“Mommy, are you going to write a dear good novel?”
Living with a 4-year-old who reads well can be interesting. And when I brought home a copy of James Frey’s “How to Write a Damn Good Novel,” I wondered how long I could conceal the title from her. Luckily, her skills really only extend to print, and the word-in-question is written in bright-red cursive. My answer, of course, was “Yes, Mommy is going to try.” But, a little naughty part of me did want to reply, “No, Honey, Mommy’s going to write a damn good novel.”
If novel-writing is like pregnancy, think of this book as the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” I would highly recommend it to any writer, but also to anyone who enjoys being an amateur critic. You’ll come a way with a better appreciation of what makes a good story good, what makes a bad story bad, and the blood, sweat, and tears the writer of any story puts into their work. You’ll get some encouragement in that hard task of casting aside your fears and self-doubts to devote yourself to the craft. And you will probably close the book ready to buckle down and write something pretty dear good.
If fiction immitates life, its formation does, too. In a flash of brilliant inspiration, an idea appears in the mind. That’s the easy part. The exciting part. But then, comes the growing part. Ergh, not so fun. There is the morning sickness–the queasy anxiety that this idea might never even make it. But then, you start to feel it moving around, see it taking shape on a screen, realize that the little parts are forming quite nicely, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You start to get excited. You consider names.
The problem is, the little bugger just won’t quit–it’s always moving around inside, kicking you in the night, distracting you during dinner. It makes your back sore. Complete strangers rub your belly and conjecture about the size and gender, and friends exclaim about how long the whole process seems to be taking–any day now, right? And all the while, you hold your belly wondering what the heck is really going on in there–knowing that when this thing is over, you’re going to have something with a life of its own, outside of you, that’s going to have to make it in the world.
Mothers do have the secret fear that their kid will come out not cute. Sure, relatives will adore the little one, but strangers will speak the truth. Relatives will speak the truth behind closed doors. So it goes with the novel. Your mother will adore it, but what about the rest of the world? And if it gets a rough start–you know, still hairy-backed, baby-acned, jaunticed, wall-eyed–is there hope that it will grow out of it and end up looking pretty good?
Love and devotion are the only thing that gets you through. You are a mother, and this is your baby, come what may. It’s what makes it possible to be patient for nearly 10 months, it’s what gets you through labor, it’s what gets you through the bleary first weeks of endless feedings and screaming. You hold to the belief that it matters, that time invested into something beautiful, something that has the capacity to touch other lives and make a difference in the world, is time well-spent. And when you put the papers in that awful manilla envelope and send it off to an agent, like sending your precious baby off to school, you have the confidence that you’ve put every ounce of yourself–your patience, your brains, your love–into that little package. Will it come home Harvard-bound, winning awards and straight-A’s, or get D’s and F’s and live in your basement forever? Well, you’ll love it anyway, because it’s yours.
So getting back to the book in question, a few passages stood out to me as particularly helpful and revealing about the process of writing a novel. Frey says on pages 164-5: “…Most of these folks with so much raw talent will not make it as novelists. Why? Because they lack what’s truly necessary: self-discipline, dogged determination, and stick-to-itiveness. Talent just gets in the way, because if you have talent you expect writing a novel to be easy and it isn’t, not matter how much talent you have….
“The message is this: writing itself is not glamorous, exciting, or romantic. It’s hard work. Rewarding, yes. But damn hard. It’s also a lonely process. It’s a struggle with your own creative powers and self-doubts. Sometimes the writing flows out of you, gushing like rapids down a mountain gorge. Other times your head feels like a block of concrete and you can’t squeeze anything out of it. Sometimes you reread what you’ve written and you think you could train your dog to do better. Other times you know what you’ve done is brilliant beyond your wildest expectations….”
Is it hard work? Yes! Is it worth it? Absolutely. And, by the way, let’s never forget that reality and the people who inspire us are way more important than our fictitiuos worlds….and if we’re going to stay sane in this process, it needs to stay that way!