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Notes to the First-Time Novelist

Categories: Breaking In (Writer's Digest), Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

When I started writing The Green Shore, I didn’t call it a novel. It was a “project,” or “this thing I’m working on,” or maybe even a novella, but a “novel” it wasn’t—at least I didn’t admit as much. At first it felt wild and free, like a new crush, undefined and full of possibility. Soon, though, after I had produced about eighty pages of something that began to resemble a novel-in-progress, I experienced those moments—as Charles Baxter defines them—when “the fraud police” come knocking at the door. You probably know the feeling. You probably understand what it means to abandon your desk far too early in the afternoon, finding yourself at happy hour, talking with other writer friends about how none of you are writing.

GIVEAWAY: Natalie is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.

 

 

 

           

Guest column by Natalie Bakopoulos, author of the debut novel,
THE GREEN SHORE (Simon & Schuster, June 2012), of which
Elizabeth Kostova
(The Historian) said “Natalie has that rare gift,
the ability to imagine a traumatic historical event in the form of
individual lives and ordinary details.
The Green Shore is compelling,
personal, and full of quietly real moments.” Natalie’s work has
appeared in
Tin House, Ninth Letter, Granta Online, and The
O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, and she is a contributing editor
for the online journal, Fiction Writers Review.

 

 

The more it became a novel the more I became overcome with the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing. But here’s the thing, as everyone tried to tell me but I had to realize for myself: no one does, at least not the first time around. I remember confessing to a friend (probably during happy hour) that my process felt too haphazard. Sometimes I’d start in the middle, or write a scene whose placement I had no idea about, or abandon one character mid-day to write from the point of view of another. I felt that I somehow was doing it wrong. She disagreed. “That,” she said, “is how novels get written.”

I found great comfort in Zadie Smith’s essay “That Crafty Feeling,” where she notes that “each individual novel is its own rule book, training ground, factory, and independent republic.” We learn to write a novel by writing a novel. Word by word, line by line, scene by scene.

(Secrets to querying literary agents: 10 questions answered.)

I don’t mean some benevolent, wise force is at work, the way some writers might say that their characters write the book for them. How nice, to have such ambitious, thoughtful characters. But mine tend to be lazy. When I come into the room with my hands on my hips they’re drinking coffee or smoking or getting drunk and they look at me like, Oh, come on! What I mean is that each book is going to be different, and it’s through the process of considering and following the characters’ actions and ideas and desires and interior landscapes that the structure and story emerges. Action–reaction. Sometimes it’s a linear thing. Sometimes it’s not. The messy process is not wrong nor is it somehow less authentic.

The important thing is figuring out how you work. Not even how you work best, because then you’ll make excuses for why you’re not writing this day, or in that place, but simply how you work on that particular project. Of course, there’s the desire to finish. At probably several points, I was sure I was done. When my agent told me it wasn’t ready, my first reaction was that she was wrong. I think I did tell her that, in fact. I turned to a friend, expecting sympathy, but he agreed. My chapters were too short, he said; the book lacked thrust. I pouted and told him he was wrong too, less politely. Maybe the fraud police had finally won, because I didn’t look at the novel for more than half a year, partly because I was busy and partly because I was afraid.

But the novel was still there, and I remembered more of Charles Baxter’s words: “Literature is not a sack race.” I thought about the reasons the book might not be ready, and then I began to address them. I realized I had been confusing impatience with completion, instinct with pride. I had been tired and deflated and felt I couldn’t do any better. I think I wanted the validation of having finished it. I wanted to have written a novel. I wanted to be done.

(How to Research a Novel.)

Figure out a way to address those little things you know you should address but don’t know how. It’s part of taking your work seriously. This is not the same as taking yourself too seriously; too much self-importance will make the work feel bloated or overly contrived. It will make you rush because you are so sure that the world needs your novel immediately. The fraud police are there for a reason! Don’t let them sit atop your desk, their feet dangling while you work, but if they pass by your window every so often that’s not a bad thing. You want to prove them wrong. Your novel will never be perfect, but eventually, it should feel right. In those years it takes you to finish you might swerve between states of self-loathing and self-aggrandization. Try to avoid both extremes, or at least don’t allow yourself to stay in one place too long. After all, there’s work to be done.

GIVEAWAY: Natalie is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.

