It’s not until page 148 of Story Genius, Lisa Cron’s guide to novel writing, that she finally admits what most of her readers, and likely anyone who has ever tried to write a novel, will have already suspected: “Writing a novel is hard.” It is, I think—I’ve never done it, but I’m trying, and I appreciate Cron’s bluntness. When attempting to write a novel for the first time it can be helpful to know what exactly you have gotten yourself into, and it’s a wonderful comfort, there on page 148, to have this frank bit of commiseration, to know that even for Cron—whose x-ray vision sees the bones of stories, who seems uniquely capable of writing a real humdinger of tale—it isn’t easy. A mystery—one of many: Despite her impressive understanding of novels and how they come to be, Cron, so far as I know, has yet to publish one of her own
This perceived difficulty, accompanied by the idea that everyone has a novel “in them,” is good for business. Creative writing programs abound, and there is a healthy publishing subgenre dedicated to self-help guides for aspiring storytellers. While some books on writing, like Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction or Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird are illuminating, potent, and genuinely helpful and insightful when it comes to the art of reading and writing, the seedier, more questionable inhabitants of this genre bear titles like The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question and The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers and The 5 Day Novel and Mind Hacks for Writers and Find Your Story: The 6-Week Story Planning Process. And the list goes on.
These unfortunate titles work to reassure writers that making a novel is not all-consuming, that it can be achieved in five days or six weeks, that one powerful question is enough to propel the whole process. They also present novel writing, paradoxically, as both secretive and formulaic. The writer is unaware and uncertain, yet must be in control, all-knowing, a skilled technician carrying out a plan. Books like these also assume that there is some set of identifiable and repeatable novelistic elements. Yet many of the most exciting and memorable novels create worlds all their own; they are unique, exquisite, newly strange. Critics and scholars value originality and uniqueness, so long as it’s just familiar and comfortable enough. It seems that, despite the overabundance of advice, our understandings of novel writing are full of strange paradoxes.
As I try to make one of these things myself, I’ve been reading a lot of first novels: Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing, Jun Yun’s Shelter, Antonio Ruiz Camacho’s Barefoot Dogs, Elizabeth McKenzie’s MacGregor Tells the World, James Purdy’s Malcolm, Anne Valente’s Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Each of these books is, above all, steadfastly committed to its own strangenesses in ways that make it hard to say, precisely, what the book is. If these novels do share any traits, and I’m not sure they do, it might be that their seams are a bit more visible, that readers can see the writer figuring out what it is they can do, what they want to do, and how far they can push the limits of their own skills and voices. They don’t yet know what they can’t do, what they shouldn’t do, what’s too hard, what’s too strange, what rules are most and least difficult to break, and the ignorance is, maybe, a kind of bliss. Another paradox, then: Writing a novel might be as much about what one doesn’t know as what one does.
E.L. Doctorow’s often quoted observation about writing says that it’s “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Life is this way. We don’t know what will happen next; the world and our places in it are profoundly outside our control.
MacGregor Tells the World, Elizabeth McKenzie’s debut novel, feels like life in this way. Penguin Random House’s promotional page for the book describes it as “masterfully plotted,” and this is true, in some sense, but the plot itself is about discovery, uncertainty, mystery, and floundering. MacGregor, as he learns about his past and makes decisions about his future, encounters unpredictable people and circumstances and makes pleasing digressions. The quirkiness of MacGregor and of the people he meets are at the novel’s heart. In retrospect, the novel may successfully create the illusion of having been carefully plotted, but the story and MacKenzie seem less interested in causality and the sequence of events or plot points than they do in moments of human connection, peculiarity, and joy. Yes, there’s a kind of resolution, but the novels makes room for the important detours it wants to take along the way to that resolution, and while these detours are sometimes inessential to the plot, they remain some of the novel’s most memorable and touching moments.
But art does grant a strange and total kind of control: We can, as Lisa Cron advocates, outline a novel down to the specifics of each scene, knowing, before we “actually begin” to write, exactly what is going to happen, why it will happen, and with what results. Unlike life, we can go backward and forward in time. Almost all of the members of recent fiction workshop I took said they most enjoy the work of writing that comes after the first draft, when there’s something there to work with. This, they say, is more pleasurable than the endless decision making and feeling in the dark that are the hallmarks of first drafts.
But careful planning seems like the antithesis of spontaneity, improvisation, and the pleasure of surprise that is such a large part of the goodness of novels. James Purdy’s first novel, Malcolm, seems to have found a pleasing and successful balance between the lifelike sensation of entering into the unknown and genuinely surprising while also pursuing a unified vision. One critic has found that Purdy’s novels have the quality of “sustained improvisations,” even as they fail to waver in their mission of satirizing and illuminating the vulgarities and indignities of US culture.
