Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oh joy, crumbs of feedback

I used to be a newspaper reporter for a rinky-dink little paper doing stories with no glamor to them at all. But despite that, it was still a huge thrill each week when the paper came out to see my name in ink on newsprint at the top of a story. (Several stories, actually. We worked like dogs.) Overnight each Wednesday the copies of that week's paper for office use would get delivered to the little closet that served as our morgue, and when we arrived in the morning all the reporters would crowd in there grabbing copies to inspect, smearing the still warm ink all over ourselves. It's funny the little things we can get a charge out of as writers.

I was reminded of that yesterday when I got a little note from one of my readers. I'm having a couple friends read this draft and am sitting tight waiting for them to finish. Yesterday I exchanged emails with one of them to finalize our plans to meet next week. And in passing she said, "I have to say (and seriously, not because you are my friend) I am really enjoying the book ... I look forward to reading it each night!"

Now, I am a natural-born compliment killer. (i.e. "You're just saying that because you're my friend. So you're just saying you're not just saying that because you're my friend because as my friend you know that you have to say you're not just saying that because you're my friend. And what do you mean, you haven't even finished yet? You'll probably hate the ending.")

But that's something me and my therapist have been working on, so I did accept the compliment and from this tiny tiny little scrap of positive feedback got a pretty good buzz.

FYI, a post from several months ago on feedback on a previous draft.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Writing, actual writing, and my new patio

I've had several opportunities over the last year -- during a pause between drafts usually -- to work on other writing projects. I always think, "Hell, I drafted a novel in 5 months. I'll use this spare week to write a killer short story." So far I haven't been executing on that. I've made notes and sketches a few times but haven't stuck with it and never used that time well. I end up surfing the web. I guess the next aspect of writing discipline I'll need to work on is moving back and forth between more than one project. It's just not time efficient to wait until everything about a given project is 100% done. There's too much waiting around.

I'm in one of those pauses now, waiting to hear back from my readers, and yesterday I tried to discipline myself a little. I wrote one brief scene on that short story. The little bit of work I did felt good. I miss that drafting stage.

It was also a trial run for using our new patio as a workspace. I see myself doing the revisions out there this summer and drafting all my next books each of the following summers. Yesterday for the first time, the completion of the patio, the weather and my inclination to write all coincided.

In all honesty, it didn't go that well. I'm too easily distracted by the racket that the squirrels and birds make. I like to watch their fights. I can't stay down in the zone where I need to be to invent and write the scene I'm working on. A shame if I won't be able to use it. Maybe I'll grow used to it, and maybe the line editing I'll be working on next will go better since it requires a different kind of concentration.

That still leaves the screened porch, which is also very pleasant and where I'm a little buffered by the noise of the wildlife. Only the most raucous squirrel fights make me look up. Sitting on the screened porch is where the book was drafted originally. That was the best part of the process so far.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Experimenting with twitter

I'm experimenting with Twitter. So far it does absolutely nothing to help me get work done on my book. Look for me #workingonanovel and let me know what you think.

Deeply ambivalent about it, but I figured I better lay claim to the name in prep for the day when it seems more important. Somebody already beat me to my real name, like usual. If I ever strike it rich and really need a website, I'm going to have to buy the domain from a children's book illustrator. Funny coincidence, huh? Maybe we can collaborate on a book and then share the website.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is it (merely) autobiographical?--Part IV

I like Colson Whitehead's answer in a recent interview in Rumpus when he was asked the "is it autobiographical question." If I'm ever so lucky to finish my book and be published and asked about my work, I'll probably say something like this.

Q: Did writing this “autobiographical fourth novel” (as you call it) feel risky in any way?

Colson Whitehead: Let’s get the boilerplate disclaimer out of the way—I overlap with Benji, and use my summer of 1985 as a touchstone for his experience, but you can’t make a one-to-one correlation between my life and his, blah blah, it’s fictional, blah blah and etc.

That said, when I started the book I knew I had to go “all-in,” as they say on those TV poker shows. I was going to dive into all that grisly and gruesome adolescent muck and try not to gag—if I didn’t, the reader wouldn’t see their own horrible squirming existence in Benji’s existence. Once I was up to my chin, it was easy to be truthful about other things—things I had experienced myself and could transform into something that would serve the story, and things I have witnessed in other people’s lives. I had a strict No-Flinch policy from the get-go.

