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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Chandler Klang Smith

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Chandler Klang Smith, author of GOLDENLAND PAST DARK) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. GIVEAWAY: Chandler 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. (Update: CheffoJeffo won.)

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Chandler Klang Smith, author of GOLDENLAND PAST DARK) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Chandler 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. (Update: CheffoJeffo won.)

Goldenland-Past-Dark
Chandler-Klang-Smith

Chandler Klang Smith is a graduate of Bennington College and the
Creative Writing MFA Program at Columbia University, where she
received a Writing Fellowship. She lives in New York City. Her March
2013 novel GOLDENLAND PAST DARK is about a hostile stranger 
hunting a ramshackle travelling circus across 1960s America. Learn
more about the book here.

1. A novel is a kingdom that you alone can rule. As author, you have the divine right to do anything you want in your fiction, even over the objections of your most trusted advisors. But as they say, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” – you aren’t without obligations to the work just because power over it is yours. To the contrary, you are both totally free to make whatever choices you please, but also totally responsible for the consequences. At times, no one else may be able to articulate what’s wrong or missing from your book, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is. You cannot sit complacent in your castle, relying only on the view from your balcony. You must spend time in the alleys and on the backroads, listening to the whispers of secret voices. You must know the people and landscapes of your private country better than anyone else does, or you’ll never properly reign over them.

2. A novel is the dark space under your bed. You know without looking that there are things in the shadows that scare you, things you don’t want to see. But it is your job as the novelist to shine the light past the dust bunnies and lost socks, into the teeth of the monster. In Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, he makes this darkness literal – his characters have to descend into a void that’s opened up in the center of their home. But even if your book doesn’t turn to horror, there will be questions you raise that you don’t want to answer, topics that come up that you wish to avoid. It’s a temptation to write around these things, and people do, but your fiction will never be amazing if it doesn’t face the fear and threat it generates head-on.

(Writing Critiques -- how to deal with them.)

3. A novel is an undertaking for the writer, but also for the reader. I loved going to an MFA program, but one thing an MFA program does not prepare you for is the fact that, outside the context of a classroom, you are not entitled to have someone sit down and read your work thoroughly cover to cover just because you finished a draft. Your instinct may be to react with indignation when agents, editors, or even friends give your book a cursory read, or never reach the end. And sometimes it’s true that they’re simply lazy or overworked. But it’s important to remember that someone’s passionate attention, in art as in life, isn’t something you deserve just for showing up. It’s something you have to earn.

4. A novel is a house (not a storage shed). Novels seem roomy, with space enough for anything you can imagine, but if you’re a hoarder, no mansion will accommodate all your newspapers and cats. If writing a certain passage bores you, it will bore anyone who encounters it. Throw away the clutter, the parts that you would skip over as a reader. “But what if I need a transition to get me from point A to point B?” you may ask, at which point I’d direct you to the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. That passage takes a pedestrian narrative aim – marking the passage of ten years – and turns it into a breathtaking meditation on the nature of existence and mortality. Make every page of your novel a space worth lingering in.

5. A novel is a fractal. Though fractals might appear to be nothing more that random paisleys or swirling blobs of tie-dye, they are mathematically generated to be self-similar at every scale. That means that, as you zoom closer and closer in on a fractal image, you’ll see that the same pattern is constantly repeating itself everywhere, even at a level that’s invisible to the casual viewer. Novels should operate the same way: the obsessions of the book should assert themselves even in seemingly inconsequential scenes and details, in minor characters and metaphorical language. If an element is crucial to your conception of the work, it isn’t enough for it to come up once, at a dramatic turning point. It has to be present everywhere, all the time. The king of fractaled writing is Thomas Pynchon, whose novels often employ a host of wildly diverse characters and subplots but nonetheless continually return to the same focal elements: the animate vs. the inanimate in V., the parabola in Gravity’s Rainbow, boundaries that divide above from below in Mason & Dixon, etc.

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

6. A novel is a love letter. I don’t believe that thinking about “audience” in the traditional sense is helpful, at least not if your aims are artistic. Soft drink commercials are for a demographic; literature is for individuals. But I do believe that considering the individual you’re writing for – his knowledge, his concerns, his likely reactions – can help clarify what you’re doing on the page. Writing is an act of communication between humans. It’s not a transmission blared out into the void. If you think of yourself as writing your novel for someone who cares (either an actual person or a hypothetical ideal reader), in a sincere attempt to connect, you’ll be more generous, more truthful, more expansive in your vision.

7. A (finished) novel is just the beginning. When I finally completed the last edits on Goldenland Past Dark and sent it off to press, I felt many things, but one was a crushing sense of disappointment in myself – not because I thought the book was bad, but because the whole process taught me so many new things about writing that I’m only just starting to put to good use. “I should have waited to publish,” I thought, “until I knew what I know now.” Then it occurred to me that if I continue to grow and develop as a novelist, I’m going to feel this way at the end of every project for the rest of my life. I don’t know if that’s a depressing or hopeful thought to end on… I’ll leave it to you to decide.

GIVEAWAY: Chandler 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. (Update: CheffoJeffo won.)

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