In the 17th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea (Alfred A. Knopf), addresses a would-be author.
I trust this finds you immersed in your work, suffering alternating spells of doubt and excitement, doing your best not to entertain impossible questions like What is fiction for? and Who will read my work? Good. Those questions can churn in the background, along with other larger unanswerables, but right now you need your best head space for getting something done.
You’ve heard all of the advice already—show don’t tell, write what you know—and after giving it serious due, you’ve laughed in its face. Then you stepped on it. Also good.
Your blinders are on, your Internet is off, and you have somehow carved out a daily schedule into your very hectic life. Fine. You probably also have some goals. At a thousand words a day you’d finish a draft of your novel in two or three months, an absurdly quick pace. But did you do the math that suggested that at two hundred and fifty words a day you’d finish a draft in a year or so, still ridiculously fast, as far as novels go? And if you lowered your word count expectations, wouldn’t it stand to reason that those words would be more sharply gathered, more coherent, more precise? Would they be truer to your vision of your book, and would they more forcefully invite readers into the world you’re creating? Because you could bang out two hundred and fifty words and then revise them about a hundred times each day, maybe perfect them, rather than charging ahead just to get more words. More words are a fallacy. But you know that. It’s about the right words, and, well, if it so happens that you can rightly order a thousand of them or more a day, well then you should. Still, you have a strong suspicion that this obsession with word count is somehow deeply beside the point. And your suspicion is correct.
By your desk I imagine that you have a pile of books. A few shelves maybe, somehow related to your dream of this novel. Mixed in with all of the research texts you’ll only ever skim are perhaps a handful of novels that you mean to learn something from. When you’re not writing you pick up these books and try to observe the techniques. Perspective and tense, the approach to time, character detail, structure. How the exposition is balanced with the narrative, how the feeling somehow leaks up out of nothing. You read from these books relentlessly and you underline the sentences that interest you.
You read them aloud, you write them out by hand. From these books you design little exercises for yourself to practice the techniques you need to master. Good. You cannot do this enough. You read in bed before you go to sleep. In the morning before you get out of bed you pick up a book and read. Even just a few pages. This is the best nourishment for writing. This and no TV, no Internet. Add to this some exercise every day, a walk or a swim just when your work is exhausting you, because the motion of your body can trigger your best problem solving.
And of course if you do not face enormous, seemingly insurmountable problems as you pick your way forward into your novel, then something is wrong. Problems are the best sign that you might be onto something.
When you’re ready for outside readers you know better than to show your novel to good friends, friends who want you to succeed, who also hope to preserve the friendship, which keeps them from being impartial standard-bearers for your work. You also know better than to show your novel, if it’s advice you want, to someone who doesn’t actually read, won’t read another book this year, hasn’t read one in a while. No offense to those people, but, uh, you know. I’m sure they mean well. Let’s also leave off partners and spouses and parents, at least as critical readers. You know this, too, of course. We love our partners, spouses, and parents, if imperfectly, but when we show our books to these people it’s to get validation. Validation is important, go and get some. But once you’ve gotten it, it’s time for criticism. Real criticism is much harder to find, and it’s much more important when it comes to improving your book.
A good outside reader is someone who holds you to a higher standard, someone who wants more from you than you might really be capable of, who sees the book on your terms, but raises the bar for you by showing you what might be possible in your revisions.
When you show your novel to someone like this, you know better than responding defensively to any criticism you hear. You do not get to follow your readers home to explain what you meant. Everything must be on the page. You know that you should listen carefully to your critique, take good notes, ask some polite questions, and then, in gratitude, send them a gift: a bottle, or a case, of something wonderful. A live animal, maybe.
We have not discussed what kind of book you will write, because this is up to you. Please let it be up to you. I beg you. It is your secret and it is almost all that matters. This is your book. The world has enough books that were written according to dreams or ideas other than your own. But it does not yet have your book. Please write only the book you most want to write, the book you wished existed in the world. The book must meet your own deepest desire for what a book can be. But of course you know this already. It’s why you started writing in the first place.