Sunday, December 30, 2007

Supernovas, Dead stars and White Dwarfs

"I want endings (not stoppings) that close like supernovas and leave you gasping.”

--Richard Ford

I first heard this oft-quoted advice from a friend and writing teacher encouraging me to be more aggressive in the ending of a short story I was working on. (You can find the original remark in an interesting long essay by Richard Ford here.) I remember that at the time I was very concerned that my endings be “earned”—that they not come to a sudden resolution that hadn’t been prepared for.

In the old days, the unearned ending would be done with deus ex machina, and most people know better than to do that know. The more common late 20th-century mistake, which I tended toward, is to have a moody quiet character just go off the deep end and wreck any hope of reconciling the relationships. End of story—very tidy. Except that these endings are rarely earned either. An inexperienced writer doesn’t know how to set up for these endings and resorts to them because really they don't know fully what they're doing in their story earlier on.

So, trying to avoid that, I went in the other direction—endings that imitated Raymond Carver and James Joyce. Epiphanies and important realizations. Very slight gestures that indicated a change in understanding of some kind. The worst examples of this look like no ending at all—they just peter out in a way that looks to readers like self-important artsiness and deliberate obscurity.

In a way it is deliberate obscurity. Both kinds of endings are. They try to obscure—either with a lot of commotion or with an affected artsiness—that the writer isn’t command of the material. Instead of worrying about the ending, I would be better off making the characters as fully complex and honest as I could. In theory if I do that then the ending will take care of itself.

In any case, what my friend was saying in quoting Richard Ford was that if powerful emotions have been packed into the story and powerful pressures applied to the characters then something powerful is likely to result. A real person in that situation would naturally respond in some kind of way, and if they are human and singular, and if the situation is really justifiably interesting, they will probably respond in a way that is surprising.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a noisy ending—the choice isn’t between my “and then all of a sudden he started yelling” endings and my “he just shrugged and made a wry joke and walked out the door” endings. In theory, the endings of Carver’s stories and “The Dead”—subtle as they are—are supernovas. I think most readers are left gasping at the end of “The Dead.”

Supernovas vs. Dead Stars

All of this is a lot of background to what I wanted to say about the process of working on this novel.

After finishing the first draft and reading it through, I had many minor episodes that set up a dramatic situation early on, before moving setting up the primary climactic episode of the chapter, and after reading through my draft I could see that those minor episodes were missed opportunities. They didn’t have good endings to them oftentimes. They fell flat without adding anything to advance the plot. Sometimes, arguably, they developed characterization, but only in the sense that they were a character sketch, and characterization should always go hand-in-hand with advancing the plot.

I came to think of these episodes as the opposites of supernovas and in my work plan, not knowing anything about astronomy, I labeled them as “dead stars.” They have been key places in the meantime where I have worked to develop my draft. I go back to those episodes and ask myself what really interested me about that dramatic situation and what would really happen if my characters—who I have been getting to know better and better—were really in that situation, particularly in light of the experiences they’ve been having in previous episodes. Then I develop/re-write that.

Now that I think about it, that metaphor is all wrong, because if they were really dead stars the job would be to cut them out, but like I said, they were missed opportunities. My job was to turn them into supernovas. They might be more appropriately labeled white dwarf stars, but perhaps some literary-minded astronomer or physicist can suggest the more apt metaphor like black dwarf, red giant or Wolf-Rayet star.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Reader In Mind

“At the time of writing, I don’t write for my friends or myself, either; I write for it, for the pleasure of it."
--Eudora Welty

A very common piece of advice about writing is to have a particular single reader in mind. I always feel a little anxious when I'm reminded of that advice, because that's not how my mind seems to work "at the time of writing" as Eudora Welty says. It's like I go into this impossible space without a speaker or an audience. It's totally selfish and internal, and I lose any awareness of other people. Sometimes it's so powerfully absorbing that it's like I'm just witnessing what is happening.

This quote above from Welty comes closest to describing what it's like, and coming across this was a relief from the sense that I was going against the conventional wisdom. It validated my experience.

I asked my friend with more experience writing and publishing about this and he advised me to keep a particular single reader in mind during the re-write process, as opposed to when I'm drafting. That seemed to make sense, but so far I haven't done that either, which probably indicates again how much of my re-writing is really a form of finishing the drafting. Perhaps when I get to a step where it's more about shaping and polishing rather than developing, then that common advice will come in handy.

It's Saturday today and I came to my desk to work on my draft, but I didn't. Something about disciplining myself to work at certain times makes it unlikely for me to do extra work at different times, and that's OK.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The difficulty of working on two scenes in one day

For the time I put in this morning, I was productive--around 1,500 words of new material that is powerful and interesting. I just wish that I could sustain the effort longer than about 90 minutes.

The amount of time isn't the only factor in what makes me stop eventually. Another factor is the emotional trajectory of the scene I'm working on. In general, if I work up to a climactic moment and finish a scene, it's hard to get started again on another scene. To do that work, I typically slip into a reverie where time passes without my noticing it and the scene I'm writing is very vivid in my mind as if I'm daydreaming it.

Usually when I write the last words of the scene I snap out of that reverie and at that point thinking critically about what needs to happen next and then getting the creative juices flowing both seem like impossible tasks. Sometimes I'm able to stretch my legs pouring another cup of coffee and get started again but usually I tell myself to be proud of my work so far and call it a day, which is what happened this morning.