I haven't read Whitehead's new book yet, but I do remember reading and enjoying an excerpt from it sometime in the last year, probably in The New Yorker, knowing my reading habits.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Naivete, ironic distance and Lynda Barry

God, I haven't read Lynda Berry in forever. Something else I was reading last night reminded me of her and reminded me of how much I am influenced by her writing. Do you ever have that experience with a writer where even if you don't read them frequently or recently, they are still with you in a very strong way? It's been 20 years since I devoured the few books she had out at the time. (She's published more in the meantime that I now have a hankering to go find.) But I still feel like I'm intimately familiar with the writing.

She writes a comic strip that is so dense with narration that the language itself is notable, and she's also written a couple of short novels. In her case what I remember so powerfully is the naive first-person child narrator. It's so effective because the voice is compelling on its own while the naivete effectively provokes a counter-narrative for the more sophisticated reader. We notice everything the narrator is missing or failing to interpret. Her own perception of the situation is full of pathos, but our more mature perspective intensifies that pathos. It's sympathy plus.

The technique is a working example of irony in the sense that the implied meaning is in excess of the literal meaning. We get more than is actually said. It's a good example of how irony in the voice or POV creates dramatic irony. We see dangers that the character can't, just like in classical Greek theater. (Watch out, that's your mother you're about to marry!) Or classic horror film. (Turn around! He's right behind you!)

Lynda Berry isn't inventing this technique of course. It's kind of the whole reason for having a first-person child narrator and the reason that Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are so sympathetic. What's compelling in this case is the particular voice of this narrator--how energetic and lively and untamed a girl she is. It's like Ramona Quimby without the middle class polish. Like I say, I can still hear it years after I read it, and I think that whenever I've written in the first person I've unconsciously imitated it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Projection and Susan Choi

If I remember my high school psychology, "projection" describes the tendency to notice in others one's own faults, especially the faults one is most anxious not to have exposed. I suspect myself of this tendency sometimes in my response to other writers--whatever it is I'm worried about in my own book at the moment I seem to be hypersensitive to (or imagining) in the published work I'm reading.

That may be going on now during my reading of Susan Choi's books, especially her first, The Foreign Student, which I read over the last few days. Like I wrote before, I gobbled up her second book, American Woman, but the bloom started to come off toward the end of that, and I only got a little ways into her third book, A Person of Interest, before giving up on it.

I had a more favorable response when I got to The Foreign Student, but all the way through I noticed and was often puzzled by and sometimes annoyed by the same quality that nagged at me in the other books. And not coincidentally, it's the same quality that I strongly suspect I need to tackle in the next draft of my book. That's the tendency to include digressions that are at least unnecessary and possibly unhelpful or distracting.

In my own book, I need to decide about several scenes, first, is this necessary? The answer is probably always going to be no. And probably that should be the end of the thinking, and I should just cut it. But usually I'm trying to rationalize keeping it, so the next question is if the digression is at least helpful or pleasurable in some way--if it is worth the trade off of departing from the core story. How far a departure can I get away with?

The ultimate question should simply be "Does it work?" Leaving aside traditional narrative structures, does this break from form somehow still work? And with that question in mind, I'm trying to be open to what Choi's books actually do and not judge them by what I'm trying to do with mine. All of her present-action scenes are so vivid and engaging that I lap them up, and I long to be in them. I assume someone who writes that well is making deliberate decisions about the structure, and I try to be open to their choices.

But I just don't get why her first book is organized the way it is. It is titled The Foreign Student after all, and it opens from the POV of that student. The reader is presumably being promised his story, presumably about the time in his life implied in the title--when he is a foreign student. Some amount of background to explain the factors that influence his story makes sense. Some shift in POV isn't unheard of, if following those other characters gives some insight about the foreign student's character and story.

But probably half of the main character's story is flashback to before the present action. And the other half of the book is about another character--his love interest, Katherine. Much of that is also in flashback to decades before the present action and regarding the childhood origins of her relationships with other characters, only one of whom has any bearing on the main character and only in a minor way. I never understood why we had wandered off like that or what story we were following.

In the end I could see how it all "came together" in the sense that I could look back and i.d. how everything related. But I couldn't say how all the other stuff was necessary in retrospect and I definitely couldn't understand while I was reading it why it was necessary. I don't think it does "work." The digressions--if you can call them that when they make up so much of the book--don't serve the story. I could be engaged by individual episodes, but I could never feel like the stakes in a given story were getting higher and that things were getting more complicated, because I couldn't see how any of it related.

