Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I guess I'm officially on some kind of break from the book. At least for last week and this week. I would really like to be able to dive in after Thanks giving and put in a good solid month before handing it off to my friend who will be reading it. We'll see. Work commitments are distracting me also.

What's different about this break is how OK I feel about it. I feel like it's just part of the process and not a sign that I won't finish the book. I have absolute confidence that I will finish when I have a little more energy for it. I'm enjoying the rare period of self confidence.

I've been reading the Ron Powers biography of Mark Twain that I've been trying to get to since it came out a couple years ago. What a personality.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Richard Ford on revision

I found this quote from Richard Ford that gets at the trouble I've had defining exactly what my "rewrite" process is. What exactly is it that I was doing during that stage?

. . . I wrote the story to an end that didn't feel like the right end although it felt like an end. I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has given me. She said, 'Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words.' And I had to figure out what more words to write.

That sums up very well the discovery I had to make and that I've called "digging" and "developing." The hardest trick during the rewrite process has been to resist the inclination to "fix" things and instead put myself in the mindset of adding more--of making more of a mess actually. It really is as simple as writing more words. I did have an ending, and all the other parts, that didn't feel like the right ending. The solution was more words. If the mantra every morning during the drafting was "just add sentences," the mantra since than ought to have been (and will be in my next book) "just add more sentences."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Christmas wish list

My sister-in-law always gets me a few books for Christmas. She calls and asks my wife what I want, and I send along a slightly-too-long list so that there will be some element of surprise about what I actually receive. I try to make it more of a wish list than a shopping list without seeming obnoxious about it. (In the meantime, I have to take care not to request those books from anyone else or buy them for myself.)

I usually compile my list with the help of the New York Times notable books list, which comes out in a couple weeks, I think. I ask for a handful of the fat expensive hardcovers that I haven't already laid my hands on somehow. (That's how I ended up with Savage Detectives and Tree of Smoke last year.)

The problem is that she sent word this year that she wants to get her shopping done earlier, and the New York Times list isn't out yet. And I'm sure she'll pester me for me requests next week at Thanksgiving. There are plenty of books I want, of course, but I'm looking for that sweet spot of new and critically acclaimed and otherwise overlooked by myself. (The new Toni Morrison, for example, is not overlooked and has already been purchased.) I don't have my handy gift guide to encourage me like usual.

I heard on the radio this a.m. about the National Book Award winners, so that added a few titles to my wish list, but what else?

Grass is greener

I've done a truly risky thing; I started a journal to take notes on my second novel.

Perhaps this is a symptom of the burnout I referred to earlier. Perhaps it's a form of late-onset senioritis--fear of crossing the finishing line, prefering to daydream about the future instead of doing the work that will get me there. But after several weeks of hard work on my rewrite, I am suddenly super sensitive to any interruption and unable to really do the work I know is waiting for me.

Meanwhile, I've been having fantasies of what it will be like to make another attempt at a novel using all that I've learned during the process of writing this one. It started with just a vague sense that I had learned a lot and that the next one will go better, and it has germinated increasingly into speculation about what that will look like.

I don't really have any ideas about a subject or story--at least, none that I'm serious about. It's more ideas about voice and ambition. My first novel is, characteristically, a first novel. It has a certain controlled quality to it. In some ways, I don't feel like it fully represents me as a writer. It represents my work as an apprentice novelist.

I'm having trouble describing what I mean, and it sounds like I'm disappointed in this book, and that's not the case. I still have high hopes for how strong it's going to get in the next revision.

I mean that I feel I'm capable of a different scope of work, which might also be a larger scope of work. A voice that is different and possibly more of some quality (lively? playful?) and, by implication, better. I feel like when a subject does come to me that I won't need to shy away from it because now I'll have the confidence that I can corral it and make a narrative out of it, and so I naturally wonder if it ought to be a bigger subject.

So I started a notebook, which traditionally for me has been a way of distracting myself from what I ought to be doing. It has been a bad habit. I have cabinets full of notebooks with only the first three pages written in them, introducing the start of big projects that keep me up all night fantasizing about artistic homeruns. Not a sin in itself, except that I have a novel I'm supposing to be finishing meanwhile. I can't let myself get so excited about some future project that the current one seems to boring to bother with. Gut it out!

So far, my new notebook is a lot of reflection about what kinds of literature have been important to me and what kinds of things I would like to achieve as an artist. I feel like writing in that right now instead of doing any kind of work. It's more fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Amis on revision

Since last spring I've been picking infrequently at a book called Off The Page edited by Carol Burns. It's a collection of excerpts, organized thematically, from interviews she did with numerous writers as part of a series for the Washington Post. It's the kind of thing I used a lot for moral support during my drafting stage (I read a lot of the Paris Review interview collections then) but have needed less lately.

