Lessons In Novel Writing (Learned The Hard Way)

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Colin Harrison i i

Colin Harrison is the author of seven successful, published novels -- and one fairly awful unpublished novel. But he doesn't regret the five years he spent working on The Prince of the Power of the Air. It "probably flushed a lot of writerly poisons out of my system," he says. Joyce Ravid hide caption

itoggle caption Joyce Ravid
Colin Harrison

Colin Harrison is the author of seven successful, published novels -- and one fairly awful unpublished novel. But he doesn't regret the five years he spent working on The Prince of the Power of the Air. It "probably flushed a lot of writerly poisons out of my system," he says.

Joyce Ravid

Colin Harrison, author of seven uncommonly successful novels, has actually written eight. He describes his first, The Prince of the Power of the Air, as "a baggy, sloppy, erratic animal." And he views its universal rejection by everyone as a "fantastic stroke of luck."

"First of all," he says, "my style was very immature. I was still learning the most rudimentary techniques required of novelists. How do you get people in and out of a room? What's a chapter? What's a paragraph? How do you construct dialogue?  What's too much dialogue?"

Harrison has a great laugh, especially for a writer of dark, New York-centric thrillers that stay in your psyche like real experience. And he laughs a lot while talking about  The Prince.

"I was trying to work out too many of my own personal questions on paper," he says, "and what happened is that I wrote a novel that was relevant to me and almost no one else."

While writing his first unpublishable novel — you can read an excerpt from it here — Harrison says he had to grapple mightily with the novel's form. That grappling, he says, is ongoing, as it is for any novelist trying to write something new. "I think each novelist, each time out, has to learn how to write a novel all over again. It's a literary form that requires struggle to comprehend and control."

Harrison began writing seriously in his teens. As for that first novel? "It was for me, as it is for every young novelist, an intensely personal, passionate, anxiety-stricken undertaking," he recalls. "It seemed like the impossible thing that I had to try to do. And you know, I was young and foolish and energetic enough to actually do it."

Harrison, who's also an editor for Simon and Schuster, says the first novels he publishes are written by people who know what they're doing. "That sounds obvious, but there is a lot of what I'll call 'accomplished mediocrity' out there," he explains. "Writers working hard, but writing what at the end of the day are not utterly fabulous novels. And my job as an editor is not to find middling novels."

So what makes for first-novel fabulous?  Manuscripts, Harrison says, that "have a kind of quick first step right into the story, and that are themselves all the way. They don't change rhetoric. They don't change direction. There's a clarity to them.  There's an authority to them." He wants to publish books that are "a great reading experience. I'm looking to be entertained. Thrilled. Made aghast. Horrified. Titillated. All that stuff."

Piece of cake, right?


Excerpt: 'The Prince of the Power of the Air'

By Colin Harrison


All is still, and the house is very cold. Then she remembers she is not due to work today. "Go home and have Christmas with your papa," Mrs. Lee has said. "A place like this ain't the place for you to be day like Christ-mas." She couldn't have convinced Mrs. Lee otherwise.  She shivers on her way down the stairs. In the kitchen she flicks on the radio.

"Icyroadsthismerrymorning and...cominguponWXLC..." Her father has not eaten breakfast. The back door is open.  The door has been open all night; a thin drift of snow has blown across the kitchen floor.  Jennifer pulls on a coat, her face tight and lips pinched.  Outside, the bright cold hits her face, waking her completely.  So cold, even for December, she thinks.  The bushes and trees are crusted with ice and dusted with snow.  The world has suddenly frozen solid and airless and dead.  Yet the sky is clear, a gold rising sun.  She sees the tractor is not in front of the barn, where it was when she had gone to sleep. Huge skid marks crisscross the shallow snow in a crazy spaghetti tangle; her father has been out during the night. Chunks of frozen mud lay aside the tracks.  Spinning his wheels in the mud, she thinks. Why did she not hear it? The snow muffled the sound, perhaps.  Was she so deeply, so trustfully asleep? The huge barn door is bolted shut, bolted with a sense of finality about it that makes her stand still.  Only the wind makes any sound, scraping along loose boards, up rusty tin rainspouts and across the ragged shingle roof of the barn.

From The Prince of the Power of the Air by Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Colin Harrison.

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