At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

First Novels

With multiple bids from New York publishers, my first novel sold for $150,000.   I say that mainly to get your attention; now let’s back up and talk about first novels generally.

The short story is a great place to learn your fictional chops, but not every plot will fit into the “teacup” (Hortense Calisher called the short story “an apocalypse in a teacup”).  If your idea clearly can’t be squeezed to fit (and more can than cannot) then it’s time to write your novel. If you’ve so far resisted trying a novel in favor of shorter forms, bless you and keep you; you’re a rare and precious bird with an above average likelihood that your novel will someday take flight on hardcover wings.  The great majority of writers start novels before they’re ready; may I repeat:  the great majority of writers start writing novels before they’re ready.

 This included the majority of my creative writing students over twenty-some years of college teaching.  Often in Introduction to Fiction Writing class I would gently suggest working in the “short forms” rather than beginning a fantasy trilogy, but undergrads were not there to listen; they wanted to write, and who was I to stop them?  Better to dive into deep water and dog-paddle your damndest than to fuss around on shore for years, because the first novel will usually deposit you back there anyway–usually with salt water up your nose and sand in your privates.   But you will have learned a good deal about how difficult it is to actually finish a novel, let alone write a good one.

 Writing short stories, on the other hand, is like learning to swim in a pool.  There are boundaries against which you can collide, certain lanes have been marked out ahead of you, and the water contains no cold, dark abyss wherein you can lose your bearings and drown.   The inherent dimensions—the container– of the short story form is perfect for the beginning writer and “practicing” writer, i.e., you who have written a fair amount, with some success, but in your mind you’re not “there” yet.  Of course there is no “there there” (as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, where she spent her childhood); every novel, while falling with some general mode (realism, mystery, romance, legal-schmeagal, sci-fi, fantasy) has a unique literary problem or three to be solved, but that’s another matter.  You have to start somewhere.
The problem with first novels as a group (and undergrad fantasy novels especially) is that they tend to sprawl in all directions.   A kind artistic euphoria occurs, in which the author, having broken the membrane of artistic self-consciousness (“Hey, I’m actually writing a novel!), and high on imagination, is unable to leave anything out. The novel spills out of control, spreading like an oil slick, metastasizing like cancer.

But back to the question at hand:  how do you start a novel?  With a great first line, of course, and that is your great challenge, one no one can help you with.  What I can do is talk a bit about plot structure and dramatic assemblage.  For example, if your novel has (all do) a time line, where on that continuum do you begin your tale? Do you begin in the beginning?  The old English novelists  Dickens in particular, could get away with biographizing (a new word?) their protagonist for a 100 pages before starting the conflict–the “trouble”; however, that approach won’t work today unless you have naturally curly prose.  Sentences to die for.   If you have really great sentences (and we must talk soon, dear writer, about sentences), your readers will follow them anywhere. Good sentences create their own yellow brick road, their own flowing current upon which a reader can float along and enjoy the scenery; or, as John Champlin Gardner (On Moral Fiction) put it, good writing creates a “vivid and continuous dream.”  It’s the clinker sentence, the cliché, the tongue-twisting construction that breaks dream and reminds you that you’re reading somebody’s novel. 

The idea for my own first novel, Red Earth, White Earth (the title came early, and helped hold the thing together) was clearly too much for a short story:   culture clash, racial conflict, and family dysfunction.  My grandfather had a farm within the boundaries of the big White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, near where I grew up. No one thought much about that (the location of his farm) from about 1920, when he bought the land in good faith, until the 1980’s and the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM).  Along with AIM and the Wounded Knee incident came a dramatic surge of Native American introspection about how rescue and reclaim their culture, their birthright. 
First thing on their list was to “take back the land”–which included my grandfather’s farm.   Of the many thousands of acres on White Earth, 92 percent had been sold off to white farmers and resort owners; enrolled Ojibwe tribal members, energized by the AIM, and with the help of  “big city lawyers” (as farmers called them), challenged white land ownership on the reservation. For many white land owners this resulted in “clouded title.”  Land title is like the provenance of a painting; once there’s a blemish, a taint on its legal history, it becomes hard to sell, and if a farmer can’t sell his farm, he also can’t leverage it at the bank; essentially it’sworthless–which makes bankers very nervous.  In short, tensions ran high (as they say), but my family’s dilemma was exacerbated by my Aunt Helen.