I was drawn to the chapter on revision of course, and underlined a lot in there. Here's a sample from Martin Amis:

The process of writing is really finding out more about the novel. When you finish and then go back to revise, you're amazed by your ignorance of what you were trying to do.
(pg. 125)

So true. Ever since finishing the first rewrite I've had an itch (which I'm about to scratch, I think) to start using what I learned about the process to try again with another project.


I'm really having trouble applying myself this week--lots of fear and boredom and feeling easily distracted. I do have a lot of confidence about the book right now, however. It's the sense that I know what I need to do next and wish it was just over. It's different from the fear that comes from not knowing what's wrong with the book and how to proceed.

I think I recognize the feeling from a few different periods in this process, especially when I was transitioning between drafts. I usually ended up taking a couple months off. Which is fine, and I don't feel bad about it, but I was hoping not to start that break now. I want to use the next month to get the book in as good a shape as possible before handing it off to my friend who is reading it. I anticipated I would start one of those transition breaks then.

This could be just a few off days, but there are several other things that have been and will interrupt momentum, including a short holiday week next week, so I'm afraid it will degenerate into a long break if I don't muster a lot of discipline. But if it really is burnout, maybe I should let it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Work interfering

My plan for a chapter a day is getting sabotaged by real life for the time being. I lost yesterday and today, and I can kind of feel momentum slipping away. That's OK, in that there's nothing critical about my plan. I'm feeling a lot more confident lately that this will get done eventually--but a lot of impatience that it is not done.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Toni Morrison on rewriting

From What Moves at the Margin, a new collection of nonfiction essays by Toni Morrison earlier this year:

When you first start writing--and I think it's true for a lot of beginning writers--you're scared to death that if you don't get that sentence right that minute it's never going to show up again. And it isn't. But it doesn't matter--another one will, and it'll probably be better. And I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it--and fix it again and again and again, and it will be better. I don't have the hysteria that used to accompany some of those dazzling passages that I thought the world was just dying for me to remember. I'm a little more sanguine about it now. Because the best part of it all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over. That's the thrill of a lifetime for me: if I can just get done with that first phase and then have infinite time to fix it and change it. I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that it takes a lot of time and lot of sweat. (pg. 79)

I try to give credit to others for the various ideas about writing that have influenced me, but there is one formulation of my personal philosophy that I'm going to claim for myself. For years I have confidently told my students in freshman comp classes that "There are no rules for writing; there are only rules for re-writing." What I was getting at is that all of us as writers in whatever form sit down at the desk with a head full of rules (don't end a sentence with a preposition; write what you know; write with a reader in mind; have a strong thesis . . . ) and that, while all of those rules are something you should seriously consider observing, all of them are also baggage that slow you down during the first draft.

The trick that I discovered for myself--and that I've seen other writers articulate as Morrison does here; Anne Lamott's celebration of "Shitty First Drafts" is another--is to give yourself permission (even the assignment) during the drafting stage to write very poorly and very much contrary to all the rules. My wife calls these "zero-drafts," because they're less than a first draft. It's really raw material. In a sense, my own first draft would be better characterized as a zero-draft. It wasn't until the first rewrite was complete that I had something sensible and cohesive to really start trying to fix.

Giving yourself permission to write poorly at the beginning, gives you material to work with, and it's in the re-writing phase that you start to try and write well, by whatever rules you deem worthy of observing. I learned that habit in journalism and it served me well writing this book so far. Not incidentally, I've never felt like writer's block was a serious problem for me. I'm a little bit stuck-up about the subject. To me, it's a symptom of unrealistic expecatations about what a first draft should do. Personally, like Morrison, "I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it."

Now that I'm done bragging about my maturity, I have to confess that I'm not quite as sanguine as Morrison. In this project there has been a range of work so far between drafting and careful line revision. The drafting was a joy because it's all id--just creating a mess regardless of the consequences. The little bit of time I have put in with careful line revision has been pleasurable. I've heard writers, like Morrison here, describe that as the most pleasurable part, and I expect to enjoy it when I actually get to that stage. But in between has been this long process of figuring out what the book actually is and needs, and that has involved a lot more doubt and fear and hard slogging through. I have not enjoyed it except for the rare day when I find the solution to a problem and lay it out.

