Friday, September 28, 2007


This morning is just did a plain old-fashioned freewrite on the question of "why should the reader care about my character." It helped some.

If you're not familiar with freewriting (if you haven't been in a high school or freshman comp class in the last few years), it's basically turning off every editing and censoring impulse and free associating for some set period of time. The idea is to push through the reluctance to write when you don't feel like you have anything more to say and to do it without stopping to think at all. In theory, you discover something you wouldn't have by just pondering the question. And you have to accept that it's only really successful sometimes. It's a game of percentages.

You can see a few other examples and definitions of it here, here, here and here.

Gut check . . . I guess I feel a little closer to being ready to start the rewrite. But not ready. I think I'll give it at least another week of exercises.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Alignment of character and plot

Today I was thinking mostly about something Jane Smiley says--that when you look back on a plot you should see an extended argument for the character credibly taking an action at the end what never would have seemed possible at the beginning.

It's like a magic trick--the reader gets two contradictory notions of the character at the beginning and the end and the plot makes the connection between them believable.

I'm realizing more and more that my first draft ending--really most of my plot--doesn't have my character doing enough. Too much observation and not enough response to what he observes.

So my exercise today was really just basic brainstorming of possible plot developments, particularly at the end. What wild things could my character do that seem unlikely for him to do?

The idea is that if I came up with something--say for example he self destructs in some way--then I would need to make sure during the rewrite that the plot is sneaking in a persuasive case that he would do that, even though it might seem very out of character at the beginning.

And the real idea--back to thinking about character--was to see if I provoke some insight about what my character is not like at all and what he might secretly be like that I haven't put my finger on yet.

I think it was productive. I got a lot of loopy ideas for the plot but also got myself more comfortable with a couple developments that I had been stewing on and seemed too loopy. Now they just seem like they need the right persuasive case to support them. I'm excited about trying to tell a more energetic story in the rewrite. And it got me more in touch with the humanity of my character.

That last point reminds of the famous comment by Richard Ford about stories ending like supernovas. I'll try to write about that next time.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pantomiming the gestures of my characters

That story in the last post reminded me of something funny about when I was drafting--how I would get up and pantomime what my characters were doing.

Sitting on the porch in my writing chair, probably about once a day I would get engrossed in the scene I was detailing. Often at that point I would need to describe the gesture of one of my characters. Like how he held his shoulders or put his hands in his pockets while he thought. (Reading Francine Prose's new book Reading Like a Writer got me thinking about the importance of gesture.)

And in trying to describe that gesture, I would stare in space and try to picture it and not quite get it. When I couldn't quite see it well enough to show it on the page, I would find myself--as if on autopilot--standing up and acting out.

I would take my place on the imaginary stage on my porch and put my hands in my pockets a few different ways until I could picture it and knew it. If it was a facial expression of some kind, I would walk into the house and make faces in the front hall mirror. (Since the story is semi-autobio, I can look in the mirror and see traces of the family members my characters are based on.)

I'm sure this must have looked ridiculous to anyone watching from afar. It was mostly unconscious, like a physical restlessness that pushed me out of my chair when my imagination wouldn't quite carry me to the image I was looking for. It's an entirely self-taught technique--not any advice that I read about in all the writing advice books I'm always looking at.

Interviewing my character

This morning I did another exercise from, or inspired by, The Novelist's Notebook. The original exercise was a questionnaire--pet's name, car the character drives, etc. It was pretty basic and suitable for an exercise at the very beginning of dreaming up a story.

At the later stage where I am now, it might be a little helpful as a "gut check" to hunt around for some superficial things about a character that it might be worth thinking about.

But I re-imagined the exercise as an interview with my character--almost like a psych evaluation. The character is a child and I imagined him sitting in the chair in front of my writing chair while I asked him some of those questions (many were only appropriate to adults). It was like talking with my imaginary friend, and as he responded I made notes the way my shrink does when I have a session. The point was less about the factual information but more about HOW he would answer.

So, starting at the top of the questionnaire, asking his name, which I already know, I imagined how he would respond to me asking his name.

This did wonders to start to bring him to life for me in different ways. I started to notice his vulnerability and other personality traits in different ways.

