Within days of publishing her newest novel, Matchmaking for Beginners, author Maddie Dawson hit sales numbers most writers only dream about. I’m always happy to see other writers do well–we all know how tough it is out there–but I’m especially happy in this instance, because Maddie is one of my dearest friends. There couldn’t be a funnier, nicer, more generous woman on the planet, and she’s one of my go-to Mom Writer Pals when I need to celebrate something or be talked off the ledge after an epic fail. Here, she tells us about her novel and gives some savvy writing advice.
Q. First of all, congratulations on hitting stratospheric bestseller status with Matchmaking for Beginners! You know how much I loved the book. How did you hatch this unusual plot?
A. Matchmaking for Beginners arrived in my head in bits and pieces, the way a lot of novels do. (I’ve never had one glide in, plant itself in the center of my brain, and then cooperate while I unpacked its contents, have you?) My novels give me little drabs and dribbles of information, letting me go on writing for quite some time in the wrong direction before some character clears her throat and suddenly decides to release another tidbit or two that (usually) changes the whole story. I could be mistaken for a maniac when I’m starting a new novel: staring vacantly into space and then leaping up to scribble notes on the backs of envelopes and receipts; veering my car to the side of the road when my main character decides to tell me some startling news that I’m sure I won’t remember if I don’t write it down that moment; and (my husband’s personal favorite), jumping out of bed at 2:37 a.m., grabbing for paper and pen.
With Matchmaking, all I knew at first was that I was sick of listening to the news, and I wanted to write a story about love and its infinite possibilities. I didn’t want it to be a romance novel in the classic sense—but I wanted a protagonist who was unusual and wise and who could perform a bit of magic. And then I was off. Blix, age 85, showed up in my head, and she told me she had all kinds of matchmaking projects going on—most of them going rather badly, by her own estimation—and since she was dying, she wanted to do one more amazing connection before she went. And that’s where Marnie came in—Marnie who was engaged to Blix’s grandnephew, a lout named Noah. From the moment they met, Blix was working on getting Marnie to recognize her true love, an introvert who had turned his back on life. These two kept me entertained by each telling parts of the story, competing for my attention, and weaving a tale that came out in bits and pieces. They were exhausting (see above: 2:37 a.m.) but by the time I was writing the words, “The End,” their story had also cheered me up and made me smile.
Q. You’ve been a journalist for most of your writing career as well as a novelist. How does your journalistic experience influence your fiction, or vice versa? Which do you prefer writing and why?
A. Journalism and I have a funny relationship. It knows it was my second career choice (after novel-writing seemed like it wasn’t going to yield steady paychecks for a while, if ever.) I minored in it in college during my senior year, and then, upon graduation, found myself suddenly the editor of a hometown weekly paper attending town meetings and writing about sewer bonds. I was stunned to discover that I actually cared about such things. I became passionate about town meetings! I urged my friends to start hanging out at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings—there was fun and drama to be soaked up there, fascinating characters and plot twists! I wrote feature stories about people who were passionate about something they were doing. I learned the discipline of writing on deadline and of making each word count. I also started writing a humor column about family life that ran for ten years in The New Haven Register.
Still, journalism had one big strike against it, to my thinking. Everything that happens in journalism has one strict caveat: it has to be true. (I know–unbelievably limiting.) So to keep myself happy, I was always working on a novel on the side. By the time my first novel was published, seventeen years after I’d started it (ahem), I had made friends with journalism, and it no longer felt like the stepchild of my writing world. But I love fiction more. I love it with a passion that knows no bounds. Journalism is the safe older aunt, with the writing proceeding in a nice, orderly progression and no wild surprises. Journalism, it must be said, does not wake me up in the middle of the night out of excitement.
Q. In teaching writing classes, what are the three most important pieces of advice you hope your students will absorb?
A. After writing (and sometimes instead of writing, if a novel is giving me fits), I love teaching best. I teach writing workshops, and my favorite moments are when someone discovers the power of storytelling—seeing and feeling the reaction that their own words can evoke in others. After all, that is why we write, isn’t it? And in workshops, that feedback brings almost instant gratification. I have a few pieces of advice that over the years I give to the writers who gather around my dining room table.
The first is: be yourself. The best pieces show a kind of vulnerability and willingness to tell the truth, even if you’re just writing a humor piece about last night’s dinner table. Tell the emotional truth in everything you write, and we’ll follow you anywhere.
The second piece of advice: There is no substitute for actual, you know, sitting down and writing. Planning isn’t writing, researching isn’t writing, and talking about your book certainly isn’t writing. You have to put your butt in the chair and really do it or it won’t get done. Here’s another startling piece of news, that I have to learn again and again, even after so many years: the more time you put in to writing something, the more words you’ll accumulate. It’s startling, I know.
Third (and most important): Don’t think you’re going to be able to write the final draft first. Being a writer requires that you get over the fact that you are going to write badly, (sometimes very badly) and that first drafts suck, and that you will re-read what you’ve written and want to go seek employment cleaning out sewer lines. Take comfort in the knowledge that all writers have to deal with the fact of the Horrible First Draft, and that things only get better when you’ve rehashed the same material many, many times. Many. You wouldn’t believe how many. Tell yourself you’re in no hurry, and that this is where the fun is. Learn to love revision.