Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Minus 8 pp. and settling into working routine

I finished Chapter 5 and got out another 3 pp. for a total of minus 8 pp., getting it down to 385 pp.

Not that page counts are the most important thing at this stage. That's just the OCD talking. Really I'm still working on the question of intention that I've been talking about a lot recently. Thinking about, chapter-by-chapter, is helping me get each chapter more focused and in better alignment with the rest of the book. Hopefully each episode feels dramatic in its own right and also develops the overall drama.

Chs. 1-4 were an anomaly in that two threads were being combined, but from here on I anticipate a regular routine for most chapters. Basically, I plan on working on a print out, making a combination of line edits and inserting new material in answer to the "intention" question. Then, contra to the last draft I moved on to the next chapter and saved for later inputting the changes into the computer, I think I'll go ahead and input the changes as I go. Don't ask me why--that's just what I'm in the mood for.

Best case scenario, that's probably two long sessions and so two days of work or one unusually long day, and I think my schedule and mood probably are going to permit some of those longer days in the next few weeks. What happened today was I did the paper read through in the morning and did the typing in the afternoon. It has been a long day, and at this rate I'll be exhausted and hermit-like and lacking any perspective by the end of the draft. This isn't healthy. And don't ask me how I'm going to earn any money like this.

On to Chapter 6 tomorrow. Here's hoping when my wife reads the more major revisions to 1-4 later this week she doesn't send me back to the starting line.

Minus 5 pages

I'm back to the point where there's a little satisfaction in tracking my page count. My starting number for draft 7 is 393 pp. in typescript. I have made my revisions for the first four chapters for this draft (pending review by my wife) and reduced the total by 5 pp. so that I'm now down to 388 pp.

At that rate--roughly 1 page per chapter--I would get a total of 18 pages out of this draft. Let's round it up to 20 as an ambitious target. Which would result in 373 pp., assuming no radical changes like taking out whole chapters, which still is under consideration. 373 pp. in typescript roughly works out to 300-310 pp. printed.

By the way, my "scrap file" where I paste everything I cut is multiple times longer than the amount that is actually reduced. The total shrank by 5 pp. in the last few days, but the scrap file grew by about 15-20 pp. That's because for every graf I cut out as unnecessary I end up adding in a few lines of other material that now feels more necessary.

Alright, back to work for a p.m. session. I'm about half done with work on Ch. 5.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Head down

I'm working hard on Chapter 3 today. I have a gap in my paying work lately, so I have been and expect to put in longer more concentrated days on the book for awhile. My immediate goal is to finish Chapter 4 before the end of tomorrow so that I can have my wife re-read this section yet again to see if she approves of how I'm combined two separate threads and tightened things up. I don't have any doubt that it's an improvement, but is it aggressive enough a change? Perhaps the edits are too timid.

I just finished a long a.m. session and expect to work all afternoon.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Working while gardening

I don't normally work on the book on weekends, and I don't plan to today, but I making a stop by my desk this morning to thumb through Ch. 3 and re-acquaint my self with it and its problems, so that they can nag at me while I'm in the yard. I've found that while I'm doing something physical--gardening, walking, working in the weight room--sometimes yields some helpful understanding about the book, so I've gotten better at planning for that, putting the rock in my shoe at the right time.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The physical act and getting in touch with the words

Much has been noted before by other writers about how the way in which they write--longhand, typewriter, computer, pencil, pen, standing, sitting, in the parlor, in a Starbucks--affects they way that they connect to the words. For example, some feel that writing longhand might get you more in touch with the words while in some cases typing on a computer can create the sense of a formless void where you are living the story instead of writing it and the words come more naturally. Maybe. Everybody writer is unhappy in their own way.

Anyhow, I had an accidental discovery this morning related to this phenomenon and that adds another take. I was working on the computer but in slightly less than perfect circumstances, and I noticed as I did so that the change in the physical act made me newly conscious of the words themselves.