No change from my goals yesterday--still hoping that steadily doing these exercises will give me the confidence and inspiration to launch into the rewrite stage.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Character exercises

I'll write some other time about where I get the writing exercises that I do and how they fit into my process for drafting or rewriting.

The one I did this morning is from a book called The Novelist's Notebook by Laurie Henry. It's structured a lot like a workbook that would accompany a pupil's textbook. It's probably the most helpful thing I've ever seen for just helping me get unstuck. The exercises are all very creative but very practical--more about craft than helping you imagine original scenarios.

This morning I did one that helps focus on character motivation. Make three columns labeled a.) the character; b.) their immediate goal; c.) their ultimate motivation.

I started with very minor characters and then antagonists and finally my protagonist and spent about an hour freewriting. I did help improve my clarity a little more.

I'm hoping that with a little dose like that every day before long I'll have the confidence to start the rewrite.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept. 24--Character sketches and other sketchiness

This morning I spent an hour in my writing chair and that feels like progress at this point.

I worked on basic character sketches, on the theory that I need to get more in touch with my characters and what makes them sympathetic and interesting before I try to tackle the rewrite. I got some good insight and ideas and right now my intention is to keep doing those exercises every morning for at least a few days. (I like to think in one week units, so I'm trying to imagine that this will get me ready for some other big step next Monday.)

I'm awfully nervous about how little progress I've been making and how disconnected I feel from the book. I'm trying to tell myself that that's OK. There's no deadline and the wisdom and experience of other writers suggests that some time away from the book at this stage is necessary. I had hoped to be an exception, but if I'm not, that's shouldn't be a serious problem.

And I do feel like most days I give the problems a little bit of thought and get a stronger sense of what the rewriting process will be like. It really the kind of "back burner" work that writing books advise.

So, this morning's renewed effort aside, I'm typically spending my mornings on work stuff and nothing has been going according to plan on the novel. Hopefully that's getting corrected now and I'm back in the saddle, but I've said that a few other times over the last several weeks.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Process: How long can this go on?

Interviewer: How long does it take you to write six drafts?

Bobbie Ann Mason: Well, I’m on draft eight right now. I don’t know. Two years.

Interviewer: So you’re working for two years without really knowing how it holds together. What keeps you going all that time?

Bobbie Ann Mason: Well, fairly quickly, the plot emerged . . . Superficially, I can see where I’m going, but it’s not written very well yet. So I just keep rewriting it, trying to get deeper. The novel Feather Crowns . . . probably took four and a half years. . . . If I went through a chapter a day . . . I could get through it in about three months. It seemed like I would never see the end of it because it was many drafts, maybe twelve—I wasn’t keeping count.

Heaven protect me; I’m not sure I want to be a novelist that bad. It’s a calling, not a crucible.

Earlier in this interview Mason talks about the drafting process, and I think she must have very different goals for what is achieved in the first draft, so she’s accomplishing some of the work in later drafts that some other writers attack earlier.

I’ve only read her first novel In Country, a couple times, and I think it’s quite good. I read it probably ten years ago, and then a few weeks ago after I finished my draft. It made me a little nervous because there are so many similarities between that and my book in setting and period. She already uses many of the cultural references I’m using. Honestly, I’m not trying to rip her off—it’s coincidence.

I read it to look at technique. It’s yet another coming-of-age story in first person, so there was nothing for me to study there. I was especially looking at the pacing of her chapters, how many scenes they have, what “beats” they break off on, their length, how the framing of a chapter accommodates back story and flashback. My chapters are a lot longer—they really have the pace and length of a contemporary short story.

By the way, this interview is from a book I just discovered called Master Class: Lessons from Leading Writers by Nancy Bunge. (University of Iowa Press) More on the book later . . . I have some issues with it.

August 30, 2007—Working for a living

I’ve been neglecting this for a little bit. It’s mostly because in the last week my attention has been on how to support myself financially. The first draft got written by totally ignoring that issue and having faith it would work out (if I didn’t take too long.) Now that I’m thinking about, I’m obsessing about it in a not especially healthy way.

