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How to Avoid Writing Your First Novel, Part 2

Posted: 06/11/10 03:59 PM ET

When last we met our heroine, she had just announced that she was taking on a major new project: writing a complete draft of her first novel in six months. Some thought her brave, some foolhardy, and others expressed skepticism (including the heroine herself). So where has she been lately? See below...

**
"How's the novel going?" you might ask. It's a reasonable question, given the circumstances. One I seem to get asked a lot these days. "The novel..." I reply when asked, seeming to ponder the far distance. "Ah yes, the novel." And then I change the subject. To be honest, not much has happened yet.

In my defense, I've been pretty busy. I have a whole list of really good excuses (classes to teach, a community theater performance, an unexpected hospitalization). But even if you were willing accept my excellent excuses, they're not the real reason I've yet to begin my project.

The real reason? Let me dredge up a popular word from my psychological history: ambivalence. Going in two directions at once -- the equivalent of going nowhere. On the one side, eagerness to take on this challenging project of writing a novel. On the other side, total, paralyzing fear. The result: not much doing.

I have been reading, if not writing, however. I have plunged into reading the book that is the basis for this undertaking of mine, Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne. And that may be the cause of a good part of my fear. Right in the beginning of the book the author starts talking about something very scary: commitment. In order to accomplish the goal of writing a complete first draft of a novel in six months, he says we must commit (that word!) to writing for three hours a day. Three hours a day and no skipping. Twenty-one hours a week.

Ok, I knew I'd have to put some time in, but doing the math and having it come down to a big number like that is intimidating. How many of us can easily think of how we would carve three hours out of each of our busy days? And yet, how else to get it done?

I think of something I read about Diane McKinney-Whetstone, a local Philadelphia writer. Last fall I taught one of her wonderful novels, Tumbling. In researching the book and the author, I learned something about Ms. McKinney-Whetstone's writing habits. The story goes that she was approaching a milestone birthday (as am I, and I suspect it's the same one), had always wanted to write a novel (as did I, although I didn't admit it to myself), had a busy life with a family and a full-time job (as do I) and yet determined that the time had come to write that novel. In order to carve the time out of her very busy life, she started waking up early and writing from 5 to 7 a.m. That is how she wrote Tumbling and that, apparently, is how she continues to write. She claims that 5 a.m. is a magical time for her and that "I have access to imaginative powers at five in the morning that I just can't tap into at noon."

That's commitment. That's serious. Can I do that? When will I write? When will I find the 3 hours a day? My job as Director of Graduate Publishing at Rosemont College, my two young children, the occasional actual conversation with my husband, my house, my friends, my teaching ... these all take time. And yet, I knew what I was getting into. I must, I will make it work. (Can you hear that little caboose chugging up the track? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can...)

After frightening me by talking about commitment, John (Mr. Dufresne, since we will be spending so much intimate time together, I hope you won't mind if I call you John. You may call me Lynn.) goes on to talk about the fun stuff: how I get to have a writer's notebook in which to record all my observations. I immediately start to think about which notebook I will use (they say women love to shop in stationery stores the way men love hardware stores), and about how much fun it will be to carry around my notebook, eavesdrop on people and write down things they say. He says the notebook should include ideas, observations, titles, clippings -- anything relevant to my development as a writer.

Another thing John talks about in terms of the things that go into writing is reading. "You are what you read," he says, and he encourages us to read widely, saying we should always be reading a novel or a collection of short stories. I'm relieved to hear it's OK to read. I have actually heard at least two novelists tell me that they don't like to read other people's work while they are writing because it influences them too much. I'd hate to feel deprived of reading, and am glad John won't ask me to do that. In fact, he's given us an exercise related to this: to list my favorite five novels, rank them in order, and reread the opening paragraphs, and write a paragraph on each explaining why I chose them.

In the opening section of the book, John spends a lot of time developing one particular story, to show how it's done. I like this; it's helpful to watch someone else doing it. I'm excited to begin, although I don't yet know what my story will be about. I have yet to find my characters, my story, what Henry James called "the virus of suggestion" of a story. John says every story needs a precipitating event, and I have to find mine.

John says "Today you're a writer, and from today on." I must make it so. He also says: "Your own procrastination is your first obstacle. Your lack of confidence may be the second. The confidence comes with the writing. You are the only person who can stop you from writing your novel."

For the last few weeks (no, months, I guess), I have been doing an excellent job of stopping myself from becoming a writer. When you next hear from me, I will be, (I promise!) beyond these obstacles, and will have some actual text to share with you. The next chapter in the book is full of writing exercises, which I will share with you. I will find a set time every day to write (maybe not 5a.m. - possibly something closer to 9a.m.).

But before I go, may I just say: "Yikes!"