Sunday, May 31, 2009

Artful editing

All week I've been reading a fascinating essay posted in parts on The Elegant Variation. (Part 1 of 4 starts here.) It's an excerpt of a longer essay by Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit, in a new anthology called The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Inspired by this essay, I now have both those books on order. I wish I had had them the last month while I was cooling my heels before starting the current draft.

The essay is a close analysis of the revisions that Fitzgerald made to The Great Gatsby in response to feedback from his editor, Max Perkins. The working relationship itself is fascinating to learn about, but what I found most inspiring was the human familiarity of Fitzgerald's draft.

It's comforting to know that at key moments in his draft he tended to some of the same awkwardness at the sentence level and the same clumsy "clustering" of plot points. He found astoundingly artful solutions to these problems by the time he finished the final draft, which the rest of us can only hope for. That's if we develop the critical eye to see these problems in our own work to begin with. But the problems were there in the draft. It's nice to know we have that much in common at least.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


I had an amusing little encounter with a continuity problem during my work this morning. There's a scene that takes place in a car over about six pages. Near the beginning, I mention the car being put in gear and in so doing I mention reaching to the steering wheel column. The shifter is on the column. (Probably an automatic, though a few trucks have had standard transmissions with the shifter on the column.) At the end of the scene, I have a character moving from the passenger seat to the driver's seat by crawling "over the handbrake and stick shift."

I know how this happened is that I decided at one point to change the make of this car, and when I did so I did a little research and looked for images on google and ended up using that to revise one scene but forgot about the other.

What's amusing to me is that this kind of thing is still in there after so many readings. How have I not caught this before? And what else is lurking in there? Whenever I catch something like this in a published novel I'm always puzzled that the author and editor, who are presumably intimately familiar with every detail in the book, didn't catch it before, but I guess from this side of the table I can see that there are so many details to keep track of it's almost inevitable that I'll miss some.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Back to work--line editing

I found a way to make some progress today without having all the comments back from my reader, and I got in a good a.m. session like has been my habit in previous drafts.

I realized that there are some key episodes in the book that are very unlikely to be cut and that I could probably risk doing line editing in those spots. As I was saying all through the last draft, I'm eager to start working at the line level and trying to get the language to pop a lot more. I want to be doing the scalpel work. On paper, with a red pen. As long as there was still "developmental" work to be done, I postponed that.

So that's what I did this morning. Really it was one complete chapter, Ch. 4. Since in the last revision, I shortened most of the chapters and broke up long ones into shorter chapters, I think it's going to work out that they can be worked on in one session. This was a 20-page chapter and I worked through it in about 90 minutes.

So, this strategy should keep me busy for a few days next week. There are a handful of places where I can probably safely do this kind of work without getting too far ahead of my reader's pending comments.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

No progress--starting another novel

I didn't do any work yesterday and I doubt I will today. When push comes to shove, I can't bring myself to dive in when I know that comments from my reader that will do a lot to influence my judgment are on the way. Any day now. I'm keeping busy hunting for freelance work that hopefully will lead to something great being in place when I finish the next draft.

So let me talk about novel #2 for a second . . . for the first time here in this journal I think. For several months I've been stewing on an idea for what I want to do next. I've resisted doing a lot of journaling or notetaking for a couple reasons I've written about here before. One, I'm afraid of giving rein to any grass-is-greener enthusiasm that will result in me not working on the WIP, which is the priority. That would be just my style, so I'm trying to manage against it. Two, I've adopted a theory that the usual novice writer's habit if carrying notebooks everywhere and jotting down every idea that comes to them is actually counter productive. My attitude is that if I don't remember the idea, it wasn't good enought anyway. Better to save the energy for real work.