I do have legitimate work to do. I’m going to be teaching some college writing courses, starting next week. So there’s plenty of planning to do that I’ve started and, even more important, navigating the mysterious waters of university administration. Millions of forms filled out, phone books of numbers dialed, and still no passwords or keys that will give me the access I need to actually meet and communicate with my students.

Less legitimate is my so-called planning for freelance writing. I let it take over all my mental space and neglect everything else. It comes out of an irrational fear of financial ruin. I need to learn to put it in its proper place.

All this is impacting my novel, but it’s probably not a serious problem if it doesn’t go on too long. Like I said before, some distance from the book is probably a good thing, and I am doing a little bit of the “review” work on it every day. Hopefully in another week I’ll have that done and then I can spread it all out on the dining room table and really take a hard look at it.

Oh, I wish I was back in the drafting stage. That was a lot more fun.

Continued tedium and discouragment

Ugh, this outlining work I’m doing is tedious. It’s hard and de-emphasizes the joy of writing it, and the product of it is a growing pile of unanswered questions about the story that I have to deal with later. I’m still sticking to a chapter a day, and it’s difficult making myself do that. I have time for more, but I don’t like doing it so I avoid it

This is all a big come down from the sense of accomplishment I was getting every day while I was drafting. Oh well, it’s an adjustment. I’m hoping, hoping, hoping that when the outlining work is done and I’m able to see it all that I’ll feel more enthused about the actual work of rewriting.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who was just finishing up his second rewrite on his most recent book said to me, “I envy you.”


“Because you’re in the drafting stage.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, and now I see what he means.

Fault finding

This is certainly a discouraging period, because it’s all about finding problems in the book, and I’m finding plenty.

I think instead of making an organized list of things I need to fix, I should approach it as a list of material to build with.

When I got discouraged during the period that I was writing the first draft, I could ignore that feeling more easily, because I had a mantra. “Just add sentences. Nothing matters except adding sentences.” I need something similar to keep me going, but I don’t know what.

“Just keep _________. The most important thing is to _________.”

This blog defined

The inspiration for this blog is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. It's a very unusual book that's definitely in the category of "for fans only."

Its' really his raw journal, never meant for publication, and has all the boring parts that anyone's journal would--much like this blog. If you're deeply interested in the process of how writers work, then it's an interesting book.

It's a kind of journal/letter series that he kept during the 10 months he was writing East of Eden and it's addressed to his editor Pascal Covici. On some days he's writing about how his bunions ache and where he's going to get his haircut in the afternoon, and on other days he's writing about technical problems of character and theme and pacing. In between he chats about family problems, which kinds of pencils and paper he needs to have, the height of his chair, the noise in the other room, going to Elia Kazan's apartment the night before to watch an early print of A Streetcar Named Desire with that new Brando fellow in it, etc.

It was a great companion to have while I was drafting, because I could see that--skill and talent aside--my process wasn't very different and I was producing at about the same rate he was. (My book is about half the length of East of Eden, so it was only about half the time to draft it.) He had the same concerns about discipline and working every day. Similar goals. Every week or so when I would get doubtful, I would read a couple week's worth of his journal.

Inspired by the model, I kept a similar journal while I was drafting, and late in the drafting stage I decided to start doing it on this blog. I figure in a similar way it could be about everything from the sharpness of the pencil lead to technical problems.

One difference though, is that this journal is carrying on into the rewriting phase.

And of course another difference is that you're reading the journal of a novice instead of someone with a dozen successful novels already behind him. You might want to consider spend more time with his books instead of online with me. ;)

Working materials

Here are some pix of my working materials for the rough draft. I work longhand. Another time I'll write obsessively about my materials, a la John Steinbeck in Journal of a Novel.

August 20, 2007—Developing my outline

Well, so much for my declared intention yesterday to take a break from the book. Last night I was thinking about how much preparation has to come before the rewriting, and I just couldn’t resist starting that preparation. So my new plan is just to spend an hour every morning on that.

Essentially, my plan—and what I started doing today—is to go through a chapter at a time and identify all the stuff you hear other authors saying they put on index cards so they can lay them out on the floor and move them around—plot elements, character development and theme. What’s happening or needs to happen in this chapter?

