December 22, 2011

As The Year Turns

At the beginning of this year, I expressed optimism. I boldly predicted that in 2011, I would move beyond being an amateur writer who sits at her desk talking to herself in obscurity. I declared that this year, I would finally become an agented writer who sits at her desk talking to herself.

I made this prediction with the fully admitted knowledge that for quite a few years now, I've been telling myself that this year, this time, really for sure now, I'm going to get my big break. So I'm neither surprised nor especially disappointed to realize that once again, I was mistaken. This wasn't the year.

It was still a good year. I started with a manuscript that I thought needed a little more work, and I discovered how much better I could make it. I continued to have the wonderful luck and support that allow me to pursue writing full-time. I read many great books and learned more about the craft. I connected with writers and readers around the world. I carried on having a pretty terrific life.

I'm still optimistic. 2012's going to be the year, for absolute positive sure.

Now I'm off to spend time with some of the important people in my life, while I think fondly of the other important people who I'll be missing. The days get longer from here on out. Happy new year to everyone.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Julie Wu writes at Beyond the Margins about overcoming her Fear of Revision: "[I]t has taken me ten years to write my first novel. I have revised it countless times--a little when it first didn't sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book."

December 16, 2011

Important Irrelevant Details

Sometimes in the interest of realism in my fiction, I get hung up on these details, and I don't know if I'm being ridiculous. Today I was worrying about whether readers would notice or care how much time passes in the story without a visit from the grandparents.

The storyline I'm working on involves a couple with a baby, and it takes place over several years. Sometimes in the gaps between scenes, months pass during which the characters go about their lives with only the most relevant occurrences reported to the reader when the story picks up again. This is convenient for me as the author, because it means I can safely assume that while I'm ignoring the characters, they have time to take care of things that are important to them but not the story. Things like getting in some quality time with that grandmother who lives in another state and doesn't do anything in the story until the kid is a year and a half old.

But today I became concerned about the fact that there's no mention of this grandmother between soon after the baby's birth and that one scene she stars in. I'd been imagining that a visit or two happens off the page somewhere and that the reader could imagine that as well, which is fine, but I figured that for my own peace of mind, I should decide when those visits are. But there's also the other out-of-state grandmother. She's more important to the story and has more scenes, but they still might be spaced farther apart in time than this character would believably go without making sure she saw her grandchild. So I needed to schedule visits with her for my own reference, too.

Having arranged all these imaginary travel plans (which, thank goodness, didn't involve the headache of searching for imaginary flights), I saw a way to relevantly mention these grandparental visits in the story with a few words of summary, so I went ahead and did that. Now I can stop worrying that any reader will note the sparseness of grandmotherly visits during the baby's early life.

But now I have to wonder whether there's any chance that any reader would have spared a moment of thought on this issue. What do you think? Am I being thorough in crafting a believable world for my characters, or am I wasting time obsessing over pointless details?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mary Kole explains what is and isn't involved in Big Revision: "She'd been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a 'tinkering revision.' Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she'd just been mucking around with what she'd already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere." (Thanks, Becky Levine!)

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins shares thirteen opening lines he tried for different drafts of the same manuscript.

December 14, 2011

The Pace of Progress

My challenge to myself last month resulted in serious progress on my novel. I set my goal high because I wanted the motivation to work more hours than usual, and I was successful in that regard. As far as I can tell, revising for longer hours didn't result in any loss of quality, and that's good news for both the work I produced in November and for my future writing.

The unstated goal of last month's experiment was to help me figure out some new methods for working more productively. Should I give myself a revision hour goal every month, or set up some other kind of metric to reach? How many hours of writing are in my optimal working day? Since last week, I've been trying out a couple of ideas, and the results are good so far. I'm going to wait until I've had more time with them before going into detail here.

When I reviewed the stats on my November progress, I also consulted the record of my time and output in the preceding months. I was happy to discover I'd been keeping these records since the start of this round of revision. I was even more happy when I realized that my overall progress hasn't been as glacial as it feels.

At the beginning of this revision, I had some thoughts about how long it might take to complete. Reviewing the stats, I saw that my actual progress hasn't been so far off from my guess -- if you take out all the long and short breaks from writing. Some of these breaks were anticipated and valid, such as vacations. Others were the unanticipated but unavoidable interruptions of real life, some of which legitimately prevented me from writing and many of which were convenient excuses. And I'm sure there were a lot of days when there was no good reason that I only wrote for an hour.