But I can't keep from having ideas, can I, so stewing it has been, and I did start a notebook last fall so that I would be ready to go when the urge to start taking notes was irresistable. A couple nights ago, I didn't get any sleep and spent most of the night kicking around ideas for the second book. Background of the character, mentally drafting the tone of the exposition, etc.
So yesterday, instead of the work I'm supposed to be doing on the WIP, I sat down with my notebook and put some thoughts together. The last entry was more than 6 months ago.

(This might turn out to be an accidentally wise strategy for lots of reasons. The first novel, after all, had all my life so far to deveop. The typical sophomore slump usually results from themes that are less ripened. I'm giving this one a fair head start perhaps.)

I sat down to record some of these character background ideas, but I ended up talking about stylistic interests. What kind of vibe do I want at the sentence level? What tone? What POV? What structure? What's going to give me freedome to do the kind stylistic play and stretching that I'm interested in doing next? How does that mesh with character? e.g. Won't certain kinds of characters, when I'm following their POV, necessarily limit the style?

I guess what was interesting to me about my notes yesterday was the confidence that story and plot and character development will take care of themselves later and that what I should be dealing with right now is the more foundational question of what kind of literature I want to make. I have been spending less time inventing the character's background, for now, than I looking around at books that I like, wondering what it is about them that pops for me, what's missing out there and what I wish I was reading. It is a different--dare I say, more mature--approach than I had to the start of the WIP.

Timeline: My goal is to start on this book at the beginning of 2010. I'll have a six-month period there where my work and living situation will change quite a bit. It may be exactly right for treating like a writer's retreat. (And it may be exactly wrong.) That timeline would mean finishing the WIP this summer and fall.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Easing back into it

I'm feeling ambivalent about starting the next draft for the same reason I waited this long -- I'm waiting to hear from my reader, which should be any day now, and I don't want to get ahead of her, starting to identify and tackle problems without the benefit of her critique. I'm trying to find meaningful work to do that won't put me in that position.

So, two short sessions yesterday. First, I took all the comments from another one of my readers of this draft -- let's call them R1, R2, and R3 -- I took R2's draft, which basically only had line edits and corrections on it, and went through and made most or all of those changes. Grunt work, but necessary, and it had the benefit of reacquainting me with the book a little. Easing back into it, like I say.

Second, I took the first four chapters and started to ponder and outline the big changes that R1's feedback tells me I have to deal with. R3 might still steer my thinking another way, but a little bit of outlining can't hurt, and I'm pretty well persuaded that there is a structural problem here that needs to be dealt with.

On the other hand, R1 thinks there are several other structural problems in later chapters, but I'm less convinced about those, so that's the kind of thing where I want to hear from R3 first before trying to figure it out.

That leaves me with not much to do today. We'll see what the mail brings today and then decide how to proceed. I may have to start working on those first four chapters before getting all the feedback.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Is it realistic?

Resumed work today. More on that another time. I just had a flash of insight that I prefer to write about.

Realism and what readers will accept . . . I know this has been theorized a million different ways, (e.g. the willing suspension of disbelief), so I know this is not a new insight. It's a case of suddenly "getting it." I suddenly got this feeling that I don't have to worry so much about if the reader will believe certain scenes. I think I can count on the reader traveling a certain distance to me.

Now I'm not talking about stories that are in any way fantastic--sci-fi, magical realism, even farce and satire, which delight through deliberate exaggeration. I'm talking about cases of "realism" in fiction, which I think applies to my story. The characters are supposed to feel as human and recognizable as possible. It's supposed to a dramatic, but plausible, circumstances unfolding in a realistic way in a realistic setting. (Of course, if it's a dramatic narrative, it is already genuinely UNrealistic but disguised as realism. Narrative has cause and effect relationships and resolutions, and life almost never does.)

So, in every episode of the story, I'm constantly worrying about how real it seems. Will the reader stop believing it? Will they think, "That could never happen. I would never do that. No one would ever do that . . ."? A lot of the process is weeding out plot gimmicks and making sure that the actions the characters take arise out of who they are and making sure that I've established who they are to begin with.

