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Before You Start to Write that Novel

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Each day this week, we’ll feature one question and response with Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony so be sure to check back often for great information on promoting your work, dream publications, and other topics.

And don’t forget that we’re also offering a free copy of Matrimony. Email me with your name, address, and the world Matrimony in the subject line of your note. Entries will be accepted until midnight EST on Thursday, September 25. The winner will be announced on Friday.

And in still more Matrimony news, the registration period is quickly closing to get a phone cconversation and chat with Joshua Henkin. His publisher, Vintage, is extending a special offer to book groups. If they sign up by midnight September 30th, everyone who enters will get a phone chat to discuss the novel with Henkin. If your book group is interested in speaking with the author, go to this this website to register.

So on to today’s question…

Slushpile: You’ve written two novels. The new one, Matrimony was named a New York Times Notable Book. Your earlier book, Swimming Across the Hudson, was a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. And you teach creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College. Based on your experience, what should aspiring authors do BEFORE they sit down to start a novel?

Henkin: What should an aspiring author do before writing sitting down to write a novel? Read, Read, Read. Read widely and deeply. Other books are a writer’s greatest teacher, and it always astonishes me when I come across a writing student who claims to want to write but who doesn’t want to read. My sense is that this kind of student doesn’t really want to write either; what she wants is to be a writer, which is another matter entirely and is usually the product of some romantic (and false) idea of the glamorous life a writer leads. Thanks to Hemingway, too many young writers believe that the way to become a writer is to run with the bulls in Pamplona or to do the modern equivalent—trek through the Himalayas or drink vodka with mobsters in Moscow. While I certainly don’t wish to denigrate the Himalayas or mobsters, this is not how one becomes a writer. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has lived until the age of ten has enough material to write about for a lifetime. The question is how to digest and shape that material, and the best thing one can do in this regard is to read. I hear writers say they don’t read when they’re writing because they don’t want to be influenced by other writers. Well, I’m writing all the time, so if I heeded that advice I would never read. There’s too much anxiety of influence out there. We all are influenced by what we read—and we should be. When I was in graduate school, there was a course offered in imitation. One week you wrote like Faulkner, the next week you wrote like Virginia Woolf, the next week you wrote like Henry James. All the students found this class extremely helpful for their own writing.

As for the writing itself, I don’t think there’s any preparation for writing a novel other than sitting down and writing it. I don’t believe in mapping out the work in advance because when you do that you get what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story; you straitjacket your characters in a preordained plot. You need to give your characters room to breathe; you have to let them surprise you. I think writing a novel involves ceding control. You need to write for a couple of years before you know not whether it’s going to be a good novel or a bad novel but whether it’s going to be a novel at all. Writing is about trial and error, about rewriting and rewriting and revising and revising.

It took me ten years to write Matrimony and I threw out more than three thousand pages along the way. But in the end, 75 percent of what appears in the book got written in the last year. That’s not because I was sitting around eating bonbons for nine years and then I decided to pull a couple hundred all-nighters. I was writing consistently all along, and finally, after nine years, things clicked. So for me, the preparation for writing the book was writing the book. My friend Charles Baxter, who’s a terrific writer, one of the best out there, in my opinion, has three novels he never published locked away in a drawer before he actually started to publish his work. Now, I shouldn’t speak for Charlie, but my bet is he would tell you that writing those three novels was instrumental in getting him to where he is. Nothing’s a waste; the bad days are investments in the good days.

Now, there are those who think that writing short stories is good preparation for writing a novel, and in some cases that may be so. I teach in two MFA programs, and most of the students in these programs start out writing short stories. Stories are certainly more suited for discussion in workshops, and in terms of endurance, there can be a building-up process such that writing short stories sets you on the path to writing a novel. And whatever else you can say about stories, you can at least finish one. But let it not be said that stories are these little ditties that get churned out as practice for the real deal. Tell that to Alice Munro; tell that to Raymond Carver; tell that even to William Trevor, who does both extremely well. My own view is that stories are in some ways harder than novels; there’s so much less room to maneuver. And while stories can help some people write novels (and vice versa), one is not a prerequisite for the other. Although there are people who do both well, most writers are more naturally story writers or novelists, and there certainly are novelists who don’t know how to write stories, and that’s no discredit to them. We don’t assume that marathoners train for their races by running the hundred-yard dash.

A lot of people say that they want to write a novel but that they can’t start until they do this form of preparation or that. Too often this preparation is really procrastination. If you want to write a novel, wake up in the morning and tie yourself to your chair. Repeat that every day for many years. That’s the only preparation you need.