Friday, December 31, 2010

Books read in 2010

It's time for my fourth annual totally irrational and OCD-driven list of all the books I've read for the year.

There are a lot of rules to this goofy mind game I play with myself, but the short version is that I count only books that I complete cover to cover, that I allow myself to cheat slightly with long reference or technical books if I read most of them, that I don't allow myself to pad the list by choosing short books and, on the other hand, if a short book comes up in the natural course of my reading life, I do get to count it.

Those rules were particularly influential this year. The reference/technical book comes into play with all the traveling I did. I have several guidebooks on my list that I read about 70-90% of. Also I have the textbook I used in my teaching.

More influential is all the children's books I read as part of the research I'm doing for the book I'm writing. That pushed my numbers to a record high. I added a new rule along the way that I would only count what might be considered a novel for its age group. I counted James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter but not Where the Wild Things Are.

Take the 20 or so children's books on my list and convert that into about 5 adult novels I might have read, and the tally would be about the same as in previous years. So the list is skewed in a new way this year, but the list has always been skewey. In reality, I probably read a little bit more -- mostly because of the down time I had while traveling -- but since I'm counting books instead of pages, words or time, it's impossible to tell.

As always, there are dozens of books I started and didn't finish. If I gave myself a quarter credit for each of those, I'd be well over my goal of averaging 2 per week. (104). But those aren't the rules.

As it is, I came closer than ever. The tally this year is 96.

It sounds like a lot, but I'm hyper aware of how slow a reader I am and how much more ground I wish I was covering. I got another reminder of that this week. My wife -- who has much less reading time available to her but is a fast reader -- is on vacation this week and has knocked off four novels in the last few days while I read one. It makes me wanna holler.

Those 96 books include, as I said before, about 20 definite children's books, another 5 or so that I pitched as children's classics but that might be considered adult novels (Treasure Island), several books of theory and analysis about children's literature, a mix of nonfiction that satisfied some curiosity I had during the year (a history of Buddhism; a history of Paris), most of the Lonely Planet guides for Southeast Asia, all of Richard Price's novels for some reason, books related to research I was doing for the so-called "second novel" I was writing but that is now on hold and books based on movies I saw and became curious about (Winter's Bone; Atonement).

In the first half of the year, the list is a very strange miscellany of novels that I took with me overseas based on a complicated set of criteria plus the weird random books that came my way while I was over there. (The Pickwick Papers? I was really desperate for reading material there at the end.)

Well I won't list them all. Here are some highlights.

Favorite new books from the last year or two include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Both highly recommended. I also read another backlist title by Hilary Mantel that has stuck with me -- Beyond Black.

Favorites from the near past that are new to me include Mating by Norman Rush and Transmission by Hari Kunzru and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I re-read several old favorites with pleasure again, most of which I've written about on this blog before. Straight Man by Richard Russo gave me a new appreciation for the comic novel. My previous memory of it was of how funny it was, but now I remember it as much more than that.

Lastly, as always, the best part of reading is finally getting around to "classic" books that are new to me. I'll include The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow here for lack of a better place to shelve it. (Author deceased but the copyright not yet lapsed. I guess I could call it backlist, but not recent.) The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain still has me cracking up and amazed at his talent. Peter Pan might be my new favorite book. I was genuinely surprised at its thematic and emotional complexity, and I'm surprised it's not read more. I found The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad by confusing it with The Secret Sharer, to my good fortune.)

I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It doesn't make me excited and it doesn't make me angry. I certainly don't resent the attention it's getting. If you benchmark the favorable reviews it has gotten at 100, I guess I would give it a 95. I would say it's overrated, but not by so much that it's worth fighting over. One way I think about it is that I consider it to have a similar ambition and scope as The World According To Garp, which I read for the first time about 20 years ago and re-read for about the 6th time this year. I don't see myself re-reading Freedom and having it stick with me the same way.

I read a lot of dogs this year, too -- books whose praise I don't understand, books that seemed pretty good when I read them and now can't remember a single image from, books that I can't understand why were ever published. But I won't beat up on those in public. I will say that there are two major authors that over the years I have tried and tried and tried to get into but that I am now giving myself permission to at least hold in lower regard than the conventional wisdom and maybe to give up on entirely. They are Charles Dickens and Henry James. And I'm not going to feel guilty about it.