So if my starting point for the day happened to be 90 minutes of work away from finishing the scene--as it was today--90 minutes of work is all that I end up putting in. It could be more or less, though usually not more than two-and-a-half hours.

All of this discussion is about new work. Sometimes when the energy is low I'm able to work on things that require less energy like some line editing or reading over stuff that has only been drafted without being read again or making notes about what else I need to do. Not today, though. I'm done.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Books I Read This Year To Help Me Write My Novel

When I was in college and for many years after I kept a list of all the books I read. For several years I lost the habit and renewed it earlier this year. The rule was always that it had to be a book that I read cover to cover, so books that I don't finish are usually not on the list. I figure I start about four times as many books as I finish--it's not uncommon for me to get a hundred pages or more into a book and give up on it, which I do with a lot of regret because I can be pretty OCD about adding titles to my list. I also have a lot of anxiety about how slow a reader I am--about half as fast as my wife.

But I'm good about making time for reading, so even with my slow pace and my tendency to abandon a lot of books part way through, I'm able to finish more than one book/week. I'm looking at my 2007 list now, and I have 65 titles on it, and I expect to add one more.

I'm not going to list them all, but I thought it would interesting to list all of them that had something to do with my thinking about my own novel, which I started working on April 22. These are books that I turned to for models, guidance, instruction, inspiration, moral support, research and relief.

  1. The Runaway -- Alice Munro*
  2. Writing In General and The Short Story In Particular -- L. Rust Hills*
  3. A Farewell To Arms -- Ernest Hemingway
  4. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
  5. For Whom The Bell Tolls -- Ernest Hemingway
  6. To Kill A Mockingbird -- Harper Lee
  7. The Blues Eye -- Toni Morrison
  8. This Year You Will Write Your Novel -- Walter Mosley
  9. Kafka On the Shore-- Haruki Murakami
  10. On Writing and Publishing -- Mark Twain
  11. Why Does He Do That? -- Lundy Bancroft
  12. Speak -- Laurie Halse Anderson
  13. The Pesthouse -- Jim Crace
  14. Suite Francaise -- Irene Nemirovsky*
  15. The Singular Mark Twain -- Fred Kaplan*
  16. Reading Like A Writer -- Francine Prose
  17. Journal of a Novel -- John Steinbeck (recommended for aspiring writers and hard-core fans.)
  18. On Writing and Publishing -- Mark Twain
  19. In Country -- Bobbie Ann Mason*
  20. Living By Fiction -- Annie Dillard
  21. Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interview (a few from each volume, probably adding up to about the equivalent of two volumes)*
  22. The Echo Maker -- Richard Powers*
  23. Winter Numbers: Poems -- Marilyn Hacker*
  24. Style: 10 Lessons In Clarity and Grace -- Joseph Williams (recommended for any working writer)
  25. Conversations With Toni Morrison -- ed. by Danilee Taylor-Guthrie*
  26. The Great Gatsby -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
  27. Kissing God Goodbye: Poems, 1991-1997 -- June Jordan
  28. A Light In August -- William Faulkner
  29. Waiting -- Ha Jin*
  30. Fathers and Sons -- Ivan Turgenev
  31. A Peculiar Grace -- Jeffrey Lent
  32. Fire In the Blood -- Irene Nemirovsky
  33. The Book of Daniel -- E. L. Doctorow*
  34. On the Road: The Original Scroll -- Jack Kerouac*
  35. Run -- Ann Patchett
  36. The View From Castle Rock -- Alice Munro
  37. Madame Bovary -- Gustave Flaubert

In addition, preceding and during that period, I read other books about writing (Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel*), books related to my travels in Vietnam, books on economics (Three Billions New Capitalists, The World Is Flat), books on WWII History (Joe Keegan, Joseph Persico) and several volumes of biography inspired by my driving tour of American historical sites last summer (Lincoln, John Brown, Lewis and Clark).

*I'm marking with an asterisk lesser-known books that I recommend to most readers interested in good writing (regardless of whether or not you are working on a novel.) I'm not bothering to mark the classics/canonical books that most people are already familiar with.

Back from break

It doesn't feel like I really took that much of a break--more like a long weekend than anything. It was enough of a break though that I didn't feel on my game today, though. Just keeping the habit going without doing any real good work. About 90 minutes of work total, on two different sections of Chapter 3, none of it really amounting to much new drafting--just straightening out some transitions necessitated by changes from the original. I did set myself up for the new material I need to write to develop the chapter. I couldn't bring myself to work on it today, but hopefully when I'm fresh tomorrow I can approach it without too much fear.

I've been re-reading Madame Bovary. More on that later. I got some new books for xmas gifts, including Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Rebecca Barry's Later, At the Bar and I'm looking forward to starting those next.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Working on xmas

Happy holidays. I'm not working exactly, because that's impossible at the in-laws' house, but I'm taking a few minutes to scribble some notes on a move in the plot that came to me yesterday. Out for a walk between heavy holiday meals yesterday and slipped into reverie and something in the walk reminded me of something in my childhood which got me wondering how I could use it, and what I came up with was good enough that when a quiet moment came this afternoon I still remembered it well enough to type up the concept real quick and email it to myself. I'm hoping it will solve something that's been bothering me about the opening to Chapter 3.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Got a little done today

I hadn't expected to work any today, but grading student papers went faster than expected yesterday, so I had this morning available after all. I gave it a shot, but I guess I had already psyched myself out with the idea of a break--that and the lack of confidence I'm having about this chapter overall--so I ended up avoiding the real development work I still need to do and just did sentence-level tinkering with my draft for about an hour.

