Six years ago, after several years of working on a novel I’d provisionally titled The Russian Book of Lost Love, I discovered that it is possible to kill your own book. If you, too, contemplate murder, here are some strategies I’ve found helpful:
1 Pack as much into your novel as possible.
The more characters, subplots and themes you can fit into the one novel, the better it is for our purpose. My novel, which was intended to be a love story between migrants in Australia – Lora, a young Russian-Israeli woman and Slavik, an older Russian man – grew, hydra-fashion, many heads over the years. Eager to present a comprehensive overview of the Russian-Australian community, I was greedy to include any interesting Russians who’d crossed my path here – a tourist who’d overstayed his visa, a survivor from a Stalinist camp, a formerly famous actor living here in anonymity. Since Australia has no shortage of colourful Russians, I kept adding stories and character sketches. Unfortunately, the more characters I collected, the less time I had for my main protagonists who, in the meantime, turned pale, gaunt and one-dimensional. Nothing ever happened to them, since I was too preoccupied with the secondary characters and, consequently, with their subplots:
I may tell the story of Slavik and Lora alongside other love stories: those of Lora’s parents, her friend Regina’s, and Sasha’s. In between, more subplots may emerge, like those of the former KGB man, the stripper and the Russian restaurant singer. I can also weave in stories of fictitiously married migrants and illegal workers.
With so many characters and subplots, I decided to curb at least my thematic ambitions:
My main topics are belonging, past, family and memory…I am writing about the innocence of Australia and the corruption of Russia, about new Russia versus old Russia…I’m also writing about lost childhood, the significance of religion, about being Jewish and the Russian soul. Well, this made matters easier…
Oh, and I had messages, too:
My main message is that the critique of individualism, currently fashionable amongst western intellectuals, is a luxury. That individualism, as long as it is compassionate, is still the way to go. We must appreciate our freedoms and remember the horrors of totalitarian regimes.
In hindsight, I wish in those days I was confident enough to believe that by focusing on something as seemingly banal as a love story between two foreigners, some of my themes and messages would organically emerge in the novel and any leftovers could feed into future work. But as it happened, the lists I kept making only served to scare me to death (and led to the eventual death of my novel).
2 Take lots of notes about your novel.
Her loves are always crooked. One compelled her to leave Israel, another got her into trouble in Australia…
Slavik is haunted by a vision of his imminent death. He is infantile, doesn’t think through consequences, gambles, smokes. He is one big deception, eg with his conversion to Christianity. He is the new, immoral Russia personified.
Gradually, the time and thinking I put into writing those notes increased so that I had little time left to write the actual novel. And I became convinced my writing would never do justice to my grand intentions:
Describe what happens when, as a migrant, you yearn to grow your roots, learn local slang, understand what footy is all about, but how hard it can be.
In the face of such obstacles, it is time to turn to your friends for help.
3 Discuss your novel whenever you can.
Every time a friend cares enough to ask how your book is going, take the opportunity to discuss your plans, progress and difficulties at length. Don’t spare any details as long as your audience nods sympathetically. Usually, at the end of such conversations you’ll feel a happy exhaustion just like after a successful writing session. Also, with every conversation, that initial, difficult to articulate magic you felt about your subject, which propelled you to begin the novel, will leak out until you’ll struggle to recall why you ever wanted to write this book. This is a sign that the time is ripe to move to the next strategy. After all, who, if not a writing peer, is truly equipped to help you during a writing crisis?
4 Get plenty of feedback and as early as possible.
Several months into writing my novel when I was still experimenting with everything, including who my main characters were, I resolved to bring some tentative pages to my writers’ group. Afterwards I noted enthusiastically in my diary:
The workshop was fantastic. I got criticised a lot, but this is okay, because people picked on all the faults this work suffers from: I haven’t gone deep enough into what the novel is about. I do too much telling. I jump from topic to topic…
From that night onwards, I workshopped any new pages I produced with my group or other writing friends. This proved to be an effective way to lose my own judgment and vision for the work, and also the license I used to give myself with my previous books – to write sloppy, tentative first drafts to be revised later. I wish I’d remembered Stephen King’s brilliant advice: ‘write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’.
5 Research extensively, preferably before you even start writing.
I need to read not only about Russia, but also about immigration and identity in general, I noted to myself, and so this is what I did. This way I accumulated more notes, then felt that – to justify all this hard work – I ought to put everything I learnt into the book. That duty, though, proved to be so paralysing, that instead of writing the novel I moved to strategy number six.
6 Plan your novel meticulously.
I discovered the well-kept writers’ secret that planning a novel is much easier than actually writing it. And this activity kept me in my already established comfort zone of note taking.
The beginning chapters describe Lora’s first months in Australia. She works illegally at a shoe-making factory owned by a Russian. There she meets Slavik and their love affair begins. But Slavik has a secret. Not only does he broker fictitious marriages for a living, but he’s also fictitiously married to that nervous blonde singer from the Russian restaurant, whom he keeps bribing for more money.
The problem was, the more I planned the book, the less I became interested in writing it. By knowing too much, I lost my curiosity about the novel. Writing pre-planned chapters was as tedious as doing bookkeeping. But, in the meantime, at least I was receiving some recognition. If all previous strategies fail to kill your novel, rest assured this one will work.
7 Win awards for your yet-unwritten novel.
Receiving honours for your work often entails the pleasant duty of public discussions of your book-in-progress, where you find yourself sounding smart and confidently ready to write an erudite tour de force that showcases a wealth of important themes and compelling characters. During one residency I was awarded to work on my novel, I spent a particularly lovely evening in the local library discussing all my pre-planned plots and subplots with a surprisingly interested audience, then spent the rest of my three weeks there not writing any of them. And, once you receive awards, you find yourself under the obligation to provide some account of your output, a burden that – combined with the weight of your notes, characters, themes, messages, pages of feedback and hours spent discussing your book – is certain to crush your novel if it still has any life in it.