At the end of American Woman, when the narrative is driving toward the conclusion of the AW's story, we are interrupted to get backstory on other characters, from their POV, for the purposes of complicating the AW's story. In that case, I would say the whole novel works despite that. It feels like an annoying disruption of a narrative flow that I was really engaged in, and it felt like late in the game to introduce those complications. I think those complications (e.g. the father's painful history, which we can see in retrospect has indirectly three steps later influenced the behavior of the central character in the present action) ought to have been introduced earlier, in briefer form, and in a way that is integrated more fluidly with the present action.

Which is word-for-word almost exactly what my readers have been advising me to do with some particular episodes in my book. So I tend not to trust my own reading. Perhaps I'm projecting my problems onto her books. But I honestly don't think I am.

Two-year anniversary

If you look closely at the photo at the top of the site, you'll see the notebook page has a date at the top--April 22, 2007. That page is from the legal pad where I first started making notes about this book, and that date is what I've been counting as my official start date. I never thought then I would still be working on it two years later. WTF?

But progress has been made, and I'm going to give myself credit for it. I also didn't know back then that I could write something book length with an intelligible beginning, middle and end. That was my only goal at that point, and I did that. It's not yet a very good novel yet, but it is a novel. It exists. Hurrah for me.

For the sake of memory lane and for the sake of obsessive record-keeping, here's a run-down of the process so far.

-Late March '07, I left my job. No intention of working on a book. I thought I would take a few weeks off before starting to look seriously for another job. I started writing a little bit in the mornings to make myself feel useful. I figured I would knock out a couple stories and maybe establish a writing habit that I could carry over into whatever new work schedule I had next. However, I enjoy it too much and start wishing that was my job.

-Early-mid April, I make sketches on several possible stories, wishing I that I had an idea that warranted a novel.

-April 22, up very early unable to sleep. Sipping my coffee, thinking about the several different stories I was stewing over, and it came to me--how to connect the different stories into a single narrative. I started writing it up on the legal pad on the coffee table.

-April 23 through May, writing every morning for 2-3 hours. At first I was telling myself that I'll start looking for a job tomorrow. Piling up about 1,000 words per hour--10,000 words or more per week. After awhile I make an internal, unspoken decision that I need to prove to myself that I can finish a complete draft of a novel before I do anything else with my life. Eventually I start talking with my wife about what this is going to mean for us financially and then jump in with both feet.

-Early August, I finish the draft at 135,000 words. For one day I'm confident that it's a masterpiece. The next day reality sets in. And I know that I don't want to do anything else but keeping working on it.

-August and September, I take several weeks off from the book and deal with money issues. I line up a mix of part-time, temp, freelance and contract gigs that I can schedule for the afternoons and leave my mornings free for writing.

-Late September, I start the first rewrite. (This is referred to as draft 3. Draft 2 was the the version I typed up from my manuscript.) This goes horribly! Months of agony, which are well-documented in blog posts from that time. I get through about one-third of the book in this rewrite. Basically, I was teaching myself through trial and error the completely separate skill of rewriting fiction.

-January, '08, my energy peters out and I spend a number of weeks not working on the book and not sure what to do. Scary time.

-February, '08, I get the breakthrough I need to get going again. I start over again with the rewrite. (This is referred to as draft 4, even though draft 3 was only ever changed in the first one-third.)

-February to May, slow, dubious, confusing work but I move steadily forward. I rewrite the first two-thirds up to the end of Part 1 with relatively more confidence.

-June and July, I was overseas. My intention was to work on rewriting the rest of the book all the time I was there, but the change of scenery apparently does me good, and I fly through it in two weeks. That's the end of draft 4. For one day I think it's a masterpiece, and the next day reality sets in. I take the rest of the time there off from the book, plus a few more weeks after returning home to get settled again.

-Late August to mid-December, I rewrite it again. (I think of this as the second complete rewrite and it's usually referred to as draft 5.) For one day I think it's a masterpiece, and the next day I tell myself to shut the hell up.

-December and January, I wait while my first reader other than my wife is looking at it. Six weeks off.

-Late January to April '09, using the feedback from my reader as a guide, complete revision in nine weeks. (See earlier posts on difference between rewriting and revision in my mind.) I cut it by about 27%. End of draft 6. I no longer form any opinion of it's quality.

