Saturday, February 26, 2011

Egyptian literature

I know almost nothing about it. And to prove it, here is an old review I wrote of Being Abbas el Abd by Ahmed Alaidy, which is about the alienated youth of Cairo, abuse of power and cellphones.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Atmospheric Disturbances

I started on Rivka Gilchen's Atmospheric Disturbances last night. I can't remember why it's in my to-be-read pile. Was she one of the New Yorker 40 under 40 or something? Notable book of 2009? Anyway, whatever it was that recommended it to me, I've forgotten it, so this is one of those rare occasions when I'm starting a book with almost nothing in the way of preconceptions or expectations. I didn't even read the back cover summary. (I have it in paperback.) That''s an interesting kind of reading experience that I would like to explore more some other time. (A truly random experience is pretty difficult to create. It would probably, just based on the numbers out there, lead to some kind of genre fiction that I don't appreciate. I guess the books in my to-be-read pile are at least pre-screened to be literary fiction in some sense. And I know it's not a classic. The price sticker on it reminds me that I paid full price for it using a gift card to a store I don't normally go to because it's not nearby. All of those details do set up kinds of vague expectations.)

Anyway, I haven't read enough of it to say much about it except that so far it reminds me a lot of my first encounter with Paul Auster's New York trilogy. Which is a good thing. I liked those stories a lot when I first read them about fifteen years ago.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Calling an end to the second draft

I changed my mind about what I said yesterday. I'm deciding I'm done with draft 2 and am moving on to draft 3.

These are totally artificial divisions, so the milestone is similarly artificial. I guess what it really means is that I'm deciding that I need to focus on a different category of revision at this point, and it's comforting to tidy up the typescript, do a "save as," make note of the word count at this point and establish a schedule/time line.

The different category is what I guess should be called "developmental editing." I wish I had a developmental editor to work with me on that, but it's a self-help world now. The work I think would be most productive right now is digging in deep to find the heart of the story, find what the character really wants, figure out the arc of her emotional development and then figure out all the related writing and shaping that has to happen to bring that story into focus. It's scary work, because it can mean disassembling a lot of the machinery, and it can mean seemingly small adjustments that later turn out to introduce a fatal wobble in the machinery. It will almost certainly mean writing a lot of new material. My mantra during this stage of the first book was "don't fix -- dig." Well, I hope there's less need of that this time around, but formally that's the stage I'm at now.

This means ignoring a lot of the spackling work that's still left to do and that was the focus of the second draft. I've decided it's no longer productive or helpful to do that until I get the bigger picture questions sorted out. I guess I have been dealing with two kinds of problems -- basic intelligibility/consistency of plot and bringing some craft to the clumsy parts. I took care of all the first kind. The clumsy parts are better left alone for now.

It's hard to get a perfect bead on the word count and page count because each draft has different kinds of editing notes lingering around inside it. When those get cut out, I won't be actually shortening the book. The typescript is 317 pages and 75,000 words. My best estimate is that is actually about 73,000 words. So it grew by about 3,000 words in the last draft. Those are wild estimates, though. I'm a long way from my goal of getting it down to 65,000 words, but I suppose I'm a long way from finished.

Which takes me to the question of time line. Before the start of the last draft, I guessed that by this stage I would be concentrating on polishing, which would move along very quickly. Obviously, I'm not working on polishing and whatever I'm doing next can't go quickly.

I don't know. It's not just hard to predict the pace. It's hard to know what the work even is. It's a lot of sitting around thinking about the text instead of working on it. Let's say I had a definite object in mind like an image of the emotional arc of the character, which is probably way to simplistic a way to understand what I'm gong for. Then I might be able to say that I'll start applying that object like a stencil over the typescript scene-by-scene and re-cutting it, and that might take something like the 4 weeks that the last draft took.

I don't really believe that's how it will work, but let's use it as a basis. I'm going to guess that second part will actually go faster -- 3 weeks instead of 4. And I'm going to arbitrarily say that the "figuring out" part will take 2 weeks, which is incidentally how far ahead I am on my second draft time line.

