Friday, March 02, 2007

Longwinded advice on how to write a novel

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.

The child, the student, was held to be a unique and creative individual and "Teacher leave those kids alone."

A dominant Alpha type of kid would appear and he/she would set up the projects and tasks. Teachers would just throw out challenges, monitor the kids--or go into the faculty room to smoke, or, in some cases, work on their inferiority complexes
So it seemed that by University, students knew how to shuffle paper, but not much else. They had fair handwriting and they would be good bureaucrats.

One day I was thrust into a class of know-it-alls whose sole claim to literary fame was the desire itself.

But they were writers who wouldn', couldn't write. And not at all willing to learn. They had to take my course as a prerequisite to their Historical Interpretation programme. You needed at least, a writing workshop.

Two months go by, and no essays, no written pieces. "I already took that in university."

What in hell? I thought university taught you discipline.

Not in my nature, but I had to fail some of them. The ones who stayed turned out to be good writers, and I helped them as much as I could to gain access to publishing.

I swear there is still a "feel-good" crowd out there in blogland, the know-it-alls, who seem to know how it's done, but, like literary critics--can't acrtually do it. And any criticism of them is a personal affront.
My specialty had been the novel.

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--Yea even the 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.

Save for this old fraud, I can't seem to find too many of these on the web.

There is really nothing all that grand about writing a novel. You are going to lose hair and teeth and you won't feel so pretty anymore when you realize that you are, sort of, selling your body. Certainly your body of experiences. There will be a tendency to exploit friends and strangers.

And you've got to break the project, or the project will break you.

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. (Just thinking of JR's comment in my last blog).

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 literarty magazine, yearbook, tourist promotional mags or the little literary magazines or websites. 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. There is always a guitar hanging on a wall, and you can play that to impress the funky book store owner...Maybe he'll let you work at his antique press.

Write lots of letters to the editor. You'll get quite a bang out of your name in print for the first time.

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 the better blogs or the college magazines One successful short story can get you on the staff of a newspaper or magazine.. You will have been noticed... Don't drink with the other hopefuls, go to where the managing editors go, usually a good English-style watering hole.

I used to drink hugely with Ray Timson, the ME at the Toronto Star. This was after another editor, Gerry Toner gave me a good break and I somehow blew it...Well, if you disappoint one editor, there is always another. I am certainly not God. I make mistakes.

Some of Ray's his advice was good, some was not so good. 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. She was so proud when I finally became a teacher of writing after having my byline up there along with hers at The Star.

But there's the novel, ah the novel, "The Great Bitch" as Norman Mailer calls it.

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 fairly 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 suggesing 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 can of worms, personal problems, family anxieties, ethnicity, rejection, failure, pain... Reality television, if you will. But crafted, you hope, into someting 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 begining novelist, is a total monomaniac--prison guys say 'dickhead'-- and I worry about that. Really worry about it.

So how do you start your novel?

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 if you can edit your first chapter into something.

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 your work was 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 descripion attaining a compact whole. Literaray 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 sh*t? Difficult, isnt 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 glimps 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 Stavroscould be portentous. He was an annoyance, a minor one I expeced to fade like a bad sunburn.

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

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 all 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 uh, 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.

..Or can you handle any more of this rambling.


EA Monroe said...

Ivan, I don't mind rambling for the gold. Writing the novel has been my quest, too.

My first novel nearly "broke me" all right, so rather than risk my saniety because I didn't know what the hell I was doing or where my head was taking me, I tossed several year's worth of paper into the trash can and burned it.

I've learned a lot since; been mining material for as long as I can remember. Studying art and painting taught me as much about writing, the literary finesse of which you spoke, as all the years of furious scribbling did.

Upon graduation from college, our painting instructor Mr. George Calvert said, "I have taught you every thing I know about painting. Now, all you have to do is go out and paint, paint, paint." I did. Only now I paint with words and imagination. I write, rewrite and rewrite. By then I am cross-eyed and have a headache! My hand hurts too and other body parts!

Hey, are we going to party tonight?!

Donnetta Lee said...

Ivan: This is the kind of rambling I can use more of. The whole idea behind my beginning to blog is to learn how to write better. And to find the encouragement to keep writing. So, I will pay attention to constructive criticism and suggestions. That's what I'm here for.

