Friday, February 27, 2009

Late night writing

I'm trying to self-soothe a little bit. A lot of the anxiety I'm feeling is coming just from expectations about my schedule, and those expectations are probably arbitrary and unreasonable. In the last draft, 2 days or more per chapter was customary and now because I had a good run of a chapter per day the last couple weeks I have sugar-plum visions of being finished by X date. Whenever I fall behind that pace, I think I start to transmutate it into worry about problems in the text itself. The text does have problems, but I don't have to feel this wound up about them.

So, last night was weird. I couldn't sleep and at about 12:30 a.m. a solution for how to connect some of the parts of these chapters I'm working on came to me. Really, it was just the transitional sentence that helped organize a couple different chunks. So I leaped out of bed and opened my sleeping laptop and typed in the sentence, and then pasted in the text I wanted, and then continued the cut and paste work that I was writing about yesterday. I put in about an hour and then was too wound up to go right to sleep and am of course sleep deprived this morning.

Needless to say, that was not a customary working hour for me, but it illustrates just how preoccupied I am with the book at this point. Zoned out, is how I think of it. I want to say more about that in another post.

Page count -- the transitional sentence allowed me to bring back in some of that background material for the time being, so I'm back up to 46 pp. from 42 yesterday. That's for the three chapters 9 - 11 together. I'm considering now a plan C where Ch. 9 stands on its own as a comparatively short 18 pp. (the shortest in the book) and 10 and 11 are combined for the remainder, which right now is 28 pp. We'll see. I still have a lot of big picture work to do on 10 and 11 and then finer crafting to do on all of it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Back on the computer

God, I'm sick of these chapters! It's really feeling like a chore lately.

Today I decided to come back to the electronic file vs. the printed typescript. I'm making changes on a larger scale, moving big chunks around to see how they'll work together. Cutting and pasting felt like it was going to be more convenient electronically. (Have you ever noticed how sometimes a term can start out as a metaphor based on some older technology--like literally cutting and pasting bits of paper to edit a manuscript--and then become so common while the older technology dies out that the metaphorical reference is lost? "Dialing" a phone is another one. It's been 25 years since I literally dialed a phone number, but it's still the term.) Scattering my typescript all over the living room and moving chunks of the story around and handwriting in the connective tissue on loose leaf notebook paper just wasn't working for revisions this complex. So, back to the computer.

Status so far -- the 3 chapters together added up to 68 pp. I've trimmed it down to 42 pp. so far, some of that just temporarily to see how it looks without some material that I really want to keep. I haven't yet solved the problem of how to sneak in a lot of the background material. I have written a new climax to one scene. I still need to write the material that pivots the momentum toward the climax of the chapter. And I still need to rewrite that climax. I think I can get another 10 pages cut out without much trouble, and I'd prefer to get 15 out.

I'll be lucky to finish all that before the weekend. If I do, that would leave 5 chapters, which I should be able to do next week (back on paper). Four weeks for the "read through" as I've called it. One week more than estimated, but still on track to finish the revision way before the end of the semester.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Struggling in Chs. 9 -11

Well, I had a good two-week run of progress and now I've really hit a roadblock. Still struggling with the issues in Chs. 9-11 that I noted yesterday.

Plus a new issue, actually. I'm thinking that I have to peel out one of the significant subplots that starts to weave its way in with these chapters. In retrospect, it just doesn't do much to develop the character or complicate the main story.

So, there's the problem of killing the darlings. (Naturally it's the subplot that required the most research.) And there's the technical problem of how to get it out of there without affecting some other critical piece. It's the "butterfly flaps its wings" problem.

So, that's still stewing, and I'm losing days off my timeline. Have to remind myself that the timeline is arbitrary. Slow down. Do what's right for the story.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Three chapters at once

Started working on Ch. 9 yesterday and this morning.

