Monday, September 29, 2008

"Finshed" with Chapter 7

When did I start working on this chapter? I can't remember. I still don't have a lot of confidence in it, but it's better anyway. 4-5 hours of work today--a Monday--after poking around at it at the end of last week. I'm not sure if tommorrow I'm going to continue to the next chapter or give this one another read with somewhat fresher eyes. I'll sleep on it.

To get going on it, I relied on freewriting, and one trick I used afterward was to go through and highlight some of the key discoveries from my freewriting. Then when I was feeling lost, including at the star of each session, I glanced through the freewriting at what I had highlighted to remind myself of what elements I was trying to build up in this chapter.

I have a feeling about this chapter . . . Whatever the problem is in it is a problem that is significant to the whole book. Like a key to a lock. I'm hoping that when I figure out this chapter I will gain an understanding about the book that will allow me to elevate the drama in the rest of the book. I'm pretty sure it's a problem having to do with character--a limitiation on my understanding of the character. This chapter is reavealing that limitation and my numerous attempts to patch it over are not working.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Myth of the Solid Character and James Wood

As I've noted before, I've been reading and re-reading How Fiction Works by James Wood, and right now I'm studying closely and taking heart from a few sections where he discusses what he calls "The Myth of the Solid Character." These are in sections 74-77.

A lot of interesting comment is packed in those pages, so paraphrasing as briefly as I can . . . He says it's not universally true that all great characters that readers remember and are attached to are "solid" (or "round" for that matter.) There are plenty of examples of novels that engage and move their readers with characters--main, secondary and minor--who are brushed on very lightly and about whom the reader is told very little.

To quote one passage at length, he says:

I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level . . ."

He's big on that idea of novels simultaneously telling their tales and training the readers in the particular conventions of that telling.

A few pages later, after demonstrating that Isabel in Portrait of a Lady isn't a solid character by any usual definition, he says:

So, the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility--let alone likeability--than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters. That is how readers retain in their minds a sense of the character "Isabel Archer," even if they cannot tell you what she is exactly like. We remember her in the way we remeber an obscurely significant day: something important has been enacted here.

I take heart from this passage because all through the drafting and rewriting of my story I've been hearing in the back of my head the advice from many creative writing texts about "knowing" your characters and having them act from my own some deep sense and understanding of them--the necessity of building up the reader's sense of the character. One, that isn't an aspect of this work that comes naturally to me. But, fine. If that's important, I'll have to concentrate especially hard on that part of the job.

But, two, as I do so it has felt very forced and I don't have a lot of confidence in it. What does feel natural is something I've had trouble putting my finger on until I read this particular passage from Wood. I think when I'm in the zone, the mortaring and layering on of plaster and the sanding and prime coats and the multiple coats of paint I've been putting on have been about building up an awareness that something important and profound is at stake. And for me that has been easier to do by watching my character move around and brooding over him without spelling out in depth, or even knowing clearly for myself, what he is like--without excavating his interiority. I'm not sure how he feels about what's happening to him, and the imperative to figure that out and to show/not tell it has been disruptive. Something about that hasn't felt authentic, and right now I'm wondering if the imperative is incorrect--based on a myth, as Wood identifies it.

Well, this might all be a giant excuse for avoiding some hard work that after all is necessary, but I'm intrigued by the possibility, and it's causing me to work much more consciously on any section that is "characterizing" my character. I probably won't be able to grapple fully with this question until the revision process, but it's stewing for now.

Tough couple of days

Last year I used to joke the day after my Tuesday night basketball games that the games were the biggest disruption to my writing schedule. But I'm playing again, and for real, it's no joke. I'm in a lot of pain the day after the games and besides that just mightily fatigued. I moved like a zombie all day yesterday and got nothing done, and today hasn't been a lot better. I'm going to have to find a way to deal with that--dramatically increase my coffee consumption or something, when I'm trying hard to decrease it otherwise.

I'm also going to have to do something about how OCD I'm getting about following the news. I'm having a lot of trouble resisting the endless media offerings online about whatever has my interest. (These days it's the election. Next month I expect it will be the baseball postseason.) I'm being very undisciplined.