Except I’m using the tables function on Microsoft Word. I have a pretty little table started with columns for all those elements a row for each chapter and rows for notes to guide the rewriting.

I think it will be useful like this: Say I’m looking at Chapter 8 and I realize that some aspect of the character hasn’t been set up to warrant his behavior at that point. I can look back at my plot and character elements in previous chapters and think about how to add to or improve upon those.

Now, back to planning my classes . . .

August 19, 2007—Balancing personal responsibilities: an update

Now that I’ve achieved my first major goal of finishing a draft, I needed to turn my attention to other things I’ve been ignoring, namely earning a living.

I’m going to return to teaching first-year college writing classes part time, and I accepted a couple of classes the other day that will start in a little over two weeks.

I used to do this years ago. One problem was the lousy pay, and that hasn’t changed. Another problem was a sense of frustration with it, but a lot of that had to do with some personal immaturity that I think I’ve outgrown. I expect this to be a lot less stressful and time consuming than I used to make it for myself.

So I’ve arranged at least to keep my mornings open for writing and to earn the minimum I need to pay the bills to survive for a few more months. (Perhaps I can finish the rewrite in that amount of time, but I’m not going to put that pressure on myself yet.)

Additionally, I’ve started getting my house in order to resume freelance writing, which I also used to do. I would like to generate enough work by the end of the semester that after that point I will have options available between the teaching and freelancing, still with the goal of keeping mornings open for writing.

So, considering the work I need to do to prepare for the classes I’m teaching, my hope of generating some freelance work and the general neglect of my home and social life, I’m thinking a two week break between the end of the drafting and the start of the rewriting might be in order.

August 18, 2007—Taking some “time away”

I’m coming to the realization that I might have to take some time away from the rewrite process. However, I think it will only be a partial separation.

When I finished the first draft, the first piece of advice from my friend Tim Parrish was to take a few months off from it and then re-read it, and I said “no way.” I’m too interested in it and I didn’t feel like I needed perspective in order to understand what was wrong with it.

He also asked me challenging questions about how well developed the characters were and I felt pretty confident about that at the time.

After typing in and re-reading Part 2 of the book over the last couple of days, I now see there are some pretty big problems with the sense of the plot and the behavior of the characters and that these things boil down to not really fully understanding the characters yet.

For example, a typical problematic scene has my character witnessing and experiencing something dramatic without really feeling much about it and not responding with much feeling, or responding in the “default” position I had him in at the start of the book.

I need to look at those scenes individually—a lot of them—but really I need to think about what the arc of emotional development is for the characters and how their development intertwines and pushes the development of others. It’s how they generate plot for one another and respond to the plot individually.

Another way of putting it is that I now have a much more realistic assessment of my draft. It’s a draft—not a miracle.

The combination of my life circumstances, which I’ll talk post about some other time, and the sense that a little bit of distance will bring those technical problems into better relief is now making me think I should take a little bit of time away.

But not much. I still intend to work on relevant stuff every day—what you might call “tool sharpening”—and in any case not to take more than a couple weeks. It’s really just putting the manuscript aside. And I hope to get back to it by Labor Day.

August 16, 2007—typing, typing, typing

I’ve been typing every second that I can bear it for the last three days. My eyes are shot and my arms are killing me.

I go for about an hour and then have to go stretch for awhile and look at the newspaper. I needed to get about 35,000 words typed in from the manuscript so that I can start working on it. I should be done before the weekend for sure—maybe this afternoon.

It’s mostly pretty tedious but it’s a good way to review it and to think about what work needs to be done it. As I type I keep a running list of editing/rewrite notes that I’ll use to guide me.

August 15, 2007—drafting withdrawal

When I finished my morning coffee I was strongly tempted to head to the chair on the porch where I have spent every working morning for the last few months and turn the page in my notebook and keep writing. The story is done and I needed to be at my computer to work on the rewriting, but I didn’t want to miss the pleasure of drafting new material.

I halfway entertained the idea of following the impulse, maintaining the morning writing habit and starting a new project—a short story at least. But I decided that would be a serious distraction from the discipline I would need to do the rewrite. Not to mention that I owe it to my wife to get this done and start finding a way to earn money asap.