My computer is a laptop, but I normally have it set up like a desktop, with a full-size keyboard and mouse plugged in. (Plus full-sized speakers so I can rock out while I work.) Because of the tangle of wires and bad experiences with battery life, the laptop usually stays plugged in at my desk. But the main reason I don't move it around the house much is that I am flat-foot terrible at using the little touchpad to guide the cursor. I'm usually pretty tech-savvy and grew up saving Mario's girlfriend from Donkey Kong, but for some reason I'm like grandpa playing Pong when it comes to the touchpad. I need a mouse to get anything done.

With the nice weather this a.m. I couldn't resist working on the back patio though and had the laptop on my lap like it's supposed to be. I was working slowly through the edits on chapter two, racing against the limits of my battery life, writing in the new connective tissue, struggling like always to navigate around the screen. And after awhile I noticed that, as much as I was frustrated with the interruption of trying to make the pad respond to my touch, I was also feeling sensitive to and conscious of the words I typed and corrected in a different way. The alien physical experience was giving me a fresh perspective on the words.

In this case, I was thinking more about what came next, taking an extra beat to plan what I would type, thinking about how one word or sentence connected with another. I didn't want to misstep anywhere because of the semi-awareness of what a pain in the ass it was going to be to get the cursor back to flip a sentence around. I was writing differently because the tools I was using.

Which suggests that in a more fluid environment--with the mouse and familiar keyboard shortcuts and the hot jams blasting--that I'm probably tolerating a certain amount of sloppiness in the composition, because I count on it being easy to scoot back on the computer screen and tidy it up later. Which is probably a good habit to break out of once in awhile.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

First lines, contd.

As a technical matter, I'm fascinated by my work on the opening lines -- how it has me thinking in more focused ways about theme and plot and character and voice and deciding which is predominant in this book and what needs to be signaled at the beginning. As a practical matter, it's pretty scary, for reasons I stated before.

Yesterday afternoon I read through the first grafs of several books, noticing how they function differently. That inspired me to make a few more attempts at mine in addition to the several I wrote yesterday morning. I also read them all to my wife and talked them over with her.

Basically, I'm torn between a story-telling opening and a scene-setting opening. (And, if the former, being clear on which aspect of the story I'm opening with.) My head and my wife are telling me the former works better. But I continue to be in love with the scene-setting openings I've written, which my wife keeps telling me don't work. Maybe mine don't work now, but I'm drawn to them for some reason, and I think it can work if I figure it out.

I'm thinking especially of the opening grafs of A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. When I read that over yesterday, I was amazed and a little uncomfortable with how similar it sounded to the scene-setting opening I had drafted earlier in the day. There's an unconscious influence there I guess. Functionally, there's really no story in those opening grafs. It's all geography. Literally, it gives the lay of the land. Which would seem to be an unnecessarily long way around to starting the story, but what it does is establish the voice and sound a thematic note about the perspective and presumptions that the narrator is starting with and that we are getting a hint of a challenge to. It works.

Well, even though I'm drawn to my attempt at something similar, I started this morning by typing in one of the more vivid and tactile of the story-telling openings that I came up with. That works too--for sure and right now for this book. I returned to working on the computer and doing a lot of the patching that I complained about the other day. At certain points where I have to rewrite because of how I'm combining two episodes, I was able to get in the zone OK and produce it on the computer and then move on to patching in the next section.

Still, it's slower work than I want at this point. I got through about 11 pp. Since this four chapter section that I'm reorganizing is 75 pp., it's looking like a longer journey than I planned on for this draft.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

First lines, last steps

I'm finding myself working and working on the first lines of the book, which is very unsettling. I know it makes sense that as I near the end of the process the theme becomes clearer and the need to clarify the statement of that theme becomes apparent. But I can't help feeling that the first lines, which I wrote first over two years ago, is a pretty basic piece of the book that ought to be settled by now. It's freaking me out a little.

But I'm getting good at ignoring my fears and plowing ahead, and it was illuminating if slow work this a.m. About a two hour session. One hour of plain writing in long hand on paper on the back porch just like the old days, basically rewriting from memory some of the stuff that I've already written several times, but hopefully sharper and more focused. Then another hour of trying to refocus and brainstorm my way out of a problem.