-Early April to present, I hand it off to my next readers to await more feedback and guidance.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shame and self censorship

Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for fiction yesterday for her most recent book, so different interviews and reviews are popping up in the blogs I read. Here's an interview from several months ago on Rumpus.

One especially interesting part of the interview is about the funny reactions people have to writers:

ES: I really didn’t tell people as I grew older that I wanted to be a writer—you know, because they look at you with such looks of pity, and ask what you’ve published—whatever, I just couldn’t stand that. And so I didn’t really tell people.
Q: Do you think there are some small, finite, predictable conversations when one says they’re a writer?
ES: I think so, yes. . . . There’s the first response, “Well, I’ve always wished that I had the time to be a writer,” and that’s sort of like, OK… and then the second response is, “What have you published?” and the third response, which has always sort of appalled me, is that people will say, “Well, you know that very few people are ever successful at that.” And so it carries a lot of negativity.

This reminds me of how much I have let myself be nagged by the anticipation of these negative responses. I can imagine people rolling their eyes at meeting an aspiring writer, and so I tend to hide it, and, even worse, I tend not to even BE it. Part of the reason it took me until much later in life than I wanted to really attempt this was a fear of what people would say--expecting they would say the kinds of things Strout summarizes above and not being able to deal with it. I was ashamed of that feeling of exposure and I essentially censored myself. (There were other factors, too.)

What's partly going on is a feeling of illegitimacy. It's not only that other people don't see the work as legitimate but that I myself tend not to see the work as legitimate. I buy into the presumption that writer = published writer. There's a built-in tension stemming from the basic laws of physics--the desire to write precedes publication. The intervening time is a period of illegitimacy if you define legitimacy by publication--or even worse by publishing well enough to be making a living.

The healthy and reasonable thing to do is to recalibrate our sense of where legitimacy as writers comes from--to not tie our sense of self-worth to publication. The journey is its own reward and all that. But for some reason--probably faulty wiring or something--we seem better adapted as a species to living and working through shame than to doing the healthy and reasonable thing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Patio ready

Nothing much doing in literature-wise for me. I usually do more reading over the weekend than I did last weekend. I'm even having trouble concentrating on the short poem-a-day emails I get every morning for National Poetry Month. Watched lots of baseball this weekend. We planted in the raised vegetable beds.

And we got our new patio set up with furniture, so that and the screened porch are waiting and ready for me once the weather finally gets warm enough. That's where I'll be sitting to as much as possible when I'm working on the next round of edits. Still holding tight for now.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Waiting is the hardest part

Well, actually there are harder parts, but I don't like it anyway. I'm still badly wanting to start flipping through the print copy and making changes. I want to finish it!

But I resist, one, because for practical reasons it will mess things up to be making changes before hearing back from my readers. Two, I've come to believe that it's necessary to approach the thing fresh after a break every once in awhile. With a break, the rewrites, revisions, or edits or whatever are more on point--energy gets channeled into reading it critically instead of into convincing yourself that it's awesome. That critical distance is easy enough to accomplish when you're discouraged and procrastinating for a couple weeks, but sometimes you have to force yourself away, and now is a good time to do that.

I made some notes on that story that I poked around on during my last break over Christmas. I really like the story idea, but my heart's not in it. Can't stop dwelling on the novel.

Read about half of the Susan Choi book last night. Definitely liking this better than the third book, but . . . another time when I've finished it I'll write more on this question of digression. Theres a certain characteristic in story-telling--I wrote about it yesterday--that bothers me and that I could overlook in one book but less so in the other two.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Susan Choi, judging by covers, and indulgence

I finally read Susan Choi's second novel, American Woman, the other day and am kicking myself for waiting so long. It's fantastic.

And I know exactly what kept me from it--the cover. I think my wife bought and read this book when it first came out several years ago, and it's been banging around various "to be shelved/maybe read soon" piles ever since. My wife recommended it to me, and Choi's name kept coming up in other contexts that made me think I should be reading it . . . but every time I saw the book, I thought to myself, "This? It looks like a vanity pub." Somehow--something muddled in the photo and type choices--the design has been a perfect turn off. Or near-perfect. I did finally get going with it the other day, like I said, and burned out my eyes not sleeping one night while I read most of it. I'd be curious to know how sales were in paperback and if the publisher thought it underperformed. If so, I'd blame it on the design.

