Saturday, May 20, 2006

How to write a novel. Part One

This old tortoise is fast meeting his hares.

Parallel situation.

Thirty years ago, I had some students who felt for sure that they had forgotten more about writing than I was prepared to teach them. They were so good. They were so precocious. They already had their B.A.'s. They would be the next generation of teachers and writers.

Except that they couldn't write and any criticism or advice I had to offer was somehow a personal affront. I gave them writing assignments and they would not complete them. Feelgood education back then in a skewed high school system in Canada. You knew how to shuffle paper, but you could not write, or, for that matter add.

Not in my nature, but I had to fail them, one by one. I could not embarrass the institution.

The trouble with most advice you get about writing a novel, especially on the internet is that the advice is, more often than not, offered by a second generation of the feelgood crowd, few of them with a word published and so the blind and even dyslexic tend to lead the blind and dyslexic. Makes for a good social club and perhaps an even better cult, but save for often colourful essays and even more rococo responses, little is actually accomplished.

Writing a novel is serious business. For some, it is the only business. The monomaniacs, the fanatics, the real professionals.

Myself as a sort of literary Push Me-Pull You, I have explored some of the ways, including side trips of deliberately writing for money, which is journalism and some forays into pure well-paid humour.

But there is nothing humorous about the enterprise of writing a novel.

It is, more often than not, a lifetime quest, the dream, the lifestyle, the execution. The execution is sometimes your own, especially if you blow the novel for I have found that you have to break the work or it will break you.

I am quite influenced by the work of John Braine, how he goes about writing a novel, the rugged prose instead of clever and sometimes deranged stream- of -consciousness, symbolism, Dada and all that. It seems to me that it's best to write like a Yorkshireman, direct, clear-eyed and in plain English.

That being said, I tend to write like an expatriate Pole trying to be Joseph Conrad.

So to begin: Do not attempt the novel before thirty, but do try to work on some short stories which could be included in your school's literary magazine , yearbook--your city's promotional material that can sometimes include your poems or short stories--that sort of thing. Cut your teeth. Get the feel of what they used to call printer's ink running through your veins. Hang around, if you can, with published writers. Hang around the Press Club. Hang around the funkier book stores. Get a job there if you can, especially if the owner is eccentric and has a chapbook operation behind the store.

But the best training is with a large metropolitan newspaper. Why? Because there you will learn to steam-clean your prose, to write economically, to discern finally the line between English composition and writing.

Nice work if you can get it. Well you can get it. You can get it by making a lot of noise as a poet or short story writer, preferably in a college magazine. You will be noticed. And if you can't do that, go to where the managing editors go, usually a good watering hole. I used to drink hugely with Ray Timson, the ME at the Toronto Star. This was after one Gerry Toner gave me a good break and I somehow blew it. I had to startdrinking with other editors. Some of Ray's his advice was good, some was bad.

But Ray was one of the most respected editors at the Star, a natural writer and well-liked. Another gifted man was Rae Corelli and another gifted person, a female, Pat Williams was extremely supportive, convinced, poor woman, that I would be the next Balzac.

Well, I came part of the way. I was finally offered an Ontario Council grant for my Light Over Newmarket, and somehow, by hook and crook and the Council's help, I finally saw Light Over Newmarket published. Reviews were pretty good, one recent in Aaron Braaten's blog, Grandinite.

But I still hadn't made the big time. Not the Big Apple. Not New York.

I did eventually end up with an agent, who did drop me for some technical mistakes I kept making (now I was the student) and though he compared my work to Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, he also told me he was not Maxwell Perkins. I would have to make the corrections on my own. He did not entirely avoid suggesting I find a new agent and good luck with that.

So it's not always a clear path. You might lose some hair and teeth writing a novel, but you are never fully done. When you think you're done, you're only half done.

But I finally got it done. Done, at least, to my own satisfaction.

I have sent the book to a New York friend who knows his way around.

There is a satisfaction of putting THE END to a work, but the work, more often than not, may have its antecedents in a whole lot of worms, personal problems, family anxieties, ethnicity, rejection, failure, pain. Reality television, if you will. But crafted, you hope, into something not ugly, something fine.

In the course of writing a novel, I have mislaid an entire family, have journeyed through alcohol, madness and loss of respect--the gods are jealous--and only then was anything accomplished.No pain, no gain.

The beginning novelist, says Norman Mailer, is almost always a prick and I worry about that. Really worry about it.

So how do you start your novel, asshole?

Not the traditional way, not "It was a dark and stormy night", though it was good enough for Snoopy and it might even be good enough for you.