Chs. 9 - 11 have always been unique in the book in that they are a trio that seem to go together, and they are much shorter than the others. Their collected page length is about the same as one chapter in Part 1, and the time period they cover is about the same too. I'm not sure why I treated them as three separate chapters in the first draft except for the sense that I needed to pick up the pace. (Put another way, I'm not sure yet why the long chapters in Part 1, which often have more than one episode in them leading up to a climax, aren't broken up into multiple chapters more the way 9-11 are.)

In any case, I had a hunch that I wouldn't just keep working on one at a time like I have been so far before I got to this trio, and when I read Ch. 9 today I realized I couldn't make the fixes I have in mind until I do read through 10 and 11. Ch. 9 has a lot of problems, but since the present action of the chapter doesn't really get resolved until a climax in Ch. 11, it's impossible to deal with those problems yet.

So I have somewhat more complicated revision work in front of me for a few days. What I think is going to happen is that I'll decide that a small number of long chapters is in the DNA of the book and I'll decide to combine Chs. 9-11 into one.

The good news is that, contrary to what I anticipated, I'm seeing a huge amount of material that potentially can be cut. The usual bad news with that -- I don't want to cut it. I like it too much for my own good.

Literary fueding, James Wood, continued

More context and another round fired recently in The Elegant Variation -- a long-lost list of some of James Wood's faves.

I disagree with TEV's implication that this list negates any of the criticism people might have with his stand on so-called "hysterical realism." Nobody serious is saying that he's stuck on Flaubert--that's a straw man argument. They're saying that he has rejected a category of contemporary fiction as inherently unworkable instead of evaluating to see if their particular attempts at the form have worked. And they've got specific instances in Wood's writing on which to base that interpretation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Literary fueding, James Wood and my ongoing fence sitting

Re: my previous blogs about the nagging but undefined resistance I have to James Wood, despite having found his book How Fiction Works very helpful to my own writing.

I've discovered that a good old-fashioned critic's feud is raging out there about just some of the issues I've been mulling over. Prospect Magazine has an excellent summary of the parties and positions. Readers responses to that here.

One of those responses is from a blogger who is specifically CONTRA James Wood. He argues with a lot more conviction than myself something similar to what I have been exploring--his rejection of a younger generation of writers is apparently a categorical rejection, aesthetically limited and inconsistent at that.

The Prospect article references a question I had about Zadie Smith--why she seemed to agree with James Wood's criticism of her first book. I and others may have misunderstood what she was getting at back then, but it's clear now she doesn't agree anymore, shooting Wood dagger eyes throughout her review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland.

Right now, I'm leaning toward the position of the young Turks. For one, my own reading of Netherland was very similar to Smith's.

However, like I say, I'm feeling awfully ambiguous about that. Wood's ideas in How Fiction Works were overall really helpful to me, and while I'm annoyed with his categorical rejection of so-called "hysterical realism," overall I agree that the books he's referring to were failures.

Losing some days, stuck on Ch. 8

When did I originally say I was done with Ch. 8? Last Thursday? I'm still not satisfied with it, but after some more picking at it on Friday, thinking about it over the weekend, and some work this morning, I'm going to move on. Tomorrow I start Chapter 9/Part 2.

I think Chapter 8 probably has been harder because it's the climax of Part 1, and so, similarly to the climax of a whole book, though on a smaller scale, it has to resolve a lot questions elegantly and dramatically. And, unique to a transition from a major Part to another, it has to raise new questions that make the reader want to go on to the next section.

And it has to do all that in a way--as always--that integrates plot and character. It's so tempting just to shove the characters around and make them do what needs to be done in order to resolve the plot or move it along, but you end up with actions that don't seem to fit the characters that were established before. I guess that's what I mean by inelegant. I'm trying to get the inelegance out and the sense of integration in.

Anyway, Ch. 8 gets less and less clumsy and more and more dramatically compelling each time I go through it, but it's not there yet. I needed to slow down and take a good crack at it, and I've lost a few days off my schedule.

So, my plan to finish the read-through by the end of this week--4 working days left--is very improbable even without any roadblocks. Even without any personal or professional life, and I've been falling behind in both of those in order to get the work done the last few weeks.