 


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38 Responses to Notes to the First-Time Novelist

  1. I’m 60,000 words into my first novel and I’m at a place where I just want to be done, to say that I have a complete novel, even though I know that it’s nowhere close to a finished product. Thank you for this dearly needed reminder that there’s no reason to hurry to the finish line

  2. laurenkdenton says:

    Thanks for the article! I’m about 80 pages in, just like you said, and I’ve been overcome with the “I have no idea what I’m doing” fears, even though technically this is my second novel to write. Your words rang very true to me. Looking forward to checking out your first novel.

  3. Lauren Roedy Vaughn says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, honest article. I’m a debut novelist, and you nailed much of my experience. It was messy; I felt lost a lot, but I kept writing even when I was sure I had no idea what I was doing or no business doing it. I’m very grateful for the kind people who supported me through oodles of rewrites. An education in itself. Congrats to you.

  4. E L Bartels says:

    Thanks for this. Some things I needed to hear.

  5. PLL says:

    Love your advice. I do proofreading and light editing on manuscripts by independent authors right now, along with some transcription, but I hope someday to have the discipline to sit down and just do it. I’ve had an idea rolling around in my mind for a few months now, but so far that’s all it’s doing… rolling around in there. I read a lot of articles about getting started. Yours is one of the most helpful I’ve seen. Thanks!

  6. Lisa says:

    Great article! Love your transparency, and it was much needed today. Writing for me has been a rollercoaster ride of “I might have a great novel here” to “What was I thinking?” Congratulations on your debut novel!

  7. LittleMushroomBug says:

    Thank you for your expounding upon what it feels like to write your first novel! I feel like I want to write in the order that my story should happen, but sometimes I start to draft from way in the future of the story and then get subsequently frustrated. But I like how you write that it’s ok and you just need to focus on what you’re trying to have readers focus on getting out of your story, which is far more important than the order in which the words are written. After all, that’s what the second, third, and for however many more drafts are there for, right?

    I also really like your use of the ‘Fraud Police’, as my story is historical and it is very important to me that I don’t have any doubts as to the realisticness of what I am writing about. So thank you for this term!

    I’ll be sure to keep your advice in mind, not only for my novel but also for any writing that I endeavor to do!

  8. This was spot on. I finished my first novel/project/thing I’m working on only three weeks ago after three very long years. What started as the best literary idea to ever hit anyone, turned quickly to “what was I thinking” and after a great deal of coffee, whiskey, time and train rides…it went full circle back to a good idea. The rush of finishing and “having written a novel” definitely did infect me in the final months. Though I had an incredible twist ending, I so badly wanted to write blah blah blah all the way until I got there. Suffice to say I didn’t. I barely enjoyed the “I wrote a novel” moment though because well, I’m a writer. Which makes me a perfectionist, an overachiever and somewhat self-destructive at times. The new obsession was is it marketable and why aren’t literary agents knocking on my door? Don’t they know I had the best literary idea to ever hit anyone? Who does the PR around here? Alas, I am the newbie pitching the next Alice in Wonderland. Sci-fi is a genre nobody believes in until they do. Think about it, if I wrote a pitch about a group of men who fought ghosts and a large marshmallow the size of a skyscraper, odds are I’d get a rejection letter pretty quick. Who thought that was a good idea!
    I think the points articulated here were so relate-able and it truly made me feel better towards my plight. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. kwcraft says:

    Natalie: I once purchased a book that explained that many intelligent people are sensitive to being a fraud. Took me 10 years to own it, but when I participated in an arts event sponsored by Westminster Choir College at which I was to be photographed with a sign I created saying in what capacity I represented the community, I wrote “Novelist”—and in two weeks had my agent! Coincidence?

  10. Crystal says:

    Great reminders! Thanks! I am working on my first…whatever…I have hit the 80 page mark and appreciate the encouragement!

  11. hyscrapper says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I feel i have rewritten my manuscript so many times i am afraid the character may jump off the paper and publish the book herself to make sure that the important disease it discusses will become pulic knowledge. I just don’t know how to find the right publisher. I appreciated your comments on your journey to getting yours published. It is encouraging and I hope I can get out of my rut. thank you!

  12. ratstar1001 says:

    Love this article! It’s so encouraging for a budding writer who is trying to get a novel written. Thank you.

  13. EditorDarla says:

    When I coach writers, we do exercises to help them get into their right brains and out of the critical/harsh left brain (that contains the suffocating inner critic); sounds like you achieved that naturally and masterfully – hence, the “haphazard” way you wrote – that worked.

