The novel – an update

Last night over Easter margaritas, and in between long talks on marriage, some of which I plan to recount here, and E. and her husband’s recent purchase (should closing go just fine, fingers crossed) of a beautiful, rambling, fixer-upper in Pittsburgh, which I won’t recount here but E. may soon have a blog chronicling her efforts, and I will post the link when she does, E. looked at me and said “So, when you’ve finished the first draft of your novel, can I have a peak?”

Just to contextualize, E. and I went through the same MFA program around roughly the same time.  We were in most workshops together, and I do believe she read almost if not all of my MFA manuscript in some form or the other. That is to say, she is familiar with my writing, and I with hers.

“Um, maybe.” I said, while internally my brain screamed, as it has lately whenever such request is made, save for one person, Hell, no!  Which makes no sense, because I’ve never been particularly protective of my writing, if not happy to share it at least understanding the necessity of other eyes and ears. And the fact is, other people have already seen some of it – I had A. read the opening couple of chapters to find out if a general reader (ie, non-writer) would want to keep reading, and my old writing group workshopped the first five chapters or so. So it’s not like it’s been under wraps, or anything.

I tried to explain further. “I thought you hated fiction,” I said.

E. stared. “I don’t hate fiction! What on earth gave you that idea?”

“Someone I know hates fiction.” I said. “I thought maybe it was you.”

“No! I haven’t read any of your writing in a long time.  I’d love to see what you are working on.”

“Well, you have my blog,” I said.

“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.” She replied. And she’s right – of course this blog which I update twice a week or so isn’t the same as a substantial project.

“Well, maybe you can read it,” I conceded. “Maybe. If not after the first draft, definitely once my queries are out. The thing is, I just don’t think I can take objective, even helpful criticism at this point.”

And then it dawned on me I could finally answer the lovely Charlotte’s  request to hear more about my novel.

See, I’m writing chapter I don’t like much. Even as I’m writing it, line after line, I realize it probably won’t make the first revision. I find myself judging my narrator – you make such bad choices, I think. Stop whining. Jesus, even I don’t care about you right now. But because I am such a linear writer, I can’t NOT write this chapter. The events I’m detailing will remain in the story, even if this particular chapter doesn’t. I have to write this chapter to get to the next chapter, which I anticipate will be a bit more fun. And because I am hating the chapter I’m writing, and am finding myself annoyed with this whole damn world I’ve created, I’m not much in  sharing mood.  As I explained to E. last night, there are a couple chapters – two, at least- that even as I wrote them, I was patting myself on the back. You are so good, I’d think. Clearly, this is what you are born to do. You UNDERSTAND the form.  You are just so, so good…

And then, like the chapter previous to this, sometimes I am writing and it isn’t easy and it isn’t hard…it just is what it is. I struggle to figure out the time line I’ve created for myself, try to strike the right chord in terms of scene, mood, tone – realize the names still aren’t working correctly, and etcetera.

E. isn’t the first person to ask recently to read the novel. And old writing friend from high school has expressed interest, as well as a few other folks. But right now I think it’s going to have to stay under wraps, save for one generous soul  from my writing group who offered to keep reading despite my relocation.

It’s not, you know, like I’m keeping it from people because I’m egotistical or so convinced of it’s worth. I guess it’s that, as  a writer, I’m in a certain vulnerable place right now. I am not ready for criticism because I provide enough of that on my own, but false praise could harm the process more. And, the more I think about it, perhaps I’m a bit self-conscious about the material. I am not writing literary fiction. In the brilliant words of Annie Dillard, I am writing the book I would want to read, so I am writing a big family drama/comedy sort of thing, with lots of characters and misplaced love interests and family land to be argued over and sometimes there is even sex. Not, as I quickly tried to explain last night, bodice-ripping sex or anything, but you know. So, I guess because graduate school trained me to think of myself as nothing less than a journalist for the New Yorker or an essayist for Harper’s, I’m a bit, aware, shall we say, of the fact that my novel is not high-brow.

But just because I’m all weird about my novel, doesn’t mean I can’t share a few things. So, let’s see – my date to have a first draft complete is July 31st, because that’s the last day of the bar exam, and then August is a crazy month of weddings and birthdays and vacationing, which S. and I can do together. I also intend to take September away from the novel as well, and revise Oct-Dec. We shall see how this pans out.

