It’s not easy to write a novel. You should definitely try it if you have any mind to do so, but it’s fair to say that it’s an arduous process. Some of the difficulty is inherent to the task, and some you’ll bring with you, but by the end of it you’ll realise why you really, really have to want to do this strange thing.
There are compensations, though. The sense of accomplishment. Seeing your words on paper — and in an actual book! — for the first time. Seeing your book in someone else’s hands, or in a library. Those are all wonderful feelings. When I wrote my first novel, the best part was probably holding the first printed copy and knowing that I’d made a new book for the world. But that changed too.
It’s a little bit different each time, and at this point — with a new book just out — I find that the part I look forward to most is the dedication.
Don’t get me wrong, though: actually writing the dedication can be hellish. A handful of words, which can take days of valuable time to decide upon; I often dread the task. But once they’re done, and the book can go out, there will come a moment when the person to whom it’s dedicated will get a chance to open the cover, flip through a couple of pages, and notice that this book is for them.
I can’t tell you how it feels to have a book dedicated to you, because I’ve yet to have that honour, but I can certainly talk about the other side of it. It’s a profound thing to have the power to write that particular page in a book, and to present someone with it. A novel is months of work at the very least, and it’s not just a single object; it’s replicated, going out across the world and into people’s homes, and you end up with these brief phrases of thanks or endearment upon bookshelves and on coffee tables and in the attic and wherever else books go. A dedication isn’t just a message to another person; it’s more like a declaration. It carries weight.
Another of the ways that writing novels is weird is that we’re surrounded by the product, but as a writer, you’re probably going to be the first of your kind that most people have ever met. Again and again when meeting people, after the topic of work comes up, I’ve had the same response: I’ve never met a writer before. The thing is, they almost certainly have indeed met one without being aware of it, but those who knowingly have spoken to another novelist are in the tiny minority. There’s an Otherness about it, where you’re immediately viewed as a rare and unusual thing. There’s this facial expression people sudden display, and it has a certain quality of so that’s what one of them looks like.
It makes a certain sort of sense, then, that dedications are a corresponding rarity, and have a feeling of being bestowed. I put a lot of consideration into them, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine to ensure that the person named in the dedication has no idea at all at the time when they get their copy. It can be an emotional moment.
My preferred style is to include a short message, though bare dedications are commonplace too. I feel that they should read as elemental things, never more than a sentence at the most. Think of them as an engraving, not a thank-you speech. And choose the recipients with care, because it’ll probably be a while before the next one. Most important tip: your partner should probably get the first-ever one, because by that point they’ll definitely have suffered for the book just as much as you have.
The beauty and the potential of fiction is that it can not only take people away from their cares for a while, but also turn their mind to new perspectives and possibilities. I see dedications as a concentrated form of that, where the smallest collection of words can make an indelible mark on the life of someone you care about.
It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to do so every once in a while. Use that power wisely.