Tuesday, 28 April 2015

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley by Clare Hawkins

I have been floundering with the writing of my current novel, partly due to external events but also because the material and the process are failing to ‘grab’ me. With my other novels, I have often become so involved and excited that I can’t wait to get back to the desk to write the next chapter. However, while tidying my desk (a typical avoidance strategy) I re-discovered Jane Smiley’s excellent book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel’ which I had borrowed from a friend some time ago and never got round to reading. (It’s a hefty volume).

Its subtitle is What to read and how to write and it provides material aplenty to satisfy readers who are also novel writers. I turned to Chapter 10 A Novel of Your Own (I), which is a guide primarily aimed at novice writers attempting their first drafts. However, I felt in need of some pretty basic help and guidance in my current state of mind.

In this chapter Smiley suggests that embarking on writing a novel is an exciting, liberating and inexpensive act, but acknowledges the many obstacles that writers will inevitably experience. She provides an insightful commentary on the elements of novel writing as a hierarchy of skills, but most telling for me was her advice about how to deal with doubts and misgivings during the writing of the first draft.

She is a believer in completing the rough draft without too much ‘fiddling’ or re-writing. A new writer should press on with the first draft ‛in spite of time constraints, second thoughts, self-doubts and judgements of all kinds.’ This is ‘an act of faith that is invariably rewarded – the rough draft of the novel is the absolute paradigm of something that comes out of nothing.’ I’ve always liked the idea that writing a novel is one of the few creative activities which comes almost entirely out of your own head.

Smiley goes on the discuss blockages such as boredom with the material, which she claims arises for various reasons. The first is lack of knowledge about your material, which can be addressed by undertaking more active research. Next, confusion about your premise can cause boredom and avoidance, which can be treated by re-reading and thinking deeply about what is actually going on in the plot and with the characters. Another significant obstacle is being too critical or ashamed of your writing, because it doesn’t measure up to the works of others you aspire to. I can identify very strongly with this. She argues that, ‘Admiration for the work of other novelists should remind you of the goal, but not make the goal seem unattainable, should open up your desire to write, not shut it down.’

There are many other encouraging statements in this chapter too arising from her enthusiasm for novel writing, her conviction that hard work and commitment will bring great pleasure and enjoyment. ‘The trick is to make your material so fascinating that you cannot stay away from it, so intriguing that you ignore negative feelings and second thoughts, so rich with interest that the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hardly occur to you.’ Her definition of ‘inspiration’ is interesting too, something which has to be worked at, or ‘a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.’

The chapter also contains some insights into the deeper motivations and insecurities of novel writers, which made slightly uncomfortable reading for me, as I recognised my own errors in some of her examples.

I must read the next chapter, A Novel of Your Own (11), and indeed the rest of the book, as soon as I get time, though now I must pick up my first draft again, re-think its premise, get going and finish it!

Good writing, everyone!