You begin with something you had written in the past, something you'd had published, actually published, way back there, when you were cutting your teeth. Your best blog perhaps, or something you had somehow smuggled into commercial print. That particular piece had a reason for being outstanding enough to be published or to be praised by people you respected while in blog form, and that is probably where the gold is. You were younger then, and not a real writer. You wrote from the heart, not yet a slip-slider, angle-taker flim-flam man and general mountebank who is the Beatles' famous Paperback Writer.

You begin with the best thing you'd had published as a young man or woman and you start to mine that material.

With me, it was The Black Icon, a book I thought I'd blown, but with some help from a creative writing instructor, I was able to salvage it, using only the first third of the book, which involved the character's birth into war and famine and a final salvation by reaching Canada with his parents who somehow survived the horrors of the Second World War by sheer blind luck, though Dad did do a spell in a concentration camp.

It is best, I suppose, by beginning with "I was born"; or "He was born", or "She was born". Take the first paragraph out of an old Sixties novel by John Fowles, The Magus and the example will do only too well. I believe he went, "I was born the son off middleclass parents themselves under the shadow of that monstrous dwarf, Victoria. My parents died early and it was soon apparent to me that I was not equipped by heredity to be the kind of person I wanted to be."

But then the skill, the skill. You need to acquire the skill. You need to acquire a painter's use of overlay, all that background action and description attaining a compact whole. Literary finesse.
This is almost impossible to acquire.

But, you might say, I only want to write commercial fiction, the thriller, the mystery novel.

No matter. The same degree of skill.Have you every tried writing commercial shit? Difficult, isn't it? Very difficult.

Especially difficult if you don't know about overlay or literary finesse.

Here is something by one Gordon Cotler, SHOOTING SCRIPT, of some ten years back.

I thought I caught a glimpse of Stavros as I was getting out of my car in the network parking lot, but I couldn't be sure; the southern California morning sun had bleached the scene almost to white on white. And whoever I saw had climbed into a car in the section marked RESERVED FOR TALENT. Not even the most indulgent definition of talent would have given the nod to Stavros. Still, real or imagined, his was a portent. I just wasn't willing to accept that anything having to do with Nicholas Stavros could be portentous. He was an annoyance, a minor one I expected to fade like a bad sunburn.

Okay. You notice that quite a few things are going on in this bestseller opener.

There is overlay for sure, almost painterly. Notice the Southern California sun having bleached the scene to almost white on white, sort of like gesso on a canvas. There is a quick description of Stavros and the psychological space he projects for the narrator. There is also hardly a word wasted. This is best-seller style. Hope you can attain it.

I never have. But I am at least a reader who at the same time knows for sure that he has produced more brute word count in commercial print than any recent bestseller author. Three million words in print, and I still wonder sometimes if I will really ever get it.

So the thing is for your opening paragraph to be a snapper, but a snapper crafted by skilled and experienced hands, hopefully your hands. You are not fooling around here. You are writing for your life.

Chapters follow a kind of magazine rule, lead, body and point, the point finally agreeing with the lead. Rules are always made to be broken, but in general terms, your opener should be a snapper and your chapter closer must be a snapper as well. You've got to keep them turning pages.

Online, it is a different story. It is your genius, like maybe young Chuckercanuck's out of Montreal, that will bring out the real gold.You may have to be the doctors daughter with a checkered past to finally arrive at this level of ability, but a person like Chucker seems to have it al the same. I do believe this all comes from the mother. I am a firm believer that your character comes from the father but your genius from your mother. Or not. But probably.

The most important thing is your first chapter. This is the um, seminal beginning.. This is where you were born, in fact and in metaphor.

Write a good first chapter and the rest will more or less follow. If you have the will, had put in the time and have acquired the skill.

I'll have more to say on this as we go along.


Anonymous said...

okay,Balzac...I preferred paperback must continue
the good fight...your writing and journeys are a source of great enjoyment
for me,and I don't think anybody cares if you really were a prick when you
started writing...and that's only by Mailer's account...there is always some
form of the ok corral for any of us who do not wish to go quietly into the
darkness of oblivion and swift on the draw and straight with
the goods...continued success and great writing... and don't let your badge da man...

little miss muffet sat on a tuffet
eating her curds and whey
then she finished her novel
and pissed all the critics away[then she
went to see little boy blue]

ace zop

ivan said...

Thanks Ace.
As someone has suggested in a blog just past, one General Jack Ripper,
I will edeavor to "keep the old pecker up."

Which somehow brings me to the subject of women.

