Friday, August 29, 2008

"Finished" with Chapter 1 yet again

I put in a standard five mornings this week, including a full day today, and worked through the second rewrite of Chapter 1, finally, after a month of hesitation.

The main thing I did was delving deeper in the spots most relevant to what seemed to me the biggest problem with the chapter, which was unclear motivation for some of the characters' actions and lack of clarity about what was actually happening. That was really first three days, and yesterday and today I went through and bandaged up a lot of transition problems. There was a little bit of cutting along the way, but the chapter still ended up growing by two pages. I guess I cut about five pages and wrote about seven while I was at it.

Now I'm aware of a couple problems in it still--that it is way too long, for one thing, and that even with more clarity about what happens there's not so much clarity about why it's important or interesting.

So it is "finished" only in the sense that every chapter was finished as I went through the first complete rewrite. I'm going to have my wife read it over the weekend and give me her feedback, with the intention of making notes for a later pass at it, but in all likelihood I'll be compelled to tackle some issues right away. So I expect I'll be still working on Chapter 1 next week.

Anyway, I'm back to work on the novel. That's something to be grateful for.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Worked about two hours today, if I include all the time pacing around the kitchen wishing I didn't have to work. I tackled the two sections that yesterday I promised myself I would, but I'm not satisfied with the result. It's hard to put into words what the problem is, so I think I'll be returning to this subject later when I've given it some more thought, but I think there is some basic unresolved tension in the concept and construction of my novel that I haven't put my finger on yet and so haven't faced up to. I suspect it boils down to not really knowing my characters thoroughly enough.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Before I go to bed

Over the years, I've come up with a couple tricks to facilitate good working habits. One of them is to get clear the night before a writing day what I intend to work on the next day. The reason this has been crucial is that for me if I'm going to create new work, it's best to do that first thing in the morning before I really think too hard about anything else. And planning the work--thinking about the work--just trying to decide what scene I should work on takes enough intellectual energy that I don't feel like I'm starting fresh once I do start drafting. Making that decision the previous day--ideally at the end of the previous day's work--helps me get that fresh start.

Over the last year and a half (how I hate realizing it's been that long) I've often slacked off on this habit, because it's become less necessary at times. I've built up more momentum and self confidence that I could arrive at the writing table with a less conscious plan and find my way into the work more easily.

But it's time to revive the habit, especially considering what I observed yesterday about moving from a space of analysis to a space of creativity--of digging in and making a mess. I need to do that when I'm fresh and allowed the rest of the world and my own OCD thought patterns to start to attach little fur balls to my mind. I can't count on just finding the right place to dig. In fact, today I didn't and ended up wasting the morning tinkering at the sentence level. So I'm ending the morning by identifying the very lines--in two different episodes in Chapter 1--where the story is thin and will benefit from the clarity that will come out of more development. Tomorrow, I'll start with the first of those and hopefully have the energy to work on both of them in one day. Certainly in two.

And in the future, I'll have a similar plans for each of the chapters, telling myself each day, "Tomorrow I will dig here."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dig; don't fix

I've been having a lot of trouble getting started on my rewrite until today. I've been getting up each morning and psyching myself out, giving in to fear and then surfing the internet.

It's because I don't know what to do and where to start. I can see specific things wrong, but I don't know how to fix them.

It finally occurred to me over the weekend that I should do what I was doing in the first rewrite--which is to dig; not fix. Instead of trying to put a layer of smooth coat over, I should be excavating more.

It's another way of saying what I've said before, quoting Jesse Lee Kercheval and Jane Smiley's advice at different points--the rewrite process is a repeated crossing of the border between analysis and creativity. What I need to do now is turn off that analytical part and let the creative part go. I've been afraid to do that because I know it will make a mess--create more short-term problems than it will solve. Even if I can avoid that fear, it's hard to avoid the habit--the impulse to keep trying to find solutions, to anticipate how things are going to work.

But in the long-term, it's necessary to be in that zone of not caring if something is going to work. That's where the discovery happens.

What's discouraging is the feeling that I have been and may remain in that zone forever. I thought that's what the first rewrite was about (and I didn't accomodate myself easily to that after the first draft). I was expecting that by now I would be in the space where I work on shaping and fixing and patching.

I guess I'll just have to hope that the amount of digging necessary is somewhat less and in more obvious places than in the first rewrite so that it goes faster, so that I really do move through a chapter a week (not counting the month it has taken me just to get started.) I doubt it though.

So, today I opened the file, found the first moment where there is a lack of clarity related to something important to the character development, and tried to dig--tried to get into that creative space. I got in about 90 minutes of fair work.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Struggling to start the second rewrite

I'm putting in a little more time each morning, but I'm not actually doing much writing. I don't know how to get started because I feel like there are serious problems when I re-read the first couple chapters, but I can't tell what they are. The story seems to drift around with things happening suddenly for no good reason.