  14. Kaylyn says:

    Very informative. I tend to rush my stories, too. I just want to hurry up and get them done. I am beginning to see the lack of quality when I do that.

  15. Jal1933 says:

    Thank you Natalie, for admitting your fear. I, too, have been afraid to see what my novel will become. I have begun writing the story of being reunited with my birth-mother after 44 years. I’m writing about being raised adopted, life with my adoptive family, and then meeting my birth mother and the rest of my relatives. It has been incredibly emotional and also truly amazing. It’s hard to write the story at the beginning. I keep wanting to write the end. I’m glad to know that you also wrote in this way. Thank you again for sharing this with us. -Jill Angel Langlois

  16. mlasher911 says:

    I am such a newbie the green is still growing in my brain! This was exactly what I needed to hear and your article has given me so much. Thank you!

  17. Zephyrsaerie says:

    While I’m not a first-timer, these are all good reminders for continuing the process. Thank you.

  18. nerdsrocket says:

    You are my damn spirit animal, Natalie. And here I thought I was crazy for the patchwork way I write disconnected bits and pieces I’m not even sure belong in the same book, let alone in the particular bit I’m working on. Solidarity.

  19. MeaganWavra says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I am in the process of writing my first book and for months now I have been over-thinking every move I make. I constantly feel like I am doing it wrong and resort back to my ever-growing outline, adding more details and ideas but never actually writing a single word. This article helped me to realize that every writer experiences this type of problem, and I already feel myself beginning to breathe a little easier! Thanks for the pressure relief :)

  20. olleymae says:

    Thanks so much for the frank look at your process, and the encouragement for us to embrace our own process–without excusing ourselves or avoiding our writing. The balance between being a serious writer but not taking yourself too seriously is always a fun challenge. Best wishes for your debut!

  21. nuckles85 says:

    Pride is every writer’s antagonist. We must swallow our pride and view our works from another’s eyes before we can accept the revisions that need to be made. We have to swallow our doubt and fear, and corner our project, beating it into submission. The novel is finished when it stands up, turns on us and starts fighting back, because it has grown too strong to be corralled any longer.

  22. Rene52 says:

    A few years ago when Stephen Dixon was still teaching, I asked him how I would know when I was done with a project I was working on. There was a long pause and then he said you know when you’ve done because you made all the revisions you could think of to do Since I was still a novice and improving, I realized when I was submitting short stories that every time one was rejected I should revise again before I sent it back out. Writing novels is certainly trickier. I’ve also finished a novel three times if we only count when I submitted it. I’m still “developing” so I’ve assumed that the book wouldn’t be truly done until I publish it. But maybe this will always be true even when I gain more confidence? Certainly sounds like it from your post and from some comments from other authors have made on the same topic. It is oddly reassuring. Thanks!

  23. clindahl says:

    Thank you for the encouragement. My internal nazi was beating me up saying it was a “rule” to write linear. But I just can’t help it…the book is coming out in random scenes! Thank you. Now, I can tell her to back off.

  24. bernie5612 says:

    I was at a conference once in Nova Scotia and I met a fellow from Vermont, an older gentleman with a woody allen smile. We were discussing a work in progress. He was explaining to me how he and his wife traveled around North America in an RV, just attending conferences like the one we are at, touring the different provinces and states, writing about their experiences and just enjoying life. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing. I don’t know if he read my mind or just the look in my eye, but he put his hand on my arm and said, “Son, what are you waiting for? Go get an RV.” That was ten years ago. I haven’t finished the book yet. I have managed to churn out a few smaller items, but Life keeps getting in the way. Just from reading your thoughts about happy hour, I’m thinking, maybe I should buy an RV and start writing. Thanks for the jumpstart.

