Delusions of a debut novelist – Stephanie Gangi

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By Stephanie Gangi

In another life I was in the restaurant business in New York City, and the place I ran was popular. Thousands of guests crossed the threshold, every one of them with an opinion about the music and the lighting, the menu and the wine list, the servers, the food, of course, and curiously, the price of a cup of coffee. Talk about a random hot-button! Anyway, it turns out that many people secretly hope to own a restaurant someday.

I remember being bemused by that, thinking, Just because you like to eat, drink and talk doesn’t mean you can run a restaurant. Just because you can cook doesn’t mean you can pack the house consistently to pay employees’ salaries, rent, vendors and yourself.

And yet, I harbored similar delusions about writing a novel. Here’s what I thought:

Hey, I love to read! Yes, I read all the time. Reading makes me late to things. My handbag-buying criteria: must fit books. I read hardcovers, paperbacks, I read on a Kindle, and yes, I too have succumbed to the scourge of reading on my phone (but only when desperate).

Wow, I have an idea! Lots and lots of ideas. Notebooks filled with characters, dialogue, plots and twists, even themes that aren’t done to death. A newspaper article, a fragment of conversation, ‘good morning’ from a neighbor, a colleague’s eyeroll in a meeting – anything can set me devising scenarios.

I’m a damn good storyteller. I was in a very, um, colorful relationship for a few years, and I regaled my friends with delicious R-rated highs (I kept the X-rated stuff to myself) and then, inevitably, Dispatches From the Depths of Despair. That’s just one storyline from a lifetime of um, colorful experiences.

I can do that. The combination of a broken heart, Adele on Shuffle, and consuming all of Gillian Flynn’s books in one great gulp made my fingertips itch. It was something I’d always wanted to do: write a novel, and Flynn’s complicated women resonated with me. (I mean, not that I’m anything like them, I promise). When I closed the cover of Gone Girl I was ready. I was inspired. I thought, “I can do that.”

Here’s what’s real:

Reading is work. What was once a joy is now your job (and don’t worry, a deeper joy). You are an apprentice, especially if, as in my case, you are teaching yourself (with craft books close by) to write a novel. So apprentice like there’s no tomorrow. Read widely, but read intensely. Schedule your reading. Read with discipline and a goal: to see how the sausage gets made.

Idea glut is a thing. There is such a thing as too many good ideas. Just pick one already. The trick is to try and intuit which one makes your fingers itch, or your heart contract, or your stomach flip, or your eyelid twich, whatever. Sit down and write it. But know this: this is not necessarily the idea that will dictate the end result – in my case, a novel – but it is the thing that will get you started, the idea that got you to sit down and go in ANY direction. In the beginning, any direction whatsoever works. Starting is the important thing.

Listen up, storyteller. Hand me a glass of wine and one good listener, and I’m golden. I will turn anything that happened to me this week into a one-act play. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Sit me at the computer at 4 a.m. with a word count goal for the day, and I turn into the queen of Facebook procrastination. You’re a writer now, a professional. Save the stories for the page. At 5 pm, glass of wine in hand, you can practice the art of listening, which is what a writer should be doing anyway.

Writing is hard. Gone Girl was a quick read, chicklit, topical, manageable cast of characters, simple plot with a good twist. What’s so hard? It wasn’t until I sat myself in a chair at 4 a.m., facing a blank page every morning through seven drafts of The Next over two and a half years that I understood exactly how hard it is to tell a story brimming with vivid characters, propulsive dialogue, a fluid chronology, a sound structure, and some good, old-fashioned sex-and-violence, all against the backdrop of a complicated relationship between two not-so-likeable people. Oh, and by the way, it’s a page-turner.

The takeaways: Scoff at other people’s dreams, buy big handbags, eavesdrop, whine with wine, arrogantly believe you can toss off a mega bestseller.

No! Of course not!

As a debut novelist, here’s what I learned: Do the work and the delusions will disappear. Do the work and dreamy notions and wrong assumptions about what it means to be a writer, to write, will dissolve. Do the work, and the work will take over. You’ll be a writer. That’s it. It’s very simple, but simple is hard. Just ask Gillian Flynn.

Stephanie Gangi is a writer living and working in New York City. The Next, coming from St. Martin’s Press in October 2016, is her debut. She is a published poet compiling a chapbook, and is at work on her second novel.

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