Friday, 7 November 2014

"Nobody asked you to write that novel," by Savita Kalhan

Nobody asked you to write that novel.”

Those were the words of one of Jane Smiley’s friends. These words resonated with her the way, I think, they resonate with many writers.

When I read these words in an interview with Jane Smiley, I thought: I must pin these up on the wall where I can see them every day when I’m working, especially when I’m stuck, frustrated, or blocked in the current WIP. Because they are so true – nobody has asked me to write this current book. Nobody. I made that choice all by myself. I signed up for it without any prodding or persuading on anyone else’s parts but my own. But those words are a good reminder when the book isn’t going exactly the way you want or expect it to, and when it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere at all!

Moo, The Greenlanders and A Thousand Acres, for which she won the Pulitzer prize, are just a small selection of books by Jane Smiley. She’s been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, written short stories, written for young adults, written crime, historical, epics, as well as essays and non-fiction. In her interview, she offered five tips to writers, which are not dissimilar to the tips I would offer. Every so often it’s good to step back from the writing process to not only remind yourself of why you’re writing but also to remind yourself of the world beyond your manuscript.

So, be a tortoise not a hare, Smiley says. Let the story evolve rather than rushing through the first draft. It’s not a competition as to how fast you can write. This one is easily forgotten in the rush to get the story down as fast as possible. For some writers it works, but for many it doesn’t.

Read a lot. We all know that this is so important, and for many writers it’s what led us to trying our hand at writing in the first place. Reading is important not just for the sheer pleasure of it, but it also makes us aware of the way different writers have crafted their novels, of what’s possible and works.

Look and listen. I’ve often been accused by my family of ‘zoning out’ when we’re out, but they all know that what I’m doing is eavesdropping! Characters in a book are built on the people we know and read about, but also on the people we see and hear, or overhear.

Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. I have in the past rushed to show someone a first draft, but over the years I’ve realised that it’s a mistake for me to do that. I need some space and distance between each draft so that I can get some perspective on the manuscript. When I do have the manuscript read by someone else, I’m usually ready, albeit somewhat anxiously, for an honest critique and constructive criticism.

Focus on enjoying the process. This is so important, and, most of the time, I love the writing process – why else would I do it? The rewards? Well, I’ve come to realise that if I thought only about any rewards, then I may well be in danger of living a life of permanent disappointment.  But then how does one persevere? It’s hard to continue writing day in day out without sight of some reward at the end of it. Which is why, I suppose, if I didn’t love the process of writing, I would eventually stop writing altogether.

Jane Smiley's book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, promises to be an interesting read. She wrote the book to help her overcome her block. She set out to read and review a 100 books. With each book she talks about why it succeeds as a novel, or doesn't, and discusses her own work, offering tips and advice.

What keeps you going as a writer?



  1. What keeps me going as a writer? All those things Savita, plus my serious writing friends ( like you) who let me moan, explode, share, talk at a rapid excited rate even when you're eyes glaze over about what's exciting me at that point in time - having friends who understand about why we keep on writing, whatever, has always been essential to my writing life. Great post as always - and keep on keeping on with that writing!!

  2. Thanks, Miriam! As long as I'm enjoying the writing, I'l be keeping on!

  3. I usually bristle at 'writers' tips' but these I love… Thank you.

  4. Thanks so much, Lydia. They're really Jane Smiley's! But I share them too.