The problem is really the question of what the first line needs to do. Looking at it through the question of "intention," which I've been doing lately as noted before, I might be establishing theme, establishing character, starting the main story, laying out background to the main story, etc. Probably ideally all of these should be done at once in one elegant, vivid line that starts in media res, gives voice to the main character, references the time period and latitude and longitude, creates suspense and promises more action. In reality, as I brainstormed several possibilities, the more I worked to establish character or setting, the more it felt like a slow start. The more I established theme, the more abstract the language was. And the more I succeeded in getting the story started, the more utilitarian the language felt. Anyway, that presumes clarity about what the story actually is--what thread of events we need to pick up first.

I didn't mention establishing voice, and what I'm really leaning toward is the idea that establishing voice is the most important thing -- that the reader can tolerate a slow start to the story if they're interested in the voice. That's a theory, and one I don't have a hundred percent confidence in, but it's what I'm going to stew on until tomorrow, when I'll try again.

I can't believe I'm near the end of June and I'm stuck on the first line of my book. It's not looking like I'll get done this summer. My only hopes is that a breakthrough here will lead to quick clear work later on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Longhand, short attention span

Minimal progress this morning. The problem is that because the work I'm doing is on the computer, I succumbed to the temptation of a work-related email, which ate up a lot of my fresh-in-the-morning energy. Stupid.

Another problem once I got started, seemingly unrelated, is the temptation to patch up the section I'm working on instead of rewriting it. This is the rewrite of Ch 1-4, starting with the opening pages of course. What I have is very strong in the context of what it's doing, but I have to take it another direction. And in so doing, while working on the computer with the file of existing material, I keep trying to make use of bits and pieces of what's already there. Partly because I don't want to waste it and partly on the assumption that it will be less time consuming than writing new from the beginning.

As a result, I'm not really in the proper creative frame of mind. It's more a mechanical way of looking at things. And it yields misshappen fruit, so I start to get turned off by it.

So I'm thinking . . . maybe I should be working in longhand at this stage. That would definitely be better for the problem of getting distracted by email. And it might be better for the second problem. What if I just literally rewrite this section on blank paper without reference to the existing work? I haven't done that before because it sounds scary -- It's putting myself back at the beginning; it feels like a defeat; it feels like no progress; it feels like a waste of what I have; it feels inefficient.

But really it might be more efficient. I'm just talking about a few pages. Just inventing it from scratch might be less time consuming than trying to patch things together. And it's probably more . . . authentic. Or honest. More aligned with what the work needs. It needs to become what it should be, and paying attention so much to what it already has been is probably a drag on that process. Writing longhand again would be a way to cut the tie. Instead of working with the existing material in front of me, I'll rely on my memory of it--or better yet, on my wish for what it was.

Just for a few pages. Even if I end up writing nearly the same paragraphs in parts, with the same metaphors and imagery and jokes, they should come in on point better, with better flow. And the new material should be more in the right voice instead of having that patchy quality.

I'm going to try that again fresh tomorrow morning. Strange to be struggling over the opening pages like this so late in the process, but I suppose it makes sense.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rebooting, intention and macro edits

On the official first day of summer, at least according to astronomers, I'm rebooting my summer plan, which was supposed to get started over a month ago at the end of the academic calendar. I've made the mistake of waiting for certain elements to fall into place before starting the next draft, all the while thinking it would be any day now, and the day never came--thought it still may any day now. It's been quite frustrating and I'm disappointed to have wasted the month this way, but I've decided to cut my losses. I'm starting the next draft with the resources I have at hand. Starting this morning.

My hope has been that I'm at the stage where I can concentrate just on sentence-level work, but I know that's wishful thinking. I think I can say that I'm beyond the "digging and developing" stage and am trying to bring it all into sharper focus. But not just by making sentences sharper. I really need to look at each chapter or episode and decide what the point is and bring the important part into starker relief. I think that's mostly by carving away what's extra, but it also includes revising what's there to hit the beat more energetically.

The way I'm thinking of this is in terms of "intention" which is a notion that I got from reading Susan Bell's book The Artful Edit. She defines it as the overarching aim that guides both the writer and the reader and advises, "Ask yourself when you edit: What is it I want? What am I trying to do here? Where am I going with this?"