So, on the one hand, it's nice to know that I am revising this novel at a pace that feels reasonable to me (however arbitrary that acceptable rate is), and that I can use that pace to estimate when I'll be finished. On the other hand, wow, I've wasted a lot of time, and that's disheartening. I'm hoping that my latest "This Is How I'll Be Super-Productive!" scheme means I'll waste less time in the future so that I might have a chance of meeting my estimate this time.

But, you know, now it's the middle of December, and nobody can get anything done in December.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund crafts exquisite Italian fig cookies and ponders the connection to writing: "I love taking the time to get each cut just right, just as I love taking my time with writing. Why would I rush a first draft when it -- and future drafts -- can be stronger if I step back and think about things more, instead of racing to the end?"

→ Kim Wright at The Millions tries to figure out what constitutes genre: "My conclusion: if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead. As dead as a Scottish warrior turned zombie searching the criminal underbelly of modern day New York for the only woman he's ever loved."

December 6, 2011

December Reading Plan

Here are the books I have lined up to close out my first year of monthly reading lists:

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I've been reading this a lot during the past week, after setting it aside for a while, and I'm excited to see how the rest of the story is going to unfold. I expect to finish this month, completing a year-long read of the trilogy.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan - All the book people were talking about this book at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It won a Pulitzer Prize and a bunch of other awards. I've been intrigued because I understand it features a variety of narrative styles and gimmicks, and has sections set in different time periods, which are two of my literary attractions. I didn't read it earlier because I also understand it might qualify as linked short stories rather than a novel, which doesn't appeal to me. Okay, yes, and maybe I also didn't read it earlier because everyone else was. But I picked it up at a bookstore the other day and decided to give it a try. Despite hearing about this book for months, I have no idea what it's actually about, so I get the relatively rare treat of starting a book with no story expectations.

MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer - I hadn't heard of the book or the author until the recent rebroadcast of a Fresh Air interview that intrigued me. This book starts with an ordinary man who takes an ordinary walk through the woods and ends up doing something terrible and unexpected that he has to decide whether to cover up. I was particularly interested because the basic premise has a lot in common with Will Allison's LONG DRIVE HOME, which I read recently, and I'm curious to see where a different author goes with a similar scenario.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins discusses a writing problem I've struggled with in Zen and the Art of Withholding Information: "Perhaps your protagonist is not the kind of person who blabbers about every feeling he's ever had to anyone who will listen. Still, in order to convince your reader of his/her pain, in order to get your reader to empathize with him/her, you will not want to withhold key facts about your character's life. Nor will you want to withhold major aspects of your character's emotional experience. Take it from me--your readers will only feel cheated and confused."

December 5, 2011

November Reading Recap

Now that I'm rested and recovered after completing my November writing challenge, it's time for a report on last month's reading list before I get back to revision.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - I like and recommend this book, but it's not going to be for everybody, due to both the content and the style.

The premise of ZONE ONE involves zombies, but don't base your expectations on that, because you might be either disappointed or unnecessarily turned off. For a zombie book, there aren't that many gory, action-packed encounters with reanimated corpses -- but there are some. The story is perhaps more accurately described as a detailed, plausible exploration of a civilization trying to rebuild after global catastrophe. It's just that the catastrophe happens to be a contagion that causes the dead to shamble around seeking human flesh. You'd be better off deciding if you should read this book based on whether you like post-apocalyptic or survival tales, rather than whether you like zombie stories.

The narrative style is a prominent feature, with meandering passages that often halt the advancement of the plot. I became irritated by how often the protagonist lapsed into memory right as something exciting was about to happen, but overall I liked the slow and nonlinear way the story unfolded. You'll need to judge whether a book in this style is likely to appeal to you or get on your nerves.

Without giving anything away, I want to especially praise the ending of ZONE ONE. It's hard to end a novel, and I'm often disappointed by endings, but I found this one satisfying and fitting.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys - To explain this book, it's necessary to provide a spoiler for JANE EYRE, so if you aren't familiar with Charlotte Brontë's classic and don't want to know its big secret, skip the next paragraph.

The 1966 novel WIDE SARGASSO SEA is Jean Rhys's imagining of the life of Rochester's first wife, from her childhood in Jamaica to her sad fate as the madwoman in the attic. It's not a retelling of JANE EYRE -- the events of that book are compressed into only a few pages of madness at the end. For that reason, it's not necessary to be familiar with the source material before reading this book, and I can understand why I was assigned it in high school without reading the Brontë first. (Even though I'd read this before, nothing was familiar during my rereading.) The book is a beautifully written, but sad and disturbing story.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - Still in progress. Until last week, I don't think I'd opened this book since mid-October, so it took some reorienting to get myself back into the story. But now that I'm back in, I've been reluctant to put the book down. The characters and situations in the third book of the trilogy are just as fascinating and compelling as in the first two, and I'm glad to be engrossed in the world again.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black tries to figure out the minor characters in his manuscript (as I did recently) and talks about swimming to find your characters: "You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until--and unless--you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing. The water, in this metaphor, is the writing. I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet."