It’s nice to know that the ability to sit down and write like that is there, though. Maybe I’ll indulge it after I get the rewriting process organized and underway.

Discipline and schedule—a review of how it went.

Today was the first day in a few months, with only a few exceptions, of not getting up to face the blank page. That was weird. Perfect timing, too; my wife had a doctor’s appointment that I had to drive her to and that totally killed the morning. I had managed to avoid anything like that all along. If her appointment had come last Friday, I would have been pretty frustrated with the interruption. There were a couple times when I needed to take her to the train station and I insisted on taking her so early that I was still waking up by the time I got back home and it was still my normal writing time.

I kept a log of how much I wrote each day and therefore of what days I wrote. Here’s some idea of how it went:

  • April 19 is really my start date. Starting then, I had a few days writing some sketches that it turns out I’ll be using during which I was saying to myself, “What is this?” The a-ha moment came on April 22 when I realized it was the seed of a novel and started thinking of the work on those terms. The end date was August 13.
  • In my log, I “worked” on it on 72 specific days.
  • I “wrote”—meaning I added new sentences to the draft—on 64 specific days.
  • The 8 missing days are interesting. I actually worked hard on those days but I had to compromise on my ideal scenario of adding sentences every day. There were two periods where I felt I need to review and grasp my material better before I could continue. Essentially I had caught up with my outline and I didn’t know what happened next. I still used the dedicated writing time every morning to review my manuscript and to do some exercises to prompt the rest of the plot.
  • Those working days are almost all Monday to Friday with a handful of Saturdays thrown in.
  • So figure about 12 working weeks when I actual wrote new sentences and about two additional working weeks where time spent getting in shape.
  • That still leaves two missing weeks if you compare it to a calendar—that was when I didn’t work at all while we were on vacation. I had hoped to keep working then, but the disruption in routine was too much. I couldn’t make myself focus while we were on the road.
  • A typical week produced about 10,000 words.
  • My most productive week was 17,500 words. That happened pretty early on and I got my hopes up that I would continue that pace. I was often disappointed with myself the rest of the time that I was only writing 2,000-2,5000 words/day.
  • I estimate my writing speed at 900-1,000 words/hour. So when I started I estimated 100 writing hours to get a draft done. My draft ended up being 135,000 words. (I hit 100,000 words around July 22.) So if you figure from the 64 actual writing days, typically around 2 to 2.5 hours per morning, my estimates were pretty close.
  • So In theory it’s possible to write a first draft of a novel in 100 hours. The “real” time it takes is really a function of fragile egos, emotional resilience, vulnerability to distraction, family demands, how well thought out the story is, etc.

What next?: Preparing for the rewrite

I had lunch recently with my friend Tim Parrish, (He has an excellent book of short stories called Red Stick Men from University Press of Mississippi.) His first advice was to take some time off from it before starting the rewrite. No way! I want to make this baby actually say what I intended.

Here’s a little to do list I have for myself over the next week:

  • Umm, figure out how I’m going to support myself. That’s kind of a big one.
  • Catch up with the typing. I have about four chapters I need to type in.
  • Re-read “A Novel of Your Own (II)” in Jane Smiley’s book Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel.
  • Re-read all my early notes to see what thematic aspirations I had that have fallen through the cracks.
  • Re-read all the commentary Tim Parrish made on my other creative work when I took his class a few years ago and translate that advice to the current work. Use it as a kind of guiding spirit.
  • Re-read some books that have useful to me in sentence level editing in the past, including Style: Ten Lesson in Clarity in Grace by Joseph Williams.
  • Shape up my outline so I can keep track of the cutting and pasting.
  • Shape up the editing notes I made when I reviewed Part I before moving on to Part II.
  • Draw several items to help me track of continuity errors in the draft: a timeline; a map of the town; a map of the house; a family tree.
  • Continue on a regular dosage of reading poetry. I think that will be very helpful when I start trying to shape it at the stylistic level. I’ve mostly avoided reading poetry during the first draft because I could feel that it did get into my head and influence the style. That was a distraction before and could be helpful now. I recently started reading Winter Numbers by Marilyn Hacker (W.W. Norton) and I’ve been thumbing through my old Norton anthologies from college.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

August 13, 2007-First draft done!