I suppose that's not radically different from other goggles I've put on to evaluate the work, like asking myself what the character wants or what problem the scene is complicating and moving forward. But it's a fresh look.

So I'm asking those questions, doing a lot of journaling as I go. I did that this a.m. for the first five chapters, and it was quite illuminating. It really does help me see how the chapters can connect to one another, where they don't yet, and where some material probably won't align with the overall intention and can safely be pulled out.

For example, one of the issues up in the air right now is about the necessity of Chapter 5. Why is it in there? What's it doing that other chapters don't do? After this exercise I have a much better answer to that. I'm not perfectly convinced that the chapter is necessary, but I have a better potential rationale for it, so I'll tackle the revision with this new focus in mind and see if I can make the chapter work.

I'm torn between doing that kind of meta-writing all the way through the book or pausing to make revisions with the focus that I've achieved, chapter by chapter. Right now I'm leaning toward the latter, which would mean starting to revise the first clump of chapters tomorrow. 1-4 are a single unit that need to be revised together. It's probably the area with the most drastic rewriting that needs to happen. Then Chapter 5. And hopefully after that I'll be cruising.

I don't have a realistic sense of the timeline. I just have a longing to get this book done this summer. The kinds of revisions I'm talking about keep increasing in complexity, so I don't know if that's possible. After all, intention is item 1 in Susan Bell's checklist of MACRO edits.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Watching the news . . .

Instead of getting any work done, I'm watching events unfold in Tehran (via Twitter and blogs and very little traditional media.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Is it (merely) autobiographical?--Part V

Alexsandar Hemon was interviewed recently on The New Yorker's book blog and had this to say about the customary "is it autobiographical" question.

Here’s how it works: Last night, on my way to give a reading, I hurt a ligament in my right hand while putting my shoe on. As I was driving this morning and talking on the phone with my sister in London, I lost my grip and sideswept my neighbor’s car. Being honest, I went to their house to tell them what I had done. When I rang the bell nobody answered. I knocked and went in anyway, thinking they might be in the backyard. The house was empty, and as I walked through I noticed a vase in the shape of a monkey head. The light angle made it somehow seem that the monkey was winking at me, so I picked the head up to examine it, but then, dropped it, what with the weak hand ligament, and it shattered in a thousand pieces. For a moment, I considered cleaning up or waiting for my neighbors to show up, but then decided to sneak out. Now I dread hearing the door bell.

I could go on and turn this into a story. I did hurt my hand last night and I did get into the car this morning, but I did not cause any damage, nor did I trespass. I did not talk to my sister yesterday, but she does live in London. And I’ve never seen a monkey head like that. So, how much of this putative story is autobiographical?

Similarly, I did spend a few weeks in Africa some time in the eighties, just like the narrator in the story “Stairway to Heaven.” But my father was not a diplomat, there was no Spinelli, no Natalie, and most of the things that happened in the story did not happen to me. For some reason or another, I compulsively imagine scenarios alternative to what happens to me. To my mind, my stories are not autobiographical; they are antibiographical, they are the antimatter to the matter of my life. They contain what did not happen to me.

That idea of the antibiography partly explains what's going on with mine. In a sense, I'm telling a preferable version of my story--what I wish had happened. What might have happened with more luck and a stronger character and if different butterflies had flapped their wings at different times to create different kinds of storms.

Another (mixed) metaphor: The story started with the seed of something that really happened but became something strange. It has the trace of a mannerism from my life, like how I can see that my wife and her father cock their heads in the same way sometimes when they're thinking. Of course, they are totally different people with different experiences and characters. Similarly, a familiar mannerism makes itself apparent in my novel here and there, but it's not the story of my life.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Losing a day--sleep disturbances

Restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea or chronic insomnia or generalized anxiety disorder or canine hearing syndrome. I don't know what. Ask my doctor. But I was up most of the night and overslept today and thppp. It wasn't even one of those nights where I was up all night reading. Just tossing. Very frustrating.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fear and intention

I did not get a good start today or ultimately have a very satisfying session, but I guess I should take pride in the fact that I have the discipline to power through it anyway.

