Panorama City

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Ask the Writing Teacher: Novelists on First Drafts

Dear Writing Teacher,

I am a published fiction writer who is about to start writing a new novel. You would think, since I’ve already done this before, that I knew what I was doing. But I don’t. I am lost. Where do I start? What do I need to know about my story and my characters before I begin? What should I just figure out as I go? Suddenly, the idea of writing that first draft seems impossible, and I am terrified.

I’d greatly appreciate any guidance you could offer me!

Sincerely,
Facing the Blank Page
Man oh man, I could’ve written this question to myself! I, too, am about to start a new novel, and I’m wondering how in the hell I did it before (two times, in fact), and how in the hell I’ll ever do it again. Take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone in your despair; thousands of writers face their white screens every day, uncertain of how to proceed. I’ve heard from many authors that each novel offers its own unique demands, its own unique joys, and that you must re-learn the process with each go. Let that inspire rather than scare you — would you really want a redundant experience?

In this essay, excerpted from the book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Jennifer Egan talks about the process of writing Look At Me:
It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far.

At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling — a rarity as I was working on it.
I keep returning to this passage as I begin to think about my own new book. Why should I be afraid to be challenged? If the writing will be painful, then it will be painful. Just as often, it won’t be. I simply must sit down and see.

As for how one goes about writing a first draft, I like to practice the art of acceptance.  In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett describes how she plans much of her novel in her head before she sets a word of it on paper. Her dear friend and reader, Elizabeth McCracken, is a very different kind of novelist. Patchett writes, “I get everything set in my head and then I go, whereas Elizabeth will write her way into her characters’ world, trying out scenes, writing backstories she’ll never use.  We marvel at each other’s process, and for me it’s a constant reminder that there isn’t one way to do this work.” Amen to that! Novel writing can be fun, but it can also be daunting and challenging, more frustrating than untangling the necklaces at the bottom of your jewelry box. The last thing you need is to question your own process.

Still, when I’m writing a first draft, I, like you, long for some direction. Does it make sense to figure out the retrospective voice now, or can I deal with that later? Should I do the research now, or is it a second draft problem? How about chapter length — does that matter now? (Does it matter ever?) There are so many questions zipping across a lonely writer’s head as she sits at her desk working.

I decided to ask some writers I admire what they try to figure out with their first drafts. What, I asked them, do you need to know before you begin? And what do you try to solve as you’re working on that first draft?

Their answers were as brilliant and as varied as I expected:
My opinion is that you want to figure out character and plot in the first draft. I think it’s also a good idea to have the setting nailed down in the first draft, if possible; moving the narrative to another location can entail some pretty tedious rewrites. It’s also a good idea to figure out whether the book’s going to be in the first person or the third person as early on as possible, because changing pages and pages of text from one to the other is an insanely labor-intensive process.

My feeling is that you don’t need to waste your time obsessing over pacing in the first draft, because that’s the kind of thing that can change completely in revisions. In your first round of revisions you’ll inevitably end up cutting a lot of material, and that will change the pace of the book, so I think pacing is something best refined toward the end of the process.
-Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet

I think my answer might be a little bit controversial — I think almost nothing is worth sweating in the first draft. Does a character need to change genders? Do you want to shift the structure? Just do it, and keep moving forward. Finishing a draft of a novel is so hard, and so enormous, that one needs all the momentum possible. If you stop and go back to the beginning every time you want to change something, you will never finish. Just go go go! You will have the time to go back and fix all your mistakes, right your wrongs, etc. Just get to the end of the first draft. The feeling of accomplishment is sweet enough to spur you on to make even the most major changes in revision.
-Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

In the first draft I’m just trying to figure out what the story is or might be. I’m trying to learn the story, and trying to stay open to the possibilities that the original idea might be capable of generating. The only way to learn the story is by writing it, but how do you write it when you have only the vaguest notion of what the story is, and who the characters might be? That’s a problem. The problem, eh? The only way I learn it is by writing it line by line, page by page.
My expectations for first drafts are pretty low. I don’t worry about polishing the language at all, or fine-tuning character or plot. I’m basically just trying to figure out what the story might be.
-Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

