The Agony and Ecstasy of Novel Writing

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I’m not a novelist. I never will be. But on a regular basis I get to watch fiction writers spin their magic.

Well, it seems like magic to those of us who don’t have the gift to tell a story, to create a believable character, or to put the reader in a setting so real he grabs his winter coat on his way out the door…only to discover it’s a sweltering summer day.

I recently read an article from The Atlantic by Joe Fassler that tethered my fantasies about what it’s like to be a novelist. The article writer has been interviewing renowned novelists for five years about their writing process. I thought those of you who labor over each word you tap into existence on your computer screen (whether your skill lies in writing fiction or nonfiction) would appreciate several assurances of normalcy the article offers us.

The Magic Resides in the First Paragraph

Stephen King will labor over a novel’s opening for days, months, or even years. For him, the only way he can spool out the rest of the novel is to find the right first paragraph. And sometimes hunting for it can be an elusive task. Fassler writes,

The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.

Self-Doubt Never Dies

Fassler found that, regardless how renowned a novelist became, self-doubt never dissipated. The journey to the end of each novel was wracked with reasons to quit. Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told Fassler:

It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough.…I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

Unmet Expectations

Each interviewed author came around to expressing that they had a golden orb of an idea of what their novel could be. But the actual work fell far short. Rather like a cheap, plastic rose bears only a vague resemblance to the actual flower.

Fassler points out that Amy Tan likens her writing process to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draftwork. All this in the name of searching for the right string of words.

Other authors admit to the reality that, on a given day, the majority of what they write will be bad.

Yet they soldier on.

Novel Writing is for the Undaunted

Fassler summarizes the key link between all the novelists he interviewed in this way: “The willingness to be content with what is less than perfect: That’s the quality that appears repeatedly in my conversations, the defining trait that every writer seems to share. You might call that ‘stubborn gladness,’ as [Elizabeth] Gilbert does…You might even say it requires a ‘certain grain of stupidity,’ as Flannery O’Connor once did. Whatever it is, literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering. It’s the resolve to continue laboring in the service of a task with no clear beginning, no clear end.”

Sounds awful–and wonderful–doesn’t it?

What writerly quality do you relate to the most? How do you corral it so you stay productive?

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