Friday, May 30, 2008

Temporary hiatus

Thanks for visiting. I'm unlikely to post here much, if at all, until August. My internet connection on this overseas trip is too spotty. In the meantime, I'm going to keep writing journal entries as if I was on the blog and save them to post later. Have a good summer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Read The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai

I finished The Inheritance of Loss last night, which I enjoyed a lot. It got me to wondering about the author, and here are some interesting things I read in interviews with her.

As you said, you had an unconventional method for writing Hullabaloo; this being your first book, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

KD: There are all kinds of theories that you get told in writing workshops--"Write what you know," and that sort of thing, which I don't believe at all. I think one of the great joys of writing is to try and explore what you don't know, that's exciting to me. There are all kinds of little things--show, don't tell--I just wouldn't pay attention to any of that really. I don't think you can write according to a set of rules and laws; every writer is so different. I can't imagine how they come up with these rules--they're really ludicrous. You can't learn to write in that fashion. What inspired me really was reading, reading a lot and learning from other writers. Learning how they are going about something--I was very aware of that when I was writing this book. Every book that I read at the same time I'd think, "Hmm--how do they do this?" Looking at it in that way, from a technical point of view, which we don't usually do as a reader. But really I think that's for me what was important; I was training myself to look at my work with a critical eye.

Her basic point here--that the most important part of learning to write is learning to read--I absolutely agree with. It's something I talk about with my freshman comp students all the time. In that field, it's called "reading rhetorically." The other thing I tell them is that all the rules for writing that they get told are really rules for re-writing--that when you are writing you should act as if there are no rules, and then in the revision stages you channel the ghost of English Teacher Past.

Contrary to the impression Desai gives here, I do think it's important for the end product to show rather than tell. But if what she means is that you should ignore that rule while writing and then come back with a critical eye to see what works (presumably discovering that failing to show doesn't work), then I'm with her.

What did you think you wanted to say when you first set out to write The Inheritance of Loss? Do you think you managed to convey all you wanted to?

. . . . As for whether I'm content with the book -- I always have the feeling that something got away. Where is that thing -– the sublime novel? What would it feel like to hold that in my hands? Whenever I come across it as a reader, I read trembling. Like any art form, when it's great, the person experiencing it exists in a form of grace. I hunger for that feeling as a writer as well as a reader.

Are you satisfied with the way your work has developed, as a writer? Do you see yourself continuing to write more in future?

I think this book is better than the last, but certainly I don't think it's perfect. It's the hardest thing to write a perfect book. Yet, of course, as a reader, I hunger for it. It's a constant desire and I know I'll write another book for that reason.

Writing, for me, means humility. It's a process that involves fear and doubt, especially if you're writing honestly. I imagine businessmen feel smug at least twice a day. Writers? The moments are rare.

All of these comments jumped out at me, because they so accurately describe my experience.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prepping for Part 2

I'm in a different mental space today--just spending hours reading through my outline and related notes trying to refamiliarize myself with Part 2 and thinking about what work I need to do. It's kind of a luxury to just poke around and let the different scenes bubble around in my attention in an unscheduled way. Actually, as luxurious as it feels, it's probably a necessity.

Of course, a big part of the work ahead of me for Part 2 is similar to what I did in Part 1--digging deeper and developing what is there. It has all the same kind of "dead stars" vs. "supernovas" that Part 1 had. All the same problems with lack of motivation and lack of action and a lack of clarity about who the characters are, the lack of focus on particular questions, particular things that the characters desire.

But another big "task" is creating from scratch a subplot that I'm pretty sure I'm going to layer on. I've been stewing on this idea since last September. In terms of word count, it's not that much material that has to be added, but it's figuring out how to weave it in carefully in a way that feels truthful. In a sense this work also is developing what's there, but not really because there is very very little in the first draft regarding this subplot. Just the tenderest seed. This subplot should act to pull my character in another direction, adds to the pressure he's under and lays the groundwork for the ending, which by the way will be a very different ending than what I wrote in the first draft.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Finally really finished with rewrite of Part 1

I had my wife read the last two chapters of Part 1 over the weekend and spent a long time talking with her about it the way we used to do last summer when I was drafting it. That always helps. This morning, I took her notes--which were very few--and worked over a few key spots in those chapters.

