Ask a Debut Novelist - Question 6
Anonymous asked: As an aspiring novelist, I often have ideas that I think would make great books and then I write 30 pages and find that there’s nothing more to tell. Is this something you’ve ever struggled with? Have you abandoned ideas that haven’t gelled? How far into the first draft of your book did you know that it was going to be a novel?
This is an interesting question, so thank you for asking it, whoever you are. I suppose it’s easiest for me to answer the last part first, which is to say that I didn’t know I was writing a novel until I was many iterations into it. The truth is that I had purposely kept myself in the dark about that fact, mostly because I had somehow at a young age gotten it in my mind that novels, especially first novels, had to be Grand Statements About Society, or at the very least a stage on which to announce my talent. I had written my way into a few of these projects and I doubt it’s surprising to hear that they were grandiose and terrible. But still this was my deep, private, unspoken vision for myself, that I wouldn’t just “write a novel” but would come thundering onto the cultural landscape like Godzilla, with a book—whatever it was about didn’t really matter—that allowed me to transcend my polite, everyday, innocuous self and tower above the public in a way that caused them to marvel. Novel writing for me was synonymous with a young man’s desire to be seen, the place I had poured all of my need for recognition.
Whereas a short story, a simple, light-hearted twenty pages, didn’t carry any of that baggage. It was, most importantly, private. How it would be perceived was less important for me than the pleasure of articulation, of finding words for the many tiny movements of my internal life, which at that time was plagued with self-consciousness and aching with ambition, so that in the course of my day I felt every minute slight or gesture of approval as either a crushing failure or soaring triumph, an exhausting experience that I tried to carry without letting any of it on. Anyway, that short story then became a forum for expressing this over-reactive internal life, for using narrative to somehow communicate all that was for me in my day-to-day life incommunicable. In those pages, unlike in just about every other place in my social world, every gesture and phrase didn’t have to be directed toward the end goal of being loved, and thus the more complex (which I know is often just code for “unpleasant”) feelings could find expression.
I realize that’s a little wishy-washy and also might sound like I’m advocating for something that sounds suspiciously like the emotional barf of confessional writing, but all of it is to say that before this particular project (and if I’m honest, during most of my time in graduate school) there was no such thing to my mind as writing for myself. When I sat down to work it was all directed toward the imaginary perceptions of others. But in this project, which I kept hidden and refused to put up for critique in workshop, I had been able to silence that impulse long enough to begin to understand what was beautiful about the forces of narrative, and the compression and clarity required by storytelling: that it unearthed in me the articulation of that which I had felt acutely but hadn’t understood.
The problem was that the project didn’t work as a short story. Like in any way. No matter how many drafts I wrote. So it grew into something I called a novella (which meant it was long and formless and I didn’t know what it was), then into something I called a novelito (which was a new literary form I told myself I was inventing). Finally, after Googling “minimum word count novel,” I gave myself reluctant permission to call it what it was.
And that was how I wrote the first draft.
As you can probably tell, the process of writing, and probably creating anything in general, is for me inextricable from the processes of psychology and self-esteem, which is to say in my case having the confidence not only to speak but to say something that isn’t uttered solely for the approval of others, or as an attempt to shape how they might perceive me.
So when it comes to your predicament of starting novels, getting thirty pages in and feeling like you’ve said everything you have to say, my gut tells me (having been there oh-so-many times myself) that perhaps rather than running out of material, you actually haven’t spent enough time to truly find it. Perhaps, like me, the project in your mind is already being reviewed in the New York Review before you’ve written the first sentence. Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted the idea enough to push through the uncertainty, to go beyond what you already know of it and allow it to transform into whatever it wants to be. Perhaps you haven’t yet allowed yourself to cede control. My experience is that novels find their expression, that if you stick with them long enough and follow the writing that feels the most vital, they end up being about what is most vital to you.
My primary challenge is always in shucking from myself the instinct to please (or to shock, or impress, or enamor). Because there is a gargantuan difference between the public and private selves and when facing a blank page they can so easily become entangled. And while of course the end goal is to write something worth making public, it seems to me the only way I’ve ever done so is through a long and convoluted process of duping myself into not being conscious of that. Creating for me is as much about silencing the urge to perform as it is about silencing doubt. In fact those are probably the same thing. It takes a while to see it, but there is always tremendous richness and depth and meaning in your own subjectivity. That is the substance of your voice. The trick is to find a way to sit with it, to not decide its fate. Because you really can’t. In the end you have no say over how your work is perceived. All you can do is take the time to listen to that private part of you, the dank, languageless part, and pour your energy into being as precise as possible in its articulation. I am continually elated to discover how fascinating anything is when you take the time to look closely enough.
