So Scared about Formatting

I’m leaving tomorrow for a week-long writing retreat on Denman Island. I am attending a five day group writing workshop with Steven Galloway, where the first chapter of my first novel will get its first critique (sounds like I’ll probably make it big time), and then staying for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival.

I didn’t get nervous until yesterday, when I had to print out seven copies of my first chapter. And then I got so nervous. I stood over my printer as it ejected double-spaced, Times New Roman versions of the sentences I wrote. Why is there so much dialogue? I asked out loud, sweating. Such simple words, such petty subject matter.

The worst was my title, which I had to format four double-spaced lines down the first page (according to the first website Google generated for me). I previously thought my title was neat, but now with my name underneath it (with “by” before my name), isn’t it a little pretentious? A little too trying?

Then I had to write a summary of the rest of my book. I didn’t know whether to make it sound gripping and suspenseful, like the dust jackets of novels that have actually been published, or analytical, like I was really telling people what was going to happen and wanted to get their advice on whether it made sense. I remember doing it wrong in elementary school – I was supposed to write a book report, and instead I made it sound like a book trailer.

Why is it the formatting that makes me want to curl up in my bed and throw my novel away?


I think it’s because formatting makes immediately evident the serious writer who has before sent things out to agents and editors, and me, who is only calling this a novel because it took me a long time. I’m also afraid that now that my book will look like everyone else’s – with the same margin and page formatting (I hope) – it will be clear that I am nowhere near the stage I need to be at, that I am not yet a writer.

I’m scared about formatting because it replaces other things I could be scared about. Instead I could be scared about imagining people laughing at my writing. Instead I could be scared about the way I will react – maybe I’ll pretend this was a first chapter I just threw off and I don’t have any more than that, I’m just trying this writing thing out. Instead I could be scared that I’m going to leave this place thinking I’m not a writer, I don’t fit in with writers, and I’m never going to get anything published.

So instead of being scared of any of that I keep glancing at the pages I printed off and worrying about the way it looks. I hate Times New Roman! I hate my name!

3 Things I am Reading

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway

“He used to take his wife and son to Vraca for picnics in the summer. From there you could see most of the city, a fact that had taken on a whole new significance in recent months.”

I saw Steven Galloway speak at an SFU World Literature event a couple years ago and was struck by how funny he is. This book, despite its title and cover page, isnot funny. I just read through a joke and even that wasn’t funny ha-ha:

“A woman has a friend come to visit … The friend comes in, and the woman asks if she would like a coffee. ‘No,’ the friend says, ‘thanks, I’m fine.’ The woman says ‘Great, now I can take a shower.’ “

The joke (if you didn’t get it) is about the lack of water during the siege of Sarajevo. The book provides an intense immersion into the streets of the city during the war, but doesn’t provide much of the context surrounding it. I like when novels stay novels: I’m reading this to learn about what characters might do in this type of situation. I’m not reading to learn about this type of situation.

I have so far been exposed to four characters’ points of view. No one is happy. Some are dealing better than others, but all are dealing so well. This is another thing novels can do: use stronger than life characters. There is a cellist who brings his cello out into the street, where he will most likely get killed by a sniper, in order to play the same adaggio every day. There’s a reason we root for the musicians in Titanic: beauty in the depths of horror is almost more beautiful than beauty alone.

On Writing, by Stephen King

“My mother said it was good enough to be a book. Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”

Having never read a Stephen King novel, I asked myself, what does he have to tell me about writing? He claims in his three forewords that he doesn’t want to tell me anything about writing but instead about himself, and how he came to writing. Good, because I don’t know anything about Stephen King.

King is a household name in my mind’s household because I see a new book of his on the shelves every month. I couldn’t possibly read Stephen King as fast as he writes Stephen King, so I haven’t started. I imagined King to be a mix of Goosebumps* and John Grisham, though I’m not sure why.

I can tell you Stephen King is chatty. He is a wonderful storyteller. I am reading through his childhood anecdotes eagerly waiting for the punchline, the climax, knowing I am in the hands of someone who has done this before.

My favourite part of the book so far is the page before the title page. It is an excerpt of a story written by King as a child. It was printed on a typewriter so there are letters missing every once in a while. The prodigious parts that stick out to me are the way King is able to break paragraphs at the right spot, and make short, perfect sentences like “Robert Steppes was a compulsive jumper.” Perhaps this says something about my current insecurities, that I feel I don’t break paragraphs up as well as King did in primary school.

La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, by Philippe Claudel

“‘Tao-lai,’ dit Monsieur Linh, selon la formule de politesse qu’on utilise dans la langue du pays natal pour dire bonjour à quelqu’un. ‘Eh bien, bonjour Monsieur Tao-lai,’ dit l’homme en lui souriant.”

I think it’s embarrassing that I often can’t follow stories in French, for I should be (and am) able to speak and read French fluently. It’s something about the story shape that gets lost to me when reading words that aren’t English. I understand most words, and most sentences, and most pages, but the story itself feels like parts have been taken out, like characters have merged. Maybe I fall asleep when I’m reading in French.

Philippe Claudel does a fine job of telling a story – this confusion is my fault entirely. The book reads like a parable, like an everyman story, perhaps because of its size, or  because of the distance between the reader and Monsieur Linh. We know who he is and what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, but he feels a bit like a foreigner in the book, just like he is in the new country to which he is emigrating: he doesn’t communicate with the reader directly; we don’t know his first name.

Sometimes short books seem bigger than themselves, whereas big books bring in so much that they can’t help but be confined to their size. I love little stories, because I can read them so quickly and I can also read them so slowly. As you can see by my frequency of “3 Things I am Reading” posts, I only read them quickly!

Again, I will read the first book someone suggests for me in the Comments section below, and will write about it soon in a “3 Things I am Reading.”

*Don’t click on the Goosebumps link: it’s terrifying!