One hard part about this is that minor characters are, on the one hand, often the levers of plot complications and, on the other hand, less developed characters by definition.

Anyway, I was just looking at one scene where a minor character does something kind of outrageous and socially inappropriate that causes a lot of trouble, and part of me all along has been half-consciously worried about if anyone would believe this. (Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the few actual events from real life that still survives in the book.) And I was looking at it--on the copy used by one of my readers--I saw it through the reader's eyes and it suddenly occurred to me what should be obvious . . . that it probably doesn't matter if it is unrealistic. Readers want to go along on a ride. They want extraordinary and outrageous things to happen. They want them to work so they get that delightful sensation of believing the unbelievable, but they want it. That's one of the reasons they're reading. They want to go along, so they'll come along. If you hook them at the beginning, the reader will probably tolerate a lot more than I have imagined while I stressed over these things.

And I think that's probably true of realism as much as sci-fi or anything else fantastic. I'm not talking about characters suddenly being swept up to heaven while they're hanging the sheets out to dry. In this case it's more like a character acting in public as if he has no shame. I would never do it. Most people wouldn't do it. A reader may think they can't imagine a real person ever doing it. But I think most readers are willing to read about such a thing and believe it anyway.

Lesson learned: I'm going to try and relax more about these things and generally trust the reader more.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Done grading papers!

Oh boy. I'm going to start writing again! Or revising, anyway. Tuesday a.m. at the latest. Maybe I'll work Memorial Day. We'll see.

Declaration of completely arbitrary goal, no doubt to be revised after I get into it and see what I'm dealing with -- finish the next draft, which will be as strong as I can make it and ready to start sending to agents, by . . . . let's say July 17. That's about two chapters/week.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Almost ready to go

The weather if finally definitely warm enough for the screened porch anytime and the patio most days. They're both set up and swept off and ready to go. I have my little tray of pens and highlighters and post-it notes. I have a month or so of impatience and reflection stored up . . .

And I'm grading papers. The last batch of the year. At least I can do that on the porch too. I should be done before the weekend is over. Monday or Tuesday I start the next draft somehow or another.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Showing vs. telling and Motherless Brooklyn

I've never read any of Jonathan Lethem before and got to Motherless Brooklyn the other day. (I'm poking around in novels with different stylistic experiments lately as I mull over some ideas for my second novel, which I hope to start working on early next year.) I gulped it down in 24 hours and loved just about every second of it. I loved being "in the zone" and having that sensation of "hurry up and tell me what's next!"

As usual, though, I have quibbles even with those I am fondest of. In this case, it has to do with the old rule about showing and not telling.

Like every writing rule, that one doesn't survive as an absolute law for very long. There are plenty of places where telling is preferable to showing. And much more commonly, there are times when it can work to show AND tell to a certain degree. But if it's not a perfect rule, it's still a good guideline -- show more, tell less. To what degree is the judgment call that writers have to make.

My general attitude on including anything I'm doubtful about--exposition, background, a digression, a subplot, a bit of dialogue or an explanation of what I just showed--is to let necessity be my guide. Does the reader NEED it to get my point? If not, I try to err on the side of leaving it out.

Now I can always rationalize something by arguing that to get EXACTLY what my point is EXACTLY in the way I want it gotten, then I need to provide this piece that I don't want to cut. But if you take that too far, you're writing a lecture and not fiction. Fiction is going to allow for some gaps so that the reader does some of the work of filling in meaning, and when the reader does that they're not necessarily going to fill it in with exactly the meaning you had in mind. That's part of where the energy from narrative form comes from. That tension and doubt surrounding meaning and who is in control of it isn't a necessary evil; it's part of the nature of fiction and probably of any other art. The reader has to have some agency or it probably isn't art at all.

Nevertheless, the writer still has most of the agency and is trying to at least lead the horse near the right watering hole while giving the horse the illusion that they've gotten there themselves. They have to provide enough that the reader can get there but not too much. You don't want them to taste the bit.