And what that work, I'm calling Part 1 done. Done in the sense that I intended for my first rewrite--the material has all been gone over carefully and "developed" as best as I can for now. Every chapter deals with the thematic and plot questions of the book--with the character's desires and motivations. Every chapter complicates the quest a little bit, closing off some avenues, raising the stakes. All the chapters relate to one another so that it adds up to a story with a plot and a character who changes with the plot and vice versa.

I expect that as I think about it more while I'm working on Part 2 and certainly when I get some other readers to comment on it at some later point, I'll become aware of more development work that needs to be done. That will be the second rewrite. But nothing like that is apparent to me now.

On to Part 2. Let's say, worst case, that takes me the same relative amount of time. That would mean about 4-5 months. What I'm hoping though is that the last couple of months of work is a better model--that what I figured out after the first 4-5 months of stumbling around and finally getting my act together in February will be a useful lesson for the rest of the rewrite. In that case, 5 weeks would be a good ambitious estimate.

Officially, I'm not starting the next stage until almost ten days from now when I've gotten myself overseas and set up in my accommodations there. But I think I'll open the files and start poking around this week so that I start stewing on whatever problems are most obvious. It's a long sleepless plane ride across the Pacific, so that's a good time to chew on technical and plot problems.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Edith Wharton on character development

The other difficulty is that of communicating the effect of the gradual passage of time in such a way that the modifying and maturing of the characters shall seem not an arbitrary sleight-of-hand but the natural result of growth in age and experience. This is the great mystery of the art of fiction. The secret seems incommunicable; one can only conjecture that it has to do with the novelist's own deep belief in his characters and what he is telling about them. He know that this and that befell them, and that in the interval between this and that the months and years have continued their slow task of erosion or accretion; and he conveys this knowledge by some subterranean process as hard to seize in action as the growth of a plant. a study of the great novelists . . . will show that ssuch changes are suggested, are arrived at, in the inconspicuous transitional pages of narrative that lead from climax to climax. One of the means by which the effect is produced is certainly that of not fearing to go slowly, to keep down the tone of the narrative, to be as colourless and quiet as life often is in the intervals between its high moments.

Another difficulty connected with this one is that of keeping so firm a hold on the main lines of one's characters that they emerge modified and yet themselves from the ripening or disintegrating years. Tolstoy had this gift to a supreme degree. . . .

. . . with what sure and patient touches their growth and decline are set forth! And how mysteriously yet unmistakably, as they reappear after each interval, the sense is conveyed that there has been an interval, not in moral experience only but in the actual lapse of the seasons! The producing of this impression is indeed the central mystery of the art. To its making go patience, meditation, concentration . . . .
--Edith Wharton

Again, I'm quoting from The Writing of Fiction. This is from the chapter on "Constructing a Novel" in which she discusses some of the central difficulties that a novelist has to grapple with. When I came to this section I started underlining like crazy, because it's a problem that I'm very conscious of in my story. The character in my book has to change--in response to the events of the plot--and at the same time has to remain himself, so that whatever action he takes at the end has to feel like it was inherent in the character that was presented at the beginning of the story. Otherwise the reader will feel gypped. Another discussion of this idea that has helped me is in L. Rust Hills book Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. He calls it the "inevitability of retrospect," and he has a neat little drawing to illustrate the idea.

What I don't like about this passage from Wharton is she doesn't give any practical advice! Well, not much anyway--meditate, concentrate, go slowly. But overall she makes it sound like it takes an act of grace to pull it off.

"Finished" with Part 1

I only worked a few days this week, but more hours each time so it probably equaled a full week's work. I'm putting in a rare Saturday session today, also.

I finished Chapter 8--and therefore Part 1--this morning. It's one of my temporary finishes, I think. I've got a lot of nagging doubts about it, and my plan is have my wife read Ch. 7 and 8 tomorrow, talk it over with her and then in all likelihood circle back to work on them some more. I have another week to work on it before my trip starts.

At this point, Part 1 is 338 typescript pages and 106,420 words. The last few chapters ended up growing a lot less from the original manuscript length than the first few chapters did.

