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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.

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.

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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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