Novelists, You’re Doing It Right

There's a novel in here somewhere...

There’s a novel in here somewhere…

You’re trying to write a novel. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating: characters wake you in the night, yammering, springing into action. Sometimes, it’s excruciating: you stare into blankness, and finally, when the words arrive, they reek of your incompetence.

It’s taking forever, this novel of yours. It’s ugly. It’s full of holes. Is this normal? Writing advice is plentiful, but much of it boils down to:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Do it anyway.

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt. Can you ditch your novel for long stretches, or cheat on it, or overhaul it, and still finish—maybe even sell?!—the book?

Novelists, I’m here to say: Yes. You’re doing it right. Over the past several months, I interviewed novelists who spent one year or more working on a novel and eventually sold their books. Here, I summarize everything they said about writing novels that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Benjamin Percy

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Benjamin Percy, the author of two story collections as well as two novels, The Wilding and Red Moon.  

Benjamin PercyHow long did it take you to write each of your novels? 

That’s hard to track, because I never work on any one project exclusively. I’ll take a break from the novel to work on a screenplay, a short story, an article or essay, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few months, however long it takes for me to feel renewed and ready to tackle the monster again.

I was twenty-eight when I sold my first novel, The Wilding, but it had a lengthy editorial road ahead of it since the original first-person narrative was more shnovel than novel. I set it aside for a long time before bullying it into shape, in part because I moved from Wisconsin to Iowa and was distracted by a new job and an old house that required a lot of renovation, and in part because the revision seemed so daunting. That makes for two years total? Maybe more a little more than that.

Red Moon was also spaced out weirdly. I wrote sixty-five pages and an outline at the start of the summer of 2010, and I started cranking out the pages in November. I worked steadily for a solid year—I had to, because they had a strict deadline. I was hammering eight to ten hours a day and within a year, I had seven hundred pages. This manuscript went through a brutal overhaul. I threw out hundreds of pages and added hundreds more. The book was considered complete and satisfactory in March of 2012. So what does that add up to? A year and half?

So, at the “One Year In” point— as compared to its published form— you’d say that Red Moon was like…

Ore that required a lot of refining.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing The Novel: Julia Fierro

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Julia Fierro founder of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop  in NYC. Her first novel, Cutting Teeth, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in May 2014.

 Julia Fierro bio photo 2How long did it take you to write Cutting Teeth?

Well, that depends on how you measure time in relationships. Some people say, “Oh, my girlfriend/boyfriend and I have been together thirteen years.” Others will add, “Though there was that six-month period in year four when we saw other people…”

I began working on Cutting Teeth in earnest, writing six to eight hours at least every other day, in 2011, shortly after my second child turned one, when the haze of parenting an infant had just begun to clear. I wrote the first chapter, which is still the opening, without thinking, “This will be a novel!” It was more like, “Oh, I hope I can write more than ten pages before the baby wakes.” I dabbled for a year or so—taking notes and sketching outlines for scenes.

Then I had the great fortune of reading my first chapter at a reading series, and the warm response (people liked it!) motivated me. I decided to invest in my writing and doubled my babysitter’s hours. I had to give myself the chance to see if I could finish a book. My husband was a great support, watching the kids all weekend, and I hunkered down—day and night—and finished a revised draft of Cutting Teeth in ten months.

Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Celeste Ng

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, forthcoming from Penguin Press in June 2014.

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng

So, Celeste, I’m at the official “One Year In” point of writing of my first novel, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. 

Yay! And you’re not supposed to be. If there are people who are finished in under a year, I don’t want to hear about them.

I understand it took you six years to write your novel. For lack of a better way to phrase this, and not to sound like your mother but: why did it take you so long? 

The short version: it took me a long time to figure out what I was doing. I wrote four drafts in those six years. I had the general story from the beginning—the favorite daughter goes missing and is found drowned, revealing a web of family secrets—and that stayed consistent throughout. But I had to figure out all of the family’s back story to understand how those secrets came to be. I wrote a lot of pages that never made it into the novel, but they shaped my understanding of the characters and the stories I was telling.

Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Dean Bakopoulos

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in One Year In: Writing the Novel.

Today’s novelist is Dean Bakopoulosauthor of Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, My American Unhappiness, and Summerlong (forthcoming in 2015).

bakopoulos2011.2 In terms of projects, do you work exclusively on one novel at a time?

I write very fast and so I generally have a few books going at a time. Two or three of them usually die after a year, around page 150, and then one of them sticks and gets finished. That’s how I wrote my first two books, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and My American Unhappiness: juggling many projects at once until one of the novels seemed undeniably better and in need of my undivided attention. And then I was able to finish those two books in a year, but it took a few years of writing to find those books. You have to commit to a book, but you also have to play the field a bit, find the right one.

So how did your third novel, Summerlong (coming from Ecco in Winter 2015) catch your eye—and keep it?

Summerlong was a bit different. I was working on a bad Young Adult novel and a mystery novel, messing around, forcing things, and a new idea came along. I could see all of it—the story of four characters in one sultry, steamy, suspenseful summer. When it arrived, I knew it was my next book. I wrote a draft incredibly fast, working harder than I’ve ever worked on anything, seven days a week, sometimes 5,000 words in one day. I wrote every morning for six hours, then wrote after dinner for a few more, until I’d drunk too much beer to keep writing. It was the only way to shut down my brain.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Allison Lynn

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in One Year In: Writing the Novel.

Today’s novelist is Allison Lynn, author of Now You See It and The Exiles. 

Allison Lynn

Allison Lynn

Allison, how long did it take you to write your newest novel, The Exiles?  

The Exiles came out nine years after my first novel—and I’d say I worked on it seriously for about six of those nine years. I also held various money-making jobs during this time—one full-time position, and a lot of freelance and part-time gigs piled on top of each other. To boot, I got married during these years and had a kid.

For lack of a better way to phrase this, and not to sound like your mother but: why did it take you so long?

I’d like to say that my excuse is the huge amount of making-a-living work I was doing at the same time. And yet, plenty of writers have worked long hours as bankers, insurance agents, doctors, and still put creative stuff out at a decent clip, so I know that’s not the whole story.

Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing The Novel

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today, I launch the series with my own experiences, and the wisdom of Cristina Henriquez, Rebecca Land Soodak, Leah Stewart, and Ploughshares’ own blog editor Andrew Ladd.

One Year In: It's cold and lonely and ugly in here.

One Year In: It’s cold and lonely and ugly in here.

One year ago, I began writing my first novel. Or rather, I stood on the expanse of my novel’s Big Idea, and poked a spade into its earth.

Like the groundbreaking of a construction project, the beginning was exciting, public, and largely ceremonial. I presented the story (in Power Point!) to a room of 100 people. I dug into archives and piled up library books. I sketched blueprints of plot: three sets of characters whose relationships would be changed by a real event, the Peshtigo fire of 1871.

For months, I soared with new-project mania. I nattered about Canadian immigration patterns to anyone I encountered. Each daily experience was sifted and held to the light, a potential gem for my characters. Everything was literally noteworthy. Characters arrived in my mind full-voiced and ready to tell, tell, tell.

I was cheerfully obsessed with my novel. Then, I ruined all the fun by trying to write it.

One year later, what is built? A partial first draft, undergirded by research, and framed by a twenty-chapter outline—none of which will probably survive a second or third draft. (Plus, a bunch of other prose that is definitely Not-My-Novel.)

It’s not how I pictured the One-Year Novel-versary. I imagined a tower of manuscript pages, perhaps a little cake. Continue Reading