If Part 2 holds to my plan of being approx. 1/3 of the total length, then it would be about 169 typed pages and 53,000 words, and the whole book after the first rewrite would be about 507 typed pages and 160,000 words. That would be roughly 320 printed pages. That's a little more reasonable than the last estimate I worked up. Still way too long by about about 30,000 words.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Edith Wharton on digging deeper

The phrase 'economy of material' suggests another danger to which the novelist and the writer of short stories are equally exposed . . . . Economy is . . . to be advised in the multiplication of accidental happenings, minor episodes, surprises and contrarieties . . . . The reluctance to look deeply enough into a subject leads to the indolent habit of decorating its surface. . . . Again and again the novelist passes by the real meaning of a situation simply for lack of letting it reveal all its potentialities instead of dashing this way and that in quest of fresh effects. If, when once drawn to a subject, he would let it grow slowly in his mind instead of hunting about for arbitrary combinations of circumstance, his tale would havethe warm scent and flavour of ripened in the sun instead of the insipidity of one forced in a hot-house.
--Edith Wharton

This passage from The Writing of Fiction is timely for me. She is talking, I think, about the necessity of developing and digging deeper that I have been working on for the last several months. My first draft had a lot of the dashing about that she criticizes and a lot of my rewriting processed has layered on even more of it. Right now especially at the climax of Part 1, I am tempted to layer on the multiple happenings, coincidences and so on.

I've indulged that impulse, because to me that is a way of discovering the "real meaning of a situation"--a way of letting it grow in my mind. For the most part, it has been in the service of discovering all the potentialities of the situation.

The trick is to distinguish between what helps me actually develop and deepen the work and what is just a distraction to help me avoid it. In the most basic sense, a weak story will just start shooting off fireworks or affect an air of mystery as a smokescreen to hide the fact that the story isn't really complex. It's a kind of display like a fish that puffs itself up when a predator is nearby. I know in my case it's as much an effort to delude myself that the work is powerful as it is trying to slide something by the reader. Decorating the surface isn't inspired by indolence so much as fear.

My mind is on the next draft, and I can see that a lot of it will be addressing exactly this issue--looking at some of the exciting fireworks shows and being tough with myself about what is unnecessary. Not just unnecessary, and therefore needing to be cut, but if those decorations are hiding weaknesses in the work that still need to be excavated.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Edith Wharton on Plot and Character Development

There are at least two reasons why a subject should find expression in novel-form rather than as a tale; but neither is based on the number of what may be conveniently called incidents, or external happenings, which the narrative contains. There are novels of action which might be condensed into short stories without the loss of their distinguishing qualities. The marks of the subject requiring a longer development are, first, the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters, and secondly the need of producing in the reader's mind the sense of the lapse of time. Outward events of the most varied and exciting nature without loss of probability be crowded into a few hours, but moral dramas usually have their roots deep in the soul, their rise far back in time; and the suddenest-seeming clash in which they culminate should be led up to step by step if it is to explain and justify itself.

Wharton doesn't use the terms plot or character development in this chapter on writing short stories in her book The Writing of Fiction, but I find it helpful for thinking about plot and character development. Her distinction between "external happenings" or "outward events" and "moral dramas" or "inner life" is what interests me.

Her point is that the latter categories require a long form--the novel. I'm already committed to working on a novel (it's the name of my blog, after all!), so what helps me here is the reminder that the real story that I have to always be careful to shape and intensify is the moral drama of my characters.

In other words, character development is plot. It's another way of expressing the theme that I've touched on several times in previous posts--the necessity of integrating all the parts of fiction.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Full day of work

Today was unusual in that I spent a lot of time working on Chapter 8--and chapter 7, even though I said I was done with it. Calling it a full day is an exaggeration, but it was at least a couple hours longer than usual, in the a.m. and after lunch. It give me a little sense of what it might be like this summer when I'm setting aside other obligations and can work on the novel full-time.

This was possible because I'm almost done with most of my paying work. Starting Thursday I have to grade papers for awhile, so I'll lose a couple days, and I have one more client I have to spend time on, so that will wipe out at least a few afternoons if not some mornings. I'm still working on a goal of finishing part one--through chapter 8--before departing for our trip. I don't have as much confidence that I'll make it that I used to have, but it's possible.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Larry McMurtry on the short story in film

I’ve read almost nothing by McMurtry, who I quoted yesterday. Not Lonesome Dove or any of his novels. I love the movie based on his screenplay The Last Picture Show.

