Dispatches | April 21, 2015
Lessons in Failure and Writing a Novel
By Michael Nye
This week, I decided to (finally) start spring cleaning my house. I’m a fairly neat person, so my idea of “messy” is very different from your idea of messy. But there were a couple of spots in my house that definitely needed to be cleaned up. There is one room in particular in my house that could have been called an office, could have been called a spare bedroom, but instead has become The Room I Don’t Go Into That Has All These Extra Boxes of Who Knows What.
This particular room had all the trappings of unnecessary accumulation: cardboard boxes still taped from three or four moves ago; scattered piles of boxes that had never been read; stacks of papers with Post-It notes that read “To Keep”; Christmas wrapping paper; a spare mattress; still wrapped mementos from my grandfather’s house. There was a layer of dust over all of it, and the majority of these things ended up curbside for trash pickup.
In this room are several bookshelves (of course!) and on one of these shelves are the literary journals that my fiction has appeared in. These go back a few years now, way back to Sou’wester and Timber Creek Review. Along with my two contributor copies, I found something else. My graduate program gave us the option of having our thesis to not only be stored in its library archives, but also to have it bound so we could keep a copy of our work. It sorta looks likes a school textbooks from the 1950s. So among all these literary journals was my graduate thesis: “Oscillations: A Novel.”
Let’s set aside the fact that “Oscillations” is a terrible title for any novel. Here was the idea. The novel is about two men, a father and a son, and about their relationship over the course of, oh, fifteen years or so. The novel goes linearly backwards, beginning with the father’s death and ending with the son as a young boy. Writing this paragraph, I think “Oh, that doesn’t sound so horrible.”
But, from rereading it – or, at least, rereading as much as I could stand, and then starting to flip through the chapters (I made it through chapter 3) – I assure you, it is a really terrible novel. Maybe that’s harsh. Rereading my old work usually fills me with a sort of wry detachment, recognizing the guy who wrote these words, and thinking about how far removed (I hope) my writing now is from him.
In eleven years, I’ve written four books: three novels and one story collection. Only the story collection has ever seen the light of day; the first two novels, including my thesis, were never published and the third novel is making the rounds with agents right now. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a few things about how fiction works over this time, but perhaps it is more accurate to write that I have learned how my fiction does – or in many cases, does not – work. Here are four things I keep in my mind with my novel writing:
–Time Is The Enemy. All of my novels have struggled with the question of spatial and temporal distance. Or, in non-vocabulary words, time. Novel #1 was a terrible rip off of Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and was a hard lesson that novels need forward momentum (even if it is nonlinear) in order to be compelling. My second novel focused on one summer. My third novel is told in two parts, with a fifteen year gap. All of these decisions about time were very conscious in order to eliminate questions I don’t want readers to think about and highlight elements I do want readers to think about. Whether or not it works that way, who knows?
–Skip the Boring Stuff. Seems obvious, right? But one of the things that I thought, incorrectly, that novels do was allow the writer to digress. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “expand” rather than digress, but even expansions are still written in benefit to the main narrative of a novel. And what might be interesting to me as a writer could be unnecessary or even dull to a reader. There are many writers who can digress or expand in a way that is compelling, but thus far, I’m not able to do that. I like there to be a little less conversation and a little more action.
Which leads rather directly to …
–Let’s Plot! Flannery O’Connor has an essay about writing short stories called, you guessed it, “Writing Short Stories.” Most of the advice on writing that she had read or heard was absurdly bad, and O’Connor cites an example of a friend of hers who was taking a correspondence course in writing, and the course had chapter headings such as “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create Characters,” and my personal favorite, “Let’s Plot!” Many famous or influential (and so forth) contemporary writers who are classified as “literary” are dismissive of plot as being too restrictive of their work, arguing that plot gets in the way of what is really compelling to their writing. Graduate programs, with their focus on the short story, tend to shorten the writer’s attention span, and in fifteen to twenty pages, often a story does not need a plot, per se.
For me, though, that’s wrong. That leads to some really boring novels and stories, even one’s that are highly praised and win awards. Reading fifty to seventy five pages where nothing really happens leads me to chucking the book across the room (as you know, I’m serious about my book throwing). At the most basic level, we read or watch narratives to answer one question: What happens next? Oh, you can make it more complicated if you want to, and a good writer probably should, but I’ve written enough pages to know that you need something to happen, events that force decisions, characters in trouble, something to balance out all that interiority. And I argue this as a person who my friends and writers and students know has a bit of an elitist streak when it comes to fiction: yup, I need some good ol’ plot development. Hooray for good writing and style and all that, but I need to make sure Things Happen to keep my interest in my own work.
–On To The Next One. I can probably tinker with a story or novel until the end of days. However, there comes a point when the novel feels as complete or as finished as I’m going to make it. I certainly didn’t recognize the weaknesses in each novel when it was completed, but I see them now, and I see that I moved onto the next project at the right time. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure I did. It’s very difficult to go back to old stories or old novels and salvage the bones: the person who wrote those pieces is long gone, and the work feels haunted by him. There is a point where I just have to let go. Recognizing the difference between “move on” and “try again” is not an easy distinction, but I think I’m much better at clearly seeing my work than I used to be.
Besides, the worst that can happen? I’m just going to write the next thing. And, really, what’s so terrible about that?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
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