I picked another chapter that I presumed and hoped doesn't need a lot of development work so I could concentrate on line editing. (Wrong again.) When I read the first line, I had a very strong sense of being really sick and tired of this book. I allowed myself a few minutes to daydream about giving up on it and starting another book. Yikes.

Back from the brink, though. I put in about an hour of line editing until I got to a point where I couldn't ignore any more that this chapter is a mess structurally. Lots of starting and stopping, no momentum, no sense of urgency. Places where the narrative acts as of something important has transpired but doesn't show it. And this is about 3/4 of the way through the book. The foot should start pushing on the gas pedal a little more by this time.

I didn't tackle trying to fix all that, but I made some notes on possibilities to consider and to get me started fresh tomorrow. The notes had to do with what Susan Bell in The Artful Edit calls intention--"the goal you set yourself for a single aspect of your work . . . It is your mind's highway that runs clear and wide from the first to the last page."

Very basically, I need to figure out what the intention of this chapter is. (I probably have to do the same with most other chapters. And for the book as a whole.) With that more clearly held in mind, I hope to be able to trim and tighten, which should resolve the stuff that was getting me discouraged about this chapter.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Clustering and a new chapter

I'm still reading that Susan Bell book a little every day and am really getting a lot out of it -- unfortunately. I wish I had had it when I was working on the first rewrite. I guess right now it's not helping me to spot problems so much as to diagnose problems that I know are there and prefer to ignore.

One of the concepts I got out of the bit I read yesterday was of "clustering." This is in her long examination of the correspondence between Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald during revisions of The Great Gatsby. An early draft had a section, near the end, where Gatsby starts unloading to Nick all of his life story, which solves characterization and motive and plot problems. But it's an inelegant solution because it's all clustered together, feels like an information dump and interrupts the momentum of the present action. Bell goes on to show the more elegant solutions that Fitzgerald developed in later drafts.

I recognized the phenomenon. I definitely had that problem with one character in particular, and in fact I wrote about trying to address at the start of the last revision. I did de-cluster it a little bit and spread the butter more evenly around the bread. But not completely and perfectly and there are still some lumpy bits.

I think I do a good job of avoiding the sense of an information dump that Bell warns against. However, there is still the problem of seeming to depart from the main story. How do I stay focused on the present action that interests my main character while getting in information about stuff that happens outside his presence?

The problem I'm concerned about is in the chapter that I "line edited" yesterday. I did that work, but I knew in my heart as I did so that there was a deeper structural flow. What's really interesting to me is how these flaws are built in and inherent from the original concept of the book and keep rearing their head like a game of whack-a-mole.

That problem kept me tossing last night. Reading Susan Bell helped me think it through some more and this a.m. instead of trying to "work" on it or "fix" it, I did some freewriting and note-taking to try and sort out some possible solutions. And the solution I'm leaning toward right now, unfortunately, is to write a new chapter. I plan to take the current Chapter 11, to take the little bit of present action that's in there and take the digression/backstory stuff and use those as seeds to develop an episode that involves more present action involving my main character and his development, which should help me sneak in the backstory.

I'm not going to rush into it. Other solutions may come to me. But that's the way I'm leaning. I'm not excited about that. I really wanted to feel like I was done with this kind of development work.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Reading out of order

I've started reading a couple of really smart books on craft and editing that I mentioned before and that showed up from Amazon the other day. I suppose I'll find lots of opportunity to reference some of the advice and concepts in them. First up, from The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell.

The first chapter has lots of advice about how to create distance between yourself and your work so that you can look at it carefully -- take some time off, read it out loud, have a friend read it to you, force yourself to see it through someone else's eyes by sending it out. All of that is stuff I've discovered or re-invented on my own during the process. (One trick I never thought of I'm going to try -- change the font when you print it out, which defamiliarizes it a little bit so you can read it with more sensitivity.)

One trick she doesn't mention but that I recently stumbled on by accident is reading it out of order. I've advised and used a variation of this with my freshman comp students to help them catch basic grammar and syntax errors. I tell them that if they read their essay backwards -- last sentence and then the next-to-last sentence, etc. -- then the meaning that connects the sentences is removed and they are more alert to the literal meaning of the sentences and they "hear" errors they otherwise miss.

