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What to read if you think you want to write a novel.
(You might not actually want to)
My credentials are modest. One novel finished and published; jury’s out on the second (on both counts). I have an MFA and the loans to prove it. I’ve been paid, in cash or reciprocal critiques or beer, to edit or assess or review or proofread or ghostwrite several books. All that, and I’m still green. (As is everyone, said Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”) But after making fiction the center of my life for half its duration, and after having good teachers and good luck, I’ve learned things. I share them in hopes that they’ll ease and aid your journey toward deciding whether or not being a frustrated, rejected, all-consumed perpetual beginner—opting into what Fitzgerald called “this God awful metier of sedentary days and sleepless nights and endless dissatisfaction”—sounds like the life for you.
1. It’s a Real Agony/Ecstasy Type Situation.
My son’s shoulder got stuck during delivery, and the doctor reached both hands into me to yank him out. At 16, I accidentally sliced off a knuckle with a chef’s knife. At 29, I broke my humerus, which didn’t heal—for months my arm bent twice, like it had two elbows. I’ve been so poor I skipped meals, so jetlagged I woke on the floor of the A train, so sunburnt (second degree!) I pulled skin off in sheets. I’ve puked in three cabs, been bucked off two horses, had bedbugs twice, screamed in a fog of airbag dust as the car barrel-rolled down the freeway. Once, on Telegraph Avenue, a stranger barked at me, “You have fat earlobes!” The point is that I’ve lived through some shit—and none has been half as terrifying or baffling as novel-writing. What could be? Parenting comes to mind. Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language? Maybe a triathlon. Anyway, it’s hard, and also ever-changing, a breakneck cycle of belief, dread, hope, and uncertainty.
…And yet. When I’m writing, I’m my best and most dogged self. Who I am as a writer is who I wish I were in life. Whatever I’m working on is a secret alive only in me, and the world I’m making is the first place my mind goes in idle moments. I find nothing more interesting than people and their oddities, and when I’m mid-manuscript, this ferocious noticing cranks to 11 and life becomes newly strange, a buffet of stealable stimuli. I like that after I’m gone, people—my son, really—will have these manuscripts, maps of my mind. I won’t die a mystery, you know? I crave the time warp of opening my laptop; I sit down after breakfast and realize around 4pm that I really have to pee. That’s as close as I’ll ever get to religious ecstasy. I like how my writing brain outperforms my life brain, saying wise things that surprise me. (“How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” said Wallace Stegner.) I don’t mean being “a conduit” for “inspiration,” or “letting the characters speak through me,” or other baloney to which some writers gravitate, believing effortlessness to be the marker of talent. No, I surprise myself because in the idiot noise of life, the sewer bills and small talk and stubbed toes, I’m too tired and pissed and hungry to hear my thoughts. I read my work and think, Oh, right, that’s me.
Finally, I relish the untangling—because for me, a novel starts as a bunch of knotted half-ideas in a dust-covered heap, and parts are missing or marked in a language I can’t read, and each needs the just-right diction and context to make it be alive. It’s a nightmarish puzzle, and solving it is like juggling planets, leapfrogging a skyscraper—an inhuman feat as cathartic as anything I’ve experienced.
2. You Have to Write Toward Your Pain.
In the 1984 Vanity Fair article “Captain Fiction,” writer Amy Hempel describes the notorious workshops helmed for years by editor Gordon Lish, an unsparing, tyrannical teacher. He decimated students as they read aloud, driving them to tears, to shouting, to quitting. He required them to reveal their most unspeakable secrets. One admitted to running someone over with her car. Another said he was with a prostitute the night his child was born. Lish’s lacerating criticism forced “the kind of ego death familiar to standup comics,” Hempel writes. But he demanded the secrets for a different reason: to reveal to each student his true subject. To “write what you know” wasn’t enough; as Lish put it, “Don’t write about what you haven’t paid for. And through the nose.” Among his most famous adages is that to write you must “take your wound as your identity, turn it into your instrument, your cudgel.”
Don’t misunderstand: It’s still fiction, not a diary entry, and you still owe the reader a transporting experience. Lish’s ethos demands that you mine your pain not to soothe or explore it, but to bottle its urgency and drench the page with it. The driver who hit someone likely has a few authoritative thoughts on guilt. The new father could make, say, betrayal his area of emotional expertise. We read to know ourselves, even if we haven’t lived the specific things the characters have. We’ve endured our own specific things; it’s the specificity, not the experience, to which we relate. Hempel writes, quoting Lish: “Wear your heart on the page and people will read to find out ‘how you solved being alive.’”
