How to Write a Great Novel

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No, I don’t have to.”

“How to Write a Great Novel,” is not a title one expects to see in an article in the online Wall Street Journal, but here it is. A friend sent this piece, dated Nov. 2009, which recounts some of the strategies eleven different authors use to deal with, “the daily work of writing, clocking thousands of solitary hours staring at blank pages and computer screens.

Nicholson Baker rises at 4:00am and writes in the dark, on a black screen with gray type, then goes back to sleep and when he rises again, edits what he produced in the “dreamlike state.” For a recent novel about a “rambling professor,” he grew a beard, put on a floppy hat, and spent a lot of time creating the character’s voice which was “something I had to work on a lot in order to get the feeling of being sloppy.”

Hilary Mantel also likes to work in the morning, even before she has coffee  [yow!!!!!].  Mantel spent five years writing Wolf Hall, a Tudor historical drama, and kept a 7′ bulletin board in her kitchen to capture ideas jotted in the notebooks she carries everywhere.

Richard Powers lounges in bed all day and “speaks his novels aloud to a laptop computer with voice recognition.”

Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, shuts himself in the bathroom and perches on the edge of his tub with a notebook when working on difficult passages.

Kate Christensen was “two years and 150 pages into her first novel,” when she discovered what the book was “really about.  She threw out her earlier work and started again.  The process repeated itself with her second, third, and fourth novels. Christensen, who won the PEN/Faulkner award in 2008, starts her mornings with housework, emails and phone calls “to avoid facing her work.”   In the past, she’s played 30 games of solitaire before typing a first sentence.

Michael Ondaatje writes in 81/2 x 11 notebooks, then cuts and pastes his sentences with scissors and scotch tape.  His prose will sometimes run four pages deep.

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of six books including “Remains of the Day,” which won the Booker Award, spends two years researching and one year writing his novels, but says sometimes they still don’t come together.  He showed his wife a draft of a story set in medieval Britain and she said, “This is awful. You have to figure out how they speak to each other. They’re speaking in a moron language.”

 These are interesting vignettes to read, because the authors vary so widely in their working habits:  some use computers, some write longhand.  Some make elaborate plotting diagrams, others get up early to sidestep the rational mind.  Some have trouble turning off the flow of words, and some approach the writing desk with trepedation. 

What they have in common is a very uncommon tenacity, and a willingness to arrange their lives and and working methods in very personal ways in order to coax imagination onto page.

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