Regrettable, but not as bad as not working at all. I'm going on the theory that if I treat the daily habit as sacred it will get done eventually. Persevering through these days when it's hard to see the point is part of the process.

Nevertheless, I'm off until at least the day after xmas. Unavoidable commitments.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Old journal entries posted out of order--Rethinking my plot

Before I started posting to this blog, I kept some journal entries so I would have material to work with once I got going. They were logs without the web. Some of those original pieces were never posted, and now I'm circling back to post some of interest.

Sept. 4

I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I’m having a terrific urge to layer on some plot complications. It’s a very creative feeling, but it also feels a little dangerous—like it could be destructive of what I have at the same time. It’s ironic to have this urge since plot has always been my greatest weakness.

It’s hard to describe what I mean without being specific about the details of my book, but . . . I think I’m feeling like there needs to be more going on outside the main domestic setting of the story. My friend Tim Parrish advised me to make sure that there is energy in the story outside the family, and at the time I thought I had it covered and didn’t think much about it. But now as I read through the draft I’m finding all these little loose threads—little bits of color and detail thrown in without ever following up on them—and they suggest possibilities. It’s like I’ve unconsciously foreshadowed dozens of plot strands that I never thought about and never followed up on.

One example: In my draft, I have my main character getting a little pre-adolescent erotic charge hanging out with the receptionist at his dad’s office. I put it in to tell myself what his frame of mind is like at the time, but I wasn’t really including it to move the plot and didn’t do anything with it. It didn’t contribute to the story in any way. Meanwhile, the usual tension carries on between my character and his father. It seems to me now all of that can be combined to generate some other plot complications that hadn’t occurred to me before.

This isn’t the best example, because I don’t want to give away my best example. But in any case, if I pursued that line of thought, it would take me down different paths and possibly necessitate different episodes following that point in the book and even a different conclusion.

On the one hand, I really don’t like the idea that my story would need so much basic structural work. On the other hand, I’m getting a little thrill from a seeming breakthrough in my ability generate more plot complications.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Toni Morrison on Point of View II

Picking up on my last post about looking at things from the bad guy’s P.O.V., the example of the that clearest to me is the Cholly chapter in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and that whole book, along with Beloved, are what I turned to for technical models for my narrative P.O.V.

I started out knowing that I wanted my narration to be in the third person. Partly I didn’t want to limit myself to the P.O.V. of my main character all the way through. Especially since it’s a coming of age story, so my youthful character would not be very sophisticated or a mature judge of his circumstances. I wanted to be able to say more than the character could.

Also, I didn’t want to invite comparison with other coming-of-age stories with strong first-person narrators like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn. Any story about youth told in the first person always gets summarized by some readers as either a modern Holden Caulfield or Scout or Huck Finn and I didn’t want to have that hanging over my head as I drafted.

As for second person narration, I’ve always thought that felt gimmicky and unnatural. It puts up a stylistic barrier between the story and the listener. In theory, it's a more immersive experience for the reader, but in reality I think it has the opposite effect, forcing the reader to translate through the technique.

So when I first started, I went looking for examples of coming-of-age novels in the third-person, and they are actually pretty hard to find. (If you can suggest any, let me know.) My wife suggested The Bluest Eye, but if you start reading it from the first chapter, you’ll see that her memory was technically mistaken. It starts in first person, but from the P.O.V. of someone other than the main character of Pecola. It’s sort of how Nick Carraway reports on Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby—the on-the-scene observer who is not himself central to the action. (Except that he actually is when it comes to the thematic conflict vs. the exterior conflict—I’ll parse that another day.)

But I nevertheless re-read The Bluest Eye all the way through and saw that the P.O.V. jumps around. It’s in first person a lot of the time, though with different narrators, and it's in third person omniscient a couple times and third person limited sometimes, especially in the Cholly chapter. That turned out to be a chapter that inspired me quite a lot. If you look over the Cholly chapter, you’ll see that it gets in so close to looking through his eyes and limiting the information to what he knows and how he feels about it, that it almost feels like first person, but it’s third-person limited.

That was also instructive because I knew I was going to have a technical problem similar to the one that chapter was dealing with—a character who does monstrous things but who if I presented as monstrous would come off as flat and unrealistic and incredible. With Cholly, Morrison "causes readers some dismay" (to use her own analysis--see yesterday's post) by making him understandable and comprehensible. She treats him as human, which is necessary to the art if he isn’t going to be just a tool to move the plot along. It certainly is dismaying and raises the stakes for the reader of all the conflict that follow. (That's key probably to any great narrative art and part of what I admire in Morrison's novels--when not only can the reader see something at stake for the characters but can feel something at stake for themselves.)

In the case of my own book, it would certainly be more comfortable for me to treat my monstrous character as simply a monster but the credibility of the tale would break down there, and the Cholly chapter showed me a way to create what I needed to.

But where Morrison used the third person limited in that select spot, I felt her way of getting in so close that it felt like the first person would be good for my entire story. Instead of shifting the P.O.V. and the technique, I would stick with that technique and switch from one character to another as needed in different sections or chapters.

Just about decided on that, I turned to Beloved to study how she handled P.O.V. there. I looked at the scene where the full detail of how Beloved dies is revealed to the reader—the family working the yard, the horses coming up the lane, the mad dash to the shed. If you look at that scene, you’ll see that same technique of third person narration getting in real close on the shoulder of the characters so that it feels like first person.

