How to Write a Novel

How to Write a Novel: Like This?

How to Write a NovelThis month—after a short hiatus!—we’re discussing Melanie Sumner’s How to Write A Novel (a novel). A successful fiction writer of multiple books with a colorful past, she’s done a Peace Corps stint in Africa. We mention this because this is what originally drew Jennifer to her work (she’ll get into it). How to Write a Novel is best described as “cross-genre” (Contemporary Adult Literary Fiction? Young Adult?) Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Aris, trying to write a novel, revels and revolts while growing up in Georgia with a tragically widowed mom with pluck, a little brother who has a slight problem with outbursts, and a compulsion to get her still-young mom married to the nice guy in their lives. This, in the midst of adolescence.

Jennifer: Well, part of our review has to be my draw to Sumner. When I was in my twenties and had just finished grad school in International Relations—all dewy-eyed and breathless over expatriates working in the Third World—I was undergoing Identity Crisis #1, in which I was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer rather than be anything having to do with politics. Somehow or other, Sumner’s Polite Society happily landed on my plate. Linked short stories set in Senegal, this book moved me—not necessarily towards a political career, but into the ill-fated (!?!) writing life. Hence, it’s exciting for me to turn to Sumner years later, about twenty years later, after my own plunge into books. Here we go . . .

Lara: Sumner is new to me, and while I can’t say that this, her fourth book, was as impactful for me as her first was for you, I can say I enjoyed it.

The premise, which has tweenager Aris embarking on her own writing career by following the advice outlined in the book Write a Novel in Thirty Days!, gives the reader a novel-in-a-novel experience. Sumner handles this well. Take, for instance, this passage:

“While I waited for a response [from long distance boyfriend Billy], I watched Coach Bobby attack the whiteboard with a marker. His arm swept up and down, always drawing the numbers too large so that he ran out of room and had to erase the first part of the question to fit in the rest of it. He was actually not bad looking from the back. I’m just saying.

Rule #14 in Write a Novel in Thirty Days! states, Do not indulge in superfluous characters. I totally agree; there are enough superfluous characters in the world already. However, I’m sneaking Coach Bobby into my novel because we’re short on male characters.”

Jennifer: The book is funny. Not drop-to-your-knees-in-fits-of-hysteria funny, but pleasantly and consistently funny. It’s a good book, and our readers will like it. I think, mostly, they’ll like three things: Sumner’s voice (she’s a solid writer), Diane (the mom)—she’s the heart of the novel, and the interesting circumstances of the story: a kinda hip (mom-hip, that is), liberal woman who teaches at a Southern Christian college—though she’s not a Christian—with two good and quirky kids, a single guy who’s the nanny, and a small instance of racism to give it some texture and verve.

There are things people may not like. There’s really only one I have a mild issue with, and it’s pretty mild. Aris, the protagonist, is twelve-and-a-half. Her age bugged me. She knows too much. Her verbiage is out-of-control sophisticated. Her sexual awareness is beyond her age (unless I’m not hip-mom, but naïve-mom). Her clever observations are too clever. (Was it J.D. Salinger who said that if you’re going to use children as narrators, they need to be precocious children? Who said that?) But Aris is too precocious. Make her fourteen, and she’s perfect—though still precocious.

Lara: I agree with you in that there is a lot to like, but to clarify, Penn is the PMI (positive male influence), not the nanny. Ha! There’s also drama. Aris secretly reading Diane’s journals. Diane’s shameful childhood moment involving a doll. Grown Diane’s student who gets arrested for DWB, “driving while black,” and enlists Diane’s help in going to court. And, of course, the secret of Diane’s late husband’s childhood.

The heavier issues are handled a little too lightly. They are topical and timely, certainly. But they felt like they were just thrown in for diversity and depth without going beyond the surface.

That’s my only real fault with the story. Oh, and the age of Aris. She’s too young to be speaking the way she spoke and thinking the way she thought. She definitely needed to be fourteen. I know this because I am hipper than you are.