  25. HuffmanHanni says:

    What a relief to read this! I’ve been plotting, outlining, and researching one novel on the weekends and ever once in a while ‘writing’ it because I’d get mad at myself for actually working on writing the damn thing. I’ve also worked on stuff completely out of order and I keep reworking some scenes over and over. This is a huge reassurance and looking at some of the comments, completely normal!
    I have felt like I have an odd process going on. What I had intended to be my first novel, I’ve been primarily working on during the weekends when I have more time but during my lunch breaks from my ‘paying’ job and during the evenings, I’ve been writing short stories. I’ve been discovering that depending on the story, it may be a short story or it may turn into something longer.
    I’ve noticed I get extremely impatient with myself because I have this sense I’m behind somehow on a timeline even though there is no timeline. I’m just writing for me although eventually, I woud like to get published. It’s good to hear others get that way, too. It’s also reassuring that some people get scared to reexamine their work. I’ve been struggling with fixing one of my stories just right based upon feedback I’ve gotten. I’m afraid if I cut some stuff out or rearrange it, I’ll somehow lose the flavor of the story yet I can see why I would need to do it.

  26. Writer_Person says:

    I completely agree that we learn to write by the mere act of writing itself. You could take all of the classes in the world, read all of the books in the world, get a phd in creative writing for goodness’ sake, and the only thing that will help you write and get a novel out there is yourself.

  27. Frostie says:

    Here I was, thinking that I was the only person who skipped scenes while writing. I get stuck on one, so I go to another, thinking that, later, I’ll work it in-somewhere!

    However, with MY characters, they’re constantly on the move, pushing me to write. Only downfall, they SHOW me their lives, they don’t write them for me.

    Thanks for the very inspiring, lovely article.

  28. Doris Swift says:

    Thank you Natalie…It’s nice for a first-time novelist to read these encouraging words…I have to push those negative thoughts out of my head that say, “oh, give it up…you’re never going to finish at the rate you’re going…Do you even know where you’re going?….” Well, nice to know that I’m not the only one with these doubts…I just have to get over myself and write! I know what you meant when you said “I felt that I somehow was doing it wrong..” I can certainly relate to that! Also, thanks for the reminder that it’s not about a “race to the finish line”, but rather about putting out a quality piece of work…Congratulations on your book, and thanks for sharing your inspiring story…

  29. learn2teach says:

    Terrific post. I’m a first-time novelist and often hear that voice in my head that says I can’t do it. As I get close to “the end” I also hear the voice saying “Hurry, hurry.” even when I know that after the last scene is written I’ll be rewriting for months. It’s good to know I’m not alone in such a lonely endeavor.

  30. CMcGowan says:

    Great information here. I’m a first time novelist, too and often feel like “the fraud police” are staring at me all the time. Looking forward to reading your book, hopefully by winning a copy, but it seems like something I would read anyway so on my wish list it goes!

  31. gemnyoeye says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read. I was just discussing with my husband how I didn’t know how to start a book. Well, since I’ve already started writing, I just need to keep at it. My characters are being unleashed in ways that I didn’t think was possible, but that’s the fun of it all. Hopefully soon enough I will be a published author discussing my literature.

  32. Kengie78 says:

    Would love to read this book! Congrats on your first novel.

  33. Penny says:

    Congratulations! Finally, after retiring, I’m in the middle of my first novel. At my last conference I had the nerve to make an appointment with an editor when I hadn’t yet finished my WIP. Turned out that she loved my first 10 pages! So, immediately I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of actually finishing it because I don’t write in sequential order, either. I feel better after reading your article. Thanks.

  34. jilliankramer says:

    What a scene Natalie paints when she writes, “How nice, to have such ambitious, thoughtful characters. But mine tend to be lazy. When I come into the room with my hands on my hips they’re drinking coffee or smoking or getting drunk and they look at me like, Oh, come on!”

    Thank you for posting an equally entertaining and informative essay.

  35. rharvey75495 says:

    Having now finished my first novel twice, I’m a little worried I’ll be finishing it again when my early readers get back to me with thier feedback. Even if I have to, I will… and my novel will be better for it! Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll keep an eye out for TFP.

  36. cgoold says:

    Great blog post! Actually, just what I needed at the moment, as I have recently been “impatient,” as well as “tired and deflated.” Instead of getting in there and revising a flawed manuscript, I have been circling and circling it out of the fear you describe. My activities as I circle closer (researching, thinking about audience, contemplating major characters more deeply) have been scattershot, but I’m realizing that these activities are the very tasks I’ve been needing to do to improve the manuscript, yet I’ve felt too “guilty” about not writing to do them. Your post affirms that this process might be legitimate after all. Thanks!

  37. Annie56789 says:

    Love the “fraud police.” I’m not a first-time novelist, but I have yet to sell one of my babies so I sort of qualify. Thanks for the advice, and congratulations! You’re a novelist!

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