Sunday, December 28, 2008

Books I read in 2008

See my post from 12/07 first to understand the weird OCD thing I do about writing down the books I read. Short version, I "count" a book if I read it cover-to-cover. Books that I give up on part-way through, which are numerous, don't get written down.

Anthologies, as a consequence rarely get counted because it's too easy to take shortcuts. Same for reference works of course. Nevertheless, you'll see a couple of each on my list this year. A few times a year I get 500 pages into an 800 page book before giving up, and I don't count that, and dozens of times a year I give up on a regular 250-page novel after about 150 pages.

To compensate (i.e. bulk up my list) I do count most short books like books of poems. Recently I read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home--a graphic novel--in about the fifth of the time it would take to read a novel of that number of pages, and I'm counting that. I allow myself this strategy by promising not to abuse it--I don't read a lot of shorter books for the sake of the list and try to read what I'm genuinely interested in.

I count the book when I finish it. There's one book on this list that was been on my nightstand with a bookmark in it for more than two-and-half years.

I've had the goal of reading of finishing two books per week over the course of the year for the last few years, but I've never come close. I got to about 67 books this year, about the same as last year. I'd have to force myself to finish a lot more of the books that I start and get bored with and I would have to not have the periods where I get burned out and don't read anything for a few weeks. And I'd have to give up all magazines, including The New Yorker, where I get all my current affairs reading and most of the short fiction that I read.

I'm already putting myself in the hole for next year's list. I started War and Peace the other day, which is the equivalent of about 5 regular novels, and I don't expect to finish for a couple weeks.

The list below is everything I finished. The asterik indicates books that I read specifically to help me work out or think about my own writing problems.

Plainsong--Kent Haruf*
Atlas of the Difficult World--Adrienne Rich
The Good Times Are Killing Me--Linda Barry*
Lolita--Vladamir Nabakov
Cheating At Canasta--William Trevor
When We Get There--Shawna Seliy*
The History of Love--Nicole Krauss*
Fugitive Pieces--Anne Michaels
After This--Alice McDermott*
This Boy's Life--Tobias Wolff*
The Human Factor--Graham Greene
TheDeep Green Sea--Robert Olen Butler
Breathing The Water--Denise Levertov
Adrienne Rich's Poetry: Norton Critical Edition
The Unofficial Guide to New Orleans
Sense and Sensibility--Jane Austen
A Kiss In Space--mary Jo Salter
The Blackwater Lightship--Colm Toibin
Morpho Eugenia--A.S. Byatt
The New Granta Book of the American Short Story--ed. by Richard Ford*
The Wellspring: Poems--Sharon Olds
Old School--Tobias Wolff*
The Writing of Fiction--Edith Wharton*
Galatea 2.2--Richard Powers
Great Beginnings and Endings: Opening and Closing Lines of Great Novels*
The Inheritance of Loss--Kiran Desai*
Howard's End--E.M. Forster*
The Lover--Marguerite Duras
Persuasion--Jane Austen
A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain--Robert Olen Butler
To Kill A Mockingbird--Harper Lee*
Jane Eyre--Charlotte Bronte
The Quiet American--Graham Greene
In Retrospect--Robert McNamara
The Oxford Book of American Short Stories--ed. by Joyce Carol Oates*
The Sea Wall--Marguerite Duras
Vietnam: An Illustrated History--Shelton Woods
How Fiction Works--James Wood*
The Emporor's Children--Claire Messud
How Fiction Works--James Wood* (I read it twice. I'm counting it twice.)
Dreams For My Father--Barack Obama
The Hunter: A Simple Tale--Claire Messud
A Gesture Life--Chang-rae Lee*
The Last Life--Claire Messud
The Unswept Room--Sharon Olds
What Moves At the Margin: Selected Nonfiction--Toni Morrison*
Off the Page: Write Talk About . . . : ed. by Carol Burns*
Mark Twain: A Life--Ron Powers
Building Fiction: How To Develop Plot and Structure--Jesse Lee Kercheval*
The Book of Imaginary Beings--Jorge Luis Borges
Brutal Imagination--Cornelius Eady
White Teeth--Zadie Smith*
Middlesex--Jeffrey Eugenides*
A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court--Mark Twain*
Charles Dickens--Jane Smiley
Everything Is Illuminated--Jonathan Safran Foer*
A Mercy--Toni Morrison
Fun Home--Alison Bechdel
How Novels Work--John Mullan*
The Charterhouse of Parma--Stendahl
Unpacking the Boxes: A Life In Poetry--Donald Hall
Then We Came To the End--Joshua Ferris

Hmm. No Shakespeare this year and no novels prior to Jane Austen. (There were a few that I started and didn't finish.) Lots more poetry this year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

That felt good

I wrote this morning. I mean I put pen to paper and created new material from scratch. (approx. 1500 words, 90 minute session). New characters, new episodes. This was following through on my inclination to work on a new short project during my hiatus while I wait for my friend to read the novel. It's been a long time since I wrote in this sense, and it was a lot of fun. The rewrite process has been drudgery compared to it. This felt like the old days when I was drafting the novel. If only all of the process could be like that.