Previously on Ask a Debut Novelist:
- On Writing and Revision: “Throw away the scale. There is no scale, there is only your story.”
- On the Book Business: “Selling a book won’t change your life—except it kind of will.”
- On Compliments: “And maybe every piece of writing is an act of trust.”
- On Self-Publishing, or Not: “Yearning for acceptance is a kind of acknowledgment of the reader, a sign of respect for other people and maybe even humility before them.”
- On Writing and Money: “I have seen just about as many paths as there are people.”
Have a question for Ted? Drop it in our Ask Box.
Raymond Chandler, one of the fathers of modern detective fiction, was born July 23, 1888. He turned to writing after the Great Depression cost him his job as an oil executive. Chandler’s first story was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933, and six years later his first novel appeared. That novel was The Big Sleep, and it introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, the tough but philosophical private detective.
Marlowe’s adventures have been adapted for the big screen, television, and radio. The list of actors who have stepped into his suit and shoulder holster includes Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Danny Glover, and James Caan. On radio, Marlowe’s adventures could be heard from 1947 to 1951, with Gerald Mohr most famously giving voice to the gumshoe.
In honor of Chandler’s birthday, I’ll play two episodes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe starring Gerald Mohr this Sunday in Episode 68 of the podcast. And stay tuned today for some old time radio adaptations of some of Chandler’s screenplays and short stories.
For more hard-boiled detectives from the Golden Age of Radio, click here to subscribe to the “Down These Mean Streets” podcast in iTunes.
Jules Verne was unquestionably imaginative: a science-fiction pioneer. And yet … “Verne may be a master of sorts, but he is not a master of high art. A casual reader, even in English translation, can see that Verne’s prose is rarely more than serviceable and that it gets overheated when he presumes to court eloquence … Each of Verne’s heroes is a nonpareil, the most remarkable man in the world—as long as the reader is immersed in his particular story.”
Yup. He is prolix, loves to infodump, his characterization is minimal at best. But, as it happens, I am slowly reading my way through his collected works, relishing every word, and damned if the man can’t keep you hooked.
"A lot of novelists start late—Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you’re young, chess is all right, and music and poetry. But novel-writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter."
Kendell Foster Crossen, creator of the Green Lama and writer of his first pulp novel appearances. The Green Lama appeared in Double Detective magazine as a competitor to Street & Smith’s stories starring The Shadow. Crossen also wrote the comic book adventures of the character.
Happy birthday to Sara Paretsky, creator of V.I. Warshawski, who was born in Ames, Iowa on this day in 1947.
lucybiederman said: Curtis Sittenfeld, THANK YOU for your novels--for dealing with such weighty questions w/ such honesty. I'm getting my PhD in American Lit, & in my 21st c lit classes, we read & discuss J. Franzen, Don DeLillo, B.E. Ellis, Tim O'Brien, & other great male novelists, but few women. Do you think female novelists get tougher reception in academe (or other contexts)? eg Am Wife makes such searing pts abt the war; wd critics have considered it more 'serious' or 'weighty' if they thought a man wrote it?
This is a huge generalization, but yes, I do think female novelists are taken less seriously than male ones—unless a woman actively proves otherwise, her writing tends to be considered a bit soft. It also seems that there are a few female writers every year who get some kind of macho thumbs-up from our culture and avoid the “women’s fiction” stigma—maybe they peed standing up in front of a bunch of editors or something? All that said, I can’t complain at all about the reception of American Wife—Joe Klein in particular wrote a very long, generous, serious review of it for Time magazine. The funny thing is that many men have said to me, “Am I your only male reader?” I suspect that question stems largely from what my covers look like.
The Curtis Qs are coming! Or, the Curtis As, really.