Amy Hempel was Lish’s student, and I was Amy’s. She didn’t traffic in his theatrics, but she did impart much of his doctrine. The funny thing is, if you’re serious about writing you’ll likely end up smearing your pain onto the page anyway. That’s not Lish’s principle, but Freud’s: the repetition compulsion. My first fiction professor, an infectiously buoyant woman named Amanda Davis, said every writer tells one story over and over. Your work will have greater impact if you know and embrace this, instead of leaving your heartache to bubble up accidentally.
What happens if you reject this philosophy and attempt to keep your pain and prose separate? It will net you, at best, work that is—here come my two harshest editorial critiques—competent and bloodless. You might sell it, readers might read it. Many such books do fine. But you’ll still only have produced the literary equivalent of hotel art, unsalted food, missionary sex with the lights off. The world doesn’t need more banality. It needs nerve and truth.
3. A Writer is a Reader.
There was this dunce in my grad program who said he didn’t read because he feared his “voice” and “style” would be altered by other writers’ influence. If only!
And if only he were alone in his illiteracy. You can always tell an unreading writer by their wan characters, moved around like dolls. Unclear on how narratives ought to conclude, such writers lean on unresolved endings they hope seem deep. They mess with form, in part to misdirect attention from the hollowness of their work, and in part because they haven’t read enough to recognize the wheels they’re failing to reinvent. But the biggest deficiency in an illiterate writer’s work is love—a bone-deep passion for storytelling. Love is what you read in the opening of Lolita, a fervor for language so persuasive it’s undimmed by the monster speaking it. (And heightened by the incomprehensible fact that its author isn’t writing in his native tongue.) Love is what you feel in the work of Toni Morrison, in her conviction that these stories, long untold, deserve to be known. (“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” she said.)
It makes sense that a writer who doesn’t read can only produce loveless work: their book is just one more in which they’re not interested.
4. A Writer is a Reviser.
“I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil,” said Truman Capote. “My pencils outlast their erasers,” said Nabokov. Pick your phrasing—the fact is, it’s in the correcting and rethinking that the real work of fiction occurs.
The Graywolf Press series “The Art Of…” is stellar and thorough. The first one I read was The Art of Revision, by Peter Ho Davies, which contends that revising—viewed by many writers as necessary drudgery—should be considered a process of discovery. This is when you find another way in, see the next layer down, make that which is highly effortful look effortless. What if you skipped revisions and charged forward with a first draft—do you really believe that on the day you wrote that, you happened to be at your most brilliant? Better your odds! Let your work be the product of many days’ brilliance.
Other titles in that series that I especially love: The Art of Subtext (Charles Baxter, 2007), The Art of Time in Fiction (Joan Silber, 2009), The Art of Intimacy (Stacey D’Erasmo, 2013), and The Art of Description (Mark Doty, 2010).
5. There Are a Lot of Rules / Almost No Rules.
Many writing edicts exist in protest of laziness—file the time-honored allergies to adverbs, epiphanies, coincidences, and dei ex machina under that header. Others are measures against melodrama (e.g., one of my professors disallowed “a single tear” running down anyone’s cheek), or dullness (never make a character just sit and think). Some rules ensure clarity—which may be less glamorous than stylistic flourishes or plot twists, but is precisely what makes them possible. Others arise because some quirks are just irritating. A personal hatred of mine is a too-voicey third-person narrator, drawing so much attention to itself that I’m left to wonder who the hell is talking to me.
Except, surprise! As Doris Lessing said, “There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” You can get away with all of the above if you have the skills. Adverbs don’t belong in fiction? Tell that to “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Epiphanies, lazy?! The modernists scoff. (Read Virginia Woolf’s posthumous essay collection Moments of Being; the title itself refers to epiphanies, instances when “the cotton wool of daily life” falls away.) Coincidences feel contrived? Not in the work of E.M. Forster and Flannery O’Connor. (See this excerpt from Alice Mattison’s 2016 book on writing, The Kite and the String, for more on how those writers get it so right.) The single tear spilling down Daniel Kaluuya’s cheek in Get Out still hurts to think about. (Hey, movies are fiction.) The third-person narrator of Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (2017) , is as voicey as they come, but I didn’t mind because I was having too much fun. So, break rules—if you can clear the high bar of quality that doing so requires.
6. You Have to Be Awful Before You Can Be Good.
Here’s Anne Lamott: “Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.” (Her 1994 book on writing, Bird by Bird, is beloved by many.) It’s painful, but that draft is a placeholder, a scaffold on which to build something real. Much of it will be jettisoned—fifty or a hundred pages that you cram into some file and forget. If that all sounds pointless and timewasting, get this: That’s just the first draft! There’s a solid chance you’ll do three or five more. Even then, it might be for naught. I know a guy whose published novel is among my favorites, and he has seven more languishing in a drawer, each rejected or unfinishable or just not quite right. It sucks. It’s maddening! But that’s the deal.
