Saturday, November 6, 2010

Announcing the third novel

So the main reason I haven't been writing here is because I didn't have the energy to consciously work out and talk through the ambivalence I'm feeling about the work I've been doing.

And I have been working, steadily and with enthusiasm, on a completely different novel than the one I am supposed to be working on. My supposed second novel has been left behind like a first wife.

The ambivalence is partly because of the hopscotch itself. It feels sort of like unfaithfulness. ("The heart can't help what it wants. We just fell in love.") The second novel itself felt like an indulgence, since I really ought to be working on revisions on the first novel. This is starting to look suspiciously like a lack of commitment.

But I got excited about this idea and don't want to stop. I only meant to make a couple sketches to show myself what it would be like. That was in early September. Then I looked up on October 1 to find that I had churned out 35,000 words. It has gone more slowly since then, but I'm plugging along.

The other reason I'm ambivalent is because of the project itself. It's a children's book. (Let's call it a middle-grades novel for now.) Now, I'm not a snob about children's literature. I understand -- at least at an intellectual level --that it the form has all the literary and artistic potential of the kind of fiction I normally read and aspire to write. But part of me doesn't really feel that way deep down. Heretofore, I've never really connected with children's literature as an adult. It's like I can't access whatever it is that allows adults to inhabit the mind of a young reader and get enthused the way children do. The emotional development, even in the most critically lauded and serious children's stories, usually feels just plain childish to me, and not in a good way.

I know that says more about me as a reader than about the "genre" itself. For one thing, there are exceptions, most clearly when I re-read books that I remember from my childhood. When I re-read Tales Of a Fourth Grade Nothing or a S. E. Hinton book, part of me goes back and inhabits the mental and emotional and even physical territory I was in during my first reading. Partly I'm feeling the power of the books and partly I'm remembering the power I felt the first time around. In any case I know the power is there.

And I find that I'm growing as a reader. I think "discovering" the literature is too simplistic a way of thinking about it -- as if I am static as a reader and just need to stumble across these books. The reader has to have the right stuff of some kind. Familiarity with the conventions, if nothing else. I have a similar theory about sports. I can on rare occasions admire an unfamiliar sport -- cricket, for example -- but without having grown up with it almost like a first language, I'm unlikely to really connect to the sport and understand it without a lot of study. I don't connect to comic books or sci fi or any "genre" fiction really, because it's never been a part of my experience. (This is just happenstance, not snobbery. I connect to bad television and Mario Brothers video games just fine.) I think you almost have to train yourself to be readers of certain kinds of fiction. The older you get, the more consciously that training probably has to be.

Of course, I read and enjoyed children's literature once, but it was a long time ago. And I was an advanced and precocious reader who jumped to adult books when I could and never looked back. Also, I think the growth in YA literature is a real difference in the generations. That category just wasn't there. Before YA, when you outgrew Judy Blume, you went to adult books that were comparatively accessible and easy to read (Salinger and Harper Lee and Vonnegut) and to the classics assigned in high school English (Orwell, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Pearl Buck.) These were considered appropriate for teenagers without being targeted to teenagers. Without the bridge of YA, we left children's literature behind earlier and so its merits are more remote.

I am coming to appreciate children's literature a lot more. (I've been reading a ton of it.) About 8 years ago I made a run at Harry Potter to see what the commotion was about, but I got bored after a few chapters. I tried again recently and really did enjoy the first book, and as a writer I really admire Rowling. I can learn a lot from it.

Another reason I feel ambivalent about this project is that part of me feels that I don't have the right. See, for example, my condescending attitude above. A person like that doesn't have any business writing a children's book. But I swear I'm not slumming, and I swear I'm not dabbling. Well, I guess I got started by dabbling, but I'm taking it as seriously as I can now.

Honestly, I started off in the most insincere way possible short of saying, "How can I cash in on a trend?" A few years ago I was talking with a young friend about the YA novels she was reading -- which re-purpose some classic stories -- and about a week after that I heard an interview with a different children's author whose books also put old stories in a modern dress. That time, I thought, darn, I wish I had thought of that. It seemed like a clever idea. So I challenged myself just to think of a clever idea using the same basic move -- bring something familiar to life again in a new context. After awhile I had an idea, and I filed it away, thinking it wasn't really worth my time. Then a couple months ago a conversation with my wife led me to describing this idea. She asked a couple questions about it. "But how would this part and that part work?" Which forced me to think through the concept a little more and then a little more and after a couple days I had the whole idea in my head.

It was very "high concept" at the time, and I was just curious if it could work on the page. So I wrote a couple of scenes, and away I went. It grew and grew. I ran into technical problems and tackled them and moved on. I still am, actually. The closer I get to the climax, the more lengthy my "stuck" phases are.

Anyway, I plan to finish it and to make a serious rewrite of it. (Because I am leaving all kinds of plot and character wreckage behind me as I race through it. There's a lot that needs to be patched up.) And then we'll see. I am anxious to get back to the other other two books, but I'm respecting the muse. If this is the story coming to me, I'm not going to fight it, and the more I get into it, the less I'm feeling guilty about it.

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