The one thing that I have read, I highly recommend for any writing geeks who are interested in the technicalities of adapting literature for film. It’s a book called Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay by Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry, and Diana Ossana, and it collects the original short story by Proulx, the screenplay by McMurtry and Ossana and an essay on how they did they adaptation.

I was interested in this book partly because I thought the movie was brilliant and partly to look for evidence of a theory I have had for many years about making film out of literature.

Essentially, I think that the short story lends itself a lot better to film adaptations than novels do. I think short stories as a form have a lot more in common with film in how they treat character and thematic development. For example, the short story relies on gesture more emphatically than novels do, and that’s better imitated in the arts of the cinematographer and the actor.

Every book lover has had the experience of being disappointed by how the film of their favorite novel turned out. Even when it’s a pretty good movie on its own terms, so much is compromised—tons of narration and scene setting and back story and so on.

I can’t think of so many great movies based on great novels. But I can think of great movies based on short stories. Brokeback Mountain is one. Home for the Holidays is my favorite example. Let me know what you think.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Knowing the ending when you start

Interviewer: I think academics tend to assume writers write novels the way freshmen write term papers. You have a thesis . . .

Larry McMurtry: That’s right. And you explain your thesis. But that isn’t what happens. What happens is a process of discovery in which a writer is compelled as much by curiosity as to how things will turn out and who people are as anything else. I get curious about a group of characters and I start investigating them.

I wish it was that way for me. That’s the way I would like to write, but after many years of trying to just finish something, I mostly only had mere sketches of characters I was curious about. The breakthrough for this book came when I pictured the ending and I realized I could just keep writing toward that ending and that if I kept moving toward that ending I would logically have to create a plot along the way. For me, plot has always been the weakness I had to work on most consciously.

Now, this didn’t necessarily make a good ending a good plot, but since experience told me the biggest risks were not starting and not finishing, I decided not to worry about “good” and to focus on “finished.” That insight was what it took for me, with my particular mix of talents and deficiencies, to get a complete draft written.

Also, it didn’t necessarily mean that the ending and plot, however good they might be, would still go together very well. In fact, in the last two days as I was writing down the final scenes, half of my brain was celebrating—“I’m almost done!”—and the other half was admitting how unsatisfactory the ending was.

So the ending really served as a kind of placeholder that I’m now going to have to get rid of in favor of some other ending, still to be thought of. I love what the ending did for me. It served me well. But now I have to retire it.

More on Larry McMurtry tomorrow.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Working in the head instead of on paper

I'm having a terrible week by any objective measure, but I think good things are still happening for the book.

One, I needed to prioritize other work, so I'm already away from the book. Two, I've been procrastinating on that other work, so that has postponed when I'll get back to the book. Three, I've been having trouble sleeping for a few nights, last night being the worst. So I'm running on fumes now and probably won't make much progress on anything important today.

On the plus side, at some level I've continued to chew on problems in my story and to dive deeper at least in my mind. (It's character development that's bothering me, and I'm trying to imagine more fully what he would be feeling and doing at crucial moments, especially in the chapters I'm dealing with right now.) I'm so tired, who know if any of what I'm coming up with will stick.

Which brings up the issue of taking notes on what I've been thinking about. In every previous attempt at a big writing project I've always compulsively kept notebooks, character journals and scratch pads nearby wherever I went, next to every chair in the house, and next to my bed of course. I'd use those to record every impulse and brainstorm that came to me, as if any one of them might be the miraculous seed from which the rest of the book would grow--or if not that, at least a handy compost pile.

During this project, I've taken a very different approach. It was actually inspired by an interview I read with Elvis Costello about songwriting. He said he would get ideas for melodies and would rush to a pay phone and call his home answering machine and sing the tune to himself to follow up with later. And after awhile, he said, he learned that it was wasted energy--that he could never do as much with those audio notes as he could with the song ideas that just stuck in his head without any note taking. That the only songs worth finishing were the ones whose original inspiration he didn't forget anyway.

All along in this book--including at 3 and 4 and 5 a.m. this morning when I couldn't sleep--I've done something similar, enjoying a kind of lazy holiday from reaching for the notebook and turning on the lamp and trying to capture the brainstorms I'm having. I'm going on faith that whatever was really important and useful that came to me about my character will still be with me the next time I sit down to work on the chapter. That the only stuff worth using in all that ran through my head last night is the stuff that does stick with me.