Married to my Uncle Claron, who stayed home to help on the farm, Helen lived in a small house almost literally in the shadow of my grandfather’s house.  She was a big-framed, dark-haired, restless woman quick with a laugh or a smile, great with us kids, but with faraway eyes.  Even as a kid I sensed that her marriage was a mismatch; my Uncle Claron was a small-boned, quiet, even-tempered man with no desire for travel or adventure.  Aunt Helen loved the open road, and would take off on impromptu trips; she even wrote a small, pamphlet-type book, self-published, on presidential gravesites–every one of which she visited.  But over the years her situation wore on her.  She began to spend time “with the Indians,” first befriending some native women from the reservation, who showed her native crafts (quill work, bead work, etc.), and gradually dress like them. She also started to drink, which eventually got the worst of her; she began to “run wild”, as my grandfather put it.  She eventually left my uncle to live with a Native Man, completing her cultural re-identification at generally the same time as the home farm itself was under duress from land claims.

The angers, the tension, the fear was nearly unbearable at both the family and reservation-wide levels.  The latter culminated in a high-stakes meeting of the minds, including U.S. Senators, state law enforcement, scary-looking AIM leaders and angry farmers, in the Mahnomen, Minnesota, high school gym.  The place was packed.  It was hot, humid, sweaty, dangerous.  Security was tight, but should have been tighter; it’s a wonder no one got shot that day.

I remember walking along the lines of parked cars on my way to the gym, and slowing to look inside them or into the beds of pickups, drawn by the things people carried:  ricing poles, canoe paddles, chain saws, beer cans, empty rifle casings, detritus from deer season, dream catchers hung from rearview mirrors—the whole life the reservation alive for me in the haphazardly parked cars and trucks.  And in the gymnasium the supreme irony: high on the back wall, in faded paint and giant iconic letters, were the words “Go Indians!” (the school’s team name).
I stayed for the most of the meeting, which was more cathartic than conclusive, and when I could see that the emotion had crested, that people had exhausted their anger (at least for now), I left. I couldn’t wait to get home and start my novel.  For what I described above clearly could not fit into a short story. I knew this “big  story” (I didn’t want to call it a novel for fear of jinxing it)  included two key conflicts:  the Native versus white culture clash regarding the land–and my Aunt Helen. Beyond that, I was clueless as to where to begin.

I started with character sketches, research on treaties and legal briefs, reading in Ojibwe history and Scandinavian immigration, but had no real direction.  Then one day in a gas station I picked up a generic paperback off a wire rack. It had, roughly speaking, a prologue.  Not on the order of “In fair Verona where we lay our scene/Two families break from ancient grudge to new mutiny” but a serviceable and short prologue.  “Why not?!” I thought; I was desperate to find some way to control my surfeit of material.

I set about reading classic prologues to see how they worked.  Shakespeare’s prologues often gave away the whole story—including the ending–which was a great risk, it seemed to me.  I wanted one that gave just enough plot to catch the reader’s attention, one that pitched the reader part-way into the novel before pulling him back, and also suggested that this was a worthwhile story.  Good sentences, I figured, could do the rest.

In short, I had made a fumbling, bonehead-simple but providential decision:  to look at how other writers laid out their novels structurally, before I began mine.   I soon had a basic narrative arc in mind: prodigal son leaves home, goes West (as I did) but comes home to help his family through a great crisis (our real one at hand).  For of course a “serious” novel is much about us; why else would we write them?
I soon set to work, complicated by being a young father of two, and teaching overloaded composition classes at a nearby Bemidji State University.  But I burned with passion to tell this story—essentially my family’s story, and Aunt Helen’s story in particular.  For peace and quiet I wrote the early chapters in an old wooden granary on my father’s farm, and some good middle chapters by a woodstove in the basement of a cheap rental house near the University where we lived. 

