Saturday, January 5, 2008

Rx For fiction

My new novel is floundering. Staggering, lurching, possibly going down for the third time. I spend four hours at the computer every morning with Code Blue equipment. I think in the next few days it will either resuscitate or flat-line. Part of the problem is that I'm trying to juggle a whole lot of background for a future America plus three (maybe four) points of view, so..

But I don't want to write just now about my novelistic difficulties. I want to write about Jane Smiley's. She's the author of the wonderful A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear in the American Midwest, which won the 1992 Pulitzer. I have read that book three times. Now I'm reading her non-fiction 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I received for Christmas. Smiley is erudite without being pretentious and has many interesting things to say about the novel form. What has caught my attention, however, is her unusual way of getting herself unstuck.

She was struggling with the writing of her novel Good Faith, and it was not going well. In her own words:

"One day I waited for inspiration, got some, went off in a completely different direction, then had second thoughts the next day and tried something else new. This was a symptom indeed, a symptom that I didn't know what in the world I was doing, and it was way too late in the game for that. My heart sank. No, my flesh turned to ice. No, my eyes popped out of my head. No, my stomach churned. No, all I did was close the file on my computer and walk away. But that was very bad."

What she decided to do to get back on track was -- to read 100 novels. A hundred! They ranged from Fielding to Faulkner to McEwan. Since I haven't finished Smiley's book, I don't yet know how this experiment turned out as a spur to writing her own novel. But....maybe I should read instead of write this thing of mine?

Of course, I am reading....Jane Smiley.


TheOFloinn said...

Sometimes I read my own stuff. This is usually to assure me that I actually knew how to write something at one time. Especially useful when I am at the point of "this sucks big time....", which I almost always reach somewhere along the line.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I guess it boils down to how badly do you want to read your new novel? If the answer is very badly, then it's worth hauling out the crash cart and hooking up the ventilator.

I sometimes compare writing a novel with being pregnant, but one advantage of books, as opposed to say fetuses, as they can be put aside for a while and resumed at a later date. And you can take more than 9 months if you need it.

Ann Wilkes said...

Reading novels while writing novels is always good advice. My own self-imposed deadline to get mine done before the new year failed miserably. On the plus side, good things sometimes take time and can't be rushed.

Meantime, I'm also getting back to reading a story a day from my backlog of Asimov and Analogs. That will help with the two stories I'm trying to beat into submission. One will be chopped in half for flash fiction. The other needs to double in size. My deadlines drive me crazy but I don't think I'd be very productive without them.

The novel is getting a bit stinky. It's been in the house too long, like last night's fish.

What do you do when you're sick of it before you're finished with the endless revisions? I've been working on it for years now.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

What is "flash fiction," Ann?

Ann Wilkes said...

A story under 1000 or 500 words, depending on the market, Mike. I may not succeed. I got it down to 1300 words but it ended up being a far more serious piece than what I started with. And I had to kill one of my darlings--the very idea that sparked the story in the first place-- because the story evolved into something completely different. >sigh<