I finished my first draft today!

135,000 words since April 22. Working every morning, Monday to Friday, except for two weeks when I was out of town.

It feels a little bit anticlimactic because I know how much more there is to do to turn it into something worth showing to anyone else, but when I think back to what my main goal was on April 22, I can’t quite believe I did it. It seemed so improbable back then.

Can writing be taught?

I like the way Jane Smiley turns that question around in Thirteen Way of Looking At a Novel: Can writing be learned?

I assume that I learned to write somewhere. It’s hard to say where, but I must have learned it somewhere, right? And if it can be learned, it stands to reason that it can be taught.

That’s a flip answer and I don’t know that I’d defend it to the death, but I do lean that way. I’ve never liked the anti-intellectualism in the question “Can writing be taught?” anyway. It always seems to come out of ulterior motives—an urge to poke holes in “book learnin’” and a general hostility toward teachers. It’s really a very territorial question, as if I spend energy and time doing things my way, it might devalue what someone else has.

That’s not to say that the ways that writing is being taught in MFA programs or anywhere else are necessarily successful. I just don’t accept the presumption that writing can’t be taught.

But, the devil his due, whenever I see this discussed among writers who have taught—like in the Paris Review interviews—they always seem to answer that writing can’t be taught. So I postpone a final conclusion.

August 12, 2007--A family distraction

Verrry strange day today. All day yesterday my unspoken plan was to get up and finish the first draft today. My wife is out of town—I would just pretend it was Monday and the excitement of finishing would carry me over the reluctance to work on the weekends.

But last night I got into a phone conversation with my mom . . . . This is actually related to the book. The story draws on a lot of actual experiences and as I burrow into how the characters would behave, sometimes I rely on how I remember it really being, and sometimes I can’t access it. My memories don’t make any sense. The real life story in my memory doesn’t always add up to a tight narrative.

So I decided I wanted, partly out of curiosity about my personal story and partly to help me figure out what my characters were going to do, that I would ask my mom for some clarification. “What was it like that time . . .?” “How did it work when we . . . ?” Who was standing where?” This was kind of a big deal, because my mom and I mostly carefully avoid talking about this stuff.

I had trouble getting a hold of her all week and finally got her late last night, and we were on the phone a looong time and she told me a ton of amazing stories. She ought to write a book. It was very late when I got off the phone and I was filled with these surprising stories that I didn’t want to lose so I went to the computer and started typing until my eyes drifted close while I was sitting at my desk.

So, I’m wiped out this morning and slow to recover. I’m hoping actually to put all that out of my head for a few days to get the first draft finished and then I’ll draw on it in the rewrite.

Avoiding friends

I was supposed to go camping last weekend, and I really didn’t want to, even though I had time. I’ve noticed this sluggishness several times this summer when it comes to any kind of social life. I always feel so preoccupied with the book that I don’t want to do anything else.

That doesn’t make any sense because in a literal way. Camping wouldn’t have interfered with the writing since I was write in the morning, Monday to Friday.

But something—disinclination, superstition—is making me a homebody as long as I’m working on the draft. Don’t want to go out. Don’t want to talk to anybody. Or at least not much. It’s as if keeping the weekends open to just stew on the book feels safer.

I knew I wouldn’t do any real work on it or think about it at all. But the mental state seemeds too fragile to risk. Most weekends I sit around the house watching baseball (even a movie seems too distracting) and not eating right, waiting for Monday morning to come so I can start writing again.

Don’t ask me why I don’t write on the weekends even though I’m not tired in any way. I guess it’s the inherited habit of generations of WASPS not working on weekends.

August 11, 2007--Aaaaalmost done

Saturday today. I haven’t regularly written on most Saturday’s and even fewer Sunday’s, but today was conducive to it. About 2200 words in two-and-a-half hours, bringing me right up to the climax of the story.

I’m nervous. I’m not sure I’ve established everything I need to rather than just announced it. I’m not even sure I’ve announced it all, because it’s a lot to keep track of. And I’m not sure how I’m going to get the characters to do what I intend for them—I’m not sure it will be credible given how I’ve developed them.

