Novel, Inc.: “The Novels We Carried”

by Marc Foster

Kelly carried her novels on an iPad with a clip-on keyboard we all coveted. Rob carried his on a MacBook Air. He would set the sleek machine nonchalantly on the seminar table next to his iced coffee. Liz never seemed to carry any novels at all. One hand folded over another, she would lean to one side and comment from memory, no matter how complicated the plot or how numerous the characters. Lisa, one of our instructors, carried her novels on single-sided stacks of paper, bound with jumbo rubber bands in eye-popping green, red, and blue. When she wanted to make a point Lisa would often bongo the manuscript with her thumbs, or yank at the rubber band, or hoist the whole stack off the table and set it down again.

We spent the summer reading one another’s novels, one per week. On beaches, runways, and park benches we read them, in line at supermarkets, on the couch, and in varying degrees of wakefulness, from highly caffeinated to semi-conscious. None of us had critiqued this many drafts, this fast, before. We might have complained, but we knew that was totally unacceptable, not in the presence of such gung-ho instructors and fellow participants. Nobody wanted to be labeled a whiner, a Frank Burns. To compensate during those weeks of unbearable heat we snuck extra pieces of dark chocolate into our oatmeal, or poured two glasses of wine at dinner instead of one. We floated on our backs in the Atlantic gazing at Cassiopeia, listening to stones clatter in a revisionist cycle of smoothing, sand-making. We knew the Incubator was spoiling us rotten, even though it required us to carry a lot of novels. We knew our job was to hump those manuscripts to the next checkpoint: read, critique; read, critique.

By September, the novels we had absorbed all summer were no longer words on pages. Like college students flocking back to Boston in their U-Hauls, they had taken up permanent residence inside our cluttered brains. I dreamed about my own Israeli-American, Modern Orthodox protagonist Yotam Fink plenty, but also Rebecca’s winged heroine Anneal circling over Sera, Jack’s youthful time-traveler Luke checking in with Mary at the Honesty Place, and Emily’s ever-searching Caroline and her creepy boyfriend Tony. Don’t get in the car, Caroline - that guy Tony is trouble!

We had taken ownership of the novels we carried, perhaps to an extreme. On Tuesday nights that autumn, discussions grew heated. You can’t cut that character. That’s MY character. Sometimes I would stop myself: Wait, whose novel is this anyway, mine or Amber’s? Like participants in a year-long poker tournament, we understood that the stakes were elevating, that we were acquiring skills that threatened to turn us into successful novelists, that by gaining those skills we were exposing ourselves to the glare of public failure if we didn’t produce.

We grew accustomed to one another’s “tells.” Michelle, our other stellar, encyclopedically-informed co-instructor, would flare her nostrils when we said something especially obtuse (we often made obtuse remarks about the novels we carried). Her neck muscles would tense up like support cables on the Zakim Bridge, and her cheeks would flush. Jennie, often opening the discussion, would inhale, tuck in her chin, and press her palms down hard on the seminar table. Belle’s eyes would bug out. She would swallow visibly.

That winter each of us, in our own way, experienced vapor-lock. My “incident” occurred in January, after I had endured a withering critique of my opening chapter. In the middle of the night I woke in a state of advanced cardiac arrhythmia. Chapter One is never going to work. This novel sucks. It’s doomed! I had a one-on-one scheduled with Lisa the next morning. Thank God. She reached across the table and patted my hand like the crisis counselor she might have been had she not chosen to write and teach fiction with such authority. It’s going to be O.K. Your first chapter is very, very close. Maybe you should, um, get something cold to drink?

That spring we all made our second draft deadlines. Somehow. The two weeks leading up to mine involved a lot of deep breathing, Springsteen, anti-family behavior, late-night Scotch on the rocks. I had badly misjudged the due date against my ability to finish revisions. Late-to-the-exam dreams from college returned. When I hit the “Send” button on my draft I thought to myself, “well, there goes a total a piece of crap – I’m going to get killed.”

I didn’t. Nor did the others. We got constructive, sharp-edged feedback, but no muggings, no cheap shots. We had developed too much mutual respect for that.

We ordered custom t-shirts in April, read aloud from our novels in May, showed drafts to agents at the Muse. The Incubator ended, officially, but we kept meeting and critiquing through the summer. We commented, over beers in back yards around Greater Boston, how rare it was to be part of a group that knew one another’s novels, and one another, so well. We doubted we would experience anything quite like the Novel Incubator again.

At the approach of autumn we kept dreaming about the novels we carried on our laptops, in our heads, and in our hearts.

The Novel Incubator is Grub Street’s year-long intensive course in the novel for writers with a completed novel manuscript, team-taught by Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover. Deadline for applications is in February.

Marc Foster is currently revising his first novel, Debt Reduction in Twenty Minutes. His short fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Santa Clara Review, and South Carolina Review. A founding board member of Grub Street, he co-created the Memoir Project, a joint venture between Grub Street and The City of Boston that teaches seniors how to write. He currently serves on the board of 826 Boston, the New England chapter of Dave Eggers’ non-profit that nurtures writing skills among underserved youth.

About the Author

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