Well, the last couple weeks I've been reading my typescript "out of order" in a different sense and I'm noticing that I'm attuned to it differently as a result. Like I explained previously, while I wait to hear from one of my readers, I'm cherry-picking the chapters I'm pretty confident just need line editing at this point.

That's having an effect something like the exercise I recommend for my students. When I read Chs. 5, 8, 10, 14, 15, 7 -- like it's a Julio Cortazar book -- I've divorced my reading from the flow of the plot and impossible and can't judge it that way. I can't tell if the material works or is necessary or desirable in context, so all I can see is if it works on its own terms. I'm less likely to be in love with a scene because it helpfully advances a plot thread and more likely to see how it is flat and plodding and clumsy.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Blech. I put in a session of line editing--about half of a longer chapter, which I might finish later today if I have time--and I didn't like what I was seeing. It's the climactic chapter and boy does it plod a lot more than I thought it did.

It's really a matter of plotting I suppose--the problem I've had right from the beginning. I have to get all these moving parts to come a rest in the right position at the right time in a way that doesn't feel contrived. But right now I think you can either still see the man behind the curtain pulling the levers or, if it's obscured enough, the trade off is just seems boring.

It's discouraging to see those kinds of problems still in there at this stage. It feels like a setback compared to my expecations. Maybe I'm too tough, though. None of my readers yet have commented on this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lost another day

Lost another day to personal issues and paying work issues. And I'm still waiting to hear from my reader. This summer is not getting off to the hot start that I had hoped for. I have to keep reminding myself that when the stars do align that I've got what it takes to take advantage. I'm ready.

Ooo, I saw the postal carrier coming up the sidewalk right now. I don't see any fat envelopes. Off to check . . .

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Change in routine

I need to get some paying work done. I had planned to make progress yesterday afternoon and this afternoon, but I couldn't face it. So I swapped around my schedule. I copyedited an extra chapter yesterday afternoon so I could start fresh on the paying work this a.m. (I'm still having trouble facing it.) Oh well.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Establishing a pattern

More of the same since yesterday a.m., which is good. I did the line editing on another chapter--a little bit yesterday afternoon and finishing up during my regular a.m. session today.

Still no word from my last reader. I'm hoping she'll have criticism of this chapter I just worked on. It felt awfully slack as I went through it, but none of my other readers have complained about it any. I was hoping to get the length down just as a matter of principle--it's one of the longest right now--and it's an awfully busy chapter with a lot of choreography to it that makes it hard for the tension to build, so I was hoping to trim a lot for that reason.

I'm on a nonfiction reading kick these days. Occasionally I get to wishing that I had got more than Shakespeare and Catullus out of my liberal arts education, so I got a stack of books from the university library to keep me busy for the summer (or until the mood passes) on economics, international affairs, mathematics and the history of science. Also my wife gave me the new biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez the other day.

Novel #2 continues to be on my mind a lot.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Line editing and other work

More work today like how I finished last week. I picked a chapter unlikely to be cut or to need much development work and just concentrated on line editing.

I had visions of wielding an expert hammer and chisel that let the masterpiece underneath the lumpy stone emerge, but I'm having trouble getting into the right mind set. I don't think I'm seeing the language critically enough. I feel like I'm coasting. It's too familiar maybe. So far, the changes aren't very aggressive. On the other hand, maybe I've done such a good job up to now that it doesn't need much of that kind of work. That's wishful thinking I suppose. It will probably just take time to train my brain to get in the right critical zone. When I do, I may have to circle back to these first chapters and work on them again.

So I got a complete 21-page chapter done today. (Chapter 6 in the current numbering.) However, it took more than just the regular a.m. session. I had to come back to it after that break to finish the line editing. Also I didn't just stick to line editing after all because I found another relatively small clarification/development problem that I needed to let sit over lunch and then come back to again. I have an uneasy feeling that the chapter as a whole doesn't have the tension it should, so maybe it will need more development work after all.

I'm finding more continuity problems. A piece of gear in the plot is stored in a hallway closet in this chapter but I know at another point I have it in a bedroom closet. Again, how did I never notice this before?

Made some more notes over the weekend on the second book. I'm thinking a lot lately about genre.