June 30, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

After my last book post, it may seem that I should write about THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN from the perspective of a dog. But dogs can't read, silly.

Even Enzo, the dog who narrates Garth Stein's novel, hasn't managed literacy, though he understands speech and tries to lead as human a life as possible. It's Enzo's fascination with and near-complete comprehension of the human world that makes him work as the narrator of this story, which is mostly about the humans Enzo lives with. And it's the canine point of view that made this book a bestseller. The family story has strong characters and a compelling plot that brought me to tears several times, but if it had been published without a dog narrating, I doubt it would have been deemed anything special.

I'm all for writers choosing unusual points of view, but this has to be done with careful thought in order to be effective. If Stein had let the family dog narrate his story simply so that his manuscript would stand out, it would have felt gratuitous. But he gave Enzo a deep and unexpected personality, and he made purposeful decisions about what Enzo does and doesn't witness and understand, so the point of view becomes integral to the story. This would be a very different book with another narrator.

Stein discusses his choice in a FAQ for the book (contains spoilers):

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can't communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn't understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren't people and have no judgment.

Though I love dogs, I avoided THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN when it first came out, partly because I was suspicious of the hype, and partly because race car driving is a big part of the story, and I'm not interested in race cars. I forgot something I've probably forgotten before: I'm always fascinated when a novel incorporates descriptions of the expert knowledge required to do something, as long as the explanations are well-written and passionate. After reading this book, I have a much greater appreciation of the art of racing (in the rain or otherwise), and I'm glad Enzo took me along for the ride.

June 26, 2010

Starting Over

I've spent the past year-ish revising THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, a novel about three generations of a family. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2007, in my most intense and successful monthlong noveling endeavor to date. That year, I did substantial advance planning and research, and I wrote over 80,000 words in November to reach The End. Considering it was written in a month, my first draft was darn good. But it was still a first draft written in a month.

As soon as that month was over, I went back to revising THE OVERWORLD, and I didn't return to DAMAGE for more than a year. After more planning and research, I decided that for the second draft of the novel, I'd try something I hadn't dared before: I would rewrite the novel from scratch. No editing the first draft file, no retyping the hard copy -- I would start anew with a blank screen. Since I'd written the first draft so quickly, I knew that most of the text wasn't worth saving. The good parts were in the story and characters I'd developed while writing, and those were more vibrant in my head than on the page.

Starting over worked so well that I might produce all my second drafts this way from now on. In previous revisions, I've held on to material that didn't really work -- it was already there, so it was easier to come up with excuses to keep it than to do something different. The new strategy gave me the opportunity to think carefully about everything I preserved from the first draft.

In preparing for the revision, I did a lot of index card shuffling and also created an outline. I had big changes in mind for the story, which I planned out in advance, but many of second draft's new directions emerged as I wrote. Because I started over, I got some of the benefits of writing a first draft (unexpected flashes of brilliance!) and also some of the problems (what is the point of this subplot?). So the story's still not quite right yet. But it's getting there.

Good Stuff Out There:

M.J. Rose on All Things Considered. Lynn Neary follows Rose as she visits stores signing copies of her latest novel. Rose, who started out self-publishing and eventually earned a traditional book deal, talks about the realities of self-promotion.

Michael Chabon on Fresh Air. An abridged version of this interview was rerun yesterday, but I'm linking to the original broadcast from October, which contains more good stuff about writing and reading, especially from 20:33 to 26:13. (Thanks, Dad!)

June 24, 2010

NaNoWriMo Changed My Life

I might not have written any novels if it weren't for National Novel Writing Month. Back in 2002, someone in my writing group said, "There are these people trying to write 50,000 words in November. We should do it." It sounded impossible. It sounded crazy. Eight Novembers and eight novels later, I'm here to say that writing a first draft in a month is possible, only partly crazy, and a wonderful and valuable experience.

In the cult of NaNoWriMo, all that matters is the word count and the deadline. To win, you have to write 50,000 words during the 30 days of November. You don't have to write anything good. You don't have to show it to anyone else. You don't get a prize, except for a downloadable certificate, bragging rights, a feeling of accomplishment, and oh yeah, 50,000 words you wouldn't have written otherwise.

The purpose of the exercise is to force yourself to write -- lots and quickly. 50k in 30 days is an arbitrary goal, but thanks to the peer pressure of over 150,000 other participants worldwide, it's not hard to convince yourself that it really matters. If you can buy in completely and break free from the inner editor that censors your words, you're in the perfect mental space to create a first draft. Writing at speed and thinking less leads to all sorts of brilliant scenes and creative twists that you never could have come up with through careful planning. It also leads to a lot of garbage, but it's simple enough to take that out later.

All first drafts are full of garbage. The plots are confusing, the character motivations are weak, and the pacing is way off. These problems are as likely if you take years to write a first draft or only a month. I've tried both ways, and I prefer to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Once you have a story down beginning to end, flawed as it may be, you have something whole to work with. I don't like the idea of revising a novel that's only partially written, and I know you can't edit one that doesn't exist yet. That's why I highly recommend NaNoWriMo for anyone who wants to write a novel but can't get started. Commit to the ridiculous premise, and before you know it, you'll have not only started, but you'll be done. And I guarantee you'll be amazed.