I have taken some notes from time to time, but the exceptions prove the rule--I haven't actually done anything with those notes. I don't look back at them and follow up with the direction I had given myself. That writing, instead of acting as plans for the future, have functioned better as a kind of thinking through writing. Sometimes instead of contemplating silently it's better to contemplate with the pen moving over the paper--it's a different kind of meditation and discovery. But the writing itself is instantly disposable. Something in it my survive but only because it has become part of my concept of the book, not because I refer back to it to follow up on later.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Other writing experience

It has taken me a long time to finally commit myself to write a novel. I’m a lot older than I thought I would be when the literary impulse was tugging at me in my youth. Work obligations and fear are probably the biggest reasons I delayed. But part of it was just not knowing how to go about it. Some people can launch right in when they are young and understand how stories are put together, but I wasn’t one of them. I would write a sketch of an interesting person in an interesting situation and couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel like a story.

Luckily I was always able to have writing as a part of my employment in some capacity so that I was at least keeping up and improving my chops at the sentence level, and I think some of that early experience has been constructive.

-Teaching ESL: First thing after college I traveled abroad teaching ESL. That’s not really writing experience, but (since there was no real curriculum and I had to wing it) I did have to teach myself a lot about grammar. I learned a lot about the different verb tenses just trying to figure out how to explain to people the different between He had done, He will have done, He was going to do, and He did.

-Grad school: Next was a lot of writing in an academic context aiming to get a Ph.D. in the humanities. (In the end, I didn’t make it that far.) Now, I am decidedly not an anti-intellectual. I think the values and goals and methods of scholarship and intellectual work are important. I treasure what it can be. But I’ve come to think that academia can’t be trusted with it. My problem is with the institution and the culture of arrested development it encourages. I think most academics have made bargains that betray the potential of intellectual work. This period was a giant waste of time for me, and I think it was generally bad for the writing impulse and bad for writing skills. Generally. I do think that writing can benefit from a certain amount of analytical skill, and graduate school was good for developing that.

-Bookstores: I had a period where I worked in book retail a lot. Customers would say to me, “Oh, it must be wonderful to work with books all day.” Right. Just like I love coffee so I would love working at Starbucks all day. Neither of those jobs are working with books or working with coffee. They’re working with customers, and since a lot of people when they feel anonymous in a crowded retail setting indulge their worst social instincts, it wasn’t usually very pleasant. All I learned about literature there was what was how much it weighs, since with my bad attitude with customers I spent a lot of time in shipping and receiving.

-Small town newspaper: My first real paid writing gig. It was the least glamorous thing a writer could do, but it actually was quite important for me. It was for a company that published a lot of small weekly suburban papers out of one operation. My first job was simply writing blurbs for the calendar column. I would take a pile of faxed press releases and retype that careful prose into some other careful prose that followed our format. Something like: “Square dance lessons, Monday, 7 p.m., Village Community Center.” It sounds horrible, but there’s something to be said for the close attention to copyediting and format that it required. A comma here, a hyphen there, bold for this kind of info, italics for that kind and so on. Paying attention to that helped later.

Each time somebody up the food chain left the company I would get assigned new duties. After that came “rewrite.” In this case it was taking the press releases that seemed slightly more worthy of attention and basically flipping the sentences around so we weren’t printing them verbatim. Now I was getting three-paragraph stories published—dozens of them a week—with no byline.

Next came obits. This was my big breakthrough. I had to call people up and ask them questions and turn their responses into stories of all new material. This was real interviewing and reporting. Usually I was talking to the staff of the funeral home. There were maybe six funeral homes or so that would regularly fax over their own write ups on the memorials they were handling that week. I would call up each one and get more information than they had sent over or get some clarification. And sometimes I talked to the families. The format was essentially three parts—the deceased’s unique story in two paragraphs or less, all the details on their survivors and predeceased, and where to send flowers. It taught me two things that were important: Listening for the story, because everything has to have a hook, even a 100-word obit, and making sure you spell names right. I never felt so bad as a reporter as the first and last time I got a message saying that the name of the deceased was misspelled. To this day, if you told me your name was Jones, I would spell it back to you to make sure I have it right.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Reader In Mind-Edith Wharton's "other self"

I read Edith Wharton's The Writing of Fiction last week and spent a lot of time underlining.

