where the writers are
So Ya Wanna Write A Novel

Sit down (unless you are one of those authors who write standing up) and start.  This is the only advice you will get which will actually work. All the rest are technicalities to the work in progress.

There is a (probably aphocryphal) story concerning Winston Churchill (who also wrote a hell of a lot) and his painting. He was sitting in front of his easel outside of his country retreat of Chequers. He had started a pastoral scene with a tiny beginning of a stone wall in a corner. But then he sat and sat. A visiting Lady approached and saw what he had done for his couple of hours. "Good God, Winston. You'll never get anywhere that way." She took his brush and put in broad strokes of blue for the sky. "Be bold, man. Be Bold. You have the whole damned canvas."

I gotta say, an author sits down to write, and the world and all the history therein is up for grabs. The author can do anything. Freedom? There is no such other freedom offered. 


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

How to write fiction: Geoff Dyer on freedom

Writing is a natural process – we're all geared up to do it.

by Geoff Dyer

An illustration by Jirayu Koo Illustration: Jirayu Koo

The great thing about this cat – the writing one – is that there are a thousand different ways to skin it. In fact, you don't have to skin it at all – and it doesn't even need to be a cat! What I mean, in the first instance, is feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow. As Tobias Wolff puts it in his masterly novel Old School: "For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life … Certain writers do good work at the bottom of a bottle. The outlaws generally write as well as the bankers, though more briefly. Some writers flourish like opportunistic weeds by hiding among the citizens, others by toughing it out in one sort of desert or another."

This freedom is the challenging perk of the non-job. If you are a tennis player any weakness – an inability, say, to deal with high-bouncing balls to your backhand – will be just that. And so you must devote long hours of practice to making the vulnerable parts of your game less vulnerable. If you are a writer the equivalent weakness can rarely be made good so you are probably better off letting it atrophy and enhancing some other aspect of your performance.

Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can't do. The mass of things that lie beyond their abilities force them to concentrate on the things they can. "I can't do this," exclaims the distraught Mother-Writer in People Like That Are the Only People Here, Lorrie Moore's famous story about a young child dying of cancer. "I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I do the careful ironies of daydreams. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built …" From the sum total of these apparent trivialities emerges a fiction which succeeds in doing precisely what it claims it can't.

Or take a more extreme example: Franz Kafka. Was ever a writer so consumed by the things he couldn't do? Stitch together all the things Kafka couldn't do and you have a draft of War and Peace. The corollary of this is that what he was left with was stuff no one else could do – or had ever done. Stepping over into music, wasn't it partly Beethoven's inability to conjure melodies as effortlessly as Mozart that encouraged the development of his transcendent rhythmic power? How reassuring to know that the same problems that afflict journeymen artists also operate at the level of genius.