I picked up Choi's first and third books in hardcover at a used store the other day, and the newest one, A Person of Interest, has a really punchy and fun cover. I started it yesterday, but I'm loving this one a lot less. I'm only 30 pp. into it, and I should probably keep my mouth shut until I finish, but I don't think I'm going to.

My problem with it is exactly what two other reviewers praise in it--the attentiveness to the main character's psychology. My take on it is that it starts with a bang and then nothing else happens after that so far. All this character development needs to be integrated with the plot. It feels like homework.

The slow character development is a quality that Francine Prose praised in her review in the New York Times--she calls it a return to old-school literary pleasures. I agree that those qualities are pleasurable. Don't agree it's working here.

Another reviewer basically encourages the reader to stick with it with the promise that the character development stuff reveals itself to be important later. To me, that's a bad sign when you have to be coached to gut it out to the good parts. When I'm following a flow chart, I know it's not good to skip a box, but I didn't sign on for reading a flow chart. It's supposed to be engaging all the way along.

This is going to sound harsher than I mean it. I really admired American Woman, but I had a vague feeling that there was a certain amount of indulgence going in then in this kind of exploration of character. It was like putting the breaks on the story for a certain amount of time to pick over the gray matter for awhile. Sometimes that "certain amount of time" could be quite extended, and there were several points in the last quarter of the book where the spell was snapped and I thought we were reading something that served the writer more than it served the story. A Person of Interest seems to start off with that characteristic and extend it for much much longer, so it really feels indulgent.

Nevertheless, I'm going to read her first book, The Foreign Student, next. (Eagerly. I really did like American Woman.) In this case, I can't judge it by the cover at all! The dust jacket is missing from the copy I got the other day. That cloth spine with the gold-leaf stamp of the author, title and the HarperCollins colophone always looks good, though.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More Wells Tower and POV and envy

I'm anxious to get back to work--on the book, that is. I'm just as anxious to avoid my paying work. But I need to hold tight and give my readers a chance to give me some feedback. It's going to be a few weeks at least. urg.

I've read a couple more Wells Tower stories. Everywhere all of a sudden, isn't he? One I read last night--again I forget the title, the one about the old man in a wheelchair who goes across the road to visit his neighbor--I liked a lot. I think it's the voice of the characters in dialogue that's most interesting. The way he captures certain colorful ways of speaking. That can often be very precious--like more up-to-date versions of replacing all the g's with apostrophes--and I read an interview with him the other day where he said he guarded against that. He had in fact felt his stories were doing that and he rebuilt them to get that out of there. I think my annoyance with the first story in the book, "Brown Coast", was because I felt that precious habit in dialogue, along with the overly familiar modern-ennui-man narrator, were still in there.

And part of my annoyance is probably coming from envy. Back when I was still in the second or third draft of my book it never would have occurred to me to be jealous of a contemporary writer's success, but now that I'm getting closer to the end and imagining the improbable possibility of publication for myself, I can't help but compare, and I'm not naturally inclined to generosity. When someone near my age, with their first book out, is getting a lot of attention from reviewers, I start to look closely to see what it is in their writing that got them there. (See last month when I wrote a lot about Phillip Meyer. See next month when I'll probably be writing a lot about TBD.)

I never say to myself that I could write better--at least not with these stories by Wells Tower. It's more like I say to myself that I want to have written better. The writer in question doesn't live up to my aspirations for myself or to my yearning to see some vaguely new and fascinating thing in contemporary literature. That was my response to "Brown Coast." However, as I wrote before, I thought the title story in the collection was terrific, and I like a lot the other one mentioned above.

That brings us to the fourth story I've seen so far. (I should probably shut the hell up until I've read the whole book, shouldn't I?) "Leopard" It was in The New Yorker last November and often gets mentioned in the reviews. I've read a couple interviews with him, and the interviewer both times asked about that story and why he choose the POV he did.

The story, which is about an 11-year-old boy, uses second person, and he explains in these interviews that he wanted a POV that was more authoritative and less naive than first person could be. As I wrote way back when I started this journal, that was my main concern when I decided against first person for my novel, which also features an 11-year-old boy protagonist. I went with third-person limited omniscient, but Wells Tower says that was too distant and too critical/ironic/insincere a voice for how he wanted to characterize this kid. He felt that second person was the right middle ground.