Part of that is me, but I also know part if it is a response to the fear I have about the book right now. It rears up at different times--for instance when I have a lot of thinking to do to find my way through a really vague problem. It's necessary, but it means not making a lot of mileage, and the guilt and uncertainty makes me hesitate.

So yesterday, I didn't accomplish much except doing a little bit of that thinking--in the form of about 3 pages of freewriting about the specific problems in Chapter 7. And today I started to tackle Chapter 7, making a lot less progress than I should have for the amount of time I had, but some progress anyway.

So, unlikely that I'll finish the chapter tomorrow and therefore this week. But I'm determined to make good use of tomorrow. I see a path, and I'm going to walk it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nervous about Chapter 7

Not a lot of work today. I read Ch. 7 to prepare for the next rewrite, and I'm intimidated by how much work it needs. Right now it is a draft in the most customary sense of the word--a failed attempt at an unclear idea. To make it work I'll really need to dig deep, and the trick in these cases is not to think at all about making it work. You have to give yourself permission to make a mess.

Which means it's hard to set a schedule. Hopefully it won't take a lot of time, but this isn't like a to do list.

My schedule is about to change anyway. I picked up another paying gig today, so I'll be distracted with that until at least the end of next week. No more all-day sessions. Hopefully I'll be able to put in my usual 90-120 minutes each morning.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Finished" with Chapter 6

I just finished the closest thing ever for me to a full working day--about 6.5 hours evenly divided between before and after lunch. As a consequence, I'm ahead of the schedule I predicted on Friday for work on this chapter, having crammed about 3 customary days of work into this one. I'm proud of mysel for that and for powering myself through the few times this morning when I felt stalled and unsure of what I was doing and on the verge of giving up for the day to read political junkie websites all day.

I don't have any sense of whether or not I successfully dealt with all the problems in this chapter. I'm in the "no perspective" zone right now, which I think roughly correlates to how deeply I get into the creative zone. I need a reader to help me get some perspective, and my wife is falling further and further behind.

I do know that the chapter isn't any shorter. Despite cutting out about 3 pages for my scrap pile, the resulting chapter is 4 pages longer than when I started on it last week.

I guess the smart thing is to keep plowing ahead to the next chapter and to not feel too bad if I later discover that I need to come back and work on this (or others) since I've been saving time off my schedule anyway.

We'll see how I feel tomorrow.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

I've had this around since it first came out about a year and a half ago. At the time, dipping into the first chapter, I wasn't grabbed by it and put it away. This time, I was drawn to it like a potboiler, which goes to show how much mood and mindset of the reader has to do with things. Books have to find readers at the right time.

I picked it up again because she is married to James Wood, who as I say in earlier posts, I've been reading very carefully lately--both his most recent book and an older one and all the older essays in magazines and papers that I can find. (I have a complete dusty collection of unread New Yorkers from the last several years that I have trouble keeping up with.) Naturally, I wanted to read her book by the standards of his, a perverse and unfair but inevitable way to go about things.

I'm habituated to my own standards, though, and for four days I built up a sleep deficit getting through this book without thinking about her husband's at all. In the end, I have to say I think the book failed, but it was a kind of failure I don't mind at all. I enjoy it nevertheless. And think about it the next day, missing the characters. Expecting much more than that, I know, is a pretty high bar.

For one thing, there are places where I'm suddenly brought to the surface to become aware of myself and of the writer and the seams in the work. The most disappointing place was in the payoff scene where we witness along with a couple key characters the events of 9/11. For some reason the writing right there goes very flabby. It's like having a spell broken.

I can speculate why, but I wouldn't argue this point without having a dialogue with the author, but I have a feeling that she pulled her punches there because of a reluctance to be sentimental or emotional about obviously emotional topics. Such a reluctance would surprise me given that that attitude--a critique of ironic distance--is one of the themes of the book.