June 23, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City and You

You've been meaning to read Jay McInerney's BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY for years, ever since hearing that it's written in the second person. You were intrigued, understandably. Point of view in fiction has always been an area of interest, and you might be described as a sucker for narrative gimmicks.

While preparing for a trip to Manhattan, you entertained romantic fantasies of reading a novel set in New York during your stay. You forgot, as you always do, that you never manage to read while traveling, and that at best, you might get through a few chapters on the plane before falling asleep. You brought an optimistic two novels and didn't even open them, so it wasn't until after your return that you finally started BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY.

The second-person narration was strange at first. You kept stopping to stare at that word and analyze how it made you feel to be cast in the role of a coke-fueled, miserable young guy in early '80s New York. But these days you always focus too much on the words at the beginning of a book. When the writing is good -- and in this case it is -- you get pulled into the story soon enough.

Still, even as you were enjoying the breakneck ride through nightclub debauchery and the contrasting sobriety of a respected magazine's Department of Factual Verification, you did keep thinking about the effect. Were you drawn closer to the narrator and his muddled thoughts because the novel said that he was you? Or were you kept at a greater distance by a character in denial who refused to call himself "I"? You feel it's both at once somehow, and that it works for the story, and that you're glad you aren't a real book reviewer so you don't have to think about it harder than that.

You could never be a real book reviewer.

June 20, 2010

Index Cards for Fun and Planning

I love using index cards to plan revisions. The best thing about this technique is that it provides a tactile break from the writing desk that can be justifiably stretched out for weeks. The second best thing is that it really is a useful way to view the entire structure of a novel at once.

If you've accomplished the impressive feat of completing a novel, it's intimidating to consider changing anything more dramatic than a few sentences here and there. But revision requires asking tough questions about what could be better on a large scale, so it's useful to start by stepping back from the text. With index cards, you can represent the sections of your manuscript as convenient, colorful rectangles, then rearrange, remove, and add pieces on a provisional basis until you settle on a plan for the changes you want to make in writing.

I've used index cards for a few different rounds of revision, but I'm still only at an intermediate level in terms of everything it's possible to do, and I intend to try some new approaches next time. These are the strategies I've figured out:

June 16, 2010

My Story So Far

I write novels. I've written quite a few, and some of them over and over again.

Last year I thought it was time for all my writing and revising to pay off, and I sent a lot of carefully written and targeted query letters to agents. I received just enough interested responses to know that my confidence wasn't completely unrealistic. Eventually I also got enough feedback, from both professionals and critique partners, to decide that my manuscript still wasn't ready.

I'd written four drafts of that novel (or maybe six or seven, depending on what you count) and made substantial changes to the plot and characters. The current version of THE OVERWORLD has many strengths, and it reflects the improvements in my writing skills that resulted from working on this novel for years. There are also so many big problems with the manuscript that I had to put it aside for a while.

Another first draft that I'd written a couple of years earlier had been on my mind, and I turned my attention to revising that novel, keeping in mind everything I learned during OVERWORLD rewrites. I've now completed the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and I'm making plans for the third. The new version is a fairly different story than the original, and I like it a lot better. I also like it better than THE OVERWORLD, and that's a hard realization after all the effort and expectations I put into that book.

At meetings of the South Bay Writers, several speakers have chronicled how many seemingly promising novels they went through before getting published. It gives me hope when I hear stories like Erika Mailman's that go, "Again I reached that point I had with the [last] book, where I thought, 'Okay, maybe this isn't my book either.' So I started writing a third book."

I'd like to believe that THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is my book, the one that will turn all this work into a career. But I've thought that before. And that's how I know I'm on exactly the right path.

June 14, 2010

Reading Confession #1

I'll start with a confession: I don't read as much as I think I should.

I sure don't read as much as I used to. When I was a kid, my parents had to make a rule that I wasn't allowed to read while I was walking. I'd go to the library and check out the maximum limit of 12 books, and I'd finish them all before they were due two weeks later. In some recent years, my total book count for the year isn't much greater than 12. The explanation has little to do with reading longer books than as a child.

Like everyone else, I blame the internet. It's not an internet-created concentration problem that keeps me from opening a book. It's that there's so much I want to read (and watch and listen to) online that I don't seem to have enough time left to read even a fraction of the novels I'm interested in.

I love living on the internet, and I expect to do even more online in the future, not less. That includes talking about the books I read and what I learn from them. So I'll be trying to allocate more time in my days for reading. Maybe eventually reading too much can be the internet's fault, too.


I intended to start this blog last year, and maybe also the year before that. This time around, I began site design and setup a couple of months ago, and I've been just about ready to write my first post for several weeks. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's procrastinating.

If there's something else I'm good at, I hope that it's writing. I put a lot of time, effort, and thought into writing and rewriting novels, and as a result, my skills keep improving. As another result, I have some ideas about writing (and reading and revising) to share.

Writing this first post intimidates me, and so does the thought of all the rest to come. I'm a slow writer with high standards. I'm nervous that blogging will take too much time away from my regular writing. I've been just about ready to start the second major revision of a novel for several weeks. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's procrastinating. So here I am.