Now, what I'm hoping and testing out in this small experiment is to see if more of the process can be weighted to the drafting stage. I have a theory that what I've learned while working on this novel will make me a better writer in ways that mean I make fewer mistakes during the drafting and need to spend less time on the rewriting. For example, I hope that I'll have a better understanding of structure and flow before I start a project and not do so much experimenting on paper to find my plot line.

So far--I don't know. After a morning of prep notes and a morning of drafting, I don't think I have a sense that I've grown in that way. But I'm determined when it comes time to start my second novel to have a much more developed outline and a much clearer sense of character so that what I lay down in the first draft doesn't need so much more development in the rewrites.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Done for now

I'm calling an official end to the second rewrite today, giving up the last two days I had to work with before handing off a solid draft to my friend who is going to read it over the holidays. I made a clean version without any of the comments in the margins and I'm taking the thumb drive to Kinkos tonight to print it out. 540 pp. He's probably going to regret seeing me on his doorstep with that.

He didn't give me a definite time when he would be finished, but I'm not expecting it before Martin Luther King Day. And I'm reluctant to start making revisions of my own before that and thereby confusing what his comments might apply to.

So, I have for the first time in this process a break of about 5 weeks where I know I'm not going to be working on it. What I should be doing is trying to rustle up some paying clients to compensate for how much time I've been putting into this and expect to put into it after my friend gets back to me.

What I feel like doing, though, is writing. Despite all the "rewriting" work, which has been a kind of drudgery, it feels like forever since I wrote anything. I'm tempted to get out pen and paper every morning kick it old school for a couple hours, especially to see if I've picked up any skills along the way that would manifest themselves in a new short story.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Raced through several chapters

I think I've let too much time pass since the last time I read it and made careful notes. I can't seem to make sense of my notes anymore, or at least don't have the patience too. So I'm really flying over the edits now, just tweaking the most obvious issues, killing time until I hand it off to my reader later this week. I got through chapters 6-14 today in a few hours. My plan is to slow down tomorrow and look more carefully at the ending--chapters 15 and 16. Then a last day or two to check for some sentence-level fixes and then off to the print shop.


Yikes. I just found this post in my "draft" folder that I thought I had posted more than a year ago.

I have an outline of my book that I use when I'm trying to get unstuck or plan what to work on next. It's a Word doc set up as a table with columns for plot and theme and with space for notes, chapter by chapter. I print it out and spread it out on the dining room table and write my new plans on it. I use that as a guide when I'm working on the rewrite until the plans don't make sense any more and then I start a fresh copy and try again. At a certain point I know the plot well enough that I could delete all that detail and now it's more focused on function--notes on what each chapter needs to accomplish or establish. More importantly, it has notes on what each chapter is promising but hasn't delivered on yet.
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Monday, December 15, 2008

4 days to go

I spent about an hour or less making some tweaks in Ch. 5 (which I was supposed to do weeks ago.) All the confidence I felt a month ago that I knew what to do next is gone and I'm greatly tempted to pack it in here and turn it over to my reader in hopes that he can sort it out. I'm going to try and take advantage the time remaining though. Even if it's only some easy tweaks, it can have some impact on the impression that the draft makes so that he can focus on deeper problems.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Search and replace

I've spent the day on very mundane cleanup work, made a lot less tedious by the search and replace tool on my word processor. (Another theory is that "time saving" technology tools actually make more work possible, so you end up doing more of it rather than the same amount of work in less time. That's probably the case here.)

Since I'm getting close to handing off my typescript to my first reader, I'm moving into a clean-up phase. Part of that includes a long list of quickly noted points that I have needed to check for consistency. These are things like names of minor characters that I decided to change part-way through, characters that got split into two or two characters that got combined into one, makes of cars that I have re-imagined.

You can even search for types of formatting, so I'm able to search for all the greyscale, highlighting and _____ spots that indicate places where I was rushing by and wanted to come back and patch up later. e.g. I have places that read like, "Just like Uncle _____ always said . . ." So I can search for the ______ and now come up with the name.

I used the same formatting search to make consistent the way I showed breaks between sections.

I found that I there are a few placeholder names that I used for multiple characters. e.g. When I searched for Kelly, it was attached to two people.

I'm searching for the keywords that appear in scenes that I cut out to make sure I deleted later references to those scenes.

Location names. I have my characters stopping at 7-11 type convenience stores numerous times. I wanted a name that felt like the right time and place but also wasn't an actual brand name. I tried out a few along the way and have needed to go back and use the one I settled on consistently.

Next up, I'm going to resume using the search function to find particular grammatical constructions so I can make sentence-level improvements. (I wrote about this earlier.)

I would also like to try and do some larger scene improvements, but I won't have time to do more than a few unfortunately. I'll be handing it off to my reader fully aware of certain significant problems. My goal was to have him looking at it when I was unable to see anything else wrong with it, and I haven't quite got there. I need at least a few more weeks. Oh well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sick days

I got hit with a doozy of a cold and haven't done any work all week. (Lots of reading, though.) That sabotages for good my already improbable plans for revision before the end of next week. I think that probably means some triage work next week, and then it more or less sits for maybe a full month until my friend finishes reading it. I'm not happy about any of this.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Hyterical realism" and digression

I finished re-reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith last night. I'm still struggling with my resistance to James Wood's critique. I know that he appreciates some things in it and that in fact my own delight and annoyance with the book probably closely tracks his, but I'm bothered by how his annoyance seems to be based on a categorical objection rather than her success or failure within that category.

The other day I was discussing this in terms of the social novel, but it's probably the quality of "digression" that is more central to the question. Smith and others that Wood labels, in The Irresponsible Self: On Laugher and the Novel, as "hysterical realism" often have digressions full of sophisticated, even expert, detail on scientific, social, historical and political topics tangentially related to the story. That and other narrative elements, often documentary in nature like signs, letters, emails, etc. supply a quality of pastiche. The other thing they often do is introduce the author--have the author talk over the disembodied narrative voice and apparently show off the author's knowledge or research skills. That's the worst-case, and I'm with Wood in his judgment of David Foster Wallace when he plays this trick. I find Wallace's writing self indulgent.

But this quality of digression is not unique to contemporary authors. It is common in Don Quixote and it's full bloom probably occurs in Moby Dick. Most people who find Moby Dick a chore to read probably feel that way because of that specific habit. If you don't like it or get it, it's an indulgence. The same quality is why its fans regard it is as transformational.

I don't remember seeing any evaluation of Moby Dick by James Wood, so I don't know how he feels about it. But he definitely doesn't include it in his critique of hysterical realism. It seems to me that he is attacking the Young Turks because they are Young Turks and not because they fail to deploy the technique of digression succesfully.

Done with chapter 4

I lost a day yesterday to lack of sleep + an early meeting. So, five days, two chapters, far short of my goal of one/day.

I'm going to try to get back on schedule. I reviewed my notes of what's needed in Ch. 5 and am trying to put myself back in the mindset of this exercise--flying tackles of particular points in each chapter, rather than trying to work through the whole chapter, which I have been sucked into doing. I have a list of three key moments in the chapter, and on my next writing day (after the weekend?) I'm going to try making disciplined attacks on those points in my morning writing period and then leave the chapter behind.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Working on Ch. 4

Up early and got in a solid 3 hours on Chapter 4 before having to break for other responsibilities. I guess a chapter a day really depends on a full day. I think another 2-3 hours should do it with this chapter, and this one is probably about average in terms of the amount of revision I expect to make on this pass through. Getting through this draft before xmas is looking less likely.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The social novel

I don't feel fully prepared to discuss this intelligently yet--just making notes. I'm starting to think of my second book in terms of the "social novel." James Wood has a lot of scorn for recent attempts at that and seems to reject the possibilities of the category entirely. (I assume I must be misinterpreting him--surely he doesn't reject Dickens' work as a legitimate artistic endeavor.)

Particularly, he beats up on recent novelists including Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, identifying a genre of contemporary literary fiction that he labels "hysterical realism." I agree with many of the criticisms of each book, even the ones I admire like White Teeth and The Corrections. But, like I say, it feels like he is rejecting the possibilities of their endeavors at social novels entirely. Meanwhile, when I think about what is interesting in contemporary fiction that I would like to explore, I keep coming back to these same books.

So, very roughly, at this very early stage of my thinking, I'm imagining a work that deals with the inherent tensions of a social novel--timeliness vs. timelessness; characters that are illustrations of social phenomena vs. characters that are fully realized individuals. Are both possible? Desirable?

Something to ponder . . . what about On The Road? Isn't it both a document of its time and timeless? Isn't it on track to pass the hundred-year test?

Done with chapter 3

I made some severe cuts to Ch. 3 for awhile this morning and decided to leave it behind for now. I'm going to let my reader help me figure it out. On to Ch. 4, renewing my goal of quick improvements at a rate of one chapter per day through Dec. 19. Hit jobs.

I did bring the length down a fair chunk. Let's see, it's minus 22 pages over the first three chapters, a little short of my goal of average minus 8 per chapter.

Monday, December 1, 2008

End of hiatus

I jumped back in today after taking two weeks off. I got in about 90 minutes of revising and doubt I'll get in any more with the other work I have to do after lunch. At this rate, I'm not going to meet the somewhat arbitrary deadline of having everything in the shape I envision it can be in before Christmas when I hand it off to my reader.

Tackling Ch. 3 again. The basic problem here is that it is still basically a long sketch without a plot. I'm trying to find the organizing dramatic principle of it. I think I know what it is, but it means something akin to a rewrite. I have managed to cut 9-10 pages from it so far, but it still is one of the longest chapters. I'll be working on it tomorrow and probably on Wednesday too, and hopefully I'll make up the time somewhere else, but probably not.

My eye strain problem is continuing to bother me and make it difficult to get in even the two hours of work. I try to type with my eyes closed as much as possible, including most of htis blog entry.

I've been reading a ton, including an earlier book of James Wood, and some of the "hysterical realism" that he takes issue with. More on that another time, but in short the conflict over stylistic and formal issues that is on one side of is what I think I want to explore in my second novel, which I continue to daydream about.