I was bothered by some loose ends. Did Seeley intend to publish the essay? (Was he going to betray his wife?) I never got clear on his perspective--lots of people are suspicious of him, but the suspicions are never confirmed or denied, so I don't understand if he's as big a butthole as they want to think he is. The story raises the question of his motivation for marrying Marina and if he has some twisted attraction to Murray, but it never satisfies that question. The mauling of Julius is gross--potentially the kind of "supernova" that Richard Ford talks about, but it has no consequence for theme, character or plot, so it ends up feeling like mere spectacle.

Well, this isn't a critique with a strong commitment to it. I'd have to read the book carefully again to talk clearly why it didn't work for me, and this blog doesn't have the sponsorship to support a second reading. Despite my beating up on it a little here, I enjoyed a ton of other qualities in it, including the momentum of the tale the suspense, and the exploration of the "emperor has no clothes" story. I encourage people to read it.

Two steps back

Worked on chapters 4, 5 and 6 today. Once I started reading through Chapter 6 yesterday, the problems in it seemed pretty severe and thinking them through sent me back to try again on scenes in previous chapters.

In particular, I've tried 2 different endings of Chapter 5 a couple times each. One ending is more dramatic but harder to pull off convincingly, so I keep chickening out and going for the weaker ending. (Essentially, I'm afraid to bring too much grief to my character too quickly. It seems like more than he can bear. And if he can't bear it, the pressure will build up before I can get him to the end of the story.) But then when I got into Chapter 6 I persuaded myself that I needed that more dramatic development to have happened, so I went back again and tried to make it work.

Chapter 6 has been my biggest pain the butt since I first started drafting it almost 18 months ago. It was first time that my writing schedule went off the rails and I ended up spending about twice as long on it, writing about 3 times as much as necessary. There's a lot of good material in it, and I've often thought that it would be good starter dough for a different story or book project. But so much of it doesn't fit with this book.

I think this is a function of it being in the voice of a secondary character. I have a few chapters, this one included, where I shift to another character's point of view. That requires getting in touch more with their motivation, which requires thinking about their backstory and so on. The hard part is figuring out how much of the character sketch work is needed in the draft in order to carry the story along convincingly. It's a tough balancing act when you switch to another character's POV like this.

That and other problems have me slowing way down as I come through the chapter again. This chapter probably more than any other needs actual rewriting--not just digging deeper and developing the potential in the episodes--but rethinking what the episodes are for in the story line and writing them over again.

So, I've got a lot more work to do on this than I wish I had. Friday now. I better plan on it taking all of next week. Similar to what I was thinking last week about Chapter 5, which I "finished" on Tuesday but found myself needing to go back and fuss with this morning.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Internet research

I've been working hard yesterday and today on Chapter 5 like I had planned. I've had some noisy distractions because of work on the house, but I've made do. A couple more hours should get me through the work I anticipated on this chapter, but we'll see. I don't know if today is possible, and I'm planning to write off tomorrow as a loss because of some errands.

I get a kick out of how internet research must change the work of novel writing. As I drafted, I stayed away from the internet, but while I'm doing the rewrites on my computer, whenever I'm wondering anything about a detail in my book, it's a quick check on Wikipedia, and I usually end up learning a lot of other fun stuff that I'm tempted to weave in like a show off.

I often turn to the web for questions of style and spelling. (A handy tool not everyone knows about is in google if you search with "define: your word" it will return results with formal definitions of that word.) Today I wanted to check on the proper format for a famous department store that may or may not have periods and spaces in how they use their name. I found it easily, but then I thought, that's how they do it now, but maybe it wasn't the same in the period the book is set in. So I searched a little deeper and found a catalogue from that era and ended up flipping through the pictures, including of the ladies underwear and swimsuits of course, just like my pre-teen character would have done.

So I'm getting the format right, I'm immersing myself in period details and I'm putting myself into the pervy imaginative life of my character. It took seconds to get there, and I could have spent all day if I didn't have real re-write work to get back to.

Alright, back to it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Detail and realism

I continue to look at things differently based on what I'm reading in the James Wood book How Fiction Works. Last night I was re-reading the chapter on detail where he discusses the custom in modernist narrative to have a surplus of unnecessary or "off duty" detail to help build a sense of realism. Reading my own work that this morning, I noticed how much I did that, which I have often felt a lack of confidence in. At times the unnecessariness of it stands out very clearly. In that case, quite the opposite of a sense of realism, what you get is a sense of the artist at work and all his preciousness.

