Two of the most eagerly anticipated and best reviewed books of the year happen to involve love triangles among college students. The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is about an English major at Brown University, the brilliant but troubled biology major she sleeps with, and a spiritually seeking classmate who wants to sleep with her. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbaugh, is a baseball novel set at a fictive Wisconsin school called Westish. It involves the wayward daughter of the college president; the hulking, brainy Jewish catcher who woos her; and the gifted, sheltered shortstop who manages to come between them.
Eugenides is an established novelist whose previous book, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize. Harbaugh is a first-time novelist who’s already topping the year’s “Best of” lists. But there is a similarity to their books beyond the plots. Neither is a showy stylist. Their language is direct and accessible. They find evocative metaphors that don’t draw attention to themselves. Neither writes in the knotty, exuberant, acrobatic, sometimes excessive voices of a previous generation of Big Writers, like William Styron, Philip Roth, John Updike, or Saul Bellow.
In short, they write in a way that makes someone like me think, “Hey, I can do that.”
So for a few hours this week I gave it a try. I wrote the first chapter of my college novel. I gave the protagonist a background suspiciously similar to my own. And I peopled the dorms with characters based on folks I knew at the time.
You may not know this, but November is National Novel Writing Month. In 1999, a freelancer named Chris Baty set up a website challenging would-be writers to begin and finish a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The goal, according to the site, is to “give yourself permission to write without obsessing over quality” and to “stop being one of those people who say, ‘I’ve always wanted to write a novel.’” Last year, 20,000 people finished manuscripts.
I wasn’t one of them, and won’t be this time either. But I did learn something I should have figured out about novel-writing back when I was an English major: It’s hard. Even if you think you write fairly well, and the last book you read seemed pretty pathetic, writing fiction is a lot harder than you ever thought it could be. Here’s just a few of my discoveries after only my first day:
Names. What do you call people? To name my protagonist, I needed a cognate for “Andy Carroll.” That leads to an inquiry: What kind of a name is that anyway, and what does it say about me? The “Andy” is generational; the “Carroll,” for a Jew anyway, is misleading. What name conveys the fact that my character was born in the early 1960s to suburban Jewish parents? If this were to become a novel, what name would I — let alone my readers — want to live with for 300 pages?
Point of view. First person, third person, omniscient, unreliable — you learn about this stuff in sixth grade, but which one do you use to tell your own story? (That was second person, by the way.) Since my main character was going to be based on me, I figured the third person would give me a little critical distance. But halfway through I forgot it wasn’t a memoir, and “he” became “I.” Thank goodness for Search and Replace.
Pace. This one was a revelation. Time is a flexible thing in a novel. Some episodes play out in real time, with action and dialogue. Time stops for description, or leaps backward with exposition. When do you stop blabbing about who your character was and how he got here and actually have him do something? My chapter began with “Gary” (Is that “Andy” enough? Maybe “Larry”?) standing in the doorway at an off-campus party. Some 2,000 words later, he was still standing there.
Other human beings. Something else I should have known: Good fiction involves a multiplicity of living, breathing, distinctive characters. To create such characters, a writer needs an unusual amount of empathy. Sure, I had tremendous empathy for Gary. (“Lenny”? “Howie”?) But at what point do you stop thinking about
yourself your main character and let other people on the stage? And how many times is my wife going to ask me the same question?
Privacy and humiliation. Here’s a universally acknowledged truth of writing fiction: Any time your story comes close to being interesting, it involves something you probably wouldn’t share if you weren’t writing a novel. Let’s say I wrote about how good
my Gary’s bar mitzva speech was. Hello? But let’s say I told you about how, oh, I don’t know, I Gary had a wardrobe malfunction during the haftara. What would you rather read about?
Being God. Among artists, novelists have a uniquely unlimited ability to create and destroy. To make it, all you have to do is write it. But with great power comes great responsibility. Who will live, who will die? Who will rest, and who will wander? So many decisions!
I came away from my little experiment not only with a greater respect for novelists, but for all-seeing, all-knowing deities.