I'm hoping that my inexperience with writing a novel was the main cause of that and that in the future I'll both minimize the need for that process (with better planning) and live through it with less doubt and fear, because I will know what it is. In fact, I've been feeling a burst of confidence lately and fantasizing about when I can choose a second novel project and launch into that equipped with all the experience and perspective I've acquired this time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Page count

I've been trying a little harder to bring down the length as I work through this revision. All the material pasted into one doc, with breaks between chapters and all that, made a 566 pg. document at the start of this week. I figure a big improvement would be to trim an average of 8 pages per chapter--more in Part 1 and less in Part 2. So far, I've only reached about 1/2 of that--4 pages from each of the first two chapters. And those were painful cuts.

Is this revision?

I badly want to have a sense of making progress, so I've taken to referring to my current work as revision vs. the rewriting I've been doing for more than a year now. The idea is that I'm not developing the work so much as clarifying and sharpening it. As usual, the very next thing I work on makes a lie of that. There are no bright lines in this process.

My plan to hit one chapter per day is not going quite as planned. I spent one day on Chapter 1, but it was a full day neglecting other responsibilities, so really it ought to count as two. And I allowed myself two days on Chapter 2, finishing this morning. I just couldn't see moving on when other problems seemed so glaring and some solutions seemed near at hand with a little concentration. Hopefully I won't feel every chapter needs that much work I won't get all the way through it before I have to hand it off to my reader. I talked to him last night and he said right after Christmas. He also laughed when I explained my rationale about revising vs. rewriting.

I've been having a lot of trouble with my eyes, and I'm worried about it. It's actually causing me not to work as much as I want to.I had them checked less than a year ago and the doctor said my prescription hasn't changed and isn't likely to at my age for several more years. I guess that means they can just get tired without the vision necessarily deteriorating, but it still makes me nervous to be looking at the screen so much. It also makes it hard to watch TV and to read, and that, along with surfing the internet, accounts for about 90% of my waking hours. If I can't read or watch TV, how am I supposed to pass the time? I'm going to have to ration myself so that I can stay in good enough shape to finish the novel. (Probably shorter blog posts will help.)

Next up, Chapter 3. I've come to the conclusion that this chapter is seriously flawed and underdeveloped and it needs some kind of unifying thread to bring it together. So, it needs some thought, and I've timed my schedule to leave me the rest of today and the weekend to stew on it and make notes. Hopefully I can knock out whatever solution I come up with on Monday.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not sure what I'm doing, but I know it's hard work

I've put in a lot of time the last couple days, but it's hard to say how. I'm in one of those zones where I'm deep in it, but it's really disorganized. Trying to read myself to sleep late last night it suddenly came to me what the novel I was writing did succesfully that my own draft so far does not, and I got up to make a bunch of notes.

In general, my editing notes/to do lists are a big mess. It's hard to know where to start with it, so I just thumb through it all looking for a piece that seems worthy of the fresh energy I bring in the morning and then pinball around after that. I probably dug into pieces of 6 or 7 different chapters the last couple days. Certain kinds of errands take less mental energy, so I turn to those at certain points during the day so as to keep being productive. One example is that "search" activity I mentioned before, slowly weeding out as many weak constructions as possible.

I guess in a way I'm on the border between trying to get a big picture sense of what is lacking and starting to tackle some of that. I really want to get it in as strong a shape as possible before handing it off to my reader in about 4 weeks, and I really don't know what's possible.

4 weeks--that's about 4 chapters a week if I started tackling them in order. I don't think I can get to everything I know needs to be done. Maybe if I just deal with the one major thing I know is wrong in each chapter, 1 per day . . .

OK, I'm ending the day with a plan to try that tomorrow. Start with Chapter 1, but don't try to work through the whole thing. Look at my notes, pick the biggest weakness, and try to focus on that scene. With any leftover time I can pick at the smaller issues.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Picture a reader--in memoriam

You've probably heard the advice that to give your writing some focus and energy you should picture a particular reader and imagine you're talking to them. Good advice in general I suppose, but during the drafting stage of my book, I found it a distraction. My main goal was just completing the draft, and the words were flowing out easily enough without any kind of framing device. I decided to postpone using that tool until some stage in the revision.

And I think the time has come. I did some freewriting and brainstorming to think about what reader I should picture. My wife was one obvious choice, but that didn't feel right because she is too close. It would be too easy for me to take shortcuts since I know she'll be able to connect the dots.

I wanted it to be a smart, critical reader, a lover of literary fiction, but not an academic (which most of my social circle is made up of.) And someone I knew well, so that I could imagine talking to them. I could imagine them hearing it.

I also thought about focusing in on someone who would be interested in the thematic argument of the book. I figure the ultimate target audience, the most interested real reader, would be someone personally moved by the story because it shone a light on on their own experiences in some way. Or, less directly, on the experiences of someone they are intimate with.