Much slower now

I did a read-through of Chapter 5 this morning, and nothing I said about the rate of progress yesterday is going to apply for awhile. This chapter needs a lot of work--mysterious work that intimidates me. But I've got a list and I'll start working through it, probably on Monday. I guess it will take me at least 3 days and maybe the whole week to finish the chapter.

It's intimidating, but I also am a little excited. I have an idea not just for fixing the chapter but for truly developing it into something more--quite a bit more dramatic with lots of fireworks. I don't know if it's the right thing, but it should be fun exploring it. That will make me worry about the "butterfly wings" effect though.

Meanwhile, on chapters 3 and 4 I've skipped the step where I have my wife read it and then decide it I'm ready to move on. Maybe I can get her to do that this weekend, but I'm afraid what I'll find out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Zooming through Chapter 4

I'm in the zone, I guess. I'm putting in a lot more hours working on it, spending a lot of time thinking about it when I'm not working. And I'm cranking through the edits.

I think that's the nature of editing for me vs. writing or rewriting. It doesn't take as much creative energy so I don't get exhausted so quickly. It actually is very tiring, but I don't notice it until I'm done and I can go several hours that way.

But, is editing what I'm supposed to be doing? I'm trouble a little by the thought that I'm neglecting the hard work. Essentially, on Chapters 4 and 3, and chapter 2 to a lesser extent, what I do is read it through and identify around 2 keys spots that are important and not that well developed and maybe 1 or 2 other sections that seem to be in the wrong place. And I make a bunch of marks where at the sentence level things are unclear. Then the next day I go through the computer file working on the bigger picture items first and then--fairly soon--moving on to the sentence edits.

That implies that the couple places that weren't very well developed are the only really serious flaws left in the chapters and it implies that my fairly quick work on them is sufficient. I don't see anything else, but I'm worried that it's too easy.

I'm moving along faster than my wife has time to read it, so I'm flying blind a little bit. I'm getting closer to the day when I'll need to hand off big chunks of it to another reader and get their response.

The total timeline on this kind of work has been about 6-8 hours per chapter. A couple hours or more to read and mark up the chapter, and a few hours to go through the computer file making the changes.

The sentence-level editing I am doing is a pretty rough cut. I do have a list of several bad habits i my sentence constructions that I'll need to spend a lot of time weeding out on my next rewrite/revision.

Related to that is my reading lately of How Fiction Works by James Wood. (I finished it and am reading it a second time as well as all the other essays of his I can find online.) I've been helped enormously by his discussion of the free indirect style. That's given a me a critical vocabulary for thinking more deeply about how I use point of view and how I have been flagging the differences between the narrator and the characters. More on that another time, but essentially I've come to think that I can do a lot better, so I've been experimenting with making some changes here and there as I go with the understanding that I'll be bearing down on that issue when the time for a really careful revision comes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Quick run through Chapter 3

Well, I'm not doing at all what I noted yesterday I was going to do.

First, I didn't have my wife read Ch. 2, deciding that I was already confident in my own assessment of that chapter to keep going. I don't mind having another view, but I don't want to impose on her more than necessary.

Second, I ended up doing a bunch of work yesterday afternoon, which is uncommon. I read through Chapter 3 and made notes to be prepared to launch it today.

And I worked on Chapter 3 today, putting in what counts as a full day for me--about 2 or 2.5 hours in the a.m. and the same in the p.m. I made all the changes and corrections that I had made notes on yesterday.

Which doesn't amount to much. I'm probably not being rigorous enough. I re-organized a few things where there was jumping back and forth in time more than needed, and I developed the emotional complexity and meaning of one scene where I had been trying to get away with mystery.

I do think that I've done a good job digging and developing and fully explaining everything in this chapter, as well as 1 and 2, and that has been my goal. Probably what I'm really accomplishing is getting it all into good enough shape that I can seriously address the question of what gets cut--or prioritizing. Chapter 3 is also way too long. It's all very 19th century.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Still on Chapter 2

Well, the comments my wife had on Chapter 2 over the weekend convinced me that I need to do a little more work.

