Writing Academy, Memoirs, Novels, Short Stories, Book Proposals

New York City Writing Coach

Gay Walley

A new year coming up – why not embark on the journey of your own work?

Rilke wrote:

“How old one would have to become to have truly admired enough and not to lag behind with regard to anything in the world. There is still so much that one underestimates, overlooks, and misrecognizes. God, how many opportunities and examples that invite us to become something – and in response to those, how much sluggishness, distractedness, and half-will on our side.”

Well, if you are reading this blog, you may have decided to buck your sluggishness and distractedness. You are going to write your first novel or memoir or story.
You may have talked about it. You certainly have thought about it. You’ve said, “I have this idea and I just want to bring it to life.” Or you have a character who keeps popping up in your thoughts. You can hear that person speak. You can see them, the way they stand at a street corner. You take a stroll in the park or you are doing errands and heroic or heart-breaking events start to happen with that character in your mind. Or maybe there is a theme that you believe has never been addressed before and it should be.
Something inside of you knows that you will get some pleasure from writing. As Imre Kertesz, the great Hungarian Nobel Prize winning author wrote, “And even if that raw material looks fairly cheerless, the form is able to transform it and turn it into pleasure, because writing can only come from an abundance of energies, from pleasure; writing—and this is not my invention – is heightened life.”
Something inside you knows that writing will make you feel whole and excited. You will be living more than one life at a time.
Vargas Llosa writes, “What is the origin of this early indication, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I’m convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imagination and dreams.”
So the rebel in you needs a voice. The rebel in you wants to create his or her own reality. The rebel is demanding his or her say.
But how do you actually sit down and begin? It’s daunting. There are so many places to lose your way. In the voice, for example. You begin to wonder should it be like your own? Should it be entirely different? And what about dialogue? Will you be able to know when not to be pedantic? Should your story be first person but then you won’t be able to move around the story so easily? Should it be third, in the omniscient voice where you play God and are all seeing, but will that feel a little too nineteenth century? Should it be third person limited which is when you are the camera on top of your main character, seeing the events in the story from your main character’s point of view?
All questions to be solved.
Then, you ask, who are you to even write? You’ve never done it before. What would your strengths as a writer be? Do you know about the world you’re writing about? Are you a good storyteller? Do you see into the subtleties of character well enough? Do you have those talents? “Okay,” you say, “I am willing to find out but what if I fail miserably?”
You won’t fail if you work at it. Of course, you will have inherent weaknesses as a writer that need to be worked out. All writers do. But you also will discover your strengths. Perhaps with you dialogue comes easier than anything else. Or you just intuitively know how to advance a story. Perhaps you have originality of insight. You’ll find out by doing it. Whatever comes a bit easier is your strength. Stay close to that.
But you have to also know how to manage your weaknesses. Some writers are not good at plots. Even Raymond Chandler got lost in his plots but his writing and characters were so good that no reader minded. Or are you inclined to make cardboard characters who are all good or all bad? No one is one dimensional and no one will believe they are unless you’re creating a comic book. You need to show your character failing and winning.
Every writer has to face all these hills and valleys as you commence a book. And face all those hills and valleys, even on your eleventh book.
But before I help you begin, let us look at some little ground rules before you start.
Don’t talk your book. The first draft should just be you and the story. You don’t need your dry cleaner’s or therapist’s opinion on what you are writing. They are not fiction writers. You need to write a messy, full of holes, sometimes sloppy in language first draft. Hemingway famously said, “All first drafts are s__t.” He’s right. I think Muriel Spark never had to rewrite but she is in a minority of .000010 percent of writers.
If you don’t talk the book out to your friends, you will work out its depths on the page. Your unconscious will be in charge and you can take secret risks without worrying what other people think. You will remain true to your own unconscious who is in charge of selecting scenes, dialogue and the movement of the book.
And speaking of your unconscious, who is your main assistant in the writing job, you must honor it. How do you do that? By writing every day. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Why? Because the story will advance, much to your surprise, and your unconscious will stay in constant contact with the book and be thinking about it, giving you ideas when you least expect it. If you start your novel, and then take three months off from writing the book, you will lose impetus and drive and forget how to truly advance the story.
And now for a brief discussion of genres. There is an axiom and I subscribe to it which is your style is probably akin to writers you like to read. I personally never read mysteries so it is unlikely I have a gift for that genre. So if you like literary novels, you probably are going to write one. If you like magical realism, you might end up going towards that. You have to write in a genre you enjoy, admire and one that your imagination easily travels in.
The other suggestion I might make is don’t try to write a “commercial novel” or a “romance novel” for the money. It doesn’t work like that. You have to write what is inside of you and that MAY make money (although writing, except for a miniscule percentage of writers, has the renumerative rewards of being a coolie) but if you try to outfox the market, you won’t.
How you outfox the market is by being uniquely yourself. By bringing your wisdom and vision and voice to the page and story and if you are as specific to that as you can be, you will then touch the universal and people will want to read your story. In other words, stock characters won’t work but a flesh and blood character who comes alive in all his or her idiosyncrasies will capture the heart of the reader.
So don’t be shy about your secret story or passion. That’s where them thar gold is. Don’t mock the reader, give them your highest self. Your deepest thoughts. Your most intuitive look into humanity. If you copy a best seller, you will simply be a copy cat. Readers see through that. Be your truest self on the page.
You will have to have some attention to craft and this we will discuss in future blogs.
So… let’s begin. It is a dark and stormy evening and you were thinking, Maybe I should try that first novel….
Then what happened?