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A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More Than Stories

Giraldi, in that same Rumpus essay, takes on the simplest solution to the short story writer’s novel problem: that odd hybrid, the novel-in-stories. But this hardly solves anything. "Exchanging characterization for concept," he writes, "and dismissing narrative continuity," the novel-in-stories only reinforces the notion that the story writer can carry a single narrative only a few dozen pages. Giraldi blames the recent rise of this hybrid on commercial publishing and its desire "to sign young writers fresh from the MFA mill" without having "to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel."

Dan Chaon, the author of two story collections and two novels, most recently Await Your Reply (Ballantine Books, 2009), spoke in a recent interview, published in the Believer, about how difficult the transition from successful short story writer to novelist can be. "I was under contract to Ballantine to deliver a novel," he said, "and I’d written a one-page proposal-summary, but I really had no idea how to proceed." Chaon wrote the first draft of what would become his debut novel, You Remind Me of Me (Ballantine Books, 2004), "as if it were a very long short story” and “it was a disaster."

Chaon credits his editor at Ballantine for helping him find the structure of the novel, but most of us are not so lucky as to have a novel under contract before it is written. In my own dark night of novel-panic, I turned in the direction all writers turn: to books. The one piece of advice I remembered getting in graduate school was to read only the great novels when in the midst of your own. (This was in a novella workshop, my MFA program’s solution to novel-panic. The novella, it turns out, is the fraternal twin of the short story, bigger maybe, but sharing the same DNA; it’s but a distant cousin of the novel.) But this seems advice better suited to the short story. One can see how Raymond Carver, for example, could be influenced by reading Chekhov, but a Tolstoy novel is, as Henry James said, a “loose, baggy monster,” and someone who can find inspiration in Proust is a better writer than I.

Still I scoured the stacks, and what I found was a whole industry of how-to manuals meant to get the would-be novelist over the hump of novel-panic—often in ninety days or less. The worst of these are little better than self-help books, what John Gardner called "self-help fleecers," offering things like a contract in pseudolegalese between the writer and herself ("I pledge to work diligently and habitually, even when I’m tired, hungry, cold, grouchy, or lonely."). Most of them are surely 
helpful to the novice writer; they provide the kind of exercises one might find in an intro class: writing prompts about the writer’s earliest memories or a character’s biggest fears. Probably few people follow these manuals and achieve a finished work, and if they do, they get little more than formulaic fiction.

One such book that promises a novel in ninety days (twenty-eight days to think up a story and outline it) claims, "If we were to write four pages for the next sixty-two days, we would have a 248-page first draft." While the math is certainly correct, this does not strike me as particularly helpful advice. One could also fry an egg in thirty seconds but that does not mean it will taste good. I tend to prefer my drafts a little less rough, in need of something between sandpaper and a rock polisher, not between an excavator and a dump truck. To be fair, most of these strive only to teach a writer to create a draft quickly; however, the speed of production relies so heavily on formula that the writer whose aim is art is necessarily excluded.  

Too many of these books are written by authors who have never actually published a novel, yet think they are somehow qualified to teach others. Or they’re written by genre writers who believe their methods translate to any kind of fiction. The most representative is offered by the Dummies series of books. It’s called Writing Fiction for Dummies. Since no one during the editing process thought that maybe calling it Fiction Writing for Dummies was a better idea, the book is probably not the best source of advice. It’s the only manual I found that includes a section on finding the right chair. (For your information, "ample room around your hips and thighs" and "a five-point base with casters" are important.)

The canonical books are better, of course, the ones every writer seems to have on the shelf. E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927), for example, breaks down the elements of a novel into seven distinct parts: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm. It is essentially a survey course on the structure of the novel, and indispensable for that. At times its tone can be more academic than your typical "guide to writing," as the publisher labels it on the cover; lecture-hall dust-motes float through the prose, and the essays, which originated in lectures Forster gave at Trinity College, are heavy on Cambridge wit. The book is concerned more with the function than the functioning of the novel. For Forster, "the whole intricate question of method resolves itself not into formulae but into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says." Forster won’t tell you how to write the novel, but he will explain how the writing and the structure affect the reader, which for a serious writer is an equally important objective.

For my money, the best teacher of novel writing is John Gardner. In the midst of my novel-panic, his was a calm voice of reason. He is the only one to note that "the novelist is in a fundamentally different situation from the writer of short stories," and he is certainly the only one who acknowledges not only the existence of MFA programs but also the problems with them. Part pep talk and part analysis of what makes a good novelist, his On Becoming a Novelist is tailor-made for the writer suffering novel-panic. (He does occasionally digress into the peculiar, however: An indicator of a novelist’s talent is "a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both," he writes.) Unlike the writing manuals, Gardner’s books do not dole out rules. "The god of novelists will not be tyrannized by rules," he writes. Instead, in The Art of Fiction he gives advice and his best guess at how novels work. Too dense to be synthesized, it is a book of novel-writing wisdom that includes, in a chapter on plotting, the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel. Though Gardner can’t solve the issues the short story writer faces when sitting down to work out a novel, he alone seems aware of them—he did, after all, spend his life teaching fiction writers—and both his books quiet some fears and point out some errors of the story writer. Like the encouraging yet strict professor I never found in graduate school, Gardner’s books got me back to the desk.

***

Ultimately, no book or teacher can show you how to write a novel. The novelist succeeds or fails alone, and the paralysis of novel-panic is alleviated in only one of two ways: Either one stumbles his way toward a book, or one gives up entirely. The best advice Gardner has for the struggling novelist is that "above all one writes and writes." And though he never says it directly, he insinuates that one reads and reads. But it’s not his only advice. He also believes the young novelist "belongs in a novel-writing workshop" because "he needs people who believe in him, give him a shoulder to cry on, and value what he values.” The difficulty of finding that community, however, is easy to test: Ask a friend, a writer-friend, to read a draft of a short story and generally she will say yes, but ask her to read a draft of your novel and you’ll likely hear a different answer.

This may explain why MFA programs typically don’t workshop a whole novel. It simply demands a level of dedication and time commitment on the part of both students and instructors that sometimes just isn’t there. The Grub Street workshop, on the other hand, proposes to motivate a community of serious writers, outside the traditional academic setting, to take novels seriously over an extended period of time. It’s still in an experimental phase, but if it continues to be successful, the folks in Boston may have found a way to cure novel-panic—and a whole new way for novelists to workshop.

John Stazinski teaches writing and literature at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared most recently in Glimmer Train Stories, the Southern Review, the Hopkins Review, and the Missouri Review.

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City Guide

by Ifeanyi Menkiti

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The city of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists has produced many prominent writers in its past, but it is also a city whose literary history is still in the making. Ifeanyi Menkiti, who was born in Onitsha, Nigeria, and moved to Massachusetts eventually becoming owner of the nation’s oldest poetry bookstore, tours the vast literary landscape of the greater Boston area.

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