Not on the list is any complete book of poetry. That's a change from past years, though I did read some in doses smaller than a book. I read a ton of short stories this year, so my list got gypped more than usual on that point.

Well, that leaves about another 40 books that I haven't mentioned that just kind of came and went. Pretty good books that I enjoyed reading but that I don't see myself recommending, returning to, recommending against or arguing about. That's kind of how reading goes, I think. We're lucky to find two really really good books in a year. Jacob de Zoet and Wolf Hall. Go out and get them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Closer and closer to the end

I'm getting closer to the end of my first draft. A few good working days, with luck. (And getting those days will take some luck. I have a few interruptions coming up.)

I added about 2,100 words to the total in the last two days. That's with a little bit of new material and typing in that and some older scraps that had never been typed in. It includes the actual last words, but I got there by skipping over some scenes leading up to the last scene, so I can't really say it's done.

I'm back at the point in the cycle with a lot of doubt and confusion that I need to work through. Just have to find the time. The only real problem is frustration from the sense that I'm missing self-imposed deadlines. If I don't worry about that, then I would have to conclude that everything is fine.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shaping up

Worked several yours today on the section I've writing and re-writing for the last few weeks. To extend my Frankenstein metaphor, I guess I've been trying to smooth out some of the scars. It's more or less functioning, now, but along the way I identified places where I need to do some more serious physical therapy to get it to move more naturally.

It's the kind of digging in and development work that really is the hardest part of revision. Trying to get to the heart of it and develop the full emotional power.

Two key spots where I want to work on that for now. I'll try to tackle those tomorrow -- the last day before the holiday -- and then I can call this good enough to attach to the first draft.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Plus 3,000 words net

I've lost track of what I've already counted and what was written but not yet part of the accounting, but anyway, I think the net result from the last week or so of work is about 3,000 words. That's after cutting out a lot of stuff, pasting in the new stuff (including about 1,500 words from today) and moving a lot of stuff around. The total of material now included in the first draft is 63,000 words. I was hoping to keep the first draft under 65,000 words, but I'm not going to make it. Maybe 75,000 if I'm lucky.

That leaves this section of the book that I've been struggling with at 10,000 words and about 40 pages in the second super rough rough draft. That's probably way too long, but I'm too close to it now to see how, and it needs to have bigger picture revisions before I think about cutting. I need to do some digging and developing and unifying. It's kind of a Frankenstein monster right now.

But I think it is on the path to working. I've punched my way out of the paper bag in the last week. In the condition it's in right now, I doubt anyone would agree, since it's such a mess. But its potential is clearer in my mind, so I think my next task over the next couple mornings is to pull into a better shape so I can show it to my wife.

I think I can probably get two working mornings in before the holiday interruption.

If that works, then I can start the week after Christmas driving toward the final battle scene. That would be awesome.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A couple of good days

I'm cruising now.

I wrote 1,600 words today (longhand) and got them typed in. This material will replace some existing material, so the net word count probably isn't changing, but I won't know that until I finish up this section and do the related cutting and pasting.

I also spent a lot of time updating my note cards based on the changes I've made in the plot so far. That's a little intimidating, because it makes clear how many scenes I need to revise, rewrite, move or just plain write for the first time. Basically the whole book.

Last night I read what I wrote yesterday, the false peak scene, to my wife, and it made her cry. So that was a shot in the arm.

I still don't know exactly how this whole section is going to be organized, but I feel like it's doable. I wish I could work on it over the weekend, but it's that holiday weekend where there's not time for anything except parties. Then I have 2, maybe 3, days next week before the holidays cause a big interruption. Maybe with luck I'll have this section nailed down before then.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Satisfying resolutions

I'm struggling quite a bit with the problem of how to resolve a story. (Still working on the so-called "false peak" section that I've been stuck on for a few weeks, so there's still the real resolution to come.) I've taken a run at it several times and am having trouble with coming up something that seems right.