7. Half-Ass It at Your Peril.
I said above that I’m dogged when writing—but tenacity isn’t useful if you’re focused on the wrong stuff. I was recently reminded, after a discouraging setback, that in writing even your strongest strengths won’t get you by. All of it has to be good.
Feeling lost, I revisited John Gardner’s wise, cantankerous 1983 book On Becoming a Novelist. He disdained writers who spend energy on entrancing prose and little else. Such a writer “cares more about his gift than his characters.” Oh, they create characters, of course, and give them things to do—but “becloud them in a mist of beautiful noise, forever getting in the way of what they are saying by the splendor of their way of saying it.” I saw myself in that punishing line, and it stung.
It also shone a lucky light. I saw that I’d gone astray: being clever instead of real, papering over weaknesses with pretty language. There are aspects of fiction I enjoy, and at which I excel. Others I find burdensome but manageable. And other aspects I find so tedious they awaken my Gifted Child Syndrome—the urge to coast, to slapdashedly dispense with the no-fun parts because it’s scary to not be great at them. But fiction can only ever be as sound as its weakest component. It’s been humbling to recall this, and invigorating. I’m remembering how to aim for transcendence, not beauty. Beauty is cheap, and not enough.
First, I did what I do whenever I’m stuck, the thing Don Draper suggested to Peggy Olson: “Think about it. Deeply. Then forget it.” I talked with my husband and friends and agent about how it’d all gone wrong. I pondered. I didn’t look at the novel for weeks. Eventually, the answer bubbled up.
But how to avoid falling into the same bad habits as I revised?
I remembered the best writing advice, the Hemingway lodestar: “You just have to write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So, I did. It doesn’t get any easier after that—but it does force you to cut the shit.
8. Every Word Requires Doubt.
When the writer Adam Haslett visited my grad program, he said, “You can always tell fiction that hasn’t been doubted enough.” There’s a lot in there. A criticism of arrogance. A lamentation of those who refuse to kill darlings. But also, a straightforward means of quality control. Allen Ginsberg could say “first thought, best thought” and mean it because he was a poet; past the first draft (self-absorbed! mewling!), novelists have no such luxury. If you don’t think through every inch of your work thoughtfully and without ego, you risk not only overlooking its problems but also missing out on the always-fruitful process of solving them.
Incidentally, Haslett’s 2002 collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, is particularly exquisite.
9. Your Loyalty Must Be to the Text.
Like every sentient being on Earth, I love David Sedaris. It’s weird that he’s our most prominent humor writer, since his work is so sad. For me, and for reasons soon to become clear, his most devastating piece is “Repeat After Me,” from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2005). In it, Sedaris visits his sister, Lisa, who tells a hilarious story. Instantly he reaches for his notebook, and Lisa bursts into tears. “If you ever, ever repeat that story,” she says, “I will never talk to you again.” Sedaris’s impulse in this moment isn’t to reassure, but to convince: Come on, let me use it. He floats above himself, grasping how he’s robbed his family, book after book. I felt that.
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” said Joan Didion. You’ll have to decide if you can make a career of soft betrayal. Real people wander into most everyone’s fiction, if not in full then via something they said or did or do. Here’s novelist Lauren Groff in the infamous Bad Art Friend story in the New York Times: “I have held every human I’ve ever met upside down by the ankles and shaken every last detail that I can steal out of their pockets.” Of course, there’s a line one shouldn’t cross, as that Times story illustrates, and as the Sedaris piece does, too: He never does share what Lisa asked him not to. You’ll have to decide where your limit lies.
10. The Opening Is Crucial.
Susan Sontag believed that a work’s first line should be so affecting that one reads it and grows dizzy, “trembling at the risk.” It should also unfurl a spiritual blueprint of what follows. In an excerpt of her 2021 book on fiction, But What About the Baby?, novelist Alice McDermott describes her philosophy of stellar first lines: they carry the DNA of the book; they convey authority; they’re almost never the sentence a novice starts with, and are typically a few lines or paragraphs in; and they’re direct, “formed not in moments of determined inspiration or the huffing pursuit of brilliance, but in the pen-to-paper, fingers-to-the-keyboard (pickaxe to hard rock?) daily work of getting a story told.”
Here’s a first line that McDermott offers as an example of greatness, and which happens to be my favorite in all of fiction:
“I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.”