He acknowledged this was risky because of how off-putting second person can be for the reader, and I don't blame writers for continuing to experiment with the technique to see if they can make it work. But for me, it just never has yet. It didn't work when I read Bright Lights Big City as a teenager, and it doesn't work here. It is off-putting.

And it doesn't work because it doesn't actually function to get the reader closer to the consciousness of the character. As James Wood talks about in How Fiction Works, with the free indirect style form of third-person a kind of magic happens where the language and metaphor belong at once to the narrator and to the consciousness of the character described. So even though it's logically preposterous that the narrator can know these things about the character's interiority, the reader feels like they are riding along inside the character's mind. That magic never occurs with second person. And I don't agree with the premise that third-person is too distant. You might as well say that Madam Bovary and all the developments in modernist narrative are too insincere to create meaningful characters.

Well, this argument I'm making is based on a weak memory of a hasty reading of something Wells Tower probably said offhandedly anyway, so probably I've misinterpreted him and there's no argument at all. And that envy discussed earlier probably has something to do with it--this particular story, and his rational for the POV, can be taken as a referendum on how well I create the consciousness of my character, and in this case, I really really hope I've done better.

Anyway, if you're keeping score at home, that's two stories I don't like and two that I do like a lot. Check out that title story--it really pops.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it (merely) autobiographical?--Part III

A few interesting reads on the issue of autobiographical fiction, which I've written about previously here and here and here.

Maud Newton makes a point similar to something I've come to realize when she says:

Even small changes of timing, circumstance, and location create different narrative logic and evoke distinct moods, and cumulatively these alterations can be so significant that it’s misleading to speak in terms of a story diverging from fact at a single point . . . .

It's like the cliche in movies about time travel--be careful when you go back not to change any little thing because it will change everything.

To understand this, imagine a meaningful episode in your teenage years. Now choose one family member who was not terrifically active in that episode. They clutter the episode, so you remove them from your life entirely. Imagine they never existed. Would you still be you? Would everyone else close to you be the people they were and that they became? Would that episode have unfolded the same way? Would it have had the same emotional meaning then and later? Now make it happen on a snowy day instead of a rainy day. Make it happen when you were one year younger. Picture yourself wearing your new tennis shoes your mom splurged on for once instead of the hand-me-downs you typically would have been wearing. How would that episode be different then?

These are the kinds of small changes that a novelist, inspired by autobiography, might make just for the sake of plot sense and flow and simplicity, and those changes quickly accumulate until it's not autobiography at all. The characters become nothing like the real-life counterparts that may have been on scene in the real-life event. And, vice versa, if the people are different it stops being the same event, so the characters in turn become less like the real-life people and so on. Then how these different people respond leads to different, new episodes that have no correlation to your real life.

Rodes Fishburne (What's with all the literary names lately that are also places or things?) rolls his eyes at the "is it autobiographical" question.

I wonder why this is such an evergreen question. It must be because people who don’t write novels are trying to figure out how to reverse engineer the novel writing process and the first and easiest way to do this is to suppose that in the search for a main character one need look no further than oneself! But the truth is that the least interesting character in my head is me.

That doesn't sound quite right. The MOST interesting character in my head is me, and, fellow writers, j'accuse--you know it's true.

Rabih Alemeddine commands you to "ignore that autobiographical novelist behind the curtain."

Which begs the question, why do novelists get so anxious about the question anyway? I know it keeps me up at night preparing an elegant little answer for when Oprah interviews me. I think it has something to do with feeling like it discounts the novel--like people will think I'm cheating somehow if they think it's "merely" autobiographical.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Wells Tower and time off

Some time off from the book for the time being. Treated myself to breakfast out and a run to the garden center to get a load of, no shit, manure. We're prepping the veggie beds tomorrow. Planting next week probably.

So, Wells Tower . . . I know, right?

I'm still dragging myself obligingly and unimpressed through last year's savior of the critically praised/commercially successful short story collection, so I've been skeptical of the media narrative on this year's model. I read the first story in the collection the other day--I don't remember the title, something about a vulnerable antihero trying to redeem himself with a fishtank--and thought, more of the same, so what?

