The following is a re-post of something inadvertently deleted...
“There are three rules for writing the novel,” Somerset Maugham once said. “Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
I find this inspiring.
Whimsical, certainly. But earnest and inspiring nonetheless.
Erica Jong shared the Maugham quote in her memoir Seducing the Demon five or six years back. She also came up with some rules on writing – twenty of them – such as, "Get the reader to turn the page."
Others rules include "Use everything," and the Zen-like "Be a beginner." But getting the reader to turn the page, she says, is all that really matters.
I've been working on a novel for about a year and a half. It may not be a page-turner, but I thought it was coming along okay. Now I'm not so sure.
Last fall I recruited six people to read a draft. Each lives afar, and most got a copy by email. The results have been instructive, and a little discouraging.
Three of these readers responded with complete and utter silence. Their lack of a reply allows for a wide range of interpretation. They hated it, I could think (and have). They thought it was a complete piece of shit – so bad they didn't know how to break this worst of possible news.
Or it could mean I had asked too big a favor from people who don't owe me a thing.
Or that reading it was one of those tasks easily set aside, and days became weeks that became months that became never.
One interpretation is as valid as the next.
There is an enormous temptation to dismiss them all outright.
To their credit, three other recruits actually gave me the feedback I sought. Two of them were positive – too positive. They had almost nothing bad to say, so their remarks did me no good at all. I'm not so naive as to think the book is done, or that there is no room for improvement.
The third of these readers, though, was something else.
This person had read an earlier draft last summer, and of that draft had some positive comments, along with constructive criticism.
Not so this time. No, this time she was furious.
The novel's subject matter involves a controversial event in American history. And this reader concluded that some of my narrator's observations added up to a grave injustice to real, living people.
"My hands are shaking," she wrote at the start of her first reply. There followed an itemized list of my sins, and a day or so later, an additional email attacking me with very creative, very vile slurs.
Next she phoned me, but by then I'd had enough and hung up on her.
Some of her comments were useful, some less so. But the upshot is that I have one less friend in this big ugly world – for while I can take criticism, I will not stand for gratuitous insults.
All of this – the lack of a response by some, the middlin' praise from a few, volcanic rage from another – has stopped me only temporarily. Those useful comments I mentioned can be applied to subsequent drafts, and the result will be an improved manuscript.
But I have strayed. I began writing about inspiration and drifted into the hinterlands of the inevitable setback.
Since what I'm working on is my first novel, I need all the encouragement and inspiration I can get. I actually keep a Word file with a series of choice quotations that I find inspiring. I don't look at them much anymore, because by now I've got some momentum going. But they can be useful, a creative aphrodesiac; in a word, inspiring.
So I'll share a few.
In a memoir called The Facts, Philip Roth wrote, "The facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract."
Invoking Seducing the Demon once more, Erica Jong said, "The novel is endlessly elastic. It can take all sorts of playfulness and switches in perspective and still be a novel. In the last few decades it has merged into the memoir (or the memoir has flowed into it). Poems can be part of a novel."
In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley wrote, "Now that you have decided to begin your novel, you may congratulate yourself. You have not been asked or groomed to write a novel. You have not gone to novel-writing school, nor taken a standard curriculum of preparatory courses. Chances are, no one wants you to write your novel – if they say they do, they are just meaning that you should get it over with or get on with it. The people you know actually dread reading the novel you are about to write – they don’t want to read about themselves, they don’t want to be bored, and they fear embarrassment for everyone. You are, therefore, free."
These quotes have, in effect, given me permission to do what I want to do on the page. I have a raft of them. But I'll share just one more, one of my favorites.
It comes from Malachy McCourt, speaking on Democracy Now!, on the occasion of the death of his brother Frank.
"Never judge [your work]. You’ll find it guilty."