Here's something she says in the intro chapter that seemed to me to relate to the issue of writing with a particular reader in mind, which is a question I've explored in other posts.

There is no doubt that in this day of general 'speeding up,' the 'inspirational' theory is seductive even to those who care nothing for easy triumphs. No writer--especially at the beginning of his career--can help being influenced by the quality of the audience that awaits him; and the young novelist may ask of what use are experience and meditation, when his readers are so incapable of giving him either. The answer is tht he will never do his best till he ceases altogether to think of his readers (and his editor and his publisher) and begins to write, not for himself, but for that other self with whom the creative artist is always in mysterious correspondenc,e and who, happily, has an objective existence somewhere, and will some day receive the message sent to him, though the sender may never know it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The domestic novel and the sensitive 20th century male author (like me!)

Interviewer: A couple of male writers have found it particularly valuable to write in a woman’s voice.

Sue Miller: In the nineteenth-century men wrote a lot from the perspective of women, if not in the voice of. Think of the really great novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy. Maybe in the nineteenth century, the writer’s life, Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s in particular, was very domestic, very like a female life in some ways. They would have been comfortable writing women’s lives because writers used to lead what the world would have thought of as women’s lives.

I think American fiction in particular has fallen into the male-female division traditionally. It may be exciting now for American men to cross that line. They had gotten trapped for so long in what Leslie Fiedler proposes as a peculiarly American turning away form the domestic in fiction—the novel of the road or the sailing voyage or the trip down the river: leaving home was important in American fiction. The work of someone like Hemingway embodied this. It’s important for male writers in the past not to write domestic novels. Now they more and more are writing them.

Sue Miller is speculating here, so it’s far from gospel, and she goes on after this part to speculate some more on if most readers of literary fiction are female and if all authors—male or female—are catering to a market that has evolved from 40 years ago. Check out the rest of her interview in Master Class: Lessons from Leading Writers by Nancy Bunge. (University of Iowa Press)

This caught my attention when I read it because I was aware while I was drafting that my story is essentially domestic. And it’s a coming-of-age story. The setting has more in common with The Bluest Eye and To Kill a Mockingbird than it does with Huck Finn or Catcher In the Rye. i.e. With classic coming-of-age stories by female authors that are superficially at least more domestic in their setting.

(Another way of thinking about this that occurs to me since I first made these notes is inspired by Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction where she says that all modern novels can be categorized as novels of manners, adventure stories or psychological novels. By no means do I accept the scheme, but using it for the sake of discussion, you might say that the male coming-of-age story in America has typically been an adventure story—e.g. Huck Finn. Arguably, To Kill a Mockingbird, while Scout has an adventurous tomboy spirit, is a novel of manners. My story more closely resembles that.)

That wasn’t a choice about markets at all. It simply arose from the story occurring to me and feeling that the story was powerful and interesting. And I wasn’t inspired by Tolstoy or Flaubert—they’re on my stack of reading to catch up on now. And I’m not deliberately avoiding the road story. I’d love for my second book to have more adventurous settings in it.

It is the case that I’ve always had a deeply ambivalent relationship to many 20th century American male authors. I’m thinking for example of On the Road and The Sun Also Rises. I must have written a half dozen papers on these books when I was in college and graduate school. On the one hand, I loved their style and form—I thought they were perfect examples of executing on a stylistic innovation. On the other hand, the masculine ideology of them drove me nuts. It wasn’t the macho persona of the stories, the characters and the authors so much as the dishonesty of those personae—how they were expert disguises for the same adolescent sentimentalism and outdated romanticism they pretended to be too cool for. In some ways, the amoral gloss of Jason Bourne stories is more honest.

This all makes me want to go back and read my Leslie Fiedler. I remember being influenced by Love and Death In the American Novel, Waiting for the End and The Return of the Vanishing American when I was in grad school, but I don’t remember what any of them said.

In any case, I’m intrigued by the speculation that more male writers are turning to the domestic. I can’t think of any example off the top of my head. No wait, I just thought of one. I think I mentioned that I recently read Richard Powers’ The Echo Makers. That’s one. Let me know if you think of some others.