Except in this case, instead of it changing from chapter to chapter, the P.O.V. changes from paragraph to paragraph. We spend a few frames on Stamp Paid’s shoulder, then on Baby Suggs’, then on the slave masters, then on the nephew’s, then the white man coming up from town in his carriage and so on. In each paragraph we only see it from the perspective and limited understanding of each character and in that way get the whole story. It’s masterful. It’s the most impactful and complex—and dismaying—presentation of horror that I know of in a novel.

I've imitated that style a lot at the most emotionally intense points in my draft and overall the P.O.V. would be described as third-person limited, mostly from the perspective of the main character and occasionally, for the duration of a chapter, switching to other key characters.

The blues

Not a very productive day today, not ending with a good feeling about how it's going and all the more anxious because I know this is the last day I'll be able to work on it for about a week. Intellectually, I know the time off is probably a good thing, since I'm feeling pretty stuck, but I'm so frustrated with how slowly this is going.

I wrote--I don't know--very very little of the new material I need to connect all the dots in chapter three and then seemed to hit a block. I did a little bit of rethinking about what needs to happen and made notes on that. But I couldn't get myself to actually work on the next steps.

I can't help feeling that all the improved clarity is an illusion, since the more clarity I get the less I actually do the work of bringing that clarity to the draft.

I have to grade student papers the next couple of days. Then baking for xmas. Then traveling for xmas. Hopefully back with fresh energy next Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Toni Morrison on Point of View I

This is from one of my favorite books about literature, Conversations With Toni Morrison (Edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie; University Press of Mississippi)

Q: Do you love all your characters?
A: Always!
Q: Do you identify with any of them?
A: No, that would not be a good position to take . . . . I love them and I cherish them, and I love their company as long as I am with them. The point is to try to see the world from their eyes, and I think that is probably what causes readers some dismay. I like to do what I thinks actors do on stage. My work is to become those characters in a limited way, to see that they see, not what I see. I need to see how they see the world. Each one speaks his or her own language, has an individual set of metaphors, and notices certain things differently from other people.

My biggest direct influence when it came to P.O.V. was Toni Morrison, and I'll write about that at more length later. This quote, which I found after I had already get well started, isn't obviously about P.O.V. in that it doesn't say anything about first-person, third-person, omniscience, etc. But it is about P.O.V. in the sense that it reminds me that all the technical parts of a book are integrated. Whatever technical approach I take to the issue of P.O.V.--third person limited, for example--it won't matter if I don't really perceive my characters as fully human.

This can be so difficult to do with the bad guys in a story. (Though I suppose the danger is just as great with the good guys.) The temptation is to treat them like monsters--to have them serve the purpose of antagonizing your protagonist. But if they aren't fully human in their own right and don't have real, credible reasons for their behavior, then you have melodrama instead of literature.

One way I forced myself to do that is to have some chapters that are specifically from the antagonists P.O.V. In my case it's like when Gruendel speaks for himself in John Gardner's novel. It's not always necessary to narrate from the bad guy's P.O.V., but Toni Morrison's point here is that it's always necessary to be able to.

More new drafting

More of the same as yesterday. 1,300 new words in one spurt of a little over an hour. It's just like drafting last summer in that I seem to get lost in imagining it, I end up taking it place I didn't intend and once I bring a scene to end I have a feeling of exhaustion that makes it hard to start up a new scene regardless of how much or little time I have actually put in or if I actually moved the story to where I had planned on that day.

So I often end up with a feeling that I'm still pretty far from finishing the chapter, and that's what today is like. I have to remember that even if my work doesn't stick closely to my intentions it's still probably important work. I'm discovering things about the characters and finding new ways to show how they are.

With all of this deliberate new drafting and the way that material tends to accumulate less deliberately during the rewriting, the draft is getting to be pretty long. I haven't tallied it all up, but it has to be around 170,000 words total now, which is somewhere around 500-550 typescript pages. And that's with only having worked on the first three chapters out of 15 during the rewriting stage. There's going to be a lot of work to cut it down to what really works.

(If only it were that simple. Whenever I cut something for being mostly unnecessary there will still be some little details that are necessary and it will take time and intellectual energy to figure out how to include that somewhere.)

One other unimportant note for the record: Yesterday afternoon after blogging about my day's work I ended up going back and working some more. I think I added about 2,500 words total yesterday.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The unused drafting muscle

The work I'm doing now feels a lot like drafting. This chapter was always the weakest and least developed, and like I said last week I've had some breakthroughs in my thinking that necessitate some particular development. Those two things together add up to basically needing to write brand new material for this chapter apart from developing what's there. It's entire new scenes where no aspect of it has already been established.

I should be happy about being in that position, because really drafting has been the most comfortable part of the process so far, so a little bit of reliving old times would be nice. But it takes awhile to get in the groove, so I've been really shy about approaching the work. I avoided it for a few days last week.

But I did OK this morning. I was shy getting started, but I did and it did go like old times mostly. I wrote about 1600 new words in around two hours or so. That's somewhat less than average than last summer.

The environment and process was different also in that it wasn't on my porch but in my office, it's freezing out, and I'm typing on the computer instead of writing longhand. In my contemplative moments I'm staring out the window at the oil trucks trying to navigate the ice on our hilly street instead of at the birds and squirrels and waving tree branches in our back yard.

Like last summer I tried to finish up by noting what I needed to work on next so that I don't have to use too much intellectual energy on that when I get started tomorrow morning.

