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'My First Novel' editor Alan Watt aims to demystify the creative process

Alan Watt, who edited the anthology 'My First Novel,' invited 25 writers to contribute recollections about how they got their start.

By Stephen Humphries / September 26, 2013

'My First Novel' is edited by Alan Watt.

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In Stephen King’s classic horror novel “The Shining,” an aspiring writer named Jack Torrance holes up inside a hotel to write his debut novel. Things don’t turn out so well.

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Not many authors end up criminally insane like Torrance, but writers the world over can to relate to the maddening inner solitude of hunching over a blank page. To outsiders, it’s a mysterious occupation.

Alan Watt, the author “Diamond Dogs,” seeks to demystify the creative process in an anthology titled "My First Novel: Tales of Woe and Glory." To that end, he invited 25 published authors to share recollections about their formative writing experiences.

The notable essayists include Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”), Aimee Bender (“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”), Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”), and Rick Moody (“The Ice Storm”). In addition to editing the collection, Watt includes a fascinating account of how he wrote “Diamond Dogs.” Watt, a stand-up comic who once landed a cameo on “Seinfeld,” followed a similar modus operandi to the character in “The Shining.” During a six-week tour of comedy clubs, Watt locked himself in hotel rooms to write during daylight hours. Fortunately, the only person Watt killed during that time was a fictional character in “Diamond Dogs,” a story about a teenager who accidentally runs over a classmate and hides his body in the trunk of his car.

The success of “Diamond Dogs,” which sold to Little, Brown for over $500,000 and went on to win France’s Prix Printemps (Best Foreign Novel), allowed Watt to give up his night job. More importantly, the process of writing the book gave him a new insight on his fraught relationship with his father.

Almost all the authors in “My First Novel” underwent a transformational experience of some sort, many of them extraordinary. This isn't a "how to write" book as much as it is a collection of essays in which authors reveal how they overcome internal and external obstacles to complete their books.

Watt knows a thing or two about the trials and triumphs of writers. He’s written several bestselling books about how to write books, including “The 90 Day Novel,” and he also teaches in-person and telecourses through the LA Writers Lab, which he founded in 2002. The Monitor conducted an e-mail interview with Watt to ask him about his inspiration to compile “My First Novel” and what advice he’d offer to aspiring writers.

Q: How did you first get the idea for “My First Novel: Tales of Woe and Glory”? 

A: The idea came to me while I was teaching. It is one thing to teach craft, but it’s another for the writer to understand that when getting published becomes the goal, the process gets corrupted. Of course it seems like it should be the goal, but really our goal is to make the story live. Publication is a byproduct of having created something other people want to read.

Q: You have the best-selling book on Amazon about how to write a novel and you teach in-person and teleconference workshops, too. Was “My First Novel” inspired as a supplementary guide to aspiring writers to provide them with inspiration and succor to get through writing their first novel?

A: Yes, that is exactly why I pursued this. I’ve been teaching the 90-Day Novel workshops for years, and the focus is purely on the craft of building a story, be it novel or memoir. But there is a misconception for many novice writers that until they are published, they are not allowed to think of themselves as writers, or that when the publishing gods finally anoint them, the writing will magically become easier. I wanted to put out a book of essays from published authors as a way of leveling the playing field by demystifying the process. In recounting their experience of creating their first book, the thing that stood out most is that this job requires hard work and persistence.

And there was the curiosity aspect as well. I wanted to know what other writers went through. We are an insular lot, and it was amazing to see how differently writers think about writing. As much as our desires are universal, our values vary wildly. I still have the romantic notion of artists being the moral force of society, but after reading this book, I realize that artists struggle with the same hang-ups as everyone else, we just have more free time to explore them.

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