Lessons For The Would-Be Novelist

In his new guide to writing fiction, Beyond the First Draft, the novelist John Casey doles out advice to “the writer with a lump of a story or novel who doesn’t know what to do next to get it into shape”:

Beware of dogma, he warns. The first essay ventures a sage review of old writing-school edicts: Write what you know. Tell your story in the fewest words possible. Tell the truth. Conventional narrative is boring—you must experiment. Casey comes not to abolish the law but to tweak it, spirit over letter. Write what you know is good advice for a neophyte who falls on his face spinning a yarn about Mayan warriors—yet Tolstoy, while still on his feet, could imagine vividly the death vision of Ivan Ilych.

On sparing words, Casey recalls that his agent and his editor both judged a 604-page novel he’d sent them as much too long, so for several months he reworked it, cutting 100 pages but adding a few in the process. When he sent it back, now 640 pages, the agent and editor wrote him, separately, “Good. It’s much shorter.”

Whether Culture is local has risen from aphorism to dogma is debatable, but Casey says it has. Its propounder, in any case, was William Carlos Williams, the physician-poet who seldom set foot outside northern New Jersey. Against Williams, Casey sets Ezra Pound, who decamped to Europe, picked up Italian and Provençal, and set himself to studying Chinese poetry. Is it better for the writer to stay at home, thereby knowing better what he knows, or, in search of the novel (in both senses), to hit the road? Casey stakes out the agnostic middle ground, finding himself one day at the National Theatre in Washington, where a tile beneath his feet is inscribed “Washington—neither Rome nor home.” It happens that Casey has Washington roots: “I don’t think there’s a really good novel set in Washington,” he says, and he seems content to leave it at that.