The obvious need, which I took care of this morning, was to straighten out the order of presentation. There was too much jumping back in forth in time so that it was was difficult at a basic level to understand what was happening in time.

I also trimmed out two scenes--deleting most of them and incorporating parts of them into other scences--which reduced it by about 2 pages. (1%! Big whoop.)

So now it is hopefully much more intelligible. I'm going to see if my wife can spare some time tonight to look at the first half of the chapter that was so confusing and confirm that.

What I fear, though, is that it is more obvious where it fails to be meaningful. I have a nagging sense that I'm evading spots where I know in my heart it is not really developed well. But I really want to keep moving forward, so I think that's what I'll probably do tomorrow.

I've been thinking more and more lately that it's time for another reader. I'm trying to postpone that as long as possible, but it's on my mind a lot.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Finished" with Chapter 2 yet again

Today went like planned and I finished the work I had in mind for it. I found it didn't need (as far as I could see) as much development/digging as Chapter 1, and with luck that will be the case with the rest of the chapters.

When I started this week, I thought I would be cutting out huge amounts, but most of it stayed, and the few pages I did cut got replaced with fuller development in other places, so that it's about a page longer than the last draft--49 manuscript pages, which is way way too long.

So, same routine as last week and as through most of the process of the first rewrite. I'll show it to my wife over the weekend, make note of what weaknesses she's finding in it and then decide whether to put it aside and push on to Chapter 3 or linger some more on this chapter.

I'm feeling good about the work I got done during a four-day week like this. The discipline and habit are the main thing--working steadily every morning. It's good to have that back again.

I'm starting to hope for the possibility of knocking out one chapter per week this way during the rewrite process. That would mean 15 weeks total, starting two chapters ago, 13 weeks to go--slightly less than a semester, which would mean being done with this rewrite before Christmas.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Slogging through Chapter 2

I've had two good working days. About two hours each yesterday and today. I'm hoping that two more good hours tomorrow will get me through the rest of the Chapter 2, so I can give it to my wife over the weekend. That would be pushing it I think, just looking at the number of pages to go.

I actually have time today, since I got an early start, so I intended to make use of the whole morning, but at about the two hour mark I felt I couldn't get my mental energy focused on the next section that needed work. If I was ever so fortunate to be able to write full time--either through wealth or some kind of arts fellowship--I'm not sure I'd actually be able to make great use of it.

Honestly, my biggest problem is being so easily distracted by the internet. I really have to get more disciplined. It's only a mouse click away all the time that I'm working.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How Fiction Works by James Woods

I've been reading the new book by James Woods, How Fiction Works. I'm enjoying it a lot--enjoying the act of engaging with it and thinking about what he's saying. It's good old fashioned literary criticism that is challenging but accessible. I've seen a lot of hostile reviews of it, mostly complaining that he's too fancy pants. But I don't mind that he refers to books I haven't read or uses words I don't know. I don't feel shown up or made insecure by it. I'm a grown up and have access to dictionaries and libraries.

That said, I know that there is a theory of literature that is being laid out which I might or might not agree with if I had it laid out clearly for me, but I haven't been reading closely enough to tease it out. I've just been going along for the ride. More on that I hope, after I finish it.

One quibble. In the intro he surveys other guides in this genre and how his project is justified by its difference from all the rest, but in doing that he doesn't acknowledge L. Rust Hills, whose book his probably most resembles.

Starting chapter 2

I read through Chapter 2 this a.m. I should have done it over the long weekend so that I could start fresh on the work today, but I'm not very disciplined about squeezing work in on the weekends.

I'm pleased with what I saw--not because it was any good but because some obvious fixes jumped out at me. For now, contrary to what I said last week, the next work to be done isn't so much about digging and developing as it is about trimming out a big section that is quite weak. One solution would be to try and dig into it and turn it into something, but in this case I think it's better to focus on what's going on in the rest of the chapter--to foreground and emphasize that other stuff by cutting out the less developed stuff.

So it's a trim and patch job. I'll start on that tomorrow morning.