I think I've found the perfect person by all those criteria, and it has an additional benefit of feeling like a kind of tribute. I'm going to picture a friend of mine who died a few years ago--an old friend from college who I meet during orientation weekend. We had the same first class together and hung out with the literary magazine crowd together and argue about the school plays. Like me she struggled for many years afterward trying to reconcile practical/financial needs and the desire to create art. She was generous and considerate and passionate, but also tough about art. Engaged, but receptive and open, as well as demanding.

And we were on the same wavelength about literature and other arts. We used to correspond via the postal service in true 20th-century style, sharing as much as we could with each other about music and cinema and theater. She was my last correspondent--I doubt that I've received a piece of personal mail except a hallmark card or one of those family Christmas newsletters since she died.

I dug out all the letters from her over the weekend and read them to remind myself of the voice we used with each other--to remind myself of the sound of her listening. And I dug out a bunch of photographs and taped some next to my desk (She was head-turningly beautiful.) Now, when I'm editing, line-by-line, I take a little glance to the right and back to the sentence and plunge in. I hope it helps me generate the energy I felt whenever I wrote to her, and I hope it helps me redeem the longing to create literature that we shared.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election day disruptions

It's election day today, and I couldn't sleep last night. I was up by 3:30. Which is actually kind of a good thing. Every once in awhile--including the day that I conceived of the novel in fact--I'm up early like that, and I often end up getting some work done and often getting a different perspective.

So, from experience, I knew that even though I was anxious about not having enough sleep to survive the rest of the day, I might appreciate the result if I found a slow pace, fixed a cup of coffee, and sat down with some paper. I used one of the "framing question" exercises I discussed earlier and worked through all the chapters for about an hour, making notes on where I've got things in hand and where the exercise revealed some gaps. (They were numerous.) I was able to get a different analytical look at the book that will help me focus the next revision/rewrite.

That was all before 6 a.m. We got to the polls just as they opened and had a 30 minute wait. It was amazing. The line was at least an hour behind us when we left, and I'm awfully worried about when the rush really starts.

I have a meeting in the afternoon and of course lots of TV watching tonight as the polls come in, so I feel like I need to catch a nap now, but I'm too wound up. Maybe if I lay down with one of my heavy "how a novel works" books.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Planning for the next revision

The book still needs a lot of work of course, and I'm starting to organize myself to tackle it. The planning is in part determined by when I'll be able to get a reader. I want to turn over as strong a draft as possible--no part in having them discover problems I'm already conscious of--but I don't want to be in the middle of a revision when I turn it over. So I'm wargaming the scope of the next attack. It's possible it will be 6 weeks before hitting the print button, so it could be a pretty extensive revision. Two days per chapter, for example, would get me all the way through it again, and that's enough time to do more than sentence-level work. This is also determined in part by the urge to get out there and start doing some paying work again. It's hard to know how that will affect my writing mood.

I tried a self-designed exercise today. I have one of those superoversized clipboards that art students use, with large pads of newsprint for sketching. I set that on my lap, drew a grid for space for all my chapters, and tried to write one simple thing in each box--the key sentence at the climax that delivered on the promise of that chapter. What I was looking for was something emotionally impactful, that resolved a big drama within the scale of that chapter but also escalated the larger drama of the book. And it needed to be something I remembered word-for-word.

I was able to do it for several chapters. In others, I could picture the moment that I wanted to be like that but couldnt' come up with the language I had used. In those cases and in a few others where I couldn't even come up with that picture, it clarified for me that the chapter in fact did not deliver on its promise. And I shouldn't be surprise that the chapters that have caused me problems all along were a problem here.

It seems obvious now, but one thing I need to do next is to identify the single powerful thing I want each chapter to achieve and then shape the chapter toward that goal. And of course that single powerful thing has to fit in with a larger arc for the book.

As I was doing that, I was making notes on my outline document that I have been using all along. At this point it is basically like a contractor's punch list with change orders listed on it by chapter. Some of the notes are about checking for consistency in details. (Do I have that cousin the same age throughout the book? Didn't I have a couple different names for that character--go back and make sure I changed it everwhere.) And some are pointing out where despite all my digging and developing work certain scenes are still not doing the work they need to do.

In those cases, I often make my notes into action items, particularly freewrite prompts. I'm thinking that each morning I can tackle one of these freewrite prompts for a couple weeks to get a better big picture sense of the book and then start to weave in what I discover.

An example . . . I have many minor characters of course that are necessarily less well-developed. But it occured to me that one of these minor characters nevertheless must have a large presence in my main character's imagination. So I need to do some basic character sketching on that minor character to get straight in my own mind who he is and also to think about what my main character must think of him. I'll do a little freewriting and then identify a point or two in the book where I can weave in what I've learned.

So, many things to do, all over the map. I'm not really sure where to start first.