The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Unleashing the dogs and the novel within

by Tamara J. Lee

Discussions about whether Goethe and Joyce only had one true novel in them are the kind that usually bore me to uncharacteristic silence. Maybe these conversations just terrify me. Or disturb me, in the way that John Cusack’s character David Shayne was disturbed in Bullets Over Broadway when he finally realised he was not, in fact, meant to be a writer. Damn Woody Allen for illuminating that fear in me. It had been very comfortably sleeping there, a clueless puppy. And puppies are so much softer than dogs.

Recently a good friend of mine, a woman who for as long as I’ve known her has been an artisan, suddenly announced she’d written a novel. Her achievement put her in a position to offer me, a struggling writer with an unfinished novel, some words of wisdom. Having found a book that fulfilled her needs, she sat her backside down to complete the task. She concedes the first draft wasn't good, and the finished product is not necessarily ‘literary,’ but she did it as an exercise of discipline and desire-fulfilment. Her inspiration was the book by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest co-founder Chris Baty, called No Plot, No Problem that, among other things, asserts anyone can finish the first draft of a novel, and with focus and determination, anyone can do it in 30 days. I’ve not read the book, though I can say I’ve successfully abandoned two official NaNoWriMo attempts, and neither ever produced novels. One did, eventually, morph into a screenplay I am currently rewriting.

But writing fiction is my heart’s content and anxiety, my passive-aggressive passion. Jonathan Safran Foer’s comment in a recent interview at Powells.com puts it another way: “I enjoy having written things. Someone once said that writing is like pulling teeth...out of your penis.” While I can’t say I empathize, exactly, I will say I’ve been known to flip through writing guides the way someone wanting to lose 20 pounds flips through diet books, subconsciously hoping to find the magic tool that will finally, miraculously, make the achievement easier.

Some years ago, I picked up Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative. Hodgins, a West Coast author and Creative Writing teacher at the University of Victoria, approaches this writing how-to book with a very clear assumption: that the reader is serious about actually learning a thing or two. His book, primarily concerned with short fiction, is thorough, informative, and amusing. In fact, I swear I could hear echoes of the charming Spit Delaney while I read the book. And I even completed many of the writing exercises, some of which turned into half-decent story nuggets I’m still developing for the Unfinished Novel. But his dogged assumption that passion is all it will take for the writer to sit her ass down and write is so straightforward, it’s hard to imagine Hodgins ever doubting himself.

Returning from a sort of sabbatical to tend to other creative projects, I’ve renewed my passion for fiction, chewing on the bones of all those first drafts. And for the past few months, I’ve been following Louise Doughty’s Friday Telegraph column, as she takes readers through the steps of writing a novel, in her “Novel in a Year” series. Also straightforward and practical, Doughty's series is full of useful advice, and the oft-necessary soothing words from an experienced writing teacher to her anxious and insecure students.

Like Hodgins’ book, Doughty’s writing exercises are engaging. Though they never seem to fully get the writer to bite as deeply or brutally as Hodgins’. But there is an adjacent forum where column readers and budding novelists can commiserate with one another as they work through the weekly assignments. That many of the writers are bloody talented is more daunting than inspiring sometimes. But then, if they weren’t, I doubt I’d have stayed with it this long. Loyal in love, fickle in a struggle for this puppy.

In the first week, Doughty notes how would-be writers often ask her how she got her first novel published: “It's a perfectly valid question,” she writes, “but I often suspect the motivation behind it. What was your trick? is what they mean. Tell me your trick, because when I know it, I will be published too. The honest answer, I'm afraid, is, ‘I wrote a good book. And if you want to be a published writer, you will have to write one too.’"

In this week’s column, Doughty observes that the writer working on a novel is subjected to “surprise, possibly envy and almost certainly a little scepticism” from others. Admittedly, this was much like my response to my friend’s unexpected announcement, and I am ashamed, further, to say I was even a bit miffed when she, a new writer, offered me, someone who has been working as a writer/editor for some years, advice on how to write a novel. Damn her for illuminating, if inadvertently, my ego-issues so effectively. But it was an important lesson. It was a reminder that I really am the only one keeping myself from the discipline needed to sit my ‘but’ down and finish that first draft.

It may be true that anyone can write the first draft of a novel, as Baty asserts. And maybe I will pick up the Baty challenge, and give the 30-day novel one more chance. But if my passion-aggression with my short story writing is any indication, with countless story carcasses strewn about my journals and hard drive, it’s the rewrite process that’s the real dog.

2 Comments:

Blogger Anne C. said...

Thanks for that Novel in a Year link, Tamara.

Wed May 10, 07:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Hope you find it helpful, Anne C.

Wed May 10, 04:27:00 pm GMT-4  

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