Unfortunately, none of this actually feels like being closer to finished. I continue to feel really nervous about how long it's taking.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Alice Munroe's "The View From Castle Rock"

Alice Munroe is a genius, I think. I only know her most recent books, so I should read some of her earlier stories before I spout off, but for me she symbolizes the kind of writer who achieves terrific literary expertise late in life. Runaway, which I read earlier this year just before I started working on my own book, communicates so much maturity--finely honed expertise, wisdom based on experience, patience and confidence.

And those stories are packed. They do tons and tons of work in so little space. They remind me of the physical sensation of science experiments as a child when the teacher would have me pick up two objects that looked similar in shape and color. One would be made of lead and the other of cast aluminum. If you pick up the aluminum first, misjudging its weight your arm jerks into the air suddenly. Accustomed to the weight of the piece of cast aluminum, the lead wold feel surprisingly heavy. The point was to distinguish between volume and mass, each of them having equal volume but a different mass. The sense of anticipating helped drive the point home. Alice Munroe's stories are like that--you start out reading them anticipating the cast aluminum and discover they have a lot more mass to them than that.

I just got done reading her most recent book, The View From Castle Rock. What's interesting to me about this book is the form. It's so unusual a form that I think the people who wrote the book jacket didn't really get it and ended up misleading. Again I was anticipating something a lot different.

For one thing, the jacket describes it as stories, and since she's known a short story writer, I figured it was another collection of short stories. Not at all--it's a single complete narrative in two parts.

What's interesting about the form is that it is a mixture of documentary/history, invented history and personal memoir, and which parts are invented and which parts are true don't follow any traditional compact between writer and reader. It all adds up to the a kind of family history. It starts with Scots so many generations back that they are at the transition from folklore with fairies and haunted woods to the kind of written records where the names of relatives can be found. Where no record exists, Munroe fills in the gaps with vivid narrative speculations. At the generations pass and her ancestors immigrate to "America"--eastern Canada, Illinois and Ontario--the surviving written record begins to accumulate, but the reader can't tell if these are actual or if they are also Munroe's inventions. Effectively warned not to take any direct report for granted, by the time the action moves into the narrator's lifetime and what she witnesses it's impossible to tell in what sense this is memoir or still "stories" in the usual sense of the word.

One of the points, I assume, is that they are all stories regardless of their accuracy or regardless of how much they are based on invention versus memory.

So, for purely technical reasons, the book is interesting for that experiment in form.

A working title finally

Up until last week my book didn’t have a working title. All through the writing of the first draft, a couple months of stewing and a couple months of working on the rewrite, I didn’t refer to it by any name at all, aloud or in my head. I was in no rush to find the perfect title, but it made me a little anxious that nothing had leapt out to suggest itself as a possibility. I was worried that there was nothing grounding it—no strong metaphor or image that held it together, no theme connecting it all the way through. I could think of lots of metaphors and images and episodes that I had confidence in, but none of them seemed overarching enough to warrant being the title.

Now that something has come to me, it kind of confirms that my anxiety was well founded—I can see an overarching theme and metaphor much better now that I have a title and that I was working much more blindly before. Having the title is even helping to solidify and focus the plot and character. The lack of a title was coincidental to the book just not being very well developed yet.

I also know now that I was right to ignore that anxiety and keep moving forward anyway. The larger underlying fear—that all the work was shit and going nowhere—wasn’t well founded. I needed to ignore that and keep going on the assumption that while what I had so far wasn’t as well developed as I wished it was, it was still something and was still adding up to more and more something every day.

This line of thinking reminds of something Toni Morrison says in an interview about trying to find the right metaphor for a book. I forget it exactly, but I remember that when I saw it, it seemed to clarify things for me for a couple of days. I’ll have to look for that again.

The title . . . I should say a title, since working titles are more likely to change than not, for both artistic/literary reasons and, if I should ever be blessed with publication, for marketing reasons . . . A title came to me uncomfortably late, but it has always worked out pretty good. I’m quite proud of my title, actually. I hope it doesn’t change. However, this is one of several pieces of valuable experience I have gained in my first book that I will try to do better on in my next book—to settle earlier on some of the thematic and metaphor issues that a good working title is a symptom of. I expect my early work in future novels will be much more “on task” than it has been in this book.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Don't plan for the future

Talking things over with my wife today (which I do to help me get unstuck, especially when it's fear that has me stuck), I had a little bit of an intellectual breakthrough -- which is that I have to forget about the chapters to come sometimes.

Part of what's holding me back is the sense that the path I'm going down with this chapter will call into question the necessity of later chapters. And for a variety of reasons--some just stubborn fear of work going to waste, some legitimate technical reasons--I want those chapters to be there.

I have to stop trying to stagemother that situation. Just write the chapter I'm working on and then deal with the consequences. Because otherwise what's happening is that I'm holding back--trying not to do too much with this chapter so that there is something worthwhile to do later--and that's not good for the current chapter.

And the consequence doesn't necessarily have to be the deletion of a chapter later on. More likely is that the scenario can stay and the significance of it and how it develops and how people behave in that situation would change.

If so, the temptation is to try and think that all the way through and plan it out now, but I'm thinking it's wiser not to plan too much for the future even when I'm feeling confident about it. That's just stagemothering with more of a sense of success. Let it go and just focus on this chapter and then deal with the consequences later.

Revision troubles

There comes a stage, however, when I have made it through to what I hope is the perfect end to a perfect story. I allow myself to sigh with happiness, to sit for a moment awash in the golden glow of my successfully completed work. Then I come back to reality, and the real process of revision begins.

--Jesse Lee Kercheval

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Old journal entries, posted out of order- Sept. 11

Before I started posting to this blog, I kept some journal entries so I would have material to work with once I got going. They were logs without the web. Some of those original pieces were never posted, and now I'm circling back to post some of interest.

September 11, 2007—No work

As I was pouring my cup of coffee before sitting down to work this morning, my wife had the t.v. on in the kitchen and tuned to MSNBC rebroadcast of what was on the air on NBC six years ago today. I got caught up in it and ended up not working.

Obviously, seeing that footage, and just noting what day it is on the calendar, brings up a lot of difficult emotion—unique to each person. In many ways, that day has resonances for my writing life, and especially this year. By some unintentional path I have ended up career and employment wise back in much the same situation I was on that day. I’m sitting in the same room in my house again, struggling with the same doubts about becoming a writer and earning a living and with similar avoidance issues.

Back then I was trying to support myself as a freelance writer and part-time college writing teacher while I worked on a novel that I have since abandoned. I was already teetering on the edge of not quite making enough money. I had a few assignments that were going to pay OK and move me up the food chain a little bit. I had just finished one after working on it all summer and sent it in. The other I had been procrastinating on and that was the day when I was going to buckle down and really start it. I was waiting for the clock to turn 9 so I could start making phone calls for interviews. I had the radio on tuned to NPR and was postponing turning it off because I didn’t really want to get to work. They reported the first plane, though with a sense that it must be an accident. And at the top of the hour they repeated it, and something about the tone of voice told me this was kind of strange. I walked across the hall to turn on the t.v. in the bedroom and saw the second plane hitting.

I ended up watching t.v. for four days straight and when I finally came back to my desk to get to work I found that my assignments had fallen through. Every magazine had torn up their editorial calendars to make way for stories about how our world had changed. The story I already completed got a kill fee. The story I was just starting got canceled.

That sent me out looking for a regular job, and once I had that the energy for the novel I was working on evaporated. Things went like that for five years until last spring when I left that job and was captured by the novel project I’m working on now.

And, to support myself, I’m again teaching writing part-time and again trying to get a freelance writing career going. A lot has changed and for several reasons I have better prospects for success, but it’s hard to see those today. It just feels too similar to what life was like six years ago.

Two part structure

As I was drafting, there was one way in which my experience was paralleling the advice of the experts, which gave me some comfort.

Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel talks about how at around the 60 percent mark in most novels it’s common for the story to fell like it’s taking a deep breath, gathering itself up and starting to move with more deliberation toward it’s conclusion.

When I read that, after I had been writing my first draft for awhile, I realized that the two-part structure I was using naturally set me up to do almost exactly what she was describing. I always knew that I intended to bring my main character to a crisis point mid way through the book that got resolved but at the same time complicated the larger conflict and that put the character in a different light. I imagined that sub-conflict as almost like a novella on its own and the rest of the story that would follow like a sequel, picking up the character at a later period of time.

If you’re familiar with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, you might have a sense of what I mean. Part I in that book is a complete long story in its own right, a lot like James Joyce’s “The Dead,” but it is also a necessary piece of the larger story that unfolds in the rest of the book.

So I began to imagine the novel being two parts, the first part concluding with the crisis and resolution in my sub plot and the second part naturally concluding with the major climax of the story. And I always felt that part one would take about two-thirds of the total book to spin out and that part two would be the last third of the book.

When I finished part one and was planning part two, I could feel the shift in tone and in pace. Things were going to start happening more quickly, the chapters would have more numerous and shorter episodes in them. The book took on a different “mouth feel,” as the gastronomes would say.

I was right at the 60-65 percent mark and it was just like Smiley had said—the story was gathering itself up to make the rest of its march to the end.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Nouement or Conflict vs. Complication

Another point, thought it seems almost too obvious to state: what makes [Sue] Miller's novel [Lost In the Forest] suspenseful is that she doesn't just work through her opening situation. Instead, she keeps adding narrative complications, which is how a novel that appears to be about grief and the possibility of remarriage shifts to become a novel about how divorce and loss affect children as they grow.

With fiction, it's not enough just to present a troubling situation and resolve it; you need to up the ante. You need complication . . . In my fiction writing textbook's diagram of Freitag's triangle, there are little "x"s on the rising slope of Freitag's triangle. These are "complications," the nouement, or "knotting up," of the ground situation.

All of this is very basic, and yet I read a lot of fiction that doesn't really knot up as it proceeds. It might deepen characterization and beautifully develop theme, but it doesn't up the ante. Instead, it presents the conflict and resolution. And the conflict basically stays the same throughout the story, which lends a certain predictability to a tale. Even if we don't know the end, we know if the couple is going to resolve their problems or not; if the mother is going to stay with the jerky boyfriend or figure out a way to leave, and so on. What makes Miler's work suspenseful is that she keeps changing her novel's underlying situation; the conflict isn't the same on the first and last pages. The conflict has--as conflicts in life do--developed.

Debra Spark. "And Then Something Happened." The Writer's Chronicle. October/November 2007. pg. 81.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Some clarity, some confusion

Like I had planned last Friday, I took time over the weekend to concentrate on the sense I was having that a breakthrough was at hand. And I did have some luck. I reached a lot of clarity about how plot, character and theme are connected, what the ending is and what the story is and outlined all that in some good notes. That was gratifying.

Less clear is what the overall momentum of the book is. This newfound sense of the story and its conclusion means that I have a new way of understanding each chapter and its contribution to the whole--how they build momentum. And that understanding seems to be just out of range of what I can see so clearly. It's still in the process of emerging. Which I don't like because it makes it hard to use my writing time effectively this morning.

I ended up using this morning more to collect my thoughts and straighten out my notes than to do any actual rewriting. (Though I messed with one scene in Ch. 3 a little bit.) And I'm finishing up without much confidence of what else I need to do in that chapter, so I don't know that I'll be productive tomorrow either.

That and some work and household pressures have me feeling like I'm not going to be able to make much progress in the next week and I continue to feel like, though all the work I'm doing is good and important, it's going way way too slow.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The distractions of research—the advantages of autobiography

A few years ago I made my first attempt at writing a novel. It had the seeming virtue of not being autobiographical at all, being set a generation before my own birth in a region I hadn’t lived in and featuring people in exotic professions I had never worked in. One character was a real recognizable public figure and another was burdened by a long and noble family history which I figured to detail as part of the backstory. Also I imagined the book to be in a kind of thematic conversation with two other novels I admired.

That’s a lot of complexity in theme, setting, character and plot and required a LOT of research—the time and setting of the present story, the life and times of one character’s ancestors for several generations, all the biography and commentary on the controversial historical figure, all about the unfamiliar professions and all the criticism of the two other novels I meant it to be in thematic conversation with.

I was in hog heaven. I love research, and it’s what I’m trained for. The wonderful thing about research is there’s never enough of it to do. Research is at heart an infinite journey. Just take a subject like, say, Gettysburg—a battle that lasted three days in one little town. (That wasn’t the setting for my novel. I just happened to be reading about it recently.) I defy you to even produce a complete bibliography on the subject, let alone read a fraction of the work. You couldn't even read all the existing historical fiction about it. And if you have ever been there you know there are armies hardcore buffs and legitimate scholars wandering around with what they suppose are still new lines of inquiry.

All that research I was doing for my novel felt like necessary work at the time, but it was really a distraction from the real work which is to regularly and ceaselessly add sentences to the draft of the novel. Lots of things go in to making a novel, but none of them is so important as that—just add sentences. Going to the library is no more responsible a way to honor the impulse to write than is checking to see if the oven needs to be cleaned.

The novel I’m writing now has the seemingly dubious quality of being autobiographical, but at least it doesn’t call for much research since I'm relying on my own experience and inventiveness. I still need to do a little bit sometimes—Did that make of car have chrome on the dashboard and did it have gauges or idiot lights? Wikipedia and Google are great resources for that, but as much time as they save on trips to the library, it can be a day-destroying break with the creative spirit. Email may save time compared to the U.S. Postal Service, but checking my email when I’m supposed to be writing is a bad habit. The same goes for “just checking on Google real quick for something.”

Not only does the research distract me from using my time well, it might also distract me from what my story actually is. I was thinking about this because today—a Saturday, so I have permission not to write—I got distracted "just checking Google real quick." Two hours passed, but it’s a Saturday, so no harm, no foul. But I also got real interested in some little unexpected details and anecdotes I found. I started thinking maybe I could incorporate them into the book. Maybe if my character went here, happened to be there, was standing in the path of that historical force . . . Plot complications accumulate. And that can be a good thing, but it takes a discipline and critical eye probably sharper than mine to see how much is too much. I tend to get lost in these side paths and lose sight of the goal.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Reading novels while I’m writing

John Updike said, “I want to read only what will help me unpack my own bag.”

That makes sense to me. I feel very touchy about what I read, and I’ve had an uncharacteristic tendency in the last several months of picking up lots of books and not finishing them. All the surfaces in my house are stacked with books I’ve pulled off of shelves, started in hopes of finding coaching or companionship and then abandoned. I’m looking for books that address the same technical problems that I’m having or that give me a sense of how to keep going without fear. One example was Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, which I got caught up in and finished while I was drafting. It’s in the third person, which I was lad to have a chance to study in action, and I enjoyed looking at how it handled the characterization of a small-city environment, which I also am doing.

Books like that are hard to find—thus all the Paris Review interviews I’ve been reading. Still I need to keep my mind busy between my morning writing sessions. Early in the process I had some luck distracting myself with some totally unrelated history books and biographies, but I’ve been feeling impatient with them lately.

I had a period when I started reading poetry some, which in a way felt more dangerous. You hear some authors talk about how they don’t want to be “influenced” while they’re writing, and poetry it seems to me is more likely to do that anything, to put a certain tempo or stylistic consciousness into my sentences. I’m intrigued by that but cautious. I don’t want to risk any kind of disruption. Perhaps it will come in handy during the revision/editing process.

Trying to get the big picture

Took yesterday off like I planned, which probably wasn't a good idea, because it disrupted my flow for the whole day. I felt at loose ends and unproductive regarding all my other work also.

Banged away at Ch. 3 today. About an hour and a half.

But what's really going on with me is stewing over big picture problems--like what is the essential plot and problem of this book. I feel like I'm on the verge of understanding about the book in a very different way. Different organizational terms. If I could just focus long enough to figure it out. And I think maybe I'm intimidated because I can see how disruptive that's going to be--all the revision it will necessitate.

It's difficult to explain--especially since I can't seem to focus on it--but it has to do with plot. What happens. I think that as I work I move back and forth between different areas of focus--plot, character, theme, setting, language. One or the other of those presents itself as the unresolved technical problem most needing attention before I can proceed. And right now it's plot. I'm imagining a thick layer that I'm going to add. I'm imagining a possible ending. And I'm becoming more conscious of the fact that that has implications for what should be happening in the earlier chapters. I need to prepare the ground for that ending. The chapters really become ABOUT something that they haven't been about so far.

Ugh. Tired and doubtful. This has been a tough week. I'm going to spend the weekend trying to come to a better understanding.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Anticlimactic-done with Chapter 2

I'm deciding to call the rewrite of Chapter 2 finished for now, but I'm doing it with a lot of doubt. It's long and convoluted without much emotional power. It feels like I'm still trying to find the point of it and that it's cluttered up with a lot of stuff that isn't the point. But I've tinkered with about everything on my to do list for this chapter.

It doesn't help that I'm coming to the end on a day when I just plain feel terrible. Basketball last night resulted in a twist in my back that hurts like hell. And like usual I slept terrible and overslept, which makes the writing feel rushed and wasted.

Oh well. Part of the process. Chapter 2 wasn't fun work, but it was work. Maybe I'll get some better perspective on it after I work on some other chapters.

Tomorrow is probably a lost day. Counting on Friday to kick off Chapter 3 for real.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Are the characters in control?

If you read a lot of interviews with writers like I do, you often see writers claiming that their characters just take over sometimes as if the writer is just a medium. That’s never my experience and the mysticism of it puzzles me. So I got a chuckle when I saw this exchange with Vladimir Nabokov on the subject.

From the Paris Review interviews . . .

Interviewer: E.M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

Nabokov: My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.

The whole interview is worth reading for Nabakov's combination of wit and precise language. He's relentless.

Tough sledding

Some days I just never get in the groove and I'm fully conscious of working and that it is work. When that happens, I just have to keep pushing through. This was one of those days.

It's hard because the material starts to feel really boring to work on and there's one more reason to feel less confident. I have to keep reminding myself that it's all part of the process. When it feels like I'm working through a list of boring tasks, it's important at least to keep getting those tasks done until I get in a different mood and to count that as progress. Even if I'm only discovering what doesn't work (which is probably not all that's happening--it just feels that way) that's better than stalling and giving up.

I think about I worked about 1:45 today before I couldn't concentrate any longer. Added some changes I want to work on. I'm still hoping to finish tomorrow--Wednesday--and then to move on to Chapter 3 before the weekend. Not sure it's going to happen though.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Is it autobiographical? II

Asked about if his books are autobiographical, John Updike said, “I count on people to know the difference between flesh and paper, and generally they do.”

Updike has more faith in the neighbors he was speaking of than I do in my family. I think they’ll see the similarities between themselves and my characters and assume that everything about that character is meant to be a description of them.

And while none of them are demonized or sanctified I hope (see earlier post on autobiography), the overall picture of those characters isn’t always flattering either.

That fear--that real people will see the characters as themselves and take offense--is another kind of self editing I had to repress while I was drafting. In fact, that form of self editing is a big part of what has taken me to so late in life to write anything.

I eventually just had to tell myself to worry about that later, that nothing mattered so much as finishing a draft. Now that I’m done with the draft and working on the rewrite, it matters a lot less. The characters have become more themselves and less like the people they were inspired by.

Back to chapter 2

As expected, I'm feeling like I need to revisit Chapter 2 for awhile before moving on. I put in about 90 minutes this morning do something difficult and tedious but still avoiding something even more difficult, which is figuring out something about who my characters really are and inventing new material that shows them acting like real people. In other words, going deeper and developing--in specific places, that is.

I know I'm going to lose Thursday morning to an errand, so my goal is to finish that work on Tuesday and Wednesday so that on Friday I can move on to Chapter 3. In fact, I'm hoping to be a little more aggressive today, returning to the desk to work on this some more after I get some other errands done and clear my head. I'm feeling like if I can get my head clear I can have a second session today. We'll see.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A little bit of Sunday work

Sunday evening now. I had my wife read Chapter 2 and got her feedback and came around to understanding what I already knew about its weaknesses and not being finished. This evening I got in the mood for working on it and put in about 45 minutes puttering around, which is a very unusual time for me to do any writing. It's nice to have felt the call and to have responded to it.

I didn't do any heavy lifting, but I did get straight in my mind what heavy lifting I have to do, so I can get to work on it bright and early in the morning. I think.

The more I work on it, the more I feel like I did last summer when I was drafting and I have no interest in other stuff, like my job or my friends. I was at a xmas party last night and all I wanted to do was come home and get in bed with a book until sleep came so I could get through Sunday and sleep again to bring on Monday so I could write.

Is it autobiographical?

Jane Smiley says,
“Almost every novelist, no matter how great, begins by portraying his friends and associates thinly veiled in his work. This is a very good idea, because the novel is a demanding interpersonal medium, and it is much harder to demonize or sanctify a character than it is to demonize or sanctify a relative. As soon as you put words in your dastardly brother’s mouth, you begin, at least in a rudimentary way, if only for the sake of the plot and future critical acclaim, to see things from his view, because if you did not, the character based on him would not be able to speak convincingly.”

Clever, but not really to the point. That tells why writing an autobiographical book is a good idea to come to terms with how you feel about your brother. It doesn’t say why it’s a good idea for the sake of the book. You could just as well write about totally imaginary characters and not be tempted with the lifetime habit of how you think about the real person.