Better impression from the title story--"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." Yesterday I stumbled on a great source of online audio of authors reading their own short stories at the UK Guardian, including this story by Wells Tower. I've been looking for cheap sources of audio books to rest my eyes more, so I played this story while I cleaned up my office, which had devolved quite a bit while I cranked through draft 6 over the last several weeks. This one, I loved. Very clever anachronistic play which, for me, had the effect of bursting the bubble on a certain kind of linguistic romance/chivalry around American violence.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Done with Sixth Draft--Transitions

I'm calling an official end to this draft, and I'm going to the copy shop this afternoon to print it out for my next readers.

That's a little over 9 weeks of steady work on this draft. When I started, I didn't have a real good sense of the timeline but I definitely wanted to finish this phase before the end of the semester, and I'm way ahead of that. I think I've pretty well addressed the three major problems I identified at the start. I'm not so sure though, and I'm starting to have doubts about other aspects of it, but we'll see what my readers say.

I'm giving it to a friend who is also a writer and experienced at giving critiques and to another friend who is just an enthusiastic reader. And I think I'll have my wife read it again at this point. She's read it tons, but it's been a few drafts and usually she was reading it piecemeal as I worked and revised, so never got one good look at it start to finish when it was standing still. I think she'll be surprised with a lot of the changes since the last time she saw it.

Next . . . I'm not sure. The most organized thing is not to touch it until I have feedback from those readers, but I'm not sure how long that will be and if I can wait. I'll probably take pages back from my wife as quickly as she reads them and start doing sentence-level work at least on that paper copy. It will be nice to get off this computer. (I read an interview with Wells Tower the other day where he talked about have a computer with internet and email for one kind of work and another computer with no internet and email for working on his book. I'm seriously thinking of a similar strategy in the future.)

So, maybe by the end of the semester or thereabouts I'll be set up to start on the next draft during the summer. I have a lot of paper grading to do until then, and I ought to be rustling up more paying work, especially for the summer. Maybe I'll put any writing impulse into short story work. (I've been thinking a lot about that second novel idea and resisting making too many notes so I don't get distracted from completing the first novel.)

The other factor in this transition is news yesterday that means I'll almost certainly be overseas for 5 months a year from now--similar to my 9-week trip last summer. I need to start earning money to make that possible and at the same time I want to make whatever progress is necessary to be done with this book before that. I have a dream that I'll spend that 5 months working on the second novel--it would be the perfect place and perfect situation for it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Weird tired day

It's still pretty early and I've already done more than most days and am ready to go back to bed for awhile. I wrote before about the experience of waking up early with anxiety dreams (not necessarily about the novel) and taking the opportunity to get some good work done. It seems like I'm in a different kind of creative rhythm then. It's worked out so well that now instead of thinking "What the hell am I doing awake at 4 a.m." and dragging myself out of bed, now I'm like, "Alright! I had a nightmare! I can get some work done." That's how I popped out of bed this morning.

False economy probably. The doubled-up session today will probably be swapped with sleeping through the alarm tomorrow.

Today I got through the last of the chapters that I had marked for an extra cut. That took off 5 pages, plus another page I found late yesterday. So it stands at 394 pp. now, which I'm very pleased with. That's all the cuts for awhile except for random and accidental small adjustments until someone else reads it and persuades me I need to approach things differently.

Also this a.m. I've been working on some of the sentence-clean up, especially aspects of it that involve bringing the POV in a little closer to the main character by rewriting some bits of indirect report in free indirect style. That's an ongoing project, and I'm not sure I can wait to call a definite end to it before sharing the book with another reader.

The last major errand on my list is to go over a couple of the spots where I made some of the most significant revisions in the last few weeks and see if they feel right. They've never really been read in context. I'll do that when I'm fresh tomorrow, and then we'll see. I'm thinking I might be done with the 6th draft.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Short of goal but getting there

Yesterday p.m. I did the work planned on one chapter and this a.m. on a third chapter. One more to go for this phase. I cut 3 and 4 pages respectively, short of my goal for 5 each, but every little bit helps. The whole typescript stands at exactly 400 pages now--a long ways from the 539 I started with in late January and the 570-page high where it was last October.

Figure in some minor cuts tomorrow and a little bit of regular erosion here and there from the line edits and it will end up in the neighborhood of 390 pages. Barring a signficant reconception of the book, I think that's the length of the book. It's in the DNA. And it's what I had in mind when I started this revision last January, so that's good.

A significant reconception isn't inconceivable, though. That's what my next readers are for partly--to help me see if I'm missing a big structural flaw.