Which brings me to my quibble with Motherless Brooklyn--a few places where I became conscious of the bit and felt like I didn't need it anyway since I was heading in the right direction on my own. The unnecessary is experienced by the reader as a form of disrespect or distrust.

That's what it felt like to me on pg. 178 (of the paperback). I can find it so easily, because I can picture it, because when I read it originally, I became aware. The spelled was snapped and I was looking at the page of a book instead of living in the very engaging story of an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome trying to solve the murder of his father-figure boss. His investigations are complicated by the practical difficulty of dealing with Tourette's itself and by the fact most people treat him like he's crazy or pathetic.

At pg. 178, the author, via the narrator, makes a little speech to show off his operating theory for the book's experimental form. It starts, "Conspiracies are a version of Tourette's syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close."

Now, the speech is made "in character" so it's not an interruption in the sense that we are suddenly getting a different voice. And the point of the speech is important to fully appreciate the clever mechanism of the book--the parallel between the obsessive worrying of the language into pieces and the obsessive worrying of the clues that will lead to a solution to the puzzle.

But I didn't NEED it. I had already arrived at this understanding on my own earlier. Rather, the author had shown it so expertly already, had led me to it without my noticing, that I felt like I had discovered it on my own. That had been part of the pleasure of the book up that point, and it felt like a gyp to have the author start spelling it out for me now.

After that point, I becme hypersensitive to any unnecessary telling. Pg. 209--the long metaphor about the cat. Don't need it. I already have the point that the metaphor is supposed to stand in for. Pg. 222--the exposition and metaphor showing off the research on Mad magazine illustrations. Same. Pg. 192--"Have you noticed yet that I relate everything my Tourette's? . . . . I've got meta-Tourette's." Yes I had noticed. I think the meta-narrative element was working on its own. Meta-meta decreases the cleverness, not increases.

Well, again I'm sounding harsher than I mean to. They really are quibbles, but I get interested in the quibbles and what causes them, so I study them closely. These are blemishes in a very strong book that I like a lot. Four short sections or so where the spell was broken and I was thinking more about the author instead of living in the story. That's a lot better than par I think.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tiny feedback from reader

I checked in with the last reader I'm waiting on. I should have her notes within a week. And she says she's enjoying it, which gives me a little buzz.

So I'm still in waiting mode. Sometime next week I should be starting on the next draft. In the meantime, I'm just grading student papers and doing lots of reading.

I had two occasions to recollect my childhood love of S.E. Hinton books recently -- a trip to Tulsa to see family and seeing an interview with her on Nathan Bransford's blog. So I grabbed the only one that they had at my favorite used bookstore the other day, That Was Then, This is Now. The emotional intensity of it, the confusion of that moment of maturity, still feels so real. It was really meaningful to me when I read it originally, and it was interesting to live in that space again.

I started Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem yesterday, and so far I love it. Why hasn't someone made a movie of this yet?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paper grading

I'm in paper grading hell and will be for another week. Come on summer. I'm ready to start writing again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Finish line in sight?

Still in holding mode, waiting for one of my readers. One way or another, though, I plan to get back to work on the book by Monday, May 25. I'm picking that date because I'll be done grading end-of-semester papers by then. Busy with that this week and next and so I can't expect to get any good work done on the book now anyway.

That should set me up for a pretty satisfying writing schedule for the summer I think. Work on the next draft in the mornings and work on projects for my freelance clients (and on finding more clients) in the afternoons.

I've tried hard not to give myself deadlines that will tempt me to take shortcuts on the work. But I am starting to think that I am near the end. My opinion right now is that I need to: identify what the tough decisions are; make the tough decisions; and make the corresponding revisions.