There’s a huge gap between what I need to know and what I do know when I begin a novel. If I waited until I knew at least thirty percent of what I should know before diving in, I think I’d be permanently stuck on the springboard. Normally (and I’m talking from the experience of a meager two books here) I know two things: a place and a person. The place is usually vivid. I could go on about it for pages. But the person is a cardboard cut out—two dimensional. Magician. Musician. Drunk. Shopkeeper. What I have to force myself to figure out is a single incident that sets the story in motion. It might be removed later on, but I need to pick one action which might cause this person to move about this place. Since I know so little about my character(s) when I first commit them to paper, I tend to overwrite them, cramming all sorts of overblown background detail into my first draft, which in turn drags down what little plot I initially have. My second draft is all about fixing that balance, pruning the obsessive background information and replacing it with more action in the novel’s present.
-Ivy Pochoda, author of the forthcoming Visitation Street

For me, the first draft is really just a big mud-rolling, dust-kicking, mess-making time in which my only job is to find the story’s heartbeat.  I allow myself to invent characters without warning, drop them if they prove to be uninteresting, change the setting in the middle, experiment with point of view, etc.  I figure that the body will grow up around the heart, that it’s always possible to bring all the various elements up and down, sculpt and polish, as long as I’ve got something that matters to me.  The second draft (and the 3rd through 20th, Lord help me) involves getting out the tool belt and thinking like a carpenter.  But the first draft is all dirt and water and seeds and, hopefully, a little magic.  Of course, this method means that my first draft is almost unreadable.  Maybe someday I’ll invent a way of making a slightly cleaner mess, but until then, I try to enjoy the muck.
–Ramona Ausubel, author of No One is Here is Except All of Us

The thing I try to resist in writing my first drafts is getting too caught up in the sentences. I am capable of revising “The cat sat on the mat,” a dozen times and then coming back to the original. At the same time I think that two of the most crucial decisions we make when writing a novel are about the music and the tone so I am always hoping to discover those as I work on my first draft.
I try in my first drafts to make as many decisions about character as I can stand. It’s tempting to leave things vague but I do think it’s very helpful to know a character’s name, age, class, occupation, manner of speech, and have some sense of physical appearance as early as possible. That said it will often take me much of a first draft to decide that Rosemary is thirty-two, a physiotherapist …. It is hard in revision to, for example, change a character’s name — it becomes part of the music of the prose — but I’ve often had to.

I try in my first draft to decide what kind of species my chapter or section will be, and how time will pass.

And I try in my first draft to make as many decisions about plot as I can. What journey are these characters on? What is their destination? Often I notice in revision that I have several scenes which all do the same thing in terms of characterization and plot and I will end up picking the best, or combining them.

I try to remind myself that the first person for whom I’m writing is myself; some of what I write in the first draft is scaffolding. It helps me to get the story under way but the reader doesn’t need to see it. And I can dismantle it later.
-Margot Livesey, author, most recently, of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

For the first draft I need to know only enough to keep going. No more, no less.
-Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City
I hope that’s a little helpful, my dear writer.  Now, on with it: get to work.

Sincerely,
The Writing Teacher

Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].

A Year in Reading: Ed Park

1.
Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He’s on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back — or down — by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?”

I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I’ll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.)

I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt.
I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat.
2.
Crushes: Joe Meno’s Office Girl, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh’s “Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman”: “O tempura, O monkeys.”

3.
I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes.

4.
Two stories by David Gordon, “We Happy Few” (Five Chapters) and “Man-Boob Summer” (Paris Review) — pure pleasure.

5.
Online: Mary-Kim Arnold’s Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: “Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY.” And I loved Rob Horning’s gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: “It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: ‘See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.’ ”

6.
Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. “Thank You For Your Postcard” is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3×5 piece of decorated cardboard: “Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus.”

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading 2012

The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).

So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.

And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.

With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

Tuesday New Release Day: Rowling, Homes, Stein, Wilson, Moehringer, Tejpal, Silver, Young, Warner, Donoghue

Another bumper crop of books this week is led by J.K Rowling’s post-Potter effort, The Casual Vacancy is on shelves, as are May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes, Canvas by Benjamin Stein, Panorama City by Antoine Wilson, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, Tarun J. Tejpal’s debut The Story of my Assassins. On the non-fiction side, Nate Silver’s long-awaited The Signal and the Noise is here, as is Neil Young’s memoir Waging Heavy Peace. New in paperback: John Warner’s Funny Man (the edition includes an essay by Warner that ran on The Millions) and Emma Donoghue’s blockbuster The Room.

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