I am sure women writers have an equivalent to keeping it up. This is a time of great commercialization of novels, everybody networking, everybody selling--never mind the damn book; it's just stock. Win the network and you wind the book.
But, lady writers,work on that genre masterpiece. All masterpieces are bestseller,though today not all bestsellers are masterpieces. Very few, in fact.

Being good, that's the thing, I suppose. The rest, hopefully,will follow.

Anonymous said...

"A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die! And to be able to to live for ever you don't need to have extraordinary gifts or be able to do miracles. Who was Sancho Panza? Who was Prospero? But they will live for ever because - living seeds - they had the luck to find a fruitful soil, an imagination which knew how to grow them and feed them, so that they will live for ever." (from Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921)
Luigi Pirandello

A quotation from a writer, a man that will live forever, or at least until paper crumbles or hard drives soften. Like Luigi's six characters, our characters will seek us out...if we listen to them. Satisfying thought, that.


ivan said...

You read Pirandello, that literary captain of the Pain Industry?

Erik Ivan James said...

Some good teachings here, Ivan.
What to say but Thank you.

ivan said...

Your gracious comment is appreciated, Erik.

General Jack Ripper said...

Eerie. I was just about to ask if you had any sage advice for young hacks. Thanks Ivan. I raise a glass of pure grain alcohol and rainwater in your direction.

ivan said...

You one of my old Air Force buddies?

Familiar ring here. Mike? Chuck?
Hell, maybe even Ginger, but she's female and not in uniform.

I am getting too old and senile to figure out the clues.

You're welcome to the advice anyway.

General Jack Ripper said...

Nope, never had the pleasure. I'm just some young doofus who found you via Zerby's blog.

ivan said...

Ah,the icredile Zerb.
Even Gary Dunford seems to give her some passing admiration as a blogger, though I got the sense from his email that he's not all that high on blogging.
Thanks again for visiting, General Jack.
"It's those body fluids, Mandrake. Everybody's after our essential body fluids.
"I can't let them have my body fluids, Mandrake."
--Col Jack D. Ripper.
(How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb).

R.J. Baker said...

More wisdom from the oracle of Ontario...great post.

It has taken me 43 years so far and I still haven't completed my first novel - I'm not sure whether it's analogous giving birth or taking a majorly constipated shit....

ivan said...

Great to "hear" your voice again Rob. Kinda quiet on your web as well. Where ya been?...Oh, ok. I know, I think.
I am a firm believer that out of
Rabelaisian crap comes the flower.
There are people who believe in you as a writer, Mark Terry for one, and he should know.
I think you had intuited on what you should do next some months ago, take all the shit and throw it back on the printed page so other people's memories and associations can be jogged. They may have been there too. This is, after all, the Department of Anguish.
You can at least express the anguish in first draft.
But mind that word count, even if Chapter TWo and Three seem like mawkish crap. Forty thousand words or nothing. At least, that's what I did.
And then a good editor cut the last two-thirds of the book and I was down to a novella and not a novel...So I had someting like 33,000 words, an odd size for New York publishing, but I polished the 33,000 words anyway, found it was just the right size for serialization and finally got it printed in a magazine in installments. Wow. That was enough of a buzz in itself.

It just struck me that you should maybe write your "my life and hard times" piece and think of the lawyers' newsletter as a possible vehicle...But put it through Mark Terry's hands first.

Thanks a whole bunch for visiting.
I think people on all the other sites have been missing you as well.
Take care,

Anonymous said...

Ah, Gary Dunford from Maynooth, Ont. Haven't thought about him for a few days. He used to be a daily read for me back when. He used to go on about "yacht snots." When the yacht snots took over the Canada Steamship Lines facility in Port Credit harbor, a volunteer rescue crew was formed to presumably rescue damp yacht snots from the lake. Many was the time when the rescue crew was refused admittance to the compound because they didn't look "quite right." Gave Dunford a scoop on that. Also named my cat Dunford (Dunford was a cat-hater of the first water) and got two Toronto Sun tee shirts from him, one in my size, and a small one for the cat. Used to listen to his Saturday night radio show on the People's Radio. Googled Gary's name and up popped a 2004 column. Gary looks a little fuller and grayer, and the column looked pretty serious, but near the end of the column was a call for Red Green for governor-general. All right! But, alas, we all know how that turned out. Pity. Not so farfetched. Tommy Banks and some hockey players got political patronage senate jobs. What about Steve Smith? He is kind of like Will Rogers without the rope. But Will Rogers didn't have duct tape. Red Green would never stand for red duct tape, now would he?

Let's all keep our sticks on the ice, most of us are in this together.


ivan said...