We meet Malcolm not as Malcolm but instead as, simply, “the boy on the bench.” His introduction comes through another’s eyes. Importantly, he remains, for the moment, nameless. This tells us much about his function in the novel. Malcolm is not so much a character as an allegorical symbol, a mirror which the novel’s other characters hold up in order to fashion images of themselves, over and over. Whereas McKenzie’s MacGregor searches desperately to discover his identity, Malcolm stays put, sitting every day on a bench outside his hotel until he is approached by Mr. Cox, a “famous astrologer” who takes offense at Malcolm’s detachment. “I suppose if somebody would tell me what to do,” Malcolm tells Cox, “I would do it.” And that’s exactly what the astrologer does, setting in motion a series of encounters with eccentric characters who take turns telling Malcolm what to do, employing Malcolm for their own selfish goals as they attempt to make his story their own, using him until finally they use him up. Purdy, too, uses Malcolm as part of a larger allegory about how people take advantage of each other. Malcolm is a surface upon which others leave marks and in which they see themselves reflected. No wonder one of youthful Malcolm’s final excursions finds him visiting a tattooist.
Somewhere near the beginning of my own novel writing process, I was convinced I was—and wanted to be—writing a book about a retirement community and the people who work and live within it. I pursued this idea for years. Writers often talk about ideas as “seeds” or “germs,” things that begin small and, when exposed to the right environments, begin to flourish. I wanted this seed to grow. I saved newspaper articles about aging and plastic surgery. I read a book on Alzheimer’s. I sought out books that depicted older characters and studied them. I revisited memories of my grandparents, of other septe- and octogenarians in my life. In other words, I began an assembly of fragments that, with the right work and attention, I hoped would help form some larger, coherent whole.
The characters in Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down face a similar task: After one of their classmates opens fire in their high school, killing many of their friends, acquaintances, and teachers, these members of the yearbook committee must find a way to cope, to make sense of the tragedy, to take the shattered fragments of their memories, recollections, and experiences and form them into a meaningful memorialization for the school’s yearbook, one that will make sense of the lives of the dead and bring some kind of understanding to the otherwise unfathomable shooting. It’s appropriate then, that the book itself is fragmented. It features excerpts of news reports. It utilizes multiple perspectives (first person plural for some sections, to better render the experience of collective trauma; third person limited in others, as it focuses on particular individuals). It follows several central characters separately, and its fragmented form works in perfect harmony with the fragmented community it documents. It’s a strange story that has found the perfect, strange shape in which to account for its bizarre (yet eerily familiar) happenings.
As I collected fragments of bookmarks, articles, notes, titles, ideas, bits of dialogue for my novel, I felt, at first, like I was coming close to seeing the emergence of some larger, coherent whole. I grew more and more assured and confident that my story was about aging, mortality, about the ways in which our bodies and minds can work with and against each other, about what it means to have relationships across generations and for a person’s sense of self to change. I was enthused, enthralled. I had found a subject that was both familiar enough and strange enough to hold my interest, that was genuinely unsettling and therefore exciting to explore. I planned, and I wrote.
Of the first novels mentioned here, Jung Yun’s Shelter gives most strongly the impression that is has been meticulously planned and heavily revised. From the story’s harrowing opening, in which a man realizes his mother has been the victim of a home invasion, all the way to its redemptive ending, one event leads to the next in order to tell the story of a family and of a powerful kind of reconciliation. The book feels nearly symmetrical, entwined with itself. It’s pleasing in its shape, in its refusal to let us wonder about why what is happening is happening. And yet, it still manages to surprise, not because of the story’s horrific violence but because of its beautiful ending. After so much suffering and hatred and violence, only love and forgiveness could be shocking. Shelter finds a way to constrain itself; then it escapes from those constraints. I wonder at what point Jung Yun knew how the story would end. Did she know all along, like John Irving charting a path to a final paragraph he’d already written? Or did she happen upon it somewhere along the way?
Despite my feelings of certainty and commitment to my writing project, things, of course, didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. What happened was: I turned the first forty pages into my workshop. The consensus there was clear: The story was most certainly not about aging. It wasn’t actually about any of the things I’d had in mind. It was about a gay kid trying to find an identity; it was about masculinity and the ways it soothes and harms. Oh. How had I failed to notice? I was both amazed by how blind I’d been to my own efforts and reinvigorated because, I thought, I now knew more about what I was doing. I wanted to write about people who felt out of place in the world, who lived in the margins, but the focus on aging turned out to be a stand-in for a different kind of difference. Because homosexuality is a deeply fraught issue for me, I’d tried to find a way of writing about it without really acknowledging the power of the complex, contradictory snakepit of feelings I have about sexual identity—feelings that are sharp and uncomfortable and dangerous and easy to leave under a rock. Without knowing, I had tried to make the writing easier on myself, to defend myself against the difficulty and discomfort of the subject matter, but doing so only made things more difficult than they would have been if I’d been thinking clearly, had been honest with myself.