Listening to music while I write

Do you remember the character “T.V. Baby” in Drugstore Cowboy with Matt Dillon? That character always cracked me up. (He was played by Max Perlich, who played Brody on Homicide, my all-time favorite t.v. show.)

I’m like the T.V. Baby in that I feel a little bit at loose ends if I don’t have some kind of media playing all the time. Depending on what else I’m trying to do I dial down the media to be wallpaper or dial it up to keep my mind from going to the dark places. That means that I have music playing pretty much constantly during my waking hours.

I’m a big music fan, and the basic thing for me that gets me excited is melody—especially the hook in a pop melody. I love it, but it tends to grab my attention. So having any kind of rock or country or folk music or pop music of any kind while I’m writing ends up being a big distraction. Even if I keep the volume low, the hook in most pop music tends to leap out in front and get my attention at a certain point.

So I try keeping the music off, but I end up feeling antsy. The silence tends to break my concentration as much as the pop hook.

So the compromise I’ve found that works for me is lots of classical music, which I’m not especially a fan of and certainly not very attentive to. There’s just not enough melodic hook in it to catch my attention.

It might also have something to do with the lack of a lyric,. On my computer media player all the opera is in the same folder as the other classical music and when that comes up on shuffle it’s slightly more likely to break my concentration.

I’m also a big jazz fan and I seem to be able to tolerate instrumental jazz playing while I’m at work. It’s a little more disruptive to my attention than classical music, but not much more so, so it’s suited better to aspects of the work that requires less concentration. When I was typing all the manuscript in, I could have jazz playing. It’s probably not the best choice when I’m drafting.

Jazz vocals in a jazz band, however, are as disruptive as any other pop music. Billie Holiday or Shirley Horn singing “Summertime” will crash my attention in a way that Miles Davis playing it won’t, even though when I deliberately pay attention to Miles Davis playing it I’m transported.

What music works for you while you’re writing? Does the stage of the writing process matter?

Work interfering

I have to catch up on my paying work, so no writing on the novel today and probably not for a few more days. I am spending a lot of time dwelling on it, though, so important stuff is happening.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Finished Chapter 7 again but with no confidence

Sunday a.m. The good news is that I got preoccupied enough with the problems of Ch. 7 that I was motivated to put in extra time on it over the weekend. Woke up early this a.m. dreaming about it, and worked on it a couple hours. And I finished it.

The bad news is that I'm leaving Ch. 7 behind with the same nagging sense that I dodged something important that bothered me through most of the rewrite work I was doing over the fall and winter. I don't know what the problem is, but I'm pretty sure there is one. I'm hoping that someone will read it and tell me it works and it's great, but my inner BS detector tells me that I'm trying to get away with doing the hard work.

Still, I think it's better to go on to Chapter 8 and see if that shakes anything loose. That will be the last chapter in part 1. It has its own climax and brings many of the plot points of part 1 to a conclusion. So we'll see how satisfying and whole it all feels when that's done and then decide about circling back to work on fixes or moving ahead to Part 2.

In any case, that transition should coincide with my departure for the long summer trip abroad. Whatever it is I'm going to be doing, I'm trying to set myself to be making some kind of fresh start by the end of May. That means finishing Ch. 8.

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Finished" Chapter 7

Finished Chapter 7 today, but not really.

It's been a bad week for the book for a few reasons, and I'm trying not to feel too anxious about it. First, I'm getting my ass kicked by a spring cold, and I lost one full day of work to that and did very minimal work on a couple other days.

Mainly, I'm hitting some problems with this chapter I didn't anticipate. It's kind of like when I was going through Chapter 5 the first time and there was something incomplete and phony about it that I couldn't figure out. Hopefully I'm not getting into that cycle again.

As of this morning, I did end up making all the changes that I planned, but the result is just a patch job and the truth is that the chapter needs a serious rethink. So it's not really finished at all.

I don't know how I'll proceed but one idea that comes to me is scaling back the ambition of this chapter. It's tempting to take shortcuts, and I don't want to cheat, but the right thing for this chapter might be to do less with it.

On the other hand, it's important to respect the impulse I had to write what I have written. I put all the extra confusing stuff down for a reason and experience tells me that if I can take the time to figure out where I was going and to develop it then I might hit on something very valuable.