November 30, 2011

Made It!

I'm pleased and relieved to report that I have completed my November challenge of revising for 65 hours this month. Phew!

I didn't manage to distribute the hours as evenly as I was hoping, so these last few days have been a little fuller of revision than my brain was prepared for, and I'm ready for a couple of days off to recharge and reflect. But I'm able to report that I did a lot of work on my novel this month, it was good work, and I made some serious progress.

No, the manuscript isn't done yet. I'll keep you posted, I promise!

Congratulations to my friend who joined me in this revision challenge and reached her goal, and to my many NaNoWriMo buddies who made it to 50k or beyond!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard is a willing reviser: "...I think of my words as less precious than the story itself. I start out with something I want to say, a point, and that's the precious part. If I can move a scene around, or cut out a symbol that isn't working, or combine two characters who are doing the job that one could do, it's all going to make the story better."

November 28, 2011

The High Cost of Realistic Dialogue

I've always prided myself on my dialogue. Maybe that's why I put so darn much of it in my stories. Since realistic dialogue is important to me, I hold myself to high standards when writing it.

I'm usually satisfied with how my dialogue sounds after I've taken the all-important step of reading an exchange out loud a few times to determine whether the words could naturally emerge from somebody's mouth. If the lines aren't flowing, I employ some of the useful tricks I've learned, including dropping beginnings of sentences ("Do you need anything at the store?" can become "Need anything at the store?") and adding the nonlinearity that's part of normal conversation.

But I often get hung up in doubt when it comes to the content of what my characters say to each other. I'm deathly afraid of writing dialogue that might come anywhere near the realm of "As you know, Biff, I worked with you at the DMV for thirty years before you embezzled all those vanity plate fees and fled to a country with no extradition treaty." It seems simple enough to avoid writing dialogue that has characters telling each other things they both know. Yet in practice, the problem is often much subtler.

Today I was working on a scene in which some characters get together for a visit. I needed them to discuss one character's job, and it seemed reasonable enough for the topic to come up since they hadn't seen each other in a while. But as soon as I started writing, I began to second-guess myself: "They're talking about this over dinner, but it's so important to the character's life, wouldn't it have come up earlier in the day? And we know the characters talked on the phone recently, so is it really possible they'd have new information to cover in this scene?" I honestly don't think any reader would have questioned the validity of the topic, but I couldn't make myself buy it until I changed things around to a scenario that satisfied me.

In general, I probably spend the majority of my staring-into-space time trying to figure out how my characters can believably start discussing whatever topic I need them to talk about in a particular scene. The topic always belongs in the scene because the characters have something to say about it, but I get stuck on how to bring it up. I may have an outline for their conversation, but I need my characters to behave like real people, who rarely sit down to talk with an agenda in mind.

In the same scene with the update on the character's job, I also had to find a justification to discuss a different character's health, plus include a callback to an earlier scene. It was a complicated maneuver, and there was a lot more staring than writing before I got through the scene. The conversation now all fits together to my satisfaction, and I hope it will appear natural and effortless to the reader.

So that's one page of dialogue completed. And as I said, there's a lot of dialogue in my novel. Now you have some idea of why this is all taking so long.

November 22, 2011

Still Here

A short and boring update so I can get back to revision: I'm still revising, still working hard, and still making exciting progress.

My November challenge to myself is to revise for 65 hours this month. Last week was jammed with non-writing tasks that needed to get done, so I didn't complete as many hours as I was hoping, putting me behind. But I've been catching up and working extra extra hard, and I still anticipate making my goal by the end of the month.

Whether your plans for the next few days involve enjoying food with family and friends, catching up on your NaNoWriMo word count, a little of both, or none of the above, I wish you the best of luck!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Michael David Lukas recounts the adventure of meeting his Number One Fan: "I brushed aside my concerns about being kidnapped or scammed somehow, tried my best to push those scenes from Misery out of my head, and I got on the plane to Cincinnati."

November 15, 2011

Giving Life to Secondary Characters

On Friday I was musing over whether a certain scene in my manuscript should stay the way I wrote it in the previous draft or if the story would be better served by making a different choice in revision. Over the weekend, I had a couple of ideas about the brother character that answered my questions about the scene.