Intellectually, I know what the ingredients must include, though there is probably some other required ingredient I don't know about. It has to involve an externally manifested action taken by the main character that resolves not only her external problems (e.g. the bear at the door) but resolves the internal issues that she is struggling with and that complicates her ability to deal with things. I think it also ought to -- or at least I want it to -- be an action that has some kind of resonance with the thematic issues of the story. It should also be visually vivid and surprising without feeling unrealistic or unfair or unearned -- like it is playing by the rules of the game set up earlier.

That's a lot of for one little moment to accomplish. I can' intellectualize it and I can describe how any given solution I've come up with is lacking some ingredient. But I have trouble imagining the right solution.

And imagining is what it takes. That's where the missing ingredient lies. Coming up with some fantastic vivid image. The slipper going on to the foot. Romeo tipping the poison back down his throat.

I think in my case I have an additional complication that's difficult to explain without giving away too much of the story. First off, it can't be the hero slaying the dragon, because the enemy resembles the hero too much. It can't be the hero winning a contest of wills or power against another fighter because in the rules of the world I've set up, the solution rests on disarming the opponent but there is no way to disarm them without disarming yourself. (That probably doesn't sound like it makes any sense. I hope it would if I was willing to tell more about the story.) In any case, I need a resolution with all those characteristics above and that work in the narrow space allowed by the rules I've set up.

It's probably the internal conflict part that interests me most. To my mind, the most satisfying stories don't just solve the internal conflict cut arise from the internal conflict. It's a two-way street. The internal struggle up to this point, while being a complication and an obstacle, also yields insights and resources that, if realized, become useful in the final resolution. If the character hadn't been dealing with that internal conflict, then they wouldn't have what they need to slay the dragon. I guess I can't think of any perfect examples of that right now, but it's still the ideal resolution for me, at least in the abstract.

One other idea that I think is relevant to this . . . Toni Morrison talks in one of her interviews about how if she has the key metaphor for her story that's all she needs to get it going and get it written. Just hold that metaphor in her mind. That idea has been on my mind this week. I feel like I need some kind physical manifestation of my story's themes. Some talisman that shows up at key moments, including at the resolution. The sword or the golden chalice would do that in a typical romance. Like when Harry Potter gets hold of the philosopher's stone or Tom Riddle's diary or a specific sword or whatever.

So I've been writing the equivalent of a master's degree thesis on these problems all week trying to figure out how to end the story, how to set up that ending, how to seed the book so that the ending bears the right fruit. I don't think I've come up with anything as ideal as I outlined here, but I've got an improvement. I think I know what the talisman could be. I've written another version of the ending that I'll read over and think about in the next couple days. And then we'll see.

About 2,500 words of new material. (And I ought to get credit for about 4 times that much of note taking and brainstorming and character sketching to help me break through.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Revision -- uggh

I haven't worked up the courage yet to start drafting the conclusion yet. (Mainly because I don't have confidence in the material I just finished. It feels like it will have to be radically different and therefore set up a different kind of conclusion.)

In the meantime, I'm doing some patch up work on the rest of it. I have my main file that most everything is typed into, and then I have another file where I drafted my new opening. (e.g. about 30 pages.) I started copying and pasting and cutting to put the new opening in place and take out the parts of my original opening that no longer work. That leaves a lot of jagged seams, which I spent some time trying to smooth over, but I can see it's going to be a lot of work. And not the most glamorous work, either. I'm not looking forward to it.

So, my main file, which has everything that I possibly could be using to create a first draft and from which I have cut out stuff I know won't be included, now is at 59,000 words and 250 pages. That, plus about 10,000 words of scrap material, all of it typed in and with some light editing, in the last 15 weeks approximately. Not bad. Not great. Not my goal. I really want to have an ending that I can believe in drafted before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Verb tense, that is.

As a reader I have an aversion to the use of the present tense in fiction. I feel like it is often used as a gimmick to generate cheap energy through a sense of immediacy when vivid and singular writing in the past tense would do that more authentically. Sometimes when a writer uses the present tense it feels like a patch up to disguise the shortcomings in the writing such as there not being any active verbs, probably because the writer doesn't really know what's going on in the scene. Perhaps they've failed to get in touch with it.