So now I'm thinking the read-through is more likely to take 4 weeks total--until the end of next week. That would be about one chapter per week day from now until then, with a couple days of buffer.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Done with Part 1

Tough day today. I'm giving myself points for making the effort when I was strongly inclined to take a day off. No sleep last night, and up early to get the car to the shop when traditionally that kind of errand first thing spoils my writing energy for the day. I did sit down in front of it when I got home and said, "ugh," and left it for the morning, but I tried again after lunch.

So, I finished the "read through" of Chapter 8, and thus of Part 1 and thus of the original 2/3 mark in my manuscript. (It's been a while since I figured if it's still balanced that way. Let's see. Nope, the break is at about the 59% mark now. Part 2 must have had more relative growth in the last draft.) I have a feeling I'm not really done with Chapter 8. It's one of the times where I finish the chapter with some dissatisfaction that nags at me. I'll probably find myself back in Ch. 8 working on some solutions tomorrow morning.

I'm up to about 83 pp x'd out of 325. 25%. That's better than I hoped. If I keep the trend, then I would cut out 138 pp. total. However, I have a hunch that Part 2 has less material to cut. It will probably keep trending away from a 66/33 split, which was the original concept, closer to a 50/50 split. Not desirable. Hopefully I'm wrong and I'll find lot's of opportunity for cutting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Half way done with the read-through

On a page-count basis, I passed the half-way point of the typescript this morning. (Let's call this process the read through--marking up the paper copy, making obvious line edits and working on the 3 big problems I identified at the beginning: developing one character, developing one plot point earlier in the book, and making big decisions about what to cut. I won't really consider this draft complete until I come back around and make all these changes on the computer file.)

On a chapter-count basis, I finished 7 out of 16 this morning. (The earlier chapters are longer.) That's in 8 week days/working days. Or a week-and-a-half in actual time. So if I pack some of the late shorter chapters into one day, I'm on track for 3 weeks for this aspect of the work, like I was hoping. Another 3 weeks to make the changes on the computer, and I'm ahead of my goal to finish the draft by the end of this semester. Maybe by April 1.

Page count trend--It's hard to estimate on the marked up printed copy, but I think based on what I've X'd out so far that I'm trending to knock 130 pages off the original 540 to get down to 410, which still gets me down in the range of 330-350 pp. in print form.

Even though I'm obsessively counting up the pages I cut, I'm trying hard not to feel like it has to be down to a certain length. I try to keep reminding myself that it should be the length that the story warrants, which possibly could be longer. I'm cutting stuff that isn't supporting the present action of my story and moving it forward, but if the present action adds up to a lot, that might still be OK. How far can it wander off from the central story for color and context to amuse the reader without annoying them? That's what I'm struggling with when I resist cutting something.

I took some time last week to open up to the last page of dozens of novels and see how long they were, and was satisfied that an awful lot of 350-page novels have found readers in the past. Those novels were rarely the biography of one character and more often the tale of one or more sprawling clan of quirky characters entangled with one another. But 350 is a good goal for this draft for sure and maybe an OK goal over all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Typical day--Ch. 6

I think my work this morning is probably most illustrative of a typical day during this draft. Started about 8:30 with Ch. 6. The chapter is about 42 pp. long, In about 80-90 minutes I worked through about 20 pp. until I hit a natural break point in the story--a transitional moment in the drama of the chapter. Along the way I had cut about 4 pp. and made a lot of line edits. At that transitional moment my concentration is broken and I have a chance to notice who mentally tired I am and how tough the work ahead is going to be. I get a deep disinclination to keep going and a strong desire to check my email, and I convince myself that I've had a good session. As long as I do something else productive with the rest of the day, I can tell myself that I'm making honorable progress.

That's pretty typical. Like I mentioned yesterday, what's not typical is that I've been getting the urge to return to it for a second session later in the day, which is why I'm averaging better than half a chapter a day. As of last night, five chapters in six working day, which is what puts me at Ch. 6 this morning.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Plugging away--Ch. 5

Every day feels different, and lately it feels like a hell of a chore. This too shall pass.

