Novel Writing, Cooking, Walking, Running
If you are a fiction writer, you will inevitably be asked when you plan to release a novel. If you don’t have an answer to that question, or if the answer to that question is, “I have no idea,” or “never,” other writers will look at you strangely. There is an expectation, for fiction writers, that your primary ambition is to produce novel-length work despite a professional education system (the MFA system) that, for better or worse, focuses primarily on the craft of the short story. The short story, while fairly popular in literary magazines, often seems beleaguered within the greater context of the publishing industry. There are lots of notions that the reading public is not interested in the short story and as such, there is less need for a genre for which there is not a significant audience.
Most of the advice about finding an agent implies that if you don’t have a complete novel draft or one well underway, you shouldn’t even bother with seeking representation because short story collections don’t sell. This mantra is repeated over and over although there is ample evidence that it is, indeed, possible to publish a short story collection. Certainly, publishing a story collection is more challenging, particularly with bigger presses, than publishing a novel, but I read collections regularly and don’t foresee that changing anytime soon. I cannot be alone in enjoying short story collections and finding them abundant. Nothing is ever as dire as the rhetoric implies until, of course, you have written nothing but several short story collections and they are sitting, quietly, on your hard drive, gathering virtual dust.
For a long time, my answer to any question involving when I would produce a novel was, “I have no idea.” I love writing short stories. I would be perfectly content to only write short stories for the rest of my life. Still, when among writers, talk often turns to this grand idea of a career and many people believe you cannot truly have a career as a fiction writer until you have produced a novel or four. I blame Joyce Carol Oates for this. When I thought about that question, of when when when, I wondered if writing a novel is something I could do. I love reading novels, the longer the better. I enjoy the immersive quality of a single story sustained for a long time. I get invested. I’m so down with the genre. When I read a novel, I wonder how the writer was able to accomplish the feat, particularly when I am reading a beautiful novel, sweeping stories with a real epic quality. I wonder how those writers were able to build their book’s world so meticulously, holding all the various narrative threads together, creating rich characters, making me feel something whether its joy or melancholy or fear or anger. I can make sense of how to do these things in 2,000 words or 8,000 words but when I tried to conceive of how to write a story for 60,000 words or 80,000 words, the sheer scope of the task overwhelmed me.
I am not a natural in the kitchen. I can cook well but I require detailed instructions. I have lots and lots of cookbooks so when I’m cooking for someone I can always keep the meals interesting. Without cookbooks, we would eat in restaurants every night or I would prepare something edible but uninspired. If I were faced with a culinary dilemma like having to make something happen with an onion, a tomato, two pieces of chicken and some basil, you would be served an onion, a tomato, two pieces of chicken, and some basil, neatly arranged but individually and probably blandly prepared. I don’t have that McGyver like ability some people have to sweep through a kitchen and prepare a meal based on instinct. I don’t naturally know what to do so I look to cookbooks and with a great recipe, I will make you a great meal. I assumed novel writing would require a similar set of instructions because I was at a loss for what to do with the idea I had. As I began to prepare for writing a novel, I wanted to find the right “recipe” that would tell me, precisely, how to accomplish the task because left to my own devices, I had no idea where to start.
I started reading various books and writing forums online trying to find advice about writing a novel. I learned about storyboarding methods and special software and how some writers create extensively detailed profiles for each character so those writers can live and breathe the lives of the people they mean to write. A lot of what I read about novel writing made the process seem like something I didn’t really want to do. I downloaded Scrivener and tried to navigate the software but failed. All I could see was an unfamiliar screen with lots of buttons and options that made no sense at all. I don’t handle change well. My writing soul belongs to our corporate overlords, Microsoft. I made a few sorry attempts at trying to write something using the Scrivener software but the words never looked right on the screen. I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I abandoned that idea. For months, I opened the same Word file and stared at the screen blankly hoping I would magically figure out where to start. Nothing came. I could never get past the 4,000 word mark. My agent regularly asked how my novel was coming along and I assured her, “I’m working on it.” That was true. I was working on it or, at least, I was trying to work on it. I knew the story I wanted to tell but I did not know how to approach the beginning, middle, or end. It was a pretty miserable time within the context of self-imposed, voluntary misery.
There were also a lot of logistical questions. How long should a novel be? (There are a million different answers to this question, by the way.) I prefer to write in single-spaced unindented paragraphs. Would that be an acceptable way to submit a manuscript? How long should a chapter be? How many chapters is too many chapters? How do you number chapters during the drafting process when certain sections might be moved around? Is it acceptable to use multiple points of view (ie. both first and third person)? What if certain chapters adopt an experimental format but are interspersed with more traditional prose? Is it really true that every chapter should be self-contained and readable as its own thing? Do you have to write from beginning to end or is it acceptable to jump around the story and pull it all together at the end? How do you pace a novel? How explicit is too explicit? Is it okay to leave gaps in the narrative? How on earth does Joyce Carol Oates do what she does? There is lots of advice on novel writing but I struggled to find satisfying answers for my peculiar set of questions.
