Saturday, September 16, 2006

Adventures in Novel Writing

What have I been doing for the past several months? Not writing in my blog, no--I’ve been writing my Japan novel! And what an experience it’s been! My manuscript is due on September 30 and I finally have a breather while my almost-last-draft is out with my readers for their comments.

When I first started writing in 1997, I wanted to try a novel, but figured I just couldn’t manage such a big project with a one-year-old to take care of. I decided to focus on short stories as a first step toward the "real thing." I don’t think this is uncommon, but of course, most beginners don’t realize that short stories are not very short novels. I’d even say short stories and novels are as closely related as poems and short stories. That is, they are very different indeed. Anyway, I got caught up in the short story as an art form of its own, sold a few, got in a groove, and decided maybe I was made to be a short story writer, like Alice Munro (one of my literary heroes).

Still, in my heart, I always wanted to try a novel. Back in 2000 I started thinking about writing something based on my experiences living in Japan. I settled on the idea of doing a modern interpretation of Ihara Saikaku’s Life of an Amorous Woman about a lusty lady who experiences all the possible roles seventeenth century Japan offered a female, while having tons of sex along the way (10,000 lovers--egads!--that's like Wilt Chamberlain). Mine would be a foreigner’s odyssey, of course, but I liked the structural support of riffing from a classic. I wrote drafts of five chapters and got discouraged. This is very common, I hear, that you run out of steam after the first few chapters. Then, last summer, I heard about a publisher who was soliciting work for new series of erotica novels. I wrote a proposal based on my original idea—this time with even more sex—and it got accepted. Now, we’ll see if they accept my actual manuscript, but at least I was given a chance to pursue my dream.

But could I do it in six months with two kids and all the other things going on in my life?

It didn’t look promising at first. It took me a few months to really find my rhythm—and this I hear is not uncommon either. But once I did, some very interesting things happened, and yes, I’ve heard about this part of the process from books and hearsay as well. First of all the story took on its own momentum. It was less that I was creating it than being dictated to by some higher voice. Well, that’s when the going was good, but there was definitely a flow to the process. Secondly—and I guess this is related--my characters started talking back to me and complaining about some of the things I wanted them to do. One guy just refused to do what I said because it was too sleazy. And it worked out fine, I think. The scene was more tantalizing and interesting than it would otherwise have been.

I also worked through one of my many fears about writing, at least temporarily. That is, I worried that I'd drop dead of despair if I spent like days or weeks writing a scene and then it ended up getting cut? What a horrible waste of time and a huge failure! Well, this happened a few times with the novel, but the cutting and trashing actually felt good because I knew the material didn’t belong and the work would be better without it. Now, I’m not sure how I’d feel if a whole novel was trashed. On the other hand, the very process of writing one was so educational, I wouldn’t want to miss it no matter what the outcome.

So, since I’m in an advice-giving mood, I’d say to all you would-be novelists out there—DO IT! And push yourself past that third-chapter slump and don’t worry if you write a lot that needs to be cut and have a great time arguing with your characters, ‘cause they still love you and need you underneath it all!

Okay, back to polishing up some old short stories.

Hope you had a good summer!

No comments: