We asked novelist Russell Rowland to share some tips for writing a novel.
Russell Rowland is the author of the novels In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years. He has taught fiction at Boston University and St. Mary's College, and currently teaches for Gotham Writers' Workshops. He also offers aconsulting service which helps fiction writers to improve and publish their manuscripts.
Q: Could you talk a little about the role that place has in your novels? To what extent do you think setting determines your characters and plotlines?
A: Place was a huge factor in my first two novels, because they were based on my own family history. My mother's ancestors were homesteaders in Eastern Montana, among the first wave of cattle ranchers in the area. It was a time of great uncertainty, in a place where people were literally dying left and right. So you had to be incredibly tough, and incredibly self-sufficient. So I grew up around people who didn't talk about things that were difficult, and didn't ask for help. They were people who were often overachievers, but many of them also got overwhelmed by the burden of expectation and the lack of communication. So the characters in those two books are very much like that... people who ignore the elephants in the room and just focus on the task at hand because that's what keeps them going. And of course, the fact that they raised livestock and crops provides alot of wonderful metaphors for fiction. It was one of my favorite parts of writing about this country. Everything you do on a ranch can relate to the emotional landscape of your characters. There is subtext in every little action. I also learned a lot about myself in writing about my family history, even though it was a fictionalized version of it. I came to terms with a lot of my own issues by writing about the place that shaped me as a person.
Q: In addition to writing fiction yourself, you teach writing and guide other authors as a consultant. What are some common types of problems you encounter in the fiction of your students and consulting clients? What advice do you give for solving these problems?
A: Probably the most common problem I see in people who are trying to make it in the world of fiction is the tendency to think too much about what the public or the publishing world might be looking for. It's a very natural tendency, and of course I've fallen into it myself at times, especially when it didn't look like I would ever get anything published. But writing to cater to the whims of these unknown entities is really a dark tunnel to nowhere, for two reasons. First, publishers and the reading public are always shifting theirfocus. So predicting what will appeal to them is completely impossible. But the most important problem with that is that most people can't write something well unless they are completely devoted to the idea of it...the passion that is driving the story. There are exceptions, of course. I think many of the writers who pump out bestseller after bestseller have usually managed to tap into some formula that resonates with people, but it's usually not at a very meaningful level. Most of the writers I've worked with are aspiring for something more than that, and this is where it's really vital that whatever you're writing about is something in which you're personally invested. If you're not, your readers are going to feel that. If you trot out a bunch of cardboard characters that haven't been developed, the readers will not connect to them. They might enjoy your tale, but if you want to write books that stay with people, and I think most writers do want that, you need to put the work into it. There are two aspects to a good novel. Storytelling, and craft. The storytelling is often an ability that people just have. But craft needs to be learned, refined, and constantly evolving.
Q: You have helped a number of authors revise fiction manuscripts which they have subsequently sold. Have you observed any interesting patterns in terms of the type of student or client manuscripts which have been published versus those which have been less successful?
A: I'm always so pleased when one of my clients gets published, and I've been especially pleased because the people who have accomplished that have always been writers I thought really deserved and earned it. There haven't been any surprises. But it's also frustrating because there are many others I've worked with who also fit into that category and haven't been able to break in yet. I ache for those people, because I remember what that feels like. It took me eleven years from the time I wrote In Open Spaces until it hit the shelves. And although it was worth the wait, the self-doubts and rejection that I experienced during that time was often really painful. As far as patterns, I can't really say that there's been anything noticeable. It goes back to that idea that what the publishing world is looking for is never predictable. But the people who have been published have all fallen into the category of writers who were devoted to their story and found a story that they were passionate about.
Q: What's some advice about writing you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
A: That's actually a surprisingly hard question. For one thing, I got a lot of great advice, which was a huge help in getting published. So I don't really think I was lacking any information that would have changed the direction my career has taken. Also, I think my mistakes, and I made plenty of them, have been important as well. One of the trickier aspects of this journey is figuring out how to apply what we learn from those mistakes. For example, I took the advice of an agent and turned down a very generous offer for my second novel before it was even written, and it was in some ways a decision I'm still recovering from. Now I could really focus on believing that my career has been thrown completely off the tracks because of that, but instead I've made the decision to focus on the fact that I needed to learn to trust my own instincts more, and not take anything for granted. I don't think that agent was wrong to suggest what he did, either... he had good reasons for it. But if I had listened to my gut about that, I would have gone in a different direction.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: I just finished putting together an anthology with my good friend Lynn Stegner, which was such a wonderful experience. We asked writers from all over the West to write essays about what it means to them to be a Westerner, and how they see the identity of the West changing from all the myths and legends of the early pioneer days. We were fortunate to get pieces from over sixty writers, including Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Ursula LeGuin, Jim Harrison, Patty Limerick, etc. It's a collection I'm very proud of, and I have to admit that when I came up with the idea, I would have never expected it to lead to attracting such a powerful lineup. The University of Texas Press is going to publish this collection in the fall of 2011, and unfortunately, the hardest part about this has been coming up with a title. It may be called Reckoning the West.
Now I'm working on a novel called High and Inside that I first wrote about ten years ago. It's a complete departure from my first two novels. It's about a former relief pitcher for the Red Sox whose career was cut short when he hit a young player in the eye with a fastball and put him out of baseball. He never recovered from the emotional impact of that incident, and he has developed a serious drinking problem. He moves to Montana with the hopes that many people bring to the West, that he can start a whole new life. So he packs up his three-legged dog Dave and buys a plot of land with the idea that he's going to build a house with his own two hands. But of course, his drinking leads to a whole new set of problems there, and he eventually has to go back to Massachusetts and confront the problems he left behind.
Read more tips for writing a novel from novelist Meredith Sue Willis.
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