That’s Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” from her 1961 collection Tell Me a Riddle. No throat-clearing, no ten-dollar words. Nothing to prove. Just mystery (What was asked? Who asked it?), and pain (“tormented”).
Don’t labor over your first line—just write. Then, when you’ve finished, go through the whole thing and find the most startling thing you’ve said. Then start with that.
11. It Doesn’t Take Much.
Years ago, I read an essay on Salon.com by a man present at Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s 1975 reburial in Rockville, Maryland; long dead, the couple was finally allowed into the Catholic cemetery that had initially turned them away. In this essay was a detail that will never leave me. A gravedigger told the writer that a hole had formed in Scott’s casket, through which he’d seen a sliver of Scott’s green wool funeral suit.
This is how little it takes to knock the wind out of a reader: not much.
There’s a scene in Blood Meridian (1985), by Cormac McCarthy, in which the protagonist lies on his belly in a sandstorm, lining up a shot he can’t seem to take. He looks down and sees that blown sand has formed tiny dunes against his still fingers. How perfect and indelible that image is. Actually, here’s another example that involves the same writer: In a scene in the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, based on McCarthy’s novel of the same name, Javier Bardem’s stoic murderer sits opposite the person he’s come to kill. You don’t see or hear her die. The scene simply cuts to Bardem exiting the house and inspecting his shoes for blood.
One more passage from “Captain Fiction”: “…a student reads a fictive description of a plane crash. As the torn limbs pile up, Lish interrupts. ‘A simple hair across a scoop of ice cream will do much to repel people.’”
Less is more. Implication over explication. I’ll leave you with a genius bit of advice from Amy Hempel, about writing good sex scenes: “Just say what the arms and legs are doing.” Because that’s plenty.
12. Every Time is the First Time.
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
See? Such a bummer. But also an opportunity: you get to learn something entirely new every time.
13. Writing and Publishing Are Not the Same.
No one ever says so, but if you want to write fiction solely for yourself, that’s fine and reasonable. You don’t need to sell your work for it to matter.
If you do want to sell it, though, expect to be by turns exhilarated, anxious, and bewildered. (Sometimes wounded. One editor who passed on my first novel wrote, “I felt utterly marinated in misery…I hope you find an editor who responds in the right way to Katie Arnold-Ratliff's dark vision of life.” That was 14 years ago, and I’m quoting from memory.) Expect it to not amount to much. An old colleague told me that publishing a book is like getting into a revolving door that spins around very fast and lets you out where you started. Finally, expect it to be hard, and for the outcome to be not necessarily reflective of your talent or even the quality of your work. Book publishing is weird, and fickle, and opaque, and you’ll be a lot happier if you think about it as little as possible as you write.
If what you’re writing is life and death—it better be, or else why bother—keep writing and publishing separate in your head and heart. It’s fine to want to earn money, and if you can do so without making this-doesn’t-feel-right sacrifices, great. (You do have to sacrifice somewhat; it’s called being edited.) What isn’t fine is forfeiting your most urgent story because someone’s subjective opinion made you feel that it wasn’t marketable. I mean, maybe it isn’t. Maybe every other editor will agree (unlikely). That doesn’t mean you don’t still need to write it.
14. You Need to Know Your Why.
People write for lots of reasons. Many do so because they have to.
In 11th grade, I wrote constantly in my English class notebook—poems, scenes, monologues. One day, my English teacher, a burly, impish dead ringer for Mick Fleetwood, set on my desk the slim copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that still sits on my bookshelf. In the 1920s, Rilke, an Austrian poet, responded to a struggling novice’s request for advice with ten generous letters of guidance, which the novice collected and published three years after Rilke died. That day before class, I flipped through the book, frowning. What was my teacher trying to tell me? He must have seen my confusion, because he motioned me over, put his arm around my shoulder, and, as everyone else obliviously milled and chatted, quietly read this passage aloud:
Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it.
And so I have.
There are dozens more guides—some about the writing life, some about nitty gritty technical stuff, some about both. Here are my other favorites:
· Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter (1997)
· The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch (2003)
· The Eleventh Draft, ed., Frank Conroy (1999)
· Draft No. 4, John McPhee (2018)
· Hidden Machinery, Margot Livesey (2017)
· Writing Past Dark, Bonnie Friedman (2020)
· Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern (2000)
· The Forest for the Trees, Betsy Lerner (2010)
· The Writing Life, Annie Dillard (1989)
· The Lie that Tells a Truth, John DuFresne (2004)
· Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster (1956)
· Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg (2013)
· How Fiction Works, James Wood (2008)
· Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Connor (1957) – Specifically the essays “The Fiction Writer and His Country” and “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
Next time: What to read when you’re homesick…