Now, about those students who don't want to work or learn. My hubby the psychologist as taught in 4 universities that I can think of. (He's not here right this minute so I can't verify.) He tells me he never saw so many spoiled students. They don't want to work. Tells tales very similar to yours. He says he did better with graduate students than he did undergrads, but still saw the same phenomena. Says the few who were serious and would work, he was able to teach an guide. Interesting.


islandgrovepress said...

Ah Liz,

No wonder you continue to fascinate us with your family narratives.
You've put in some time and from what I read, herculean effort.
George Calvert? I knew he was important when I met him at San Miguel de Allende. He was your teacher? I think you had told me that, but I didn't know he figured so prominently in your art training.

"Write, rewrite and rewrite"--certainly what I was doing this very afternoon, intil I was sure that my major appendage had fallen off...Maybe that's why the cartoon, top right.
Writing is darn hard work, and after it all, you feel totally vulnerable. And almost a corollary to your vulnerability--you immediately come across the town arsehole who really does a number on your head; these people can sense sensitivity, mistake it for weakness, then go straight for the juular. Seems all crazy people want to control!

Writing can wipe you out. I am positive it is far harder than pumping iron, something I used to do.

Are we going to a party tonight?

I don't know.

I had a smoke outside a hair salon this afternoon, had a drag of what the young heairdresser was smoking, and it sent me halfway to the moon.
"Do you cut hair when you're on that?" I asked.
"I don't handle crack very well," she confided. It makes me all social and aggressive, and when I cut hair I really gotta hold myself back."


Party outside the hairdresser's tonight? Haircut party?


islandgrovepress said...


Your hubby and I might have a lot in common, though I'm sure he's a serious and dedicated person.
I was hired largely because of my practical writing experience; I had some paperwork, but did not have a PhD; untenured... but they accepted the work experience.

After a hard night of drinking, I opened a class with "I don't know why the college hired me...I guess they never saw a drunk before."

Nobody in the class got it.

I was saying to myself, "Oh-oh. Humourless. No sense of humour. First cousin of stupidity.
This is going to be hard!"


Donnetta Lee said...

Boy, isn't that the truth! No humor, no brain. Hubby has also written and been published, but professional stuff, mostly research. I can edit his stuff like there is no tomorrow!! He hasn't taught in a while now. I think he should. He's thinking of writing fiction also, but I don't believe that will happen. He's very much a part of the world and not very much apart from it. So, there you have that. But he should give it a try.

Haircut party? Who's taking the first snip? Donnetta

EA Monroe said...

I could use a hair cut. Heh!

islandgrovepress said...

Ah, the up-and-down world of academe.
There was a point where I was laid off for a year. I thought I'd lose my selfconfidence, but once back, in the familiar environs of the chalkboards and the arborite tables, I was soon back to the old form.
My college seemed to see me as a prodigal son--they were doing all this good stuff for me and I kept taking off. And then returning.
But when I got the Master's degree so I could advance, the knives came out.
The world is an insecure and difficult place sometimes.
Tale out of school:

I once said to a friend, who really knew me: "All academics are slime."
He countered with: "Ah, but you're an academic."
Son of a gun!


Ah, that Elizabeth.

I'll betch she's got comb and scissors out and ready to trim!


islandgrovepress said...


Almost missed your comment while struggling with beta.

Donnetta and I are gonna hunt you down and shear ya. Heh.


Josie said...

Ivan, you should be charging big bucks for this advice.

Liz, are you going to show us some of your paintings? I would love to see them.

Donnetta, be careful, don't let the fumes from Ivan's cigarette get you.

islandgrovepress said...

Hi Josie,

Nothing like a pretty hairdresser on crack.

I mean, don't you just wanna sit down?


p.s.: Here and there, people pay me.

But weird stories go with that.

An unnamed client wrote a novel
about his character being gushing fan of Hugh Hefner's.
I noticed in the manuscript, that my writer seemed to put the lovely girls up on pedestals, saw them as goddesses, and Hugh Hefner as Zeus.

I undertook a complete rewrite on the first chapter.