There are plenty of counter examples and many many novels I've enjoyed that are in present tense -- usually pulling me in before I've had to become aware of technique. So, probably the most accurate thing to say is that in my opinion present tense is a technique that can have an interesting effect but that is overused. (I also feel that same way about first person -- that the technique is sometimes used to hide the shortcomings in the story behind a clever voice. I could go on forever about the neglected virtues of the third person, especially the third person limited.)

So I usually rely on the plain vanilla techniques of past tense and third person, my present project included. But . . . when I was drafting the other day I found myself slipping mid-scene into the present tense. Where is that coming from, I asked myself.

It actually happened during a parenthetical remark in the narration that explains some context about what is going on in the story. When I thought about it more closely, I realized that parts of this project might actually benefit from switching between present and past tense in an organized way.

To explain this I might have to give away more of my story than I usually like to do on this blog. How do I put this? Let's just say that in the abstract that the story takes places in two different "realms" in terms of time and space. Think of it as inside the castle and out in the forest, to use the romance model. The characters move back and forth between these different realms for big portions of the book -- several chapters in one, several chapters in another, etc. There are about 6 -8 switches total.

Up until my accidental switch to present tense, all of the book, on both realms, had been narrated with the same past-tense technique. ("The hero discovered this and decided that.") But I've been thinking that the changes in realm could be signaled with a change in tense. When the characters are in the castle, I would use past tense, and when they go into the forest, I would use the present. ("The hero discovers this and decides that.")

One advantage would be to heighten the distinction between the two realms. Another is that it would clarify for the reader where we are in time and space. Another is that the change in general and the use of the present tense in particular in those spots would reinforce some of the thematic structure of the story, but, again, to explain that I would have to give away more than I want to.

So, I'm experimenting with that. I wrote the rest of the section in the present tense. Even though it has the advantages I listed, I'm not sure I'm crazy about how it sounds. I have a theory that the present tense gives up some subtlety of meaning that the English language is capable of, and this material I've drafted feels that way to me a little bit, though it's hard to put my finger on exactly how.

Also, if I'm going to do this, it will mean a lot of tedious revision in about a third of the book changing all the saws to sees and wases to ises and saids to says. Just doing that for the 10 pages I already had done in this section about bored me to death.

So we'll see. This book has bigger problems that I need to figure out, so I'll be stewing on this in the meantime. In any case, it shouldn't affect any more of the drafting, because I'm past the last trip into the forest. It will affect rewrites and revisions.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tough week

Well, I guess the lesson of the last week is about the need for perseverance. When in doubt, just sit down and keep battering away.

So much of this work is resisting the intellectual impulse. Knowing when not to try and fix and understand and repair but just to keep building mud pies and float along on innocent, ignorant faith.

I think I'm at a crucial moment in the story where all the inherent weaknesses mixed in to the foundation cement stones at the very beginning are revealing themselves in seemingly catastrophic cracks as I near the climax. I can't bring it to a satisfying resolution so much as reveal how the "it" has all along been a muddled patchwork man dressed up like a real person.

That crucial moment can make me freeze up. The inclination is to try to find the right combination of putty and paint to make it all seem to work, but I know in my heart that isn't going to work, so I sit around fretting and doing nothing. Or trying to think my way out of the problem.

That's how most of last week went. Finally I remembered the core lesson -- just sit down, give up any agenda or expectations, and start writing something. The goal isn't to finish but to produce something. Don't expect it to work, and if you're lucky it will reveal a path to what could work.

And I think that's what I've got. I write about 6,000 words over 6 days of working last week. (Up to something like 63,000 now.) And what I wrote is near total crap. But that little bit that isn't total crap is my trail of bread crumbs out of this mess. It's the hint of the deeper emotion and deeper theme of the story. If I develop it, it will mean a million changes in what I've written already.

But the work so far is necessary to get to this point. I want it to go like a flowchart, like the perfect to do list. That's an idiotic delusion. Maybe this will end up coming to me 10% faster than the last book, but it won't be fast. Especially if I can't recognize these roadblocks as such and hope that I can think my way past them.

I have a first "zero draft" of my so-called "false peak" chapter. It's shit, but that's a better problem than being stuck.