When I was about half-way along in the novel, I read an article in the Minneapolis Tribune about a literary agent newly landed in the Twin Cities. He had worked as an editor in New York, and came to Minnesota to raise his kids and look for new writers. 

I sent a query letter.  He replied, and asked to see a sample chapter, which he liked, and then asked for “all that I had.”  I sent him about 150 pages, which he quickly submitted to a short list of publishers.  Within a month we had an offer of $30,000 from a major publisher (William Morrow, I believe).  He turned it down, this when I was making less than $20,000 a year teaching (I was, as Dickens would say, a man with “little capital and no prospects”). The same publisher increased its offer to $100,000.  Which my agent again turned down.  He was waiting, he said, on Simon & Schuster, who soon offered $150,000. We accepted.

Now all I had to do was finish the last half of the novel.  I like to joke that a close reader can tell at which page in my novel that my advance arrived.  However, looking back, I realize now that it was truly an enormous amount of pressure, and that my prose might have gotten hurried and thin in spots as I struggled to meet a deadline.  My editor, a tall, dramatic woman who wore a full length red fox coat on the streets of Manhattan, and who took me to lunch at The Four Seasons, was not altogether helpful when it came to endings (which are very hard, always). “Remember, Will, that Simon & Schuster is a Gulf Western company,” she said obliquely, which I think meant: “Let’s have a bang-up ending, because we need to make money on this novel.”

The novel, in the end, did not make back its advance, but this was the late 1980’s and money was being tossed around more freely than today.  Still, it’s not a good thing for author, agent or editor when a novel fails to pay its way.  A more reasonable advance ($75,000 tops) would have put the novel in the black, and all us more at ease—my way of saying that large advances are not always a blessing.  Neither is sudden money landing on someone who has never had any, but that’s another story, and believe me, I’m not complaining.  And the novel is still alive in paperback.

Back to you and your novel:  if you’ve got a first novel in mind, or have stalled out on your first novel, go read some first novels.  Check out mine, or read from these:  Kim Edwards’ Memory Keeper’s Daughter (2005).  Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep (2005).   Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000).  Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River (2001).  Maureen Gibbon's recent Swimming Sweet Arrow.  Or make your own list of first novels.  Some first novels, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, are wholly born masterpieces; do not feel pressured by these rarities.  Rather, understand that most first novels have flaws–warts, flat spots, failures of the imagination and occasionally clunky writing. But they all had something magical about them—something true and real and heartfelt that kept and held a editor’s attention.  As my first editor said to me, “I’ll read anybody’s manuscript until they give me an excuse to stop.”  That's your challenge:  to give that editor no reason to set your manuscript aside.

So start reading some first novels. Watch what the authors do and how they do it:  the approaches they use, the amount of narrative time they cover, their choices of points of view, their style, their voice.   Look carefully at the amount of plot; one reviewer of Red Earth, White Earth said, perhaps correctly, that I had squeezed three novels into one.  First novels as a group often use up large swaths of personal material, some which you might wish to save for novel number two.  But don’t be afraid of plot.  Many English major, M.F.A.-certified writers feel that a large, dramatic plot cheapens their novel—makes it “commercial.”  Whenever you’re feeling that way, hie yourself back to Shakespeare. His main plot was the death of kings.

Remember that any novel moves ahead good sentence by good sentence; fully realized scene by fully realized scene; chapter by chapter.  That’s how it gets written.  Persistence, not genius or naturally curly prose, is the key. The middle chapters are hardest–a real slog at times–but when you break through into the last third, your momentum will pick up and you’ll have fun the rest of the way—in fact, you might have slow yourself down, even limiting the number of pages you write per day to ensure that they are good ones with the same texture of detail and imagery as, say, on page 25.

Once you’re done, you’ll cry.  Sounds cheesy but it's true–and any committed writer will confirm this.  After you've gotten a grip, throw yourself a party.  Very few people actually finish novels; it’s a great achievement, one you can feel pleased about forever, and if your "long story" gets published, all the better.

1 comment:

  1. God bless you, Will. That was an encouraging post. I'm in those slogging middle chapters now, and it's good to know that persistence, not genius, is what's needed most. I'm looking forward to having that end-of-it-all party.
    -Paul Anderson/Warroad-