Oh well, nothing to do but tell the tale and then see what needs to be fixed in the rewrite. Or nothing productive to do. The other choices are giving up or starting over. I think I’ll go on. Probably on Monday but maybe tomorrow.

A reader in mind

You hear this advice all the time--"Write with a reader in mind." I found this interesting thing that John Updike said about it in the Paris Review interviews:

“Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books in library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks at Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”
--John Updike

Coincidentally, I was a countryish teenager from a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas, depending on library-bound books for a sense of a larger world. It wasn’t Updike’s books that jumped off the shelf at me, though, and I'm still not a fan.

The library was so important to me as a teenager that I thought seriously about having a big chunk of my novel set in that building, and on a recent trip to my hometown spent a little time walking around the library and getting in touch with it again. The story ended up going a different direction, though.

More on writing with a reader in mind in some other post.

More moral support from Jane Smiley

Here are a couple things Jane Smiley says in Thirteen Ways that have helped me keep going:

“You have not been asked or groomed to write a novel. You have not gone to novel-writing school, . . . Chances are, no one wants you to write your novel—if they say they do, they are just meaning that you should get it over with . . . . The people you know actually dread reading the novel you are about to write—they don’t want to read about themselves, they don’t want to be bored, and they fear embarrassment for everyone. You are, therefore, free.

“The Only way to suspend [your own disbelief] is to keep adding sentences to the ones you have
already written. Sheer length persuades, at least to some degree, because it builds and object in the mind.”

“Boredom is only a symptom, and boredom with the material that at first inspired you to write a novel can mean any number of things, but it never means that your material is inherently unintineresting.”

She then goes on to offer several possible diagnoses for the symptom of boredom—not knowing enough about characters, confusion about plot, fear of failure—and some prescriptions to self administer. I strongly recommend reading this section of the book.

Books that help me

Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Way of Looking At a Novel, especially Chapter 10, “A Novel of Your Own (I).” Every time I need moral support, I go back and re-read that chapter.

I use this book almost like a reference tool. It’s 12 chapters on different aspects of reading or writing novels, and then a section with short commentaries on each of 100 novels that she read during a one-year period. I’m frequently looking in the index to see what she thought of a particular book and then getting tempted to reread one of her chapters about the art of the novel or morality in the novel, etc.

She references her own work a lot and it’s interesting to hear how ambivalent or indifferent she is about a couple of my favorites such as The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and A Thousand Acres, which is one of my favorite 20th century novels.

The last chapter is a case study of writing her book Good Faith. It’s an interesting detailed breakdown of what it’s like for an experienced writer when a novel seems blocked and how she found the way out of it.

August 10, 2007

Since finishing my writing yesterday, I have had a terrific sense of acceleration—the sense that the pace of the story and the pace of my thinking about it is speeding up toward the conclusion. It’s on my mind pretty much constantly, or at least it was all day yesterday and overnight.

I had a terrible night’s sleep. I was looking forward to starting on the final scenes today, and I think I must have been obsessing on them in my sleep in a dramatic way, because I woke up about 1:30 and was so wound up I couldn’t fall asleep much again. When I finally got up at about 7 a.m., it was with that dreadful sleepless feeling, so a lot of my anticipation was gone. I ended up having only a mediocre writing session—about 1500 words in 90 minutes fueled on a half a pot of coffee. Now I’m waiting for sleep to come so I can try again tomorrow.

Still I think about two, maybe three, more days of writing should finish it. That’s exciting.

Still don’t know how it’s going to end, though.

August 9, 2007

1,800 words this morning, and I finished the first draft of the penultimate chapter. It’s pretty sketchy, but I’ve established enough on paper and in my head that I can go on to the next chapter—the last chapter—if I want.

Before Monday I’m going to try to type it all in, which will give me an opportunity to organize it, connect the dots and write some of the material that’s probably still missing. But I’ve learned that’s not strictly necessary to continue. Not only does it not need to be perfect—it doesn’t even need to be all the way written down.

I’ll also spend the time trying to brainstorm and picture the last chapter. I really don’t know what’s going to happen yet.