That makes 5 working weeks total, starting from next Monday. (I have some paying work I have to concentrate on.) Which makes April Fool's Day my target.

Ok. That's what I'll do. I hope.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

(Not really) Done!

In the rawest sense, I'm "done" with this draft, having reached the end of the material this morning. That's in slightly under 4 weeks, which was my modified deadline, cut down from the original 6 week deadline.

It feels good to get to the end like that, but it's kind of a cheat and so I'm not not declaring myself officially done with this draft yet. I went flying by some pretty serious problems that it makes sense for me to bear down on before circling around to the beginning of the book again. I'll give myself as much time as it takes, but, especially since I have some interruptions coming from my paying work, let's say it's roughly a week.

So that would make in the neighborhood of 5 weeks total. Pretty good pace and pretty good estimates I made.

Here's hoping I actually am able to make improvements in the next few sessions. I'm still very worried about the stuff I mentioned yesterday.

I still love my ending, by the way. It's a risky ending that might not work for some readers, but I get a kick out of it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Back to work, but not feeling great about it

Back from the long weekend and trying to crank up the pace again. At the start of the morning, I basically had two major sections left -- the climax and the denouement. (The climax is really a "false peak" as discussed a few months ago when I was drafting it.) I anticipated few problems with the first and several problems with the second.

So I got through that false peak section today in one go -- 42 pages and 8 note cards. Great.

But it was a dispiriting experience. This was drafted most recently and therefore had the most nasty surprises in it. Going through it I found a lot of problems that seem pretty challenging. Actually what they seem is fatal.

I guess I'm going to have to get past that attitude -- buckle down and figure out what it will take to make it good. And part of that is going to involve stopping the clock watching. I'm not going to finish this draft this week and probably not next week either. I need to forget about that and focus on the work and take is much time as it needs.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time out

Alright, I'm going to say that this section I've been laboring over is good enough for this draft and move on. I have lots of notes in it about what still needs to be fixed, but I'll save those for the next draft.

And in moving on to the next big section of the book, I'm actually pulling over to a rest stop. Today is Thursday. The rest of the week I have to devote to some paying work, which I can hopefully finish before the end of the day tomorrow. Monday is a scheduled day off for other reasons. So, hopefully, I'll be back on it by Tuesday and from there on out move at the faster pace I had up until this last section.

I'm getting to that stage where I'm losing sight of it and can't tell what's good or bad. When I finish this draft the smart thing will be to take some time away from it, though I won't want to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Falling behind schedule

Well, now I'm thinking that it's not going to happen in 4 weeks. (End of next week.) I am working hard and making progress, but I've run into an area that is more time consuming than I calculated, and I'm hitting a point in my paying work where I'll have to take a couple days off. Plus another day I know of for personal business.


I'm working in this 40 page section that has so many moving parts to it and where so many elements of the story come together before launching toward the resolution. And it's like a house of cards where moving one thing requires a lot of rebuilding. It's interesting, but . . .

But I've put this totally unimportant and arbitrary timeline on myself that contributes to my sense of impatience. If I could forget that, I would be better off. I have to remind myself that there's nothing actually going wrong here. I'm working on my novel every day, just like I want. It's happening.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In the zone

Damn, I've been working hard. I've put in the equivalent of about 4 of my usual sessions since yesterday afternoon, including most of today so far. It's difficult to count, but I'm guessing I've written about 6,000 words of new material. The total length has grown by a little bit, because I'm trimming other stuff out as I write some of the new stuff.

I forget how much I rounded down the last time I settled the word count. Let's say I have about 74,000 words now. Up from whatever I said a few weeks ago.

I'm working through the problem section I mentioned yesterday and it's requiring a lot of new material. Hard to know if it's any good, but it's at least a little more active than previously. I wish I could say I had it all done, but I've run out of energy just short of the finish line. (I hope.) I have one more short scene to draft and then that should transition me out of this difficult section.

Whew. So many moving parts to keep track of in something more plot driven like this project is.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Well, I guess it's not as clear sailing through the rest of this draft as I thought. I've hit a section with some pretty significant structural problems that I had managed to overlook before. It's the kind of thing that in the past would stump me for a couple days then have me depressed for a couple days before I buckled down and figured out a solution, but I'm going to try and skip the first couple steps this time.