I could go wrong by misidentifying what the tough decisions are, by losing my nerve when making them or by struggling with writing smooth fixes. But assuming that I'm right about where I am and assuming that I can do it, I think I'll be starting the final draft (depending on how you define draft) in a couple weeks, and I don't see any reason it should take any longer than the rest of the summer. I'm starting to think of this summer as the push for the finish line. I think the finish line is in sight.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Families and inspiration

Whenever I'm with my inlaws and they're driving me nuts, I joke, "Watch out, or I'm going to put this in a story." When I'm with my family, it's no joke.

I got a lot of material this weekend--four days on a rare trip back home for a family event and all the waiting around and confused planning and bad meals at "nice" restaurants (Macaroni Grill counts as nice?) and whose car are we going to take it and I saw an obituary for the aunt of somebody you never you heard of that goes with it. I told myself that once I got past this very-typical first novel I would stop trying to resolve my childhood trauma in fiction and start inventing some new stories. But I don't know-- there's still a lot there to work with. A trip back every couple years for a wedding or a graduation should keep my pretty well supplied for a long career.

Speaking of invented stories, I made the perfect choice for my travel reading. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It's the first thing I've read by him, and I'm eager to get his earlier books to track his progress up to this one. It was delightful all along the way and satisfying at the end.

And it met all the criteria I lay out the other day, including being just the right length. When I got off the plane, I had about 12 pp. left. I didn't have the courage of my convictions, though, and I ended up buying several books during the trip just in case I ran out. I hoard them the way some people buy tube socks on sale in anticipation of the apocalypse.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

They say that travel broadens the mind

I'll be off a couple days. My baby sister is graduating from law school, so it's back to my childhood home and some time with family.

I decided to go with Michael Chabon book for the airplane. I'm also taking the outline of my book so I can doodle on it. I find that traveling inevitably makes me reflective and shakes things up on whatever is on my mind, so it can be productive in a roundabout way. (I can never get any actual work done on a plane.)

The same goes for visiting my childhood home and spending time with family--shaking me up and making my reflective. It will probably remind of ten episodes I ought to include in my book, but I'll resist that. Maybe I'll make notes for the sequel.

That's it until Monday.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Feedback--Naive readers and what kind of responses are helpful

Welcome new visitors. Here's what you've missed . . . I've been workingonanovel for just over two years. I've finished six drafts, developing and digging deeper in most of them and more recently moving to cutting and sharpening. I write in the mornings and work part-time/freelance in the p.m. to support it. Between drafts I typically have some weeks off while someone is reading it and I get some distance and energy. That's where I am now. It's been in the hands of three readers for the last month, and as of last night I've heard back from two of them.

So, last night, I met my friend at my favorite Indian restaurant. I asked the owner to seat us downstairs in the bar, which was closed, instead of the noisy dining room so we could talk while we ate. (Also, see previous post on shame. I didn't want the feeling that eavesdropping diners were thinking, "Right. Another writer.") So we had the place to ourselves with the owner coming to check on us once in awhile and to refill our sweet lhasis and bring us more nan. It felt like I was making a backroom deal with the mafia.

She gave me super positive feedback. She loved it in every way and couldn't say enough nice things about it and about how engaged she was with it. Couldn't put it down. Was totally wrapped up in the character and his development and his responses. So that was very nice, and I do accept the compliments as sincere. She's not the kind of person to pull punches. She would have let me know if she didn't like it.

But I couldn't help being disappointed anyway, because there wasn't a lot she told me that helps me make it better. I know that the book is too long and that there are parts of it that need to come out, and I need help figuring exactly where. What's essential and nonessential? This friend wasn't able to help me spot that and discuss it.

Now I knew going in that this would be a risk with her. I was up-front with the fact that she is my "naive" reader. That is, she's not a writer herself, not involved in editorial or publishing work, not a teacher. And she's not a particularly avid reader. A sometimes casual reader and not usually of this kind of book I think. I have other readers who are familiar with workshops, giving feedback, evaluating literature and other writing, but this friend doesn't fall in that category. She represents the kind of person who might pull it off the shelf at the bookstore or have it recommended to them by a friend. She's giving me a different kind of look than my more experienced critical readers are.