You'll all be glad, or sorry, or indifferent to hear that the brother still won't be present at Thanksgiving. He has a good practical reason for missing the holiday, and also a slightly selfish reason that will be revealed in a later scene.

These new developments in the character's life will have almost no bearing on the plot of my novel. The character will appear in the same number of scenes as I'd already planned (a significantly larger number than in the previous draft, where he was problematically ignored). He'll serve the same function in the story and offer just about the same brotherly advice to the protagonist at key moments. These changes I put so much thought into will result in maybe a page worth of different text overall.

In the hypothetical story featuring the brother as the main character, what I decided over the weekend changes everything. This imaginary person has a whole new set of miseries in his past and possibilities in his future. Nobody will ever appreciate the depth of these changes, because this poor guy isn't a real person, and he's only a secondary, even tertiary, character in a novel starring someone else.

I like knowing too much about the lives of my secondary characters. It makes the characters and the story feel more real if there's evidence that the people the protagonist interacts with have their own lives when they're not on the page. It's better when the text doesn't imply that the best friend exists merely to listen to the protagonist's problems, but instead hints at rebellious teenagers at home or concern over aging parents or a devotion to French cooking.

I like imagining that every character is the protagonist of a novel that occasionally intersects with the one I'm writing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins studies crime fiction to learn about plot: "I've never had a lot of interest in crime fiction or other crime-related activities such as watching CSI or knocking off liquor stores. And even in my current state of renewed appreciation, I don’t like stabbings, shootings or even hard-boiled hard-bodied cops. BUT blood, gore and unsavory characters notwithstanding, good crime writers are authorial yogis who can bend, twist, flex, unravel and reravel themselves around a plot."

November 11, 2011

Does It Have To Be This Way?

One of the most difficult parts of revision is asking yourself, "Does this scene/character/plot point/detail have to be this way? Is this the strongest choice for the story, or does it feel right merely because that's what I wrote in the previous draft?"

I've been mulling over an upcoming scene in my manuscript. It's not one of the most significant or memorable scenes of the novel, but it does serve a purpose, and I intend to keep it. In the scene as it currently exists, the family has gathered for Thanksgiving. The narrator's brother is the only person not present, so after the meal they call him, and during the speakerphone conversation, an important piece of family history is debated.

I have some fondness for this scene because when I added it to the second draft, with no particular plans for the content of the phone call, I had one of those out-of-author experiences where the characters start saying things I didn't know I'd thought of. I decided to run with it, and a whole new section of plot resulted.

Unplanned sparks of potential brilliance always deserve serious scrutiny in revision -- "Does this actually improve the story, or do I only like it because I was excited when it emerged from my brain?" In this case, I've evaluated the conversation and its consequences, and I think it adds to the story. But as I think ahead to what changes the scene might need, I'm wondering why the brother isn't there for Thanksgiving with the rest of the family.

I can't remember if I left him out for a reason in the last draft. It was probably because I wasn't sure what to do with him in general. The character plays an important role as a child in one of the storylines, but in previous drafts he grew up to become curiously absent for no particular reason, which was a problem pointed out by my readers. In planning this revision, I've given the adult brother more to do, but I'd forgotten about this event.

So I'm asking myself if the scene has to be this way. I don't think there's anything about the brother's absence that leads to the scene's important conversation, so maybe he should be there to discuss it in person. Or maybe for other reasons, it is better if he doesn't come for Thanksgiving, in which case I need to justify -- at least in my own mind -- why he's missing the holiday. Or perhaps the scene doesn't need to take place on Thanksgiving at all. Everything's open for change.

Revising requires second-guessing everything in a story. It's easier to keep things as they were, but the easy option means the story might not become as strong as it could. Don't shy away from looking at every element of your manuscript and asking, "Does it have to be this way?"

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project offers 8 Writing Tips from Flannery O'Connor: "Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way." (Thanks, Louise!)

November 7, 2011

Putting in the Hours

One week in, I'm doing pretty well on my non-NaNoWriMo challenge of revising for 65 hours during the month of November. I had one day when I slipped and didn't work when I intended to, but other than that, I've been putting in more hours than usual because I have this numerical goal to achieve.

I'm making great progress on my second storyline, and now it really is going more quickly than the first, as I hoped. Part of the reason for the different speed is that the overall shape of this storyline is staying the same. I'm still writing a lot of new scenes -- awesome, exciting scenes that I can't stop gloating about -- but often entire sentences are surviving into the new draft nearly intact.

