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Two First Novels, 10 Years In The Making

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The writing process is not for the faint of heart, says novelist and editor Colin Harrison. And he should know: His own first novel took five years to complete -- and was then rejected by everybody. Fiction writing promises years of obscurity, little money and no guarantee that anyone will ever read what you write. But many fiction authors -- Harrison included -- keep at it.

"Although I didn't realize it at the time," Harrison says, "[Rejection] was a fantastic stroke of luck. Because that first novel that I had worked so hard on was terrible -- it really was."

In Harrison's case, that first unpublishable novel served as a painful but valuable training exercise.

"[It] probably flushed a lot of writerly poisons out of my system," he explains. "And then I had to go on and start something new." That something new was Harrison's Break and Enter, the first of his seven wildly successful, published novels.

Though there is no formula for a successful first novel, the writers who make it through tend to be mulish, or obsessed with a single event or idea.

Short story writer Jessica Francis Kane spent 10 years on her first novel, which did get published. Her motivation came from a true story: While living in London, Kane read about the Bethnal Greene tube disaster -- World War II's worst civilian accident -- during which 173 people suffocated trying to enter the subway station's air-raid shelter. There never was a German air raid that night, and no one has ever figured out exactly what happened. And so Kane found herself hooked by a historical mystery that she couldn't fit into a short story.

"Friends used to say to me, 'What's your problem? [Novels are] easier. You can put everything in,'" Kane recalls. "[In] short stories, every word counts and in a novel you can write and write and write. They seemed so sure of that. And yet I think as a writer I am kind of a minimalist. I like compression and concision."

Compression and concision are indeed on parade in the The Report, Kane's just-published novel. It was recently shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's 2010 First Novel Prize. (You can read our review of The Report here.)

Like Kane, writer Susanna Daniel was a short-story writer who got hooked by a larger-than-short-story idea -- following a marriage over many, many years. Daniel, too, spent a decade -- much of it, she says, in "hand-wringing" -- on her first novel, Stiltsville. The second chapter in particular gave her fits; it's where her main characters, Frances and Dennis, fall in love.

"I didn't want to show just the up side of falling in love," says Daniel. "I wanted to show some of the ambivalence. I didn't want it to be all hot sex and long conversations."

Which it's not, by any means. Dennis and Frances' relationship in Stiltsville hurks and jerks along, just like real-life romance. Daniel says a fascination with her character, Frances, helped keep her writing.

"Her [point of view] has such strong narrative drive that as a reader I would want to read more," Daniel says. "Her quiet powerful gaze on the world is, I think, a page-turner."

Both The Report and  Stiltsville were Barnes and Noble discover picks for great new writers. And Kane and  Daniel both say getting their novels published was worth the angst and consternation of the 10-year writing process. But Harrison says that's a process that scares off a lot of young writers.

"Unfortunately nobody's waiting for you," he says. "No one's expecting you to be here -- you in particular. It takes a certain kind of bull-headed, determined person who probably has other ways of being conventionally successful to stay the course quietly without external recognition."

Talk to any publisher or literary agent, however, and you'll hear they're inundated with manuscripts. Evidently there are still plenty of bull-headed writers out there, slogging away.

Copyright 2010 WMRA

Martha Woodroof