The naive reader is important and helpful. Every response is legitimate, even if they aren't experienced at saying where that response comes from, at categorizing problems or at forming advice on how to fix a problem. It's helpful to hear someone just say "I got bored at this part," even if they can't say why or what to do about it.

But this reader didn't have even much of that kind of feedback. I do trust her response, like I say, and trust that she would let me know if she didn't like something, but I guess I'm discovering that she's not a very critical reader. She's not looking for trouble the way that others might. She's more willing to surf over the problems in the book, enjoying the non-essential digressions.

Which is important information probably. I have to think about it. What does it mean that she takes in the book that way and another more experienced critic is pointing out dozens of places to trim? I'm going to have to think about that. It might mean that I can get away with a little more "bagginess" in the tale than I thought. Maybe it means the finer critical instincts honed by myself and my other readers are cutting too deep.

Up next? Well, leftover Indian food for lunch. And then a few days off while I'm out of town. In theory, I could start back to work on the book Monday, but I have one more reader to hear from. I'll have to decide how strongly to resist starting before hearing from her.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Big day

Big day today. I'm meeting with one of my readers tonight to get her feedback.

I'm looking forward to the end of my hiatus too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What to read?

Still in the waiting phase. I picked up some paying work on Friday which will help keep me busy over the next few weeks. End of the semester coming, so lots of paper grading too. I continue to be in a kind of reading funk, unable to concentrate on much.

I'm hoping I'll start to snap out of things after tomorrow night when I meet with one of my readers and get her feedback. That should start me thinking about the book a lot if I let it. I'll have to make a decision about how far ahead I can let myself get of my other reader who will be a few more weeks before getting back to me.

I won't be able to start any work on the next draft until next week anyway because I'm traveling later this week for three nights. I'm trying to decide what book/s to take with me. The airlines these days, of course, charge an extra $25 fee for every book you carry, so it's something I have to think carefully about.

It can't be so short that if there are three long flight delays instead of the usual two I end up finishing the book and have nothing to read. It can't be so long that I'm lugging around extra literature for no reason. It has to be something that I'm pretty confident that I'll want to finish once I get started. It can't require too much concentration, since I have to watch out for swine flu. And it has to make me look sexy. And fit in a 3 oz bottle or the TSA will take it away from me.

I was thinking maybe Anna Karenina in the new Oprah Winfrey translation, which arrived from Amazon the other day, but that's too long. I still haven't read any Michael Chabon, and I have a couple of his recent long novels in paperback. That one about the comic books. Will I enjoy that?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Loose ends-- the emotional trajectory of novel writing

I wonder if a shrink has ever explored the connection between the emotional life of a writer and the emotional lives of couples. What I've learned about people's behavior in intimate relationships seems to me similar to how I feel about the book sometimes.

Not that I'm "married" to the book, but, yeah, kinda.

The similarity I'm seeing now is that I miss it when it's gone and I take it for granted when it's here. I'm dependent on it in many ways. (Presumably, it doesn't miss me back.)

By "gone," I'm referring to the period I'm in now where I'm not working on it while I wait for my readers. (I could work on it, but as I've discussed before, I made a strategic decision to take a break and not have a new draft going until I get all the comments back in.)

I really don't like this period. I'm at loose ends. I can't concentrate on anything else. I can't take advantage the time to enjoy other interests. It's like when my wife is out of town for work. She encourages me to enjoy the time apart, but I just end up grossing myself out with too much take out pizza and dumb movies she wouldn't she watch with me, waiting impatiently for her to come home.

The long process of working on a novel has these different emotional spaces. Some brief joyful periods when you're in the groove. Some long periods when you're just head down and working away without noticing anything else. And some periods where it's like you're sitting on a bench in a noisy downmarket shopping center waiting for something to happen so you can get on with life.