This old tortoise is fast meeting his hares.
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.