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!
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.
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July’s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)