Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On to the next novel, with different doubts plus help from David Mitchell

So I've started, or re-started, my second novel. The actual start date is hard to pin down, since like the previous novel it's based on a short story I wrote several years ago. Also when I abandoned my first novel last summer, I wrote about thirty rough pages of this one, in a kind of panic--by god, I have to produce some kind of novel after all this effort. But a wise friend told me I really needed to finish the first one, and now I see why.

The prolific, acclaimed, and yet apparently extremely nice writer David Mitchell says in this NYT profile that the experience of writing the first one is crucial--even if the book never sees the light of day. An agent had told him "in no uncertain terms to drop" his first novel.

“I had doubts about its quality,” Mitchell told me. “But it had taught me the doubts. What writing it had taught me was that it’s not that great a novel after all.” And it taught him something more: “I had been trying to prove to myself that I could get over this incredible obstacle, this unscalable cliff face of—am I the sort of person who can get a novel written or not? Until you’ve written one, it’s just . . . wow. A feat that humans not like you achieve.”

Now, I am not nearly ready to give up on my only (nearly) finished novel. I haven't even tried to sell it as yet. But regardless of what happens, it is the thing that turned me into a person who can get a novel written. Now that I've had the many and varied experiences of writing one, I am not nearly as flummoxed by this new one. The fact that I don't know exactly the right direction for the plot to take is OK--I know it will take some wrong turns, and that the path will become clear only gradually. Every setback does not mean I cannot write a novel. Setbacks are part of the process. Knowing the process won't be smooth helps make it smoother. I can forge ahead.

That said, the new novel is very different from the last in ways that unsettle me. It appears that it's going to be centered on a grisly murder, which means I'm going to have a fairly hard time making it funny. Already I'm delving into "true crime" tales, especially the Sam Sheppard case, which I see has been deployed to excellent effect in the new novel Mr. Peanut. It is a fascinating story, which is why in over fifty years it hasn't left us. But do I really want to spend, say, two years of my life absorbed in the details of murder? Up until now I've always avoided stories like this. I don't read crime novels, do not want to watch Dexter, and sort of deplore the whole "whodunnit" mindset that turns grief and horror into entertainment. (Strangest of all, I think, are the Miss Marple-style "cozies," which...I mean...murder is cozy?) This novel is supposed to question that mindset, but will no doubt participate in it also.

While frustrating, writing the first novel was fun, and I can see that this one won't be. It will rattle me, and for no certain reward--for me or anyone else. And yet the thing seems to be chugging right along. Maybe I don't want to think what that says about me.

1 comment:

ryan said...

Maybe what it says about you is that you're a writer willing to go where your work takes you.

Funny, I just read the mitchell profile this morning on the train, and zeroed in on the same point. Keep at it, Ann. I look forward to hearing more.