I have in general been putting in more hours per day than usual. I get in a groove like that sometimes when I'm eager for the work. Using last week as a sample, I'd say that I can go through about half a chapter in a working session, and I finished four chapters last week. So along the way, I did my five regular morning sessions plus the equivalent of three extra sessions somewhere in the afternoons or evenings--when I was supposed to be doing something else like earning money.

Started on Chapter 5 today. I am a little anxious that in Ch. 4 and so far in Ch. 5 I haven't been cutting as many pages as I feel like I need to.

The big conceptual struggle I'm having is with how much background is appropriate without losing the momentum of the story in the present action. More another time on why this is so difficult for me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Converting typescript page counts to printed page counts

At last! I've figured out a way to calculate this.

To estimate how long your typescript would be in book form, subtract between 16.66% and 19.4% from your typed page count.

I've been wondering this and could never figure out a way to come up with a good estimate. I'm sure anyone with any chops in page layout software or any experience in publishing is snickering at my homemade method, but here it is.

I cracked it when I stumbled online (as part of another project) a few book excerpts that were essentially page proofs in PDF form. You could see on the 8 1/2 by 11 sheets the markings for the actual page size and the print area.

By taking that, I was able to make a copy of my typescript in Word and change the margins and paragraph indentations to resemble the sample online. I wasn't able to measure exactly the type size and line spacing, but by copying a bit from my online sample into Word and doing word counts, I came up with good guesses. I used a 12.5 line spacing. If I make all those changes and then set the font at 12 point, I get a 16.66% reduction in page count. If I set it at 11.5 point, I get a 19.4% reduction in page count.

I printed out a few sample pages to see how they would look, and those settings resemble most of the trade paperback literary novels I have around.

So, I can say that my 540 page typescript would probably yield a printed book between 434-450 pages. My new target number for the typescript (430 pages) is going to get me down to something resembling a 340-350 page printed book.

Still too long. Very few of the trade paperback literary novels on my shelf are that long. I need to get more aggressive with the cuts.

Breakthrough on Ch. 3

Come on NYTimes. You said the Ken Ken puzzles were going to get progressively harder, Mon-Fri. Is that the best you can throw down on Thursday?

I slept like an old man last night and woke up late and cranky. Resumed work on Ch. 3. I was really stuck for awhile. The problem in this chapter is that there are many many events in it that are a little bit important. But no one big even to carry the chapter, apparently. I've tried several different endings over the last few drafts, essentially chopping it off earlier and earlier, on the theory that this and that piece weren't critical. It's true--none of them were critical. But I wanted them in there anyway for different reasons. They just weren't going to work as the climax. But plotwise they come later, so they can't really come after the climax of the chapter . . . .

yada yada. Round in circles, I went. The process for solving this kind of problem is fairly obvious--identify the right focusing question (e.g. What major thing needs to happen here, that happens no where else in the book, to complicate the character's struggle or raises the stakes?) and then hold up everything in the chapter against the standard of that question.

But making one's mind stick on that isn't always easy--at least not without the right balance of sleep and coffee and no other worldly concerns on one's mind. I sit there trying to focus on my focusing question and then my mind wanders to cleaning the dust on the book shelf I'm staring at and to the traffic outside and where will my in-laws park when they come to visit this weekend, etc.

You know what I did? I put a blanket over my head. Really, you'd be amazed to see the physical contortions I go through while I'm writing sometimes. (I crawled under the bed once to try to get in the frame of mind of one of my characters who does that and to imagine what he he's going to do next.) I sat under my blanket like a caged parrot and tried to block it all out, and after a minute the answer to my focusing question came to me and then the technical solutions of what to throw out and where to fold in what I was keeping came to me.

The great news is that (on my printed draft at least) it amounts to about 16 pages cut from a 40-page chapter, which gets it a lot closer to reasonable.

With that and lesser cuts in Chapters 1 and 2, I think I have about 25 pages cut out of the first 125. So 20%. Keep up that average, and I should cut about 108 from 540 to get to 432.