So what I'm really doing is a lot of thinking. Emotionally, this is the kind of work that is hardest. Have to keep reminding myself that sitting around and thinking (and haltingly taking notes) is good and necessary.

What I decided this morning is that I need to get much clearer on my theme and how the arc of character development demonstrates that theme and then to go through my outline and check all the episodes through that lens. I'll start on that tomorrow.

Monday, August 18, 2008


I thought I would share an example of the kind of freewriting I do when I'm stuck and trying to get my thoughts sorted out. This is very raw material, really unintelligible to anyone but me, but it gives a sense of something very basic in my working process.

In this case, I'm trying to figure out how to diagnose and start remediating what isn't working in Chapter 1. It's the beginning work of my second rewrite.

August 14, 2008

What is going on with B?

Who is he?

Why does he behave the way he does?

What is his thinking about the ________ ?

A is someone he can manipulate. He probably feels ambivalent about that. It’s probably not something he wants. It’s like a crime of opportunity and he feels not great about it. But A gets on his nerves with by being so needy and overeager and fawning.

Take the ________ episode, for example. B is pretending, but it’s in a certain pitch that An misses.

What is that distinction? How are they pretending differently?

For B it’s the activity. The project.

For A, it’s the performance for each other. The act of bonding. A keeps “breaking the fourth wall” to talk about themselves as actors.

August 18, 2008

How would they handle ________ differently?

A wants to talk about it

B wants to circle around it. Hoard it for later. Taste it.

A is ocd

B is add

A might also tend to add, but the ocd is predominant.

That means he feels agitated until he gets some full satisfaction. Until something is completed in a some particular and emotional way for him. He has a script he expects to be followed in order to get proof of love. Deviate from that script, and he feels insecure, thus vulnerable, thus panicked, thus he can’t let it rest. Harps on people trying to Shepard them back onto the script—to make them say their lines.

With B, he perfectly willing to stop in mid script and switch to something else. He feels uncomfortable with being responsible for anyone else’s feelings. Wants to be loved like anyone else, though not particularly needy about that, but he doesn’t want to feel responsible for other people’s feelings, love or otherwise. Aloof. Learned it from his dad. That’s what’s manly. Neither of them are macho, and it’s not an aversion to emotion exactly so much as it’s an aversion to being intimate.

Hmm. Is it an aversion. Like they genuinely avoid it? Or is it that when other people seek it, they see it as an opportunity to exploit? To control people by withholding? Perhaps it’s not so much that they can’t be intimate as an addiction to the power that comes from withholding.

These are contradictory explanations. One makes B a lot less sympathetic than the other. Is it that he gets tempted into some manipulative behavior or that he has some piece of his soul missing?

Put it that way, and it’s obvious. He can’t be a monster. Has to be real.

Fragile balance. B tends to withhold, imitating his dad. Gets a kind of control. Confronted with someone especially clingy like A is what makes him feel vulnerable. Manipulating and pushing away feel safer.

Alright, so in this episode . . . I need to rewrite a few key scenes. When B shuts down the game—rewrite it with this motivation in mind. Same for when they start the game and the couple times we revisit it in the middle. The whole tone of it should be more like A drives B away—B reacting to A’s neediness—rather than B jerking A around, or worse, acting indiscriminately, which is how it reads now and why it reads so confusingly.

How about Chapter 2? Harder to say. Need to read it carefully again.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The passing of L. Rust Hills

Readers of this journal know that L. Rust Hills' book Writing In General and the Short Story In Particular has been a key handbook for me as I develop as a writer. It's a terrific combination of analysis and practicality, and he made many other contributions to our literary culture besides that book.

Hills died earlier this week. His obit in the New York times is here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Back to work after a long break

I'm back to work on the novel and back to this journal after taking a full two months off.

I was out of the country for about 9 weeks, tagging along with my wife while she was on a work assignment. I had the mixed intentions of making it a writer's retreat and also taking advantage of every opportunity to fully experience my time abroad. Obviously "retreat" and "tourism" don't go together very well.

What actually ended up happening is the first two weeks looked a lot like a writer's retreat and then I put the book aside. I worked hard in our hotel room every day those first two weeks and plowed through to the complete the first rewrite of Part 2 and thus of the entire book. That was a big day and a big relief. Then I left the hotel to look around and haven't thought about the novel since.

I ought to be feeling guilty about that I know, but actually I think break's like that are appropriate and good for the book if it's not just a rationalization for procrastinating. The next batch of work--the second rewrite--should be stronger and more incisive because of the distance I've put between myself and the book.

That explains most of the break. Actually I was supposed to return to work a week ago, and since then I've been procrastinating. Partly I've been taking it slow in returning to this orbit and partly I was afraid. I have to build up the momentum and confidence again, and I didn't muster the energy for that last week. Now that I have, with about an hour of work this morning before needing to run some errands, I expect it will take awhile before the work is really going smoothly.