Don Rogers: What writing a novel can teach
A boss once observed every journalist has a book in them, and that’s exactly where it should stay.
Amen to that, with a few notable exceptions. Twain, Hemingway, Didion, Orlean, Orwell, Wolfe, Angelou. There are others. I don’t put myself in their company, and I don’t not put myself in their company. We all have our interests and our impulses. Only sometimes do our talents match up.
Alas, I don’t listen so well either. My mother, my wife, every boss I’ve ever had will tell you that.
So I am writing a book. Not just a book, but an utterly crazy one, a novel, a futuristic sci fi with a rural Pashtun old maid of 20something as a main protagonist. The story is full of aliens, another world, artificial intelligence, climate change, the end of the fossil fuel era, a mostly peaceful Middle East, a still truculent Russia (some things you can’t imagine away).
It’s got mysticism, shamanism and sure, even a little, very little, journalism. There’s the near-ish future, 2040, and what our civilization might be like thousands and thousands of years from now, if we survive.
So yeah, a career journalist dedicated to the facts in his day job writing whoppers in the wee hours to scratch at those greater truths. The very epitome of what the boss was talking about.
I’m not pitching anything here. I couldn’t care less whether anyone ever read the story. Publication is highly unlikely. Too wild, in places too personal, too many writing problems to overcome. Ambitious well beyond my ability.
Besides, there’s no money in novels this side of Rowling or King, and the publishing houses choose only the tiniest sliver of manuscripts anyway. The lottery offers better odds. The per hour return falls short of driving for Uber during lockdown.
Still, I do recommend ignoring your critics — especially that inner one — and doing your art your way and fully, with all you’ve got. For your soul, sure. But also for fun, for knowledge, for stretching your mind, for thinking outside the myriad boundaries we set for ourselves, for greater awareness of this wide world and your own sorry self.
I do it because I can’t not do it. I know because I tried not to write this story. Oh, I had a ton of fun one summer morning drafting a couple of chapters. Laughed about them over coffee on the deck with my wife. Set them aside.
That’s all it took for this muse to land softly on a shoulder and then slowly sink her talons deep. How else to explain? I couldn’t shake free. The only way out was to write my way through.
On the job
I didn’t go to school for journalism. My first and only journalism class folded for lack of students, but my teacher was dating the editor of the local paper. I’m sure I forgot in the interview to mention the small fact I could barely type. All I knew about journalism was from reading papers and news magazines.
I learned by doing, by buying at the bar while veterans held court and shared lore, by reading up and attending the occasional conference.
So it’s gone with fiction writing, something I’d always appreciated and recognized as beyond my ken. Well, until my misguided muse alighted, then squeezed until I bent to her will.
I knew from journalism that writing’s lessons are as much or more about learning the topic as how to tell the story. The biggest shortcoming with journalism today is our inability to get out of our own way in bearing witness. That is, mistaking reporting for advocacy, a close cousin to the essays found on different pages.
The demands in attempting fiction go much deeper. Or can, I should say. Aiming for what will publish and sell is a whole different game than I’m thinking here. I wish it interested me.
My novel is teaching me new ways to think about researching, writing and storytelling. I’m driven to learn how to get closer to my characters, who live as real people in my mind if not quite yet on the page. To tighten the strings on events and scenes that build the story and compel the reader to turn those pages, as caught up as I am writing them. To tap into the currents beneath the words that sweep the story toward truths we all share.
This is not the stuff of making a living, but rather living a better life, a path to becoming a better human. Now there’s a fine art.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299.
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