The chapter I worked on today particularly makes me nervous. The most obvious case is that it doesn't belong, just on the basis of "which of these things is not like the others?" From the moment I conceived of it, it has been a little bit of an outlier. My first reader encouraged me to consider cutting it, but so far I've resisted and instead have tried to rework it to make it clearer about how I want it to connect. Mostly I keep cutting away it to make everything in it clearly connected back to my main story. This one chapter by itself has been reduced by about half. But is what remains still so seemingly far afield that the reader will feel led astray?

Well, let's see what my next readers say. I haven't yet decided at what point I want to give it to them. Conceivably, I could hand it off at the end of this week, after dealing with the last chapter on my list and a handful of other clean up issues. Or I could spend some line editing first. I'll be thinking on that.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ooo, that hurts

Working on the deeper cuts that I outlined last week, and man I'm really taking out stuff that feels precious. But, it's not present action and it's not strictly necessary background, so little by little it's all coming out. This is stuff that I dreamed up and wrote at the very beginning and that feels like the DNA of the book. It leaves me a little breathless to highlight it and hit the delete button.

I finished one chapter and I got SIX pages out vs. my goal of five. Down to 407 total. That actually took me two sessions. I took a shot on Saturday with some spare time and got up to a certain point in the chapter with a lot of background material. I got stuck at that point, depressed and sure I'd never wrangle this book into shape. But--one of the benefits of insomnia--a solution came to when I was laying awake that night. A soul-shaking solution since I suddenly realized that a favorite little episode would have to come out. I did that and a little more this morning.

So, on to the next chapter. If the pattern holds I won't get one-per-day done. Maybe if I can work some this p.m. and discover the next problem, I can sleep on it tonight and keep on schedule tomorrow.

The urge to work on line editing is still with me strongly every day. I can feel myself getting close to the end. I feels like just a little bit more revision like I'm doing now before I finally go to the line work.

Another big distraction starting up--baseball season--a daily temptation to tune in an afternoon game and a nightly temptation to stay up too late wearing out my eyes. Today is supposed to be the Red Sox opener but it's already rained out, so I get this afternoon back anyway. That mean's a double header distraction some other day.

Friday, April 3, 2009

More fixes--plan for more cutting

I put in an extra session yesterday afternoon doing some clean up that didn't require a lot of concentration and my usual a.m. session today tackling some of the tougher issues. I hope I'm not just kidding myself out of fear and fatigue, but the fixes turned out not to be that tough. Just a quick snip here and there in those scenes and it seemed all better.

Next I want to work on length a little more. Out of the 19 chapters, there are 4 that are especially long. They are probably just too long by any standard and they are definitely enough longer than the other chapters that it gives an imbalanced feeling. So next week I think I'm going to go through those chapters one at a time with a goal of getting another 5 pages out of each one. They will still be the longest chapters, but they won't blow the curve. I'm not sure how I can cut them that much though. I've certainly cut everything obvious and much more than I really wanted.

Along the way I'll handle some of the smaller cleanup issues and that should end this round of edits, ahead of my target of April 15.

Even that won't end the cutting, but the rest I plan to get out of close line editing in the next round of edits. Instead of cutting whole scenes, it will be tightening by one phrase and one word at a time. I'm really looking forward to that.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rewrote opening--plus one page

I got back to work this morning. I had that fearful feeling that makes me want to find excuses and avoid the work, but luckily I recognized it for what it is and knew if I could just get started I'd be OK. Looking forward to a solid couple of weeks of specific, focused work.

Today's work was especially scary. I needed to rewrite the opening scene. It's weird to think that I let something so crucial go this long without getting it right--not that it's necessarily right now--but sometimes issues make themselves apparent or cry out loud enough only late in the process. The opening scene as it was is just how I started things off the first day of writing and the book has become something very different in the meantime. It needed a different opening.

I won't go into all that was wrong with it--little things that added up--but the fix was actually relatively simple. I just made the same events more or less happen to my main character instead of him observing them happen to his friend.

Along the way I saw chances for line edits to clean up and tighten the language, so I'm really chomping at the bit to get to the stage where I can focus on that. Hopefully not more than a couple weeks from now. In the meantime I have about a half dozen spots I need to work on similar to what I was doing this morning.

One downside. My rewrite of the opening ended up adding one to my page count. Thpptt.