Only Connect

Alice McDermott

Spring 2017

Here’s the simplest advice I can offer to a writer in the midst of composing a novel: for God’s sake, read what you’ve already written. Read it often—daily, if need be. Read it all. Read it thoroughly. Read it always with a keen and critical eye.

I suspect this advice applies to the creation of short stories and poems and plays as well, but it’s my experience that the novelists among us are the most reluctant to follow it. We like to say, “Well, I’ve finished the first six chapters of my novel.” Or, “I only have three more chapters to write.” We like to feel the heft of our “first two hundred pages,” warm from the printer—like fresh-baked bread, like a bundled up newborn—and say, “Here’s what I’ve completed so far.” “Completed,” meaning, of course, finished, perfected. Don’t have to read it again. Don’t have to change a thing.

Until the work of your heart and your mind and your hands meets the printer’s work of paper and ink and binding, your novel is a fluid thing, an unpredictable thing, and every page, every paragraph, every sentence you add to it runs the delightful risk of changing everything that has come before. Read what you’ve already written before you add something new. And then read it again in light of what’s been added. Add more. Repeat.

As a college sophomore I took a Shakespeare course from a mild-mannered professor who looked more like an insurance salesman than an academic: crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses, plaid sport coat. On the first day of class,

Alice McDermott's eighth novel The Ninth Hour, will be published in September by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

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