Jennifer: Well, on the Diane note: let’s talk. Diane could absolutely carry this novel as the protagonist, and the adult narrator might allow for more depth in the handling of the Big Issues (and I agree with your assessment of their treatment here—I think, especially, the “driving while black” story felt a little thrown in, a little too lightly treaded upon). But, interestingly, Sumner chose to have Diane’s daughter tell the story. Which raises questions. Why did she choose this? Sumner is a smart writer, so we know it’s a deliberate, crafted choice. Why a child/tween narrator? Whose story is this, really? I think it’s Diane’s. Why isn’t Diane telling it? Is it like Gatsby and Nick? Is it not Diane narrating because we have five million first person stories told by delightfully single women? (Wait, did I write one?) Is this a strength or a weakness in the novel?

Lara: You raise good questions. Aris may not actually be twelve-and-a-half. That’s one of the book’s mysteries that is hinted at in the Introduction, and it leaves me wondering if the book is actually being written by Diane. But that might just be too confusing? What do you think? Here’s the Introduction.

“Prologue skippers may be inclined to skip introductions as well, but my editors have suggested that this novel contains a minor flaw, which I might want to fix before it goes up for the Pulitzer Prize. The problem, as they see it, is that no 12.5-year-old could write this story. Allow me to propose that as a fictional character, I exist in the fourth dimension of reality in which space and time have collapsed into an instantaneous and infinite experience that is itself, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=mc2), nothing more than an illusion.

Or I could be lying about my age.”

Jennifer: I’m puzzled by it, frankly. I’m puzzled why the editors let it go, and I’m puzzled why a self-aware Sumner felt strongly enough about it to keep Aris twelve. What is the virtue of a twelve-year-old narrator?

At any rate, I think I want to point out the readability of this book. The pacing is strong. There are no dull moments. The characters are likeable.

So, I just have a few things I’d comment on.

Aris’s use of social media as it relates to boys: No. I don’t know. Is it me? Is this what 12.5 year-olds are doing? It’s mild—I don’t want to give our readers the wrong impression. But no.

The use of Diane’s journals, which are excerpted sometimes—albeit briefly—and become pivotal plot points: Yes. I liked this. But again, Diane interested me the most.

Aris’s novel-writing under the direction of a writing book: Clever. This imposes a nice structure on the story, and it allows for personal growth in Aris.

Penn: Yes. Who wouldn’t like Penn?

Lara: I cannot even begin to respond to you when you wrote the possessive Aris as Aris’s. It should be Aris’. You have asked me not to correct it. Let the record reflect that your way is wrong. It’s almost grammar blasphemy. I came around on the whole Oxford comma, but I’m not caving in on this on. Not for a second.

Jennifer: Well, know that I’m totally okay with you telling me I’m wrong. You’re wrong this time. That’s okay, friend. As long as you understand that I’m teaching the next generation to punctuate correctly.

Lara: Let me try to get back to the book now, since that is why we are here.

Okay, the pacing is great. Sumner’s prose and attention to detail are sharp. And her use of humor is pitch perfect. Check out this gem:

“Grandma is the only Montgomery who doesn’t have a handshake, but ladies in the South don’t shake hands. Instead, they fold their cool fingers over yours and press ever so gently, leaning in close until you smell breath mints and the dab of eau de toilette behind each ear. Then they say something awful. A few days after Joe died, Grandma knelt beside Diane’s bed and folded her fingers over her hand. After looking into her eyes for a moment, she whispered, “Why didn’t he ever have a better job?”’

Isn’t that just a perfect moment?

Jennifer: It is! And here’s a nice gem, some writing advice that Diane gives to her class:

“[I]f the writer who finishes the essay is the same person who started it, he has failed . . .”

I really like that, and I need to take that to heart in my own writing, and I need to steal it to use when teaching.

 Lara: That’s great advice. My advice, if you want a good—albeit slightly flawed—book for an upcoming weekend, then check out How to Write a Novel, a nice pick.

Next Up!

We return in October to dish on Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of 2013’s highly acclaimed novels. Until then, happy reading!


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One Comment

  1. Karen Eisenbraun February 1, 2016 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Hmmmm I may have to check this one out. I, too, have done a Peace Corps stint in Africa and I, too, am writing a novel. This looks like a fun read.

    Also I agree with Jennifer that the possessive of Aris is Aris’s. 😀

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