So much of this work is about psyching yourself out so you're in the mental and emotional state to keep going. For me, the timing of the pulses of intellectual energy is really important. I feel like I need to write first thing in the morning, and I feel like composing and figuring things out are two different aspects of writing that take up a lot of intellectual energy. So I've learned from experience to do my best to do the "figuring things out" work the day before so it doesn't rob me of my first pulse of intellectual energy in the morning.

So that's kind of my task this afternoon. This morning is a wash, but I can do a lot of the brainstorming and puzzling out and critical activity that's necessary for the rest of the day so that I'll have a good solution to work on tomorrow morning.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Moving scenes around

The pace has slowed, because I'm in a section needing a lot of attention, but I'm getting good work done. About 13 pp. today, plus about 5 pages or so that were cut out. 4 note cards. I'm on pg. 201 and therefore 2/3 of the way through it. After this section, the pace should pick up all the way through the end I think. I have 2 weeks left to my target deadline, and I really think 1 week should do it if I'm aggressive.

I had a very uncommon satisfying experience today of moving a scene. Sounds simple, but honestly I don't know how other writers do it so cavalierly. You read interviews with authors who talk about getting the whole plot onto note cards, stringing the note cards a clothes line and moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle. I always find that any given scene is so thick with elements key to that moment in the story's development that it is impossible to move the whole scene to someplace else.

But I did come across a situation like that today -- one whole scene that could move as-is to another spot and really ought to be in another spot for the sake of flow. It was so gratifying to do the cut and paste and see that it fit right in there and then to swivel around to my bulletin board and move the appropriate note card. It made me feel like a pulp fiction writer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bringing down my average

5 note cards and 17 pages this morning.

Well, I take back what I said about it being comparatively easy in the remainder of the draft. I've hit a section that needs a lot of thinking. That will bring my average down, but I still think my revised goal of 4 weeks for this draft is doable. It depends on how much I get bogged down in this section.

What I'm working on is the transition between Part I and Part II in the story at about the 60% mark, and in my first draft it's a really crummy transition. I seem to resolve everything of importance at the end of Part I and don't really have any feeling of suspense going to pull into Part II. Then the start of Part II is working in a really mechanical way to put all the pieces in place to create some suspense for the rest of the book. It all works like two different stories that are forced into partnership rather than two parts of a whole.

I'm counting on it being fixable, but I'll have to take my time, not worry about schedules, and really bear down on it. It's too easy to take shortcuts and talk yourself into the idea that it's working. That's how the first draft got written to begin with.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Same same

24 pages and 5 note cards today. In terms of page numbers, I'm now slightly over 1/2 way through in slightly over 2 weeks. Feb. 25 remains a very reasonable deadline for this draft.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More of the same

I'm plugging along with another day like the one I had yesterday. I got through the space of five note cards or 18 pages. Another two days like that, and I'll be over half way through in terms of page count. And I think the pace will only pick up, because I'm past the section the needs the kind of attention I'm giving in this draft.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Carrying on as planned

Got the week off to an okay start. I'm in one of the sections of the book where I don't have a lot of notes about changes I need to make -- not that changes aren't needed, just that there were no obvious structural flaws that I noted as I went by in the first draft. So I'm really not doing much more than reading it over and making the few small changes that I did note.

As I go along, by the way, I make notes about things I need to work on in the next draft. I could work on them now, but they really are a different category of editing, and I don't want to be working on two different tracks. It would feel like frosting the third layer of the cake before the middle layer has come out of the oven.

So, I went flying by five of my note cards today (9% of the total) and 20 pages (about 6% of the total), which moves me closer to the end at a faster clip than my original schedule. Which has been true of every day so far. Add to that the fact that I am past the section that needs the most attention, and I really think my original plan of 6 weeks is way too conservative. I'm going to knock it down to 4 weeks, which would put at me at the end of this draft at Jan. 25. That's not a prediction, but a goal. My prediction is that I'll be done even sooner than that.