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Jen Van Meter was interviewed as part of CBR’s “Sunday Conversation” feature. During the chat she brought up her story arc in JSA Classified, “Honor Among Thieves.” She had this to say about it:
Right. Well, we talk. Greg Rucka — my husband — and I talk a lot around the house about the patterns we’ve observed in each other’s work over the past 25 years. One of the things we’ve talked about is, for instance, people will look at his body of work and say, “Rucka really likes writing these badass women.” But at home what we’re often talking about is that the big question he wants to answer, that drives 99% of what he writes, is nature vs. nurture. He’s fascinated by who we are and what we’re made into. In a culture that really aggressively assaults women in terms of self image and self esteem — and men as well — on the basis of gender and sex, we look into his work and see these characters emerge out of him, always thinking about that question. One of my driving questions is about how we build communities, and how community works. I think the family probably winds up being my entry point a lot, in part, because it’s this core community. Out of the households and out of tiny communities we form when we make families, we get a micro version of everything else. It’s funny, because I didn’t really notice how much I was doing it [Laughs] right away. As people started to engage with “Hopeless Savages,” they’d bring it up to me, and I realized I did have that interest. I’m interested in, for lack of a better word, house rules. How we get along. I’m interested in families that make themselves out of collections of people that aren’t necessarily related, or whose relationships aren’t approved by the state, but who nonetheless make family. I laughed when you asked because years ago, when Steve Wacker was still an editor at DC, he called me up and asked if I’d be willing to do a three or four issue mini-series reuniting some villains for a JSA story. I kind of put it down and came back to it and told him, “You’re really talking about a team book, and I don’t really do team books.” He said, “Have you ever read your stuff?”
idontevenlikeyourblog said: I recall that in the early-mid 1995, DAREDEVIL was written by a one "Alan Smithee". Have there been any other instances at Marvel where a book has been similarly "disowned" by a creator and had a fake name attached?
Yes, Steve Englehart has often had issues credited to John Harkness.
But in general, it’s a rare phenomenon.
I had a plot that an artist reworked beyond reasonable recognition credited to “Cordwainer Fury” once.
I think both places are currently struggling to decide what kind of city they want to be. Between sprawl and gentrification and a sort of hip sanitization, there are parts of both towns that look more like Neptune than any of us should be comfortable with. Don’t get me wrong; I love both Austin and Portland from the bottom of my heart. But I do think people in both places need to work hard to build communities that are fair and inclusive, even as the towns inevitably grow and change.
Jennifer Graham, co-writer of the first Veronica Mars novel The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, on Portland vs Austin.
I love how she brought the question back to Neptune. The role of the city was already important in the TV series -it is certainly not a coincidence that the 2006 collection of essays on Veronica Mars co-edited by Rob Thomas was named “Neptune Noir”-, but it feels like Rob Thomas cranked it up to eleven in the movie, from the opening catch-up narration ("When the class war begins, Neptune will be ground zero") to the corrupt cops to Weevil and Veronica being sucked back in.
The story is equal parts about Veronica falling back into her old addiction, and how Neptune feeds that addiction. This toxic relationship with her town is what makes Veronica Mars one of the few true noir TV shows, made all the more obvious in the movie by removing its high school trappings. This is also what makes it work as a P.I. series: this town justifies the need for a fictional P.I., the lone knight figure who’s not afraid of breaking the law in the name of justice - and will sometimes go too far, as Veronica herself acknowledges from the start (I got out when I was nineteen, leaving a trail of destruction in my wake”).
Another day, another lazy assumption. This time it’s someone on Twitter, describing himself as a reviewer and would-be author, making a passing comment about THE GOSPEL OF LOKI.
I’m not going to point anyone in the direction of the tweeter. He isn’t the first to say something crass, and I’m sure he didn’t mean his remark to be as insulting and dismissive as it sounded. However, the tweet (which was also posted on Goodreads) went as follows:
“Reading The Gospel of Loki. Capitalizing on the fandom of Tom Hiddleston I imagine.”
Perhaps it got me on a bad day. Writers sometimes have them too. Perhaps it was just one too many reader assumptions. Either way, it pissed me off more than such comments usually do.
Last week I came across a long, highly inaccurate (and rather badly-spelt) Twitter conversation, in which two young women accused me of “plagiarizing” and “copying” the Norse myths, or rather the version written down in the Prose Edda by the 12th-century scholar Snorri Sturlusson - rather an inaccurate use of the term, but plagiarism is an accusation that authors should (and do) take very seriously. It cannot refer to the use of a myth or folk-tale (if it did, then Disney would be in deep trouble with Perrault and the Brothers Grimm), but even with no foundation, it’s an accusation designed to put an author’s back up.