I went:

"Women scare the daylights out of me."


"No, no no--I paid you for this?...besides there is no time for a complete rewrite. I want to succeed now. Sooner, if possible."

Bck he was the following Tuesday.

He did in fact ask if any of my blogging friends wanted to take on work editing his manuscript...I think we both gave up.
You gals want some work?


doubting thomas said...

Paintings, Ivan? I thought the lure was etchings. You really are a spider looking for the fly. ;-)

islandgrovepress said...

Tom (heh heh):

Do you envy me my amble-footed cattle and my lady bloggers?

Take the cattle! Take the cattle!

Keep writing that magnum opus.


H.E.Eigler said...

So Ivan,

I'm under 30 but have started on a novel. At the rate I'm going, I'll be 30 before it's ready for rewrites. Where does that leave me??

islandgrovepress said...

Hi Heather.

Seems to me you timed everything about right.
The new baby will surely take your mind off any immediate rewrites, but you started your novel at about the age I got my Black Icon first-drafted.
By thirty, for me, there was a son
on the way.
...I used to brag about going off at both ends.
Send me your novel draft when the lil' un will need a little less attention.
Betcha it'll be good.


H.E.Eigler said...

HAHA Going off at both ends is a good way to describe it!

islandgrovepress said...

Well, I wish my own daughter had had a baby by thirty.

She is now a successful intellectual, but what do you do when you have it all?
Think about babies, I suppose.


doubting thomas said...

Ivan, when I was I was 15, I wanted to be Hemingway or Fitzgerald; now a couple weeks away from four times that age, I am afraid of becoming Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I don't really want to write a novel. I just have the urge to tell a story. The story of me. Maybe all successful novels are the true story of the writer. Ivan, is it the URGE? Nobody has to read the story. But it does pay the bills.

islandgrovepress said...


Yes, didn't we all once have that dream?

Like many another psycho, I walked right into mine at age thirty and was rich overnight before hardly setting pen to paper.

I had somehow had immediate backers, especially when my poetry came out, and it wasn't really good poetry. I knew the editor had sexual difficulties so my poems were all about sexual difficulties.
Crafty peasant!

I couldn't follow through with a Governor-General's award and my backers soon deserted me.

Lord how I miss rolling the dice down the long green at Nassau and Paradise Island!

He whom the gods destroy, they first call promising, I guess.

I am in contact with a political science prof, more or less of my background.
He is a bit depressed. Says all we can be is stewards and middle-level managers. Life at the top is not for us, he contends.
Well hell, $80,000 a year ain't bad.
But I think my prof may be doing quite something else. Harvard
CIA recuit?
There are times when I feel you're trying to recruit me for something.

Conservative Party?

What the hell. If it pays any bills at all, stay with it.

To be more serious, a fictional memoir of your life might be a very, very, worthwhile project.

When I was struggling and flat-broke, supportive friends would say, "Ah, but you delivered the goods.
"Your progeny will probably love you for it."

I would say keep working on the memoir. Very likely, It will be an important family heirlom.

A writer in the family!


Josie said...

Ivan, I just had a closer look at the cartoon at the top of your post, and spritzed my tea all over my computer screen.... again.... sigh. You're a hoot.


islndgrovepress said...

Hi Josie,

Ah well.

I "borrow" cartoons while I swear, in my solipsism, that Jay Lenno borrows things from me.
Last night he announced that 13 per cent of American men had this
thing for cobras.
He also had a whole raft of viagara jokes.

Now things are explained to me.

When I was in Newfoundland, one old b'ay turned to me and said,"I feel so h*rny I'd go after a rockpile if I thought there was a snake underneath it."
This upset the game warden at the next table.


Josie said...


I learn something every day.

islandgrovepress said...

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!


JR's Thumbprints said...

These students you mention are like the blind leading the naked--they're touchy feelie but lack direction as to what they're doing. Also, I believe early in Joyce Carol Oates teaching career she had a student taste some metal during her class. That, too, can take its toll on a person.

islandgrovepress said...

I think we touched on something, JR.

Last night,on Jaye Lenno said, "Professors are complaining that students today are narcissistic and self-centred.
Hell, I have to google my own name just to find out who the hell I am."

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