The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, October 23, 2006

Writers, take your mark…

By Tamara Lee

Just as the NaNoWriMo start-off gun is being pulled from its holster (or however that image goes; I’m a city-slicker Canadian, so gun metaphors aren’t second nature to me), I am going over some of the outline notes I made earlier this month.

One of the exercises had me prepare a list of memorable novels I’ve read this year, the idea being that they are representative of the kind of novel I should be trying to write in November. Admittedly, I’m still lagging in my contemporary reading, but Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburg and Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant would top the list of novels I read this year that made me immediately want to relive the experience. Full of dark humour and memorable characters with a smattering of lyricism, it’s not hard to understand why those novels appeal, at least to me.

But when I recalled the novels I didn’t enjoy all that much, in particular Zadie Smith’s epic, White Teeth and Richard Russo's Empire Falls, I realised my dissatisfaction says a lot about what I want out of my own writing.

With both these novels, I spent nearly a month trying to care about the characters, at least enough to make it to the finish line. I'd get through a chapter or two every night until I started to see a dent finally had been made, thereby committing me to the project of finishing what I started. Smith's felt like two novels, and I preferred the second one, and Russo's meandering plot has not felt Twain-y to me in any way, as the blurbs and reviews had instructed me to feel. In fact, I’m still struggling with Empire Falls, but the other night an especially hilarious learning-to-drive scene rejuvenated my interest in the book. That’s the Russo-writing of Straight Man I was initially hoping to find.

It’s not really the massive size of these novels that deters me, it's just that, well, did they really need to be so lengthy? Did the characters lumbering through their misery really need to take so long to get winded? I’m not slim-novel obsessed, honest. Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here is gigantic, and I wanted it to go on and on; I wanted to live with that crazy clan, and watch them every day outside my window, doing anything, even washing their cars. I just wanted to keep going.

Quality over quantity; give me some poetry, some wit, some characters to whom I can secretly relate. This is what makes me turn pages. Not scene after scene somehow begging to be scanned over. I used to feel guilty skipping over a paragraph here and there, like I was taking a forbidden short-cut. But I don't feel that way anymore. Better to have finished the race than to have quit it entirely.

Of course, everyone’s criteria for motivating novels is different, but with one month to try to write 50,000 words, or damage an appendage trying, if I’m not writing what I want to read, why bother showing up to the starting line at all?


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I loved 'Mysteries of Pittsburg' and 'Solomon Gursky was Here!'

I play a game where I think of my favourites and then imagine them having a baby. What if 'Great Expectations' and 'The Mezzanine' had a baby? Okay: a man, his awful boss and the boss's beautiful secretary are stuck in an elevator.

What if 'Casablanca' and 'My Life as a Dog' had a baby? Okay: a refugee boy loses his parents on the way to America and the colourful staff of a port city hotel adopt him.


Mon Oct 23, 10:18:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Tamara, I can't wait to experience NaNoWriMo this year, and it's going to be so much fun knowing someone like you is going to along for the ride as well.


Mon Oct 23, 11:44:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Tamara, I look forward to your war correspondence from the NaNoWriMo front.

Mon Oct 23, 03:54:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I feel your pain on big novels. I just started "Underworld" by Delillo, and it's going well so far. I always reserve the right to quit a book if it's not working for me. And I've done it a few times...with "Ulysses" more than a few.

Mon Oct 23, 05:00:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, folks.

Andrew, your NaNo is going to be a blast to watch unfold, I'm sure. And 'Someone like you'? Mel, you've just invited an old Rod Stewart song into my head and now it won't leave quietly!

I have an advanced copy of 'Underwold' still sitting on my shelf... That's how long I've put off reading it. Length is one reason; lukewarm reviews from friends is another. Do let me know how you like it, Steve.

Mon Oct 23, 11:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

This is a very good reminder for me - write what I'd like to read. I tackle some big ones every once in a while. I am with you on Solomon Gursky. I remember thinking, I never want this book to end.

I read Moby Dick in June and can't wait until I read it again. But I will wait.

And Underworld? I've read it three times now - almost ready for another one. One of the best books of the 20th Century (IMO). I can't get enough of it.
Go figure.

Lukewarm reviews? It made the top three (American) books of the 20 Century recently.

Tue Oct 24, 12:02:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Criag, the lukewarm reviews were from my friends who read it, but I have to admit, I'm not always in agreement with best-of lists. White Teeth had all sorts of kudos, too. I think it was over-rated. As recent 'Top Novels of all Time' controveries have uncovered, many editors, publishers and writers who create these lists simply suggest works they *think* should be there, not necessarily those they've read. The limited representation of women and non-American, non-white authors on those lists usually puts me off, too (Oh, but now they can put Zadie Smith up there, phew). I'm not saying Smith, or Underworld (or Moby Dick, for that matter), aren't deserving glowing reviews, but does that mean everyone's gotta like 'em? Classic-shmassic ;)

Tue Oct 24, 02:33:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

Yep - agreed.

Though on this list, at the top, was Toni Morrison, that was good to see.

I just really really like Underworld, a lot, really.

Tue Oct 24, 09:40:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Your writing is inspiring and beautiful, Tamara. I am looking forward to trying this Nano thing out...

Tue Oct 24, 11:47:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Yours is a glowing recommendation, Craig. I really must give that Underworld a go then. Maybe I'll try after the new year. I'll let you know (I may need encouragement ;)

And thanks, Jen. Hopefully something good comes out of the experience.

Wed Oct 25, 02:20:00 am GMT-4  

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