Which will be satisfying. The kind of thing I'm tackling in this draft is probably the least creative and artistic and intellectually stimulating and probably does the least to make the book actually any good. It's mostly about making it intelligible enough to work on. I'm looking forward to the next draft a lot more.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Good work for a week

It's the end of Friday now, and I'm satisfied with how it's going. I don't know if I'm actually turning it into a good book, but I am getting it into shape at least.

I'm four days into my schedule, but really I have to say it's the equivalent of 6 "sessions" since I put in time in 2 afternoons. If I figure on losing a couple sessions later to errands, I'll be on my average. I'm about 90 pages in (a little less than one third) which suggests about 20 average working days, which would be lower than my original estimate by at least a week and a half. I'm through about 17 cards in my note card outline. (A little less than one third by that measure also.) I have a little post it flag on the card where I've left off so I know which scene to tackle first on Monday or the next time I return to it.

I'm most excited about the work I did this morning which was addressing the big space that I talked about yesterday. I created a new scene by writing some new bridge material and moving some material from later in the book, and that allowed me to cut out a bunch of other stuff and to remove about four note cards from that section of my outline. It makes a big beautiful blank space on the bulletin board where I have it spread out.

I'm feeling good about it. I can't wait to get through this "patch up" draft and start focusing on really trying to make it into something good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Some difficulties with cutting scenes

I think I'm progressing according to plan, as best as I can tell. I'm working with average number of pages in a situation where some sections need a little work and some need a lot. After three days -- three sessions -- I'm through about 11 of my note cards and at pg. 60 of the typescript, which is roughly 20% of the total. So 7%/day. 18 working days total if it continues like this. (Big if.) Which would round up to 4 work weeks instead of 6 as I outlined the other day. But I don't have enough good data to really count on accelerating my schedule. I can just hope.

The section I'm in right now makes it especially difficult to predict the process. There are about 4 scenes in a row that either got cut, rewritten, combined or moved someplace else. Some stuff must get cut because the material isn't relevant anymore. Some of it could stay possibly, and I have to decide if it helps. Whatever I do is going to affect the pacing. For example, if I cut a scene that comes between two big events, I might need that beat there for timing, in which case I need to write something to fill the space. Or it might be thought of as an opportunity to get in spread in some of the subplot material that might feel too rushed later on. Or it might be better without a break there and I should just keep things rolling.

Anyway, those decisions are going to bring my average down.

One of the difficult parts about cutting scenes is that there is almost always something in the scene that feels really important even if it's not the main point of the story. As I -- and the textbook I use -- discuss with my students, every line of dialogue and every detail should be doing more than one thing at once -- communicate the literal message and something else like building character or setting the scene or raising the stakes in some way. If you do that well, that makes it harder to cut something. If you cut a line of dialogue because you don't need the one thing it does, there's still the other thing it's doing. Now you need to find some other place to achieve that.

An example. I have a scene where my protagonist and her antagonist have a fight. When I drafted it, it's the first meeting between them that the reader witnesses in the present action. Because it was a draft, I didn't do a good job of making the scene serve the plot. It was really just an introduction of a character. I came up with a better way to introduce her and have them interact for the first time, earlier in the book, in a scene that also moves the plot forward. So this scene isn't necessary. Snip, snip. But it's not so easy. One, in the first draft version, that's where I put some exposition about the history of their relationship. So I have to find a way to weave that in somewhere. Two, and more complicated, I also had other characters in that scene getting in on the argument, too. That begins a process of bonding between those secondary characters and the protagonist that leads to their friendship later. If I cut this scene, the pacing of that emotional development and bonding is disrupted. It's not like exposition that I can just stuff in some place. It's woven into the tone of voice and how they talk with one another. The literal details of their dialogue isn't so important, but the other thing it is doing -- showing the kindling of their relationship at this moment -- is. If you lose that ineffable quality, you lose something in the rest of their interactions later on.

So it's difficult. I have to figure out how to hang on to what is best while I'm cutting out whole scenes.

This section, by the way, is the only one I think where there are whole scene that I know need to come out. The rest of the book is more or less laid out in the proper order after this point.