So I think I'll call that my target number in the next draft. 432 pages. I won't really know if I'm getting close until I type in all my changes on the computer, which will be awhile. I figure a couple more weeks of working on the paper copy this way.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Undercutting my cutting

I had a little burst of energy yesterday afternoon (or disinclination to do my paying work, depending how you look at it), so I put in an extras session and started on Ch. 2. Continued this morning and got in a longer a.m. session than usual. (Still rocking the Ken Ken puzzles over breakfast, by the way. 6 for 6 so far this week.)

I didn't find a lot of material to cut. About 6 pp. in Ch. 2. And then I undercut the cutting by adding in a lot of new material. I've been dealing with the problem of how well developed one minor character is, and, as noted before, developing usually equals new drafting. It's been a pleasure, because it's back in the imaginative space rather than analytical and editorial space. But it's not doing anything for my anxiety about the length. Maybe Ch. 3 will offer up more places to cut. (In fact I've been toying with the idea of cutting Ch. 3 entirely. Quite drastic.)

So, in theory, I start with Ch. 3 tomorrow. But I think I've finally become conscious of a pattern to my work that has been with me since the very beginning. Quite often I finish a session at a natural stopping point and feel confident that I'll go on to the next stage the next day, but as the rest of the day and evening passes and I sip the next morning's coffee, all the stuff I rushed over and that needs more attention becomes apparent and I end up taking another day to tidy up. Right now, I feel like I'll tackle Ch. 3 tomorrow, but I suspect some solutions to the organization/length of Ch. 2 will occur to me today and I'll feel the need to spend some more time with it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Writing. Actual writing.

I got a late start this morning (I overslept and there's a new puzzle in the New York Times called "Ken Ken" that I've been doing.) and ended up putting in less time.

And I didn't feel like I could go on to Chapter 2 yet after all. I had to develop a scene that I had only made notes about it.

One unanticipated pleasure, since I'm working with the print-out of my draft, is that I did this "development" work with pen and paper. And development usually means drafting new material. So I was briefly back in the most pleasurable mode of the work, just like when I started almost two years ago. (Except that it's still winter and I was working in front of a sunny window instead of out on the three-season porch.)

There's still more stuff I'd like to get right in Chapter 1, so I'm torn. Do I keep plowing ahead tomorrow with cutting up Chapter 2, or do I get Chapter 1 in as good a shape as possible before going on? I'm going to have to think about it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

First day of cutting

I dove into it today, starting with pg. 1 and cutting material that I love and don't really want to cut.

For the first time I'm working off a paper copy for editing, since it was printed out for my friend to read, and I'm thinking I can read through and mark up one chapter per morning, which is what I did this morning. I can't really call Chapter 1 done though, until I make the changes on the computer, especially since in a few cases I make a note like "develop this graf," which will be work a little more time consuming that just entering a change on the computer file.

So, maybe 3 weeks of work like this, followed by 3 weeks of entering the changes.

Diving in this way is scary because in many ways I don't know what I'm doing, and it's interesting how what I don't know is the same stuff I didn't know what I dove into just writing the darn thing almost 2 years ago. Jane Smiley says every novel has its own unique technical problems inherent in the conception, and those problems nag at the books all the way and are the source of its imperfections.

I'm seeing that in the sense that the problem I'm struggling with is the same problem that got me writing it in the first place--the question, sincerely a mystery to me, of what motivates one of the characters. Without a persuasive solution, the book has a risk of being unbalanced and unsatisfying. The temptation to hide the problem behind a lot of literary fireworks is always there.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Focusing exercise

Did one of my sketching/note-taking exercises this morning to start some perspective. Not sure this one did me a lot of good, but that's the deal with exercises--some days they work, and some days they don't.

Every once in awhile the urge comes over me to say screw it and turn to page one and starting working on whatever makes itself apparent. To learn by doing. That has its virtues, but I'm trying to resist as long as possible so I'm as well equipped as I can be when I get started.