I have worked with supreme humourist and satirist Gary Dunford,but he gives me no special consideration...But that's part of being Dunf: "Heard you e-yelling at me..."


Aaron said...

Not two weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine suggested I read Magus.

We're on the same sequence, it appears.

ivan said...

Reading the book is like going to a chiropractor or reading one of
Kierkegaard's tales: It will snap your spine and your psyche.
It will be interesting, though to find that even a grandmaster like John Fowles will start to have trouble with his ending. He tries in the initial version of the book to explain what happened to the young "seeker" exactly, and still, we are somehow left in the dark.
Fowles, realizine that he had had a somewhat mushy ending to a book otherwise a masterpiece, undertook a second version, and to me anyway,
kind of fudged it all over again.
Shows you that even a grand genius
can have trouble with the ending of a novel.
But for pure reading pleasure, an introduction to the Roman pantheon of gods, of cults, conspiracies, Byzantine head games, the book is priceless. Kind of gives you an idea of the god-game and how some rich and powerful people play it.

I have found from my experience, that even if the book is now a back number, these things go on in the suburbs and the gated communities to this day.
Not for nothing did the Eagles write Hotel California.

The character Conchis is the supreme god-game player, but I have found in recent experience that a magus these days is most likely to be female.


Her mind is definitely twisted
Shes got the Mercedes-Benz
She's got a lot of pretty boys
that she call her friends...

Is the Island of Phraxos an early version of the Hotel California?

..We are programmed to receive.

You can check out any time you like

but you can never leave.

Yet somehow Nicholas, the hero manages to figure out the matrix of the god-game and goes back to the original, the real woman that he loves. Good enough ending, but you can hear Fowles writing and rewriting it at the end...Had a masterpiece on his hands but didn't know how to quite finish it.
But what a read!
Yore on the right track, Aaron, but watch out. The book is powerful. It's a young man's book that is somehow a guide to life and literature.
It's also good psychic GPS for whenever someone tries to draw you into a cult in the future.
Whos says the novel is dead?
Certainly not genius John Fowles, though he too has now passed away.

You're on the road to literature, Master Aaron, but as I tried to take the book apart, I found something a bit wormy at the bottom, and as I rummaged around some more, there seemed to be even more worms.
Out of manure grows the flower, I say.
Jesus Christ. What a book!

ivan said...

A propos of nothing:

Been meaning to veer this blog away from literature and onto music. Almost had something set up and then I see the finale of American Idol.
Hey General Jack Ripper, I see Taylor took the whole thing. Another one for the Southern States.
We ain't got no valley girls in Ontario, but I still get the hots for Catharine McPhee.
Like to offer the doll a seat. Heh.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ivan, thought you were going to talk about music, and then you mention American Idol. Stevie Ray, the Dan, and ZZ Top, and I am happy. I don't move, if'n it ain't got da groove! Who has time for telly?

DoubtingThomas (grrrrr)

ivan said...

Telly, you say.
British Invasion?
I was certainly there in the middle of it, working with Peter Goddard at the old Telegram, though I had my own column, The Sun Rocks, with John Pope in the very first prototype Sunday Sun, circa l969. I was moonlighting for the Globe at about the same time. Martin Lynch, poet of Typography and head Slot Man took my name and anagrammed it to John Pope, and so it stayed for some of my column copy. At least I didn't screw up at the Globe and the early Sun as I did later as a headline writer for the Tely.
I remember when Mick Jagger first hit the Ed Sullivan show and the critics saying, "A hero, a real rootin' tootin' hero...But is America ready for him?"
Ah, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray. Pink Floyd. "Money", The Brick in the Wall guitar rides--mothafukka!

I also used to like Ray Davies and he Kinks, until I saw him on SNL one night, cupid's bow mouth and all. He sang Lola and that was the end of my enfatuation with the Kinks. Apparently it was some drunk guy at a dance ending up with one of our Mounties or something. Dudley Dooright in drag?

Come to think of it, there used to be an all-police rock band out this way called "Electric Pork". Gave me a chuckle.
You say you hve no time for the telly, but you should really check out Austin City Limits late Friday nights. They have some terrific bluegrass and the latest rock on.
Good TV, finally.
American Idol:
How a beautiful and talented Baby Doll like Catharine McPhee got beat out by a somewhat badly co-ordinated senior citizen is beyond me, though Taylor Hicks does blow a mean harp and has a passable throaty voice.
How the hell did American Idol get all those old men on while all the good black chicks got voted off because they were forced to sing cowboy songs along with Kenny Rogers?

Yeah, yeah. I don't get out enough.
I watch TV and have lost my guitar callouses.
Oh well, I can always dream music.

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