Not long before that, I got a rabid, rambling e-mail from someone who then posted the same text on Amazon as a review, accusing me of “capitalizing” (that word again), this time on the popularity of Johnny Depp, without whom (the writer said) THE LOLLIPOP SHOES and PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURE would never have been written.
There are, of course, several things wrong with this line of argument. One, CHOCOLAT was already a best-seller before the movie was made, which means that my readers - that is, the readers who have been with me from the start, and who follow me, not Hollywood - had already voted with their feet, and needed no further persuasion to read about Vianne Rocher, Roux and Anouk. In the same way, my first LOKI book (RUNEMARKS) had already been published four years before Marvel’s THOR came out, which means, barring covert timey-wimey activity, that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki fandom wasn’t around for me to capitalize on.
So, why am I dwelling on this? Well, I think it’s the tip of an iceberg - an iceberg we glimpse so often that we tend to forget it’s even there; a great big iceberg of sexism within the whole book industry, which stealthily perpetuates the belief that no woman writer can ever really be successful without having somehow copied from, used or otherwise capitalized upon the popularity of a man.
Don’t buy it? Try this:
Imagine someone accusing Salman Rushdie of “capitalizing” on the folk tales of the Middle East.
Imagine someone accusing Neil Gaiman of “capitalizing” on the popularity of: Norse myths; DR WHO; Claire Danes; milk.
Imagine someone accusing Lee Child of “capitalizing” on the popularity of Tom Cruise.
No? Didn’t think so.
As for myself, I can’t even remember all the crazy, sexist assumptions that have been made (and voiced) about me during my career as a writer. Here are just a few of them:
My husband supported me financially while I was starting out. (He didn’t. We both had jobs.)
My husband secretly writes my books. (Oh, for fuck’s sake.)
My media, university or Hollywood connections helped me start off. (They didn’t. I don’t have any.)
I’m sleeping with my agent/editor. (One is gay, the other female. And no, I’m really not.)
I’m desperate to make more movies, to boost my writing career. (Nope. Much as I like movies, I’ve never needed a leg-up from Hollywood. That’s why I keep turning down offers.)
I only write for women. Because, you know - vagina. (Nope. I write for anyone with a pulse.)
We know that the book industry is largely unfair to women. Women writers are in the majority, but generally get smaller advances; fewer reviews; fewer prizes; less respect.
It doesn’t help when Peter Stothard, latterly a Booker judge and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, excuses the fact that books reviewed in the TLS are almost all by male writers by saying that women don’t read, (or, presumably write) the kind of books reviewed in the TLS.
It doesn’t help when Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul opines (as he does, with monotonous frequency) that women are simply not intellectually up to writing great literature (being way too full of feelings and general messy thinking).
It doesn’t help when women themselves perpetuate the use of insulting terms like “chick-lit”, which belittle and marginalize women’s writing.
It doesn’t help when “women’s fiction” is still considered a sub-category. (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia; take note.)
It doesn’t help when some (male) academics teaching English Literature teach male-dominated courses, and where (female) academics have to compensate by creating “women’s fiction” courses, as if women were a minority group, and not half the population.
Recently, at a function at my local university, I was told - with some pride - by an academic that he never read books by women. It doesn’t help that morons like this are still in charge where it matters.
Given how many influential people (most of them male) are still disseminating the myth that women can’t get there on their own; that women are okay writing for women, but that men need something more durable; that women read (and write) commercial fiction, but that men write literature, we’re going to keep getting people making the same assumptions.The trickle-down effect of sexism in the book business will continue to apply, on Goodreads, on Twitter, in bookshops, on blogs.
How can we stop it?
Don’t let it go. Don’t assume that your voice isn’t worth listening to. Call people out when they talk crap instead of slinking sadly away.
And please, everyone, say after me:
Women’s fiction is not a “genre”.
Women writers do not need the permission of men to write what they do.
Women writers do not need to ride on the coat-tails of men to achieve success.
Women writers are capable of thinking, writing, and acting for themselves, without a man to motivate them, to give them ideas or to lend them an air of authority.
Women writers don’t need to take male pseudonyms in order to gain more readers.
Women writers don’t need to scorn and belittle other women writers in order to get the approval of men.
Women writers can stand alone. But it helps if we stand together.