Notes to the First-Time Novelist

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.
Author:
Publish date:

When I started writingThe 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.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

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.

Image placeholder title


Join the Writer's Digest VIP Program today!

You'll get a subscription to the magazine, a
subscription to WritersMarket.com, discounts
on almost everything you buy, a download,
and much more great stuff.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.