Perhaps this is why Tom Drury says he likes to write in the morning, “before my defenses kick in.” Several of the writers whose first novels I recently read—on a panel together at a university event—said the same. The morning is their time. This is likely, in part, a logistical necessity. But I think it also has something to do with the mind’s close proximity, upon waking, to its dreaming state. Andre Dubus III has said that “good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams.” Maybe that’s a reason Patricia Highsmith, in her wonderful book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, recommends taking naps and Charles Johnson’s Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing mixes writing with meditation.
The idea that stories (and artistic expression, more generally) serve as passageways between our conscious and unconscious minds makes a lot of sense, but it also raises some questions: How can one plan, or plot, for example, the moment when their unconscious mind helps them see, understand, feel something that they hadn’t expected? Why is one compelled to tell the story they’re telling? And most importantly, when one’s aunt asks what their novel is “about,” can they tell her that it’s about better understanding human reality through trying to listen closely to the mind, to excavate it and to organize it in some legible way? It seems that part of writing is about being comfortable with being uncomfortable, being okay with flailing around in the dark and with the certainty, at times, that uncertainty it all there is.
Antonio Ruiz Camacho likens his writing process to the act of listening. He doesn’t write, he explains, so much as listen to the complaints of his characters and then transcribe them. Here the act of writing becomes passive. The author is no longer in direct kind of control but is instead a vessel through which characters come alive, in their own ways, on the page. While trying to think of what will happen to my characters, of the ways to put the most productive kinds of pressure on them, I muse: Plot is really a question of the most effective way to put external pressures on characters in order to force them to confront their internal struggles. This means that characters’ internal struggles need to be well-developed before the novel’s events begin unfolding. Characters’ inner lives are the real subjects of novels. It’s their inner fears, desires, and motivations that drive the events, that help us understand what the events mean—not the other way around. Deciding where my characters worked and lived before thinking much about who they were about what they wanted and feared, and for what reasons, meant that I was going about the process mostly backward.
Of the first novels I’ve read recently, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing is the least heavily plotted. Here, the events hardly matter. Its protagonist and its plot are equally uncertain and unpredictable. The story is a kind of anti-picaresque following Elyria, a young woman who has decided to leave her relationship and life in New York and board a plane to New Zealand. Upon arriving, she walks, meets people, hitchhikes, she explores, she bakes vegetables (and burns them), she has conversations. Eventually, Elyria returns home. But what also happens is she thinks, she observes. The character’s psychology is the novel’s plot. The series of causally related events (which person picks her up, which place she visits next) is the backdrop, events become not events but the surfaces upon which we see her psychology projected. Her mind is the plot, and through the first person narration, we’re immersed in it; we see the world and all that happens in it through this unique and deeply personal lense, and when we’re finished we have nothing less than a new way of understanding the world—from its vast oceans to the book’s final image: the rippling and quivering surface of coffee inside a mug.
That might be a good definition of a novel: something quivering inside a container. Novels have gradually become less interested in exceptional, heroic figures and their exploits and begun to take more of an interest in the quotidian. What’s more quotidian than a cup of coffee?
The relationship between Purdy’s Malcolm and the people he meets runs parallel, perhaps, to the relationship between characters and the writers who invent them; writers create characters, bending them to our wills and projecting meaning onto their lives to further our own goals. But Lacey’s work, and Ruiz-Camacho’s explanation of his process, invite us to invert this formation. Whatever amount of control a writer is comfortable taking over his characters (Nabokov: “My characters are galley slaves.”), in telling stories we learn as much or more about ourselves as we do our characters. Maybe this is why, at first, I did not know what I was doing or who the people in my book were. I was out of touch with my own impulses. The process of writing helped me learn what I wanted to write about, and it was only after flailing, then paying close attention (with the help of incredible peers) to the results of that flailing that I was able to re-orient myself, to re-think my the kinds of goals I wanted to write toward.
The history of the novel is also the history of people coming into an understanding of themselves, of the ways in which we use art not only to reflect but to change ourselves. Indeed, for Jonathan Gottschall, writer of The Storytelling Animal, the goal of fiction is nothing less than survival. Storytelling is part of an evolutionary adaptation that widens our scope of experience so that we’re better suited to deal with life’s difficulties. Telling stories, no matter how difficult, is something we have to do. Flannery O’Connor said as much when she said that asking a person how she tells stories is like asking a fish how it swims through water. It also means that the novel is, in many ways, a testament—to the existence of a future, to the utility of shared experience, and to the efficacy of our creations. Maybe writing has to do with how attuned we are to ourselves and to others, with working to see that the difference between the two is an illusion. Maybe writing advice is helpful in the way that any kind of comfort and togetherness tend to be helpful in moments of difficulty. Maybe the act of giving or receiving advice, sustaining a dialogue, can help us get the novels out of us.
Eric Van Hoose lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. His fiction has appeared in Bat City Review, Tweed’s, Fiddleblack, and elsewhere. His essays have appeared in The Black Scholar and Salon.