Novels I’ve turned to, and will turn to again, to help craft my own: Sea Glass, by Anita Shreve, Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells and Beach Music by Pat Conroy. There are many others, and I will probably talk about each one and why it inspired my process as the months go on.

I’ve thought through some sensory details to help my writing. It might be sort of silly, but it has helped me. If you are writing a novel and would like to try this little game, feel free -let me know so I can read it!

My novel should sound like….the waves of Lake Huron crashing on the shore, and the completed works of Bob Dylan, and the best country song you’ve ever heard.

My novel should taste like….the gag-inducing tinge of sauerkraut cooked all day long in a crock pot, the crunch of fried perogies giving way to soft potato yumminess, and Polish sausage.

My novel should feel like…the breath of a couple of hunting dogs, curled up in bed beside you, and the first time you had a crush, and the cold of sub-zero morning in Northern Michigan, when you awake with frost on your nose.

My novel should smell like sun-warmed pine, and chimney smoke, and whiskey, and the sweat of girls and boys and dogs who work hard outside in every season.

I’ve ignored “look like” since I don’t think it applies to my process, but feel free to add it if you choose. And, oh! The music I listen to for inspiration includes the Patrick Sweany Band, Sonny Landreth, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Wilco and Sun Volt.

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8 Responses to The novel – an update

  1. Andi says:

    I don’t have much of substance to add at this point given the fact that my novel writing has been wildly unsuccessful thus far (keep pooping out on ideas, etc.). However, I’m VERY excited to read this post and learn more about your endeavors. You know I wish you all the great wishes, and your perseverence inspires me.

  2. Ooh, thanks for answering my question! It’s fascinating reading your process while I’m so deep in my own. I understand your need to protect it too – not wanting false praise or damning criticism. AND, just to complete the symmetry, I’m also aiming for a midsummer first draft completion.

    Your novel sounds like the kind of book I would like to read. Keep going, Courtney, and thanks for sharing. We’re in this together.

  3. yogamum says:

    As an English grad school dropout, I feel I am qualified to say that highbrow novels are generally quite overrated.

    It is so hard to know when it’s a good time to share your work, and when it’s good to keep it close to your chest. I workshopped the first two chapters of my novel but now I’d rather work on it alone for a while.

    I love your exercise and I will do it for my novel soon!

  4. Jean says:

    At least the landscape you paint with the imagery of warm pine, sauerkraut, and chimney smoke etc. seems to transport me to Michigan! I would, however, like to add an additional album to your inspirational song list–Songs from Northern Britain by Teenage Fanclub. I know this is called “Songs from Northern Britain” but it always reminds me of northern Michigan (though my playlist as a young Michigander was more classic rock!). I am burning you a copy for our visit.

  5. Andi, I think I tried writing this first novel a dozen different ways before I finally settled on this one -I pooped out many times, so dn’t worry. Besides, you’ve had a LOT on your plate lately!
    Charlotte – I love that we have similar deadlines…we can keep urging one another on. We can keep each other company with this.
    Yogamum – I can’t wait to see your answers!
    Jean – I listened to a lot of classic rock as well in MI – let us not forget REO speedwagon. I am excited – you always have impeccable music taste.

  6. LK says:

    If your novel is as funny as this post — man, you’ll have a winner.

    Courtney, I’m gearing up (for real) for serious writing again. We’ll talk…

    Love the Easter margaritas. I keep thinking of Easter egg colors…

  7. Litlove says:

    I think that with writing there are some point always, inevitably, when you just have to keep going. And what comes out won’t be great, or even maybe good, but you have to keep plugging at it, knowing that it will all come right in the rewrite. I know that from academic writing, which isn’t at all the same thing, but has a form and requires a process, same as anything else. I think you’re quite right to protect yourself. Many’s the time people have asked me what I’m working on, and because I’m in the middle of researching or starting to write and I don’t really know myself what I think until it’s down on paper, I’ve launched into some half-cock explanation that makes everyone look at me like I’m from Mars and makes me wonder why on earth I didn’t politely change the subject. So absolutely, close the gate until you’re ready.

  8. Pingback: Comfort Books « Smithereens

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