Another important factor is that I'm spending a bit more time each day on revision. And that means not only do I get that same bit more accomplished, but I get extra work done, due to the phenomenon of increasing output that I've noticed before. If I could only write all the time with the effectiveness of the final hour of a long writing session, I'd be done with this darn thing by now.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Editor Alvina Ling describes her process for editing an author's manuscript: "Sometimes, right after the first read I think, 'there's nothing I could do to improve that novel!' But inevitably things will come to the surface during that 'sitting' time: issues with the plot or believability, questions about certain characters, solutions (suggestions, I should say) to problems I've been having with the book, resolution to how I've been feeling about the ending, etc." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

November 3, 2011

November Reading Plan

Two in progress and another short book should do it for this month. After all, I have a lot of revising to do.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - As I said yesterday, I'm excited by this book so far. It's the first pick for the Bookrageous book club, and I'm looking forward to the discussion.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I'd like to finish this last book in the trilogy before the end of the year, so I'll be giving it more attention this month.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys - This novel is narrated by a small but important character in Charlotte Brontë's JANE EYRE, so I figured it would make a good follow-up read. I actually read WIDE SARGASSO SEA before, when I was in high school. I remember it being assigned in English class, but I'm not sure why we would have studied it without first reading the original, so I could be wrong about that. I'm sure my reading of Rhys's book will be very different now that I've read Brontë's. However, I have no memories of my first reading, so I won't really be able to appreciate the difference.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ More useful revision advice from Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent, this time on unnecessary scenes with characters dressing and dining: "Sometimes it happens that the characters are having a meaningful conversation as they eat or cook or get dressed. The purpose of the scene is to have that conversation. The purpose of the scene is not to eat or cook or get dressed."

November 2, 2011

October Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month, getting through most of my planned list and even adding an extra book.

LONG DRIVE HOME by Will Allison - This novel starts with a fatal car accident, and the situation just gets worse from there. At the beginning of the book, the narrator is driving his daughter home from school when a chain of incidents leads to an accident in which a stranger dies. The accident is a fluke, but the narrator isn't entirely without fault, and in his attempt to cover up the truth, his life spins out of control. I inhaled this story in about twenty-four hours and then wondered why I've read so many depressing books lately. The writing is powerful and heart-breaking. Recommended if you're up for a harrowing read.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I keep feeling uncultured because there are so many classics I've never read. Then when I do read a classic, I feel uncultured because I usually don't like it very much. So although it may not reflect well on my tastes, I must confess that I wasn't a big fan of JANE EYRE.

I did enjoy some aspects of the novel: Jane is an interesting character and narrator. I was fascinated to learn about life in mid-1800s England, particularly the strong class distinctions and very different etiquette (it apparently wasn't rude to openly comment on someone's unattractiveness). The middle section of the book has a quite engaging story.

Unfortunately, the overall pacing left me and my modern expectations bored and impatient. For example, if I were editing this book, I'd cut out Jane's entire childhood (one-fifth of the book) and start the story with her arrival at Thornfield. I'd explain to Charlotte Brontë that all that backstory about Jane's abused childhood and education is great for her to know as the author, and that she could sprinkle references to it throughout the novel, but that the reader doesn't need to see it all unfold on the page since the incidents have little specific relevance to the plot and only offer some insights into Jane's character.

Like I said, my expectations are modern ones. JANE EYRE will still be revered as a classic long after my work has been forgotten, even if I don't understand why. I'm interested in understanding, though, so I still hope to discuss the book with some more enthusiastic readers and learn what I'm overlooking.

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde - After I finished JANE EYRE, I realized that it's featured in this first book about literary detective Thursday Next, so this was a perfect time to check out Fforde's series, which I've heard a lot of good things about. What I knew was that this is a humorous mystery series set in an alternate world where books are both more important to society and less separated from reality than in our world.

I know I've already alienated a bunch of readers with my disrespectful remarks about JANE EYRE, and now, alas, I must provoke the disappointment of some more: I wasn't impressed by THE EYRE AFFAIR. The book wasn't as funny or clever as I'd been led to expect, but more than that, I found it unfocused and uneven. There were intriguing concepts, such as the whole mechanism behind the villain's evil plot, and some great scenes, like the brilliant Rocky Horror Picture Show-style performance of Richard III. But the story took too long to get to the point, and it went off into many unrelated tangents that irritated me.

Here again, I'd like to hear from fans who can tell me what I'm missing. This is the first book in a long series -- maybe they get better, or I'd appreciate this book more in the context of the whole?

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I didn't make much progress this month because I was busy with the other books.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - I've read about a quarter of the book so far, and I'm enjoying it. This is a zombie novel, but it's the farthest possible book from the other zombie novels I read this year, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, which I've praised and ranted about for being an exciting story poorly told. ