Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I'm working on Chapter 7, and I'm feeling lost. It's a familiar feeling though. I work up to a point where the story breaks down and because I don't know how to fix it there's a little period of doubt and fear. Chapter 7 has some important pressure points in it, which became more apparent as I worked on it today. I'm going to have to stew on it a little bit.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Understanding character

Starting fresh on Monday morning, and that sense of momentum from last week isn't there. I think Chapter 7 is going to take longer than a couple of days. It might even go very slowly. But I'm not feeling worried about it. Right now it feels similar to how slowly it was all going over most of the winter, but different in an important respect--I feel like I know what the work is and why it's going slowly. I know what I need to be working on.

Essentially--for today at least--I'm trying to imagine what the consequences are of plot developments that have been added into previous chapters. And since the really meaningful consequences are how the characters feel about it and deal with it, I have to understand the characters. Of course, I understood them before, but the bar keeps getting raised as the story gets deeper and more complex. You have to imagine them more vividly--make them more and more real in your imagination.

So today I was looking at one scene that was very superficial in the first draft and asking myself how would these people really feel about what has happened and what would they do in this scene? It's all about being as honest as possible.

One trick I have when I'm stuck--I think I wrote about this last summer--is to actually get up out of my writing chair and walk around imagining I'm in the room in that scene. I don't talk to myself exactly, but almost. I physically make the gestures I imagine them making. Try to set my hips and shoulders and eyes in the same way. And then I imagine the tone of their voices. I usually only have to do that for a couple seconds and then what they would say next comes to me and I jump back in my chair and start writing again.

Over all, I only dealt with about two pages, and I think there's going to be a lot of similar work in this chapter.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Writing chair

The chair where I wrote the first draft in the spring/summer of 07
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2 steps forward . . .

. . . one step back. No worries, though. I feel good about how it's going lately.

The last couple days I've come back in the afternoon and done some work outside of my usual time. Got a head start on Chapter 7 yesterday. This morning when I went to work on it, a problem with the last couple chapters that has been nagging at me was more apparent, and I decided not to ignore it. I ended up going back to Chapter 6, which I had declared done already, and put a patch in there. That helped improve the situation a lot on the issue that was bothering me--the fact that we never really see any consequence to a major development in Chapter 5.

Once that was done, I couldn't turn my energy to Chapter 7 so easily, so it amounted to just an hour of work this morning. I've identified the spot where I can do some development work to show more of the ripple effects of Chapter 5. I don't know exactly what that's going to be be yet, but I'll stew on it over the weekend and start with that Monday. Then on to the end of Chapter 7 which will need to be totally rewritten.

So, with luck, Chapter 7 will be done next Wednesday. If Chapter 8 goes the same way, then I'll be done with Part 1 with a couple weeks to spare before my big trip. I could keep plowing ahead, but at this moment I'm thinking I should use that couple weeks to do some outlining/brainstorming/planning work for Part 2 so I can be as productive as possible during my trip.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Finished with Chapter 6

I finished the "rewrite" of Chapter 6 in only a couple hours total, yesterday and today. That's only fair since this was the chapter that caused me the most trouble when I was drafting last summer. In reality, I didn't do any deepening and developing work as with all the other chapters. It was just making sure that some of the details were adjusted to reflect changes in other parts of the book.

I suspect this chapter is going to be one of my biggest problems the next time around through the book, though. It involves the back story and motivation of a secondary character, so it automatically is a difficult technical problem. So far, I've chosen to treat it separately in its own chapter, and there's a big risk of that not working. It heightens the focus and sense of importance of that part of the story and that may feel to the reader like we've veered off the main story. Which can be tantalizing if it promises to weave back in again to make the main story even more complicated, but I'm not sure I have a good plan for holding up the bargain.

Hmm, now that I'm thinking about it . . . I'm right, I don't have a good plan for holding up the bargain, but this is an opportunity to develop a more sophisticated conclusion to the book. The problem isn't necessarily in this chapter but in the resolution of the story later. I'm setting myself up for rewrite problems later on. Intimidating, but intriguing.

In other words, when something feels separate, cutting it out may make the book cohere, but working to make it not separate should make the story richer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Motivating character with the dragon

Interviewer: When you teach, you talk to your students about “the dragon” . . . . Could you please explain it?

Sue Miller: It’s an analogy for the writing of fiction lifted from Flannery O’Connor—the notion that every character in a story must struggle with something: his dragon. . . . My argument has been that if you really look at any given character, there is . . . a dragon for that character: something born of him that is the thing he ought to be confronting fictionally that you could make him confront. . . . If you look at each character, there is something that’s the pickle he needs to be in in order to make a story happen. . . . The character richly drawn struggles with something which emerges from himself that he ought to struggle with; or at least he learns that he’s going to have to struggle. In a way, what fiction does is watch people struggle.

Presumably Sue Miller isn’t talking about watching me struggle, which is what it feels like right now.

I’m looking at this explanation of hers carefully lately because it’s a really helpful metaphor for the aspect of the writing I have to work on next. In the first draft, I thought in terms of “longing.” What does this character long for? Trying to answer that was great for helping me build up tension from one scene to the next to keep the plot going.

Now that I’m working on the rewrite, I’m seeing lots of places where there still isn’t much going on with the characters--not much longing and not much struggle, places where the struggle doesn’t seem very significant or meaningful, places where their longing doesn’t connect to other places, places where they simply aren’t “richly drawn.”

So I’ve been using this dragon metaphor to guide my imagination in the rewrite. What’s the thing that is each character’s core that they need to struggle with?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One year anniversary and finished with Chapter 5 rewrite

Today is a big day for a couple of reasons.

First, it was a year ago today that I started working on the novel. For a couple weeks prior I had been sketching out various stories and episodes, including one that has become my chapter 1 in the book. For some reason that morning I couldn't sleep and woke up about 4 a.m. and sat in the living room with my journal, and while I was sitting there, the basic outline of the book came to me--a completely meatless skeleton on which I recognized I could hang just about anything and that would serve well for the kind of drifting around and false starts that were going to be necessary as I learned how to write a novel.

Another way of looking at it was that I could see clearly what kind of trouble my character was in and how the story could end and I had confidence that I could create a story that would connect the dots to that ending. I started making notes and within a few minutes I understood that I was working on a novel. Thank god for the generative power of occasional insomnia.

I looked over those notes last night, and I was proud to see how little I've drifted from the original concept. (Actually, the ending, which was what gave me the confidence to get going, is the thing that has changed the most.) I had done some freewriting on what the story was about thematically, and that still fits. I made notes on some of the techniques I would use and the technical problems I would have to deal with, and all that is still relevant.

There is one wildly inaccurate note. The journal entry begins. "Story idea. A novella." Ha! It is this point an obnoxiously long novel.

I'm also proud that on April 22 of last year I did not know that I could finish a rough draft and set out with only that initial goal, and I achieved it. Right now, I don't know that I can finish a rewrite resulting in a sensible draft, and I've been working steadily on achieving that.

The second reason today is a big day is that I finished the rewrite of Chapter 5, which has been a big stumbling block since about January 17.

To review, I started the rewrite process last fall (September?) and made slow work on Chapters 1-4 up through January 17. It was a slog and I never felt confident about the results anyway. Then I had about a one-month period where all work stopped while I concentrated on my paying jobs. When I started on the rewrite of Chapter 5, the crisis inherent in all the previous work became impossible to ignore and I floundered for a couple of weeks. Finally, on March 4 is when I had something of a breakthrough by developing my "focusing questions." Since then, I started all over again, re-rewriting Chapters 1-4 and now Chapter 5, getting past the hump of what I had been blocked on since mid January. That work has moved at a pace more like what I had imagined from the beginning--3 or 4 days for each chapter, plus some days for personal and business distractions, adding up to about a week per chapter.

I don't know what happens next. Hopefully those focusing questions continue to serve me well and my rewrite work will continue to be on point and not floundering. Even if so, I suspect the remaining chapters will need comparatively more work. Even if it's clear to me what I need to do, it will be more time consuming. My most optimistic goal is to finish the next three chapters--all of part 1--before my big summer trip begins at the end of May. And then to do all of part 2 during that trip before the end of July.

Another thing about Chapter 5 . . . If I compare the plot of the two drafts, there is really only one sentence in the climax that I added that changes the plot. It all boils down to adding that one sentence. But it's a sentence that changes the everything we understand about the character, and I had to lay the groundwork in the character to make that one sentence credible, and before that I had to understand it all well enough myself. Which I didn't before.

Here's hoping I understand it all well enough to push through other obstacles more quickly in the future.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Books I get counsel from

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Gathering strength for the last push

I had hoped to finish Chapter 5 with this morning's work, but I didn't get there. Worked between 90-120 minutes and got up to the last 5 pages of the chapter where the climax is and which will need to be rewritten based on the different direction I've imagined for it. It's sort of like climbing a mountain and getting just shy of the peak before deciding to camp for the night and try again fresh in the morning.

On days like this I often feel a kind of tense exhaustion. It seems to come from living mentally in the story for an hour or so and then trying to emerge back out of it into the world. It's a satisfying feeling. The only drawback is the sense of conflict with other duties. I need to snap out of it and get to work on my paying gigs, but I'd rather lay around all day stewing about the work I've done and the work I still have to do. In a sense, that's what I did all of last summer when I wrote the first draft, and it was a great luxury. I wish the rest of the process was as enjoyable.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Number crunching

As I work on the chapters I have little bits that I cut out--nothing like the cutting I'll have to do later I suppose--and I typically just paste them at the end of the document after a mark indicating the end of the chapter. I hang on to them in case I decide later I need them. I also sometimes jump down to that space and type quick notes or do some freewriting of possible new material.

All of that stuff is a mess that is in the way the further along I get, so to clean up I just made a "leftovers" document and cut all of it from the chapters I'm done with so far--chapter s 1 through 4. It totals 32 pages, which is a lot less than I thought it was going to be.

This also makes it easer to calculate the length of the drafts. So, some quick back of the envelope figuring:

-Chapters 1-4 range between 42 and 55 typed pages and average 46 pages.
-That's a total of 185 pages.
-They average 14,890 words.
-That's a total of 59,575 words.

If the work developing the rest of the book has a similar affect on the length of my first draft:
-Part 1 (chapters 1-8) will be 120,000 words or 370 typed pages, which is about the equivalent of a 200-220 page book printed.
-Part 2 is intended to be about 1/3 to 1/4 of the books, so assuming it is 1/3, the entire book would be 180,000 words or 550 pages, which is about the equivalent of a 325 page book printed.

All of which means that it will have grown 50 percent from the first draft and will probably need to be cut down by about the same amount again to be really readable.

Old journal entries--September 13, 2007—Revision troubles

Before I started posting to this blog, I kept some journal entries on paper--logs without the web. Some of those original pieces were never posted, and occasionally I circle back to post some of interest.

“After you and perhaps others have turned critical eyes on your poor, naked piece of fiction and it’s been run through the mill of my Macro Revision Checklist, what comes next? You may have a pile of notes and a marked copy or two of your first draft. Looking over the accumulated evidence of your doubts and your readers’ complaints, you may be tempted to just give up. At this stage it often seems easier to start another short story or another novel than to deal with themes one has turned out to be. A new idea may start glowing in the back of your mind, the proverbial grass that is always greener. Take a deep breath, and know that all fiction and great writers have passed this way before.”

--Jesse Lee Kercheval

I’m in trouble, man. Stuck and discouraged and in just the state that Kercheval describes. On some days I’m preoccupied with ideas for the next novel and the pleasures of sitting on my porch in summer and drafting. Drafting is so much more fun!

And on some days I’m preoccupied with my regular employment. Even though I have the mornings blocked out for working on the novel, I wake up thinking about the errands I need to do for my job, and I end up frittering the mornings away on that stuff.

I keep hoping that I’ll understand the story well enough that I can just set about writing the fixes, much in the mode of when I was drafting. But I can’t seem to get to that point.


The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
--George Orwell

When I teach freshman comp I often talk to students about how writing is a recursive process—a series of steps that can circle back and repeat itself endlessly.

And in the meantime I’ve been influenced by writers like L. Rust Hills who describe the “integration” of all the elements of fiction.

That quote from Orwell reminds me to anticipate those qualities. If we take sincerity in fiction to be the result of fully knowing and respecting your characters, honestly and deeply imagining the situation they’re in and how they would feel about it and respond to it, then sincerity is presumably handled in early drafts of a book.

However, neglecting to do that and the insincerity that would seem to result in a given episode might only have its first symptom in the language refusing to be clear—something that presumably a writer would pay the closest attention to late in the process. An abstraction refusing to be made concrete, a tangled sentence refusing to come unknotted—I expect these to be wonderful hints that the story itself is incomplete and that I’ve taken emotional shortcuts. I expect the copyediting process to send me back wearily to try again to develop the story and make it more honest, seemingly endlessly.

Or to put it as Joseph Williams does in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, “When you revise your early confusion into something clearer you better understand your own ideas. And when you understand your ideas better, you express them more clearly, and when you express them more clearly, you understand them even better . . . and so it goes.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Slogging through

Progress today, but not the progress I'd planned on. I keep getting pulled toward the work of organizing the material instead of developing, and today I gave in to that. So parts of Chapter 5 are somewhat tidier--actually it was moving pieces over to Chapter 3 and weaving in the introduction of some elements earlier in the book. But the work in this chapter that is an earlier priority got postponed. I still need to make it DO something. I think I know what that something is, but it takes some intellectual and emotional energy to create, which is always scary because I'm never sure that I can do that, even though I did do that every day for five months to get the first draft written. So every time I let myself get distracted with other issues it feels like I've lost my chance for the day.

As always, I come to Friday with a vague hope that I'll be productive over the weekend, but I shouldn't count on it. So maybe I'll finish Chapter 5 around Tuesday.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cherry blossoms out

The cherry blossoms are out, and I'm testing a new camera. I can see this tree from my office window when I'm working at my computer.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My writer's retreat

I have a big trip coming up--nine weeks in Saigon. It's an unusual situation in that I don't really have any plans or obligations. My wife is going for work and so in tagging along a certain amount of my expenses are being subsidized by that. And my own employment situation allows me the flexibility to take off like this.

The trip is mostly for pleasure, but I have thought about rustling up some paying freelance writing work. Lately however I'm thinking of dropping that plan and concentrating exclusively on this novel. Eat breakfast at the hotel restaurant, write, walk around in the city, go back to the hotel and write, nap through the heat, write some more, go out and find dinner, write some more, etc. Just work 9 weeks solid on the book.

I would allow myself to follow other opportunities that come up--invitations from my wife's friends and colleagues, sidetrips that I have in mind. Even following my nose into other writing projects that I got inspired to dream up. It's too rare and valuable an opportunity not to take advantage of things like that.

But prioritizing the novel over paying work. That's the big shift in planning I'm contemplating right now.

I'd feel a lot better about this plan if I knew I would be ready for revision as opposed to rewriting. Rewriting takes up more stores of energy and I don't know if I can put in more than a couple hours a day even if my decks are cleared of other obligations. Revision, I think, I can power through for hours at a time. But I'm pretty sure I won't be to that stage by then.

More good parts, less good whole

I finished the rewrite of Chapter 4 today. That's about the first time I've met the most ambitious estimate of my timeline. Three days and done. Ready for Chapter 5.

The experience has reinforced what I've already discovered: this stage of the process is all about deepening and complicating the work. I added about 1,000 new words today. (The whole chapter has more than doubled from its original draft.) And as I make it deeper and more complicated, I make it worse in a critical way. What's happening is that I am inventing and developing more good parts but I'm also wrecking the whole. It's becoming less and less cohesive.

It seems like I'm unraveling the unity it has, but really I'm exposing how the unity that was there was a kind of illusion. A dressed up unity that hides how not much is really going on.

That's scary and uncomfortable, but I'm getting better at just riding that wave and living with the necessity of coming back later to figure out what gets cut and how things get tied together.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Push --> Shove

Got in about an hour of work or a little more this morning before getting interrupted. The phone rang and caller ID told me it was a client. It was one of those choice moments--phone in hand, novel on the computer screen in front of me. The clock says I'm still in the time devoted to novel writing. And I answered the phone. My rationale was that if I let it go to voicemail it was going to be a big hassle connecting with this client again later.

So in every way, just about every time I'm challenged, I fail to protect the time that I say is devoted to my novel writing.

That's the most self-flagellating way to look at it. More charitably, when push comes to shove I have to earn a living to support working on the novel. And just because I don't follow a plan perfectly doesn't mean it's no good having a plan or that progress isn't being made.

Going by page counts alone I'm on track to finish Chapter 4 tomorrow, but in reality the hardest work is in the pages that are remaining, so more likely it will take me the rest of the week to finish.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Starting on Chapter 4

I started on my next attempt at Chapter 4 this morning. Customary work and routine and nothing unusual to report. Mainly I was just reminded again of how delicate my attention is. I have a long list of errands to do and at about 90 minutes into my work I remembered that one of them was time sensitive, so after that point I couldn't make myself focus on the book until I took care of the errand.

Another thing I noticed recently that I was somewhat aware of is similarities between this work and grading student papers. Of all the work that I do, grading student papers is unique in that I really have to set aside everything and start on it fresh in the morning. I can't jump into it a little at a time later on in the day like I can with just about any other kind of chore. That's the same with working on my novel.

As a consequence, when I have student papers I always lose at least a couple days on the novel, which is why I got almost no work done last week.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Old journal entries--Sept. 10, 2007--Back in the habit, whew!

Before I started posting to this blog, I kept some journal entries on paper--logs without the web. Some of those original pieces were never posted, and occasionally I circle back to post some of interest.

September 10, 2007—Back in the habit, whew!

Finally, I had a good day making progress on the book.

Essentially what I did today was to write a summary of my first chapter from memory, and I did it on note cards. Each “move” or episode or important chunk of background or important development in the present went on its own card. I tried to include only the pieces that were needed to move the story forward. Some cards were about an event, some were about a response to that event, some were scene setting.

The goal was to keep each piece on the front of one card—about three short declarative sentences. E.g. “There was a boy named _____ who lived in a town _____. The town had these characteristics: _______. His house had these characteristics _______.” Then to the next card. When I started to flip over the card to the back side, that was a signal that I was going into too much detail or that I was struggling to really understand what that section was about or what about it was essential to moving the story forward.

What I had after about an hour of writing this way was 14 cards—14 paragraphs—summarizing the 18 pages of my chapter one. I did this from memory for two reasons: One was that it felt like that would force me to concentrate on only the essentials of the story rather than trying to jam in everything that I had come up with in the first draft.

Two—the biggest benefit and the whole purpose of this exercise—was that I ended up writing things that were in my memory but NOT in my draft. It’s helping me find the gaps or helping me to emphasize and underline things that are only vaguely treated in the draft. For example, I didn’t really get until this morning when I was writing on the cards that my character has been living with a problem unconsciously up until now and that the story begins with his growing awareness of the problem. I’m now more aware that I haven’t shown in the story how this new awareness is triggered.

What I don’t know for sure now is if I continue with this exercise all through the book or if I stop here at Chapter One and do the necessary rewriting. I think the former, because I think that still so much is likely to change it would be hasty trying to improve the frame when certain walls may have to be moved entirely. So, I think I’m looking at about 15 days or so of the kind of work I did this morning. Here’s hoping it feels as good as it did today.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Old journal entries--Sept. 7, 2007--Outline finished

Before I started posting to this blog, I kept some journal entries on paper--logs without the web. Some of those original pieces were never posted, and occasionally I circle back to post some of interest.

This one is a little discouraging to see since it's 7 months later now and I'm still working on basically the same problems I describe here.

September 7, 2007—Outline finished

This morning I finished the outline that I started a few weeks ago. It was tedious!

The result is 33 typed pages of notes on what the book is doing and not doing, broken out into action, character development and thematic development, chapter by chapter.

My intention next is just to study it and figure out how to address all the problems that became apparent during the process of outlining it. I’ll print it out, spread it out all out over the dining room table and start marking it up.

Roughly put, there are two major categories of effort needed next, I think.

One, I need to understand the characters a lot better—who they are in general, how they would feel at a given moment, and how they are changing. In a sense, I know all that; it was necessary to know that to write the first draft. But I don’t know it well enough to do the rewrite.

Two, I need to make a lot of decisions about what happens. What jackpots the characters are going to get into and then what they do, so that it leads to a conclusion.

Obviously, these two tasks are intimately related—what happens will depend on who the characters are and who the characters become will depend on what happens. But then, everything in a literary fiction is related. The story will succeed when I can create unity of action, character and theme. That’s from L. Rust Hills and a million other observers of this maddening endeavor.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Finished with Chapter 3 again

It's a horrible mess, but I'm done with what I planned to do on Chapter 3--layering on more plot and characterization. It's now a full 55 typed pages. That's enough for 3 chapters, so I'll have some real challenges thinking about pacing and structure later on. But I'm determined to fight that battle another day. On to Chapter 4. I'm concerned about how little time I'll have for the novel in the next few weeks. It's shaping up for a potentially big disruption in my workflow.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nearly done with Ch. 3

I worked all the way through Chapter 3 and made notes on the one big revision I need to make. It should just take 1 day of work, but I'm going to lose a few days to a trip out of town, so I don't realistically expect to finish Chapter 3 until next Monday. Maybe if I make progress on a lot of other errands and psyche myself up I can put some energy into it for a couple hours this afternoon, but that's a long shot.