On Being an Inconsistent Writer

by Heather Newton on October 17, 2012

On October 30th, my wonderful long-time writers’ group, the Flatiron Writers, will come to my house to critique the new novel I handed out to them to read a month ago.  I’ll provide food and drink and then sit like the proverbial fly on the wall while they discuss my novel the way a book club would.

Let me say how blessed I feel to have a group of friends willing to take the time to read an entire book-length manuscript and give me feedback.  I know I can trust them to read carefully and be honest with me about what needs work.  If you are a writer and don’t have a community of support like this, go out and find one.

Writing this new novel has been an odd and sometimes uncomfortable experience.  I had always heard about the angst writers go through in producing a second novel, but I thought I would be immune.  Under The Mercy Trees was my first published novel but not my first novel–I had completed two others in the past. Since I’d already written a second novel, and a third, I knew I could do it–so no big deal, right?

Not quite.

Under the Mercy Trees was well-received as a literary novel and in spite of myself I have felt some pressure to produce something new that is just as good.  Also, I didn’t realize how much time the public side of being a writer would take away from my actual writing time. I have loved the readings, guest blogging and book club visits I’ve done since Under The Mercy Trees came out, but particularly the first year after publication those things did keep me from parking my fanny in the chair.

The real source of my discomfort, though, has to do with the nature of the new novel itself.  First, I’ve learned, different stories simply tell themselves differently.  Under The Mercy Trees revealed itself over a ten-year period.  This new novel burbled up fast over Labor Day weekend three years ago when my mind and heart suddenly gained perspective on a season of sadness I had experienced in 2005.

Second, the process I chose for this one has affected the end-product.  My natural writing style is to lay down the prose thoughtfully and deliberately, pretty much the way it will appear in the final version.  Because I wanted to write the new novel in less than ten years, I decided this time to take the widely-accepted advice of Anne Lamott and others to write a fast (and shitty) first draft. This fast-draft style has been great for plot, and I’ve been able to go back and develop  character on revision.  What’s missing, though, is beautiful literary language.  It really seems to me that imagery and metaphor have to arise organically from the work the first time through.  I have not been able to go back and artificially overlay it on revision.  As a result, I appear to have written a commercial women’s fiction novel rather than a literary novel.  The new one is so shockingly different from Under The Mercy Trees that my agent even suggested we might consider publishing it under a pseudonym, to signal readers that it is intended for a different audience.

I do kind of like the idea of a pseudonym, just because it would be fun to make one up.  I could use the name of my first pet and the street I grew up on and call myself “Fluffy Ashburton.”  Having a surname that starts with “A” might even get me better shelf space at Barnes & Noble.

But is it really such a bad thing for an author to produce a book that’s different from her previous work?

I understand that readers who enjoyed Under The Mercy Trees may be disappointed when they crack the spine of this new one.  I feel the same when my favorite musical artists come out with an album that isn’t just like the last one I loved.  But as artists, are we not allowed to grow and change and experiment?

One of my favorite novelists, Joanne Greenburg (In This Sign, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden) has called herself an “inconsistent writer.” Each of her novels is wonderful in a completely unique way.  I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

I’m leaning away from the pseudonym idea.  I already know what I want to write next once this new novel is off my plate.  While I plan to return to my natural, slow style, the audience I have in mind for the next project will be female, so I expect to produce a book that’s kind of a hybrid of its predecessors.  For that one, I’ll want both my literary readers and my women’s fiction readers to give it a try.  I’d better keep my real name so they can find me.

Fluffy Ashburton, signing off.

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