Zealand. Another was to sing in public. Following his example, I decided to form a band and sing 10 songs to my friends and relatives at my 50th. I’m no Bowie. It was terrifying. The band was great, thankfully, but I wasn’t. But you know what, it didn’t matter. The point was the doing. It gave me a thrill and my guests a laugh. I’d given it a crack.

We have a sign up in our laundry. If you want to be a writer, write. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing. Like I do at work. Breaking it into chunks. Setting realistic deadlines. And shutting down that perfectionist inner critic. The second novel is now expected, so if I want be a writer, I need to write. Only a whole lot faster this time. Ten years for the first novel, one year for the sequel.

As Yoda says, “There is no try, only do.”

What is your ‘do’?

This blog was first published on Anthem website.

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