In Haitian cuisine, there is a tomato based sauce that is served with almost everything. If we sit down to a family meal and there’s no sauce on the table, my father will ask, “Where is the sauce?” and if there is none, my mother will cut him a withering look, answering his question quite efficiently. He can’t help himself. Sauce is serious business and most Haitian women have a recipe learned from their mothers, modified for their own tastes. No two sauces taste the same. Both of my grandmothers had different recipes. My aunts all have different recipes. I even have an uncle with his own recipe. The one common feature is that all their sauces taste damn good. Mine is okay but I haven’t perfected my technique yet. Every time I want to make this sauce I call my mother and ask for the recipe and she patiently recounts the ratio of tomato sauce to water, what to do with the thyme, olive oil, how to cook the onions and peppers so they remain crisp. I pester her to write down a specific set of instructions for me but she refuses. She says, “That’s not how it works.” I have noticed that her instructions change quite a bit and I often feel like she’s leaving a little something out. The last time I wanted to make this sauce, my mother was in Port au Prince and I couldn’t get ahold of her because the phone situation can be iffy. I had all the ingredients assembled on my kitchen counter, a dinner companion waiting patiently, and a vague sense of how to proceed. The task still felt somewhat impossible but I did the best I could. I tried to trust my instincts. People who have tried my sauce and my mother’s sauce say hers is better but mine is close.
After the holiday break this year, I realized I had to get serious about this novel. Tick tock tick tock. On January 12 or so I decided to ignore all the advice I had read. I started writing what I felt like writing when I felt like writing it how I felt like writing it. I jumped all over the place. None of my chapters have numbers. At AWP, my roommate typed nonsense into the beginning of a chapter and I left it there. I laugh every time I see it. I began each new chapter with the word Chapter so when the time comes I can add the correct number as needed. I didn’t take notes or create a timeline or plot anything out. I did write every single day on the novel, for hours, and made that the one rule I would stick to. I regularly read what I wrote and revised. After more than six months of staring at a page, never breaking 4,000 words, I finally started making progress and the word count crawled into the five figures. I learned when you break 100,000 words you can no longer see the word count in the tool bar at the bottom of the Word window and then I learned just how often I stare at that word count because when it wasn’t there I thought I might lose my mind. I needed that visual reminder that progress was being made. Finally, a few weeks ago, I finished what is a very long story you might call a novel, a story far longer than I ever thought I could write. Knowing the first draft was finished was a surprisingly good feeling.
The other night my gentleman friend wanted lasagna because I make good lasagna. I had a recipe, a perfect recipe, but I couldn’t find it. He gave me a pathetic look making it seem like if he didn’t get lasagna, immediately, his life might come to a tragic end. It broke my heart so I sent him to the store to get what I thought I needed and when he got back, I started drinking wine and putting things together in a way that vaguely seemed like the right thing to do. The wine really helped and an hour and a half later, we had a vegetable lasagna that was pretty good. I sort of knew what to do even if I didn’t know what to do. I guess I don’t always need a recipe after all.
When I began my novel, I was originally aiming for 70,000 words. I ended up writing 115,000 or so. The number changes as I continue to fix what isn’t broken but I have a book I’m not embarrassed by and the strangest thing has happened—I enjoyed the writing of this novel so much, once I got out of my own way and trusted my instincts, I’ve started writing another because now I have a clearer sense of what to do. I sort of wrote my own recipe even though it’s all kinds of fucked up.
Like most writers, I was able to write a novel without explicit instruction and that’s probably for the best. I learned a lot and there are some skills that can’t be taught and some things we should figure out for ourselves. At the same time, a little help never hurts. When I got my MA, I took several fiction workshops but I don’t think the word “novel,” was ever spoken. The understanding was that we were in workshops to learn how to write short stories, probably because of how enamored we are as a culture with the idea that we should walk before we run. I have no problem with that. I am really lucky and had great teachers and experiences that continue to help me grow as a writer. Looking back though, thinking about how long it took me to finally get to a place where I could write a novel, I wish at least one of those workshops had been dedicated to building some kind of foundation for writing novel-length work. We can teach writers how to conceptualize longer work and demystify some of the novel-writing process both philosophically and practically. Cathy Day has been writing quite a bit about teaching novel writing in the creative writing workshop and creative writing pedagogy and I am loving her ideas. She has a draft of a syllabus here of a class I would love to take, even now. It’s an important conversation she (and others) are having about creative writing pedagogy because there are so many questions about what it means to write a novel, what it takes to write a novel (and do it well), and how to actually get it done. You don’t need a recipe to cook well but a good recipe can help. You don’t need to go to school to learn how to write or be a great writer but it can help. Can you teach writing? Can you teach novel writing? I do not know, but we can try better.