In particular I want to start dealing with the length. I get an urge to start hunting long passages to cross out. I have moments when I'm feeling brave, and I want to take advantage of them.

That said, I don't really have a specific plan for tomorrow. So maybe I will dive into it after all. I'll have to think about it today and see if I can come up with another way to focus my work.

I'm also re-reading This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolf, paying particular attention to how it handles pacing. Like mine, it covers a few years, with intense focus on one character (duh--it's a memoir, but it's such a good narrative it's easy to confuse it with a novel), and it's about 2/3 the length of mine. How does he keep it moving at the pace he does but make it all feel fully developed?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


When I'm stuck or trying to figure out a way to tackle a big nebulous aspect of the work, I'm usually pretty good at inventing little exercises to get me focused. Sometimes you just need to turn to page one and dive in, and sometimes you need to walk around the lake a few laps and see what you're dealing with. That's where I am now, and I expect I will be for at least a few days--maybe a couple weeks.

At the end of today's work, I jotted down a couple ideas for exercises that will help me get focused. e.g. For each chapter, write one sentence about how it furthers the essential story line as I understand it. (I've done this kind of thing several times during the revision. It's my understanding of the essential story line that keeps changing.) I'll start with that tomorrow.

As I do that and similar exercises, I expect necessary changes in each of the chapters to make themselves apparent. They'll pile up into a kind of to-do list, and at a certain point I'll feel like I have enough confidence to get started actually making the changes. I'll try not to rush in, because I know the longer I can stick with the exercises, the sharper and more informed my rewrites/revisions/edits will be later.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Back in the saddle--starting draft 6

I started work on the book again this morning after about 6 weeks off. I'm tackling the changes that are prompted by the feedback I got from my friend reading it over the holidays. Roughly I'm dealing with 3 major issues in this draft:

- Developing one of the secondary characters more who is coming off flat and lacking complexity. That word "developing" is the one disappointment I have about where I am. I have had an arbitrary distinction between the rewrite process that I've been engaged in for about 18 months now--and which I've defined as digging and developing--and revision, which is where I want to have graduated to by now. On this one point, which hopefully won't be a big job, I'm still on the rewriting side of the line.

- Establishing one of the plot threads earlier in the book. There's one set of developments that get revealed in a flurry in the last few chapters so everything is in place for the climax. It feels tacked on. My friend advises me to cut that plot thread entirely, but I'm going to try and keep it and to establish it better earlier in the story.

-Cutting. This is the big one. I've always known it's way too long, and I'm ready to start dealing with that. Partly it's too long in absolute terms--as in it's not wise or practical for any book to be this long. But partly it's probably too long for the story at the heart of it. It's told in a very "baggy" way which has it's amusing and enjoyable qualities--many readers do like wallowing in a lot of detail and background exposition and flashback in certain stories--but there's a fine art to that. They only appear like background I think, when they work. In fact they are carefully integrated to the story. I have to figure out which of my amusing digressions are integrated to the story and which are not. That's just one of the things I have to figure out to help me trim. It's really about getting ever more clear about what the heart of the story is. Then being ruthless about what doesn't relate to that. It's hard, because it means cutting really good and amusing writing that I want to show off.

For now, I'm tackling these three big projects backward, hoping that while reviewing for places to cut, I'll see the opportunities to develop that character.

I put in about an hour this morning. I have my typescript printed out, dog-eared from my friend having read it, lots of post-it notes flagging different pages, and I'm shuffling around inside it trying to make up my mind about how to cut big 8 page chunks at a time while maintaining some quality in it that seemed important to me when I wrote it.

Somewhat arbitrary goal--to finish this draft (much shorter and polished enough to consider looking for an agent) by the end of this semester. 16 weeks from now. May 15. I should do that by getting back to my routine of working a couple hours each morning. I picture working broadly over the whole manuscript for about 8 weeks and then going chapter-by-chapter after that, two per week. I guess what I'm really saying is that I want to graduate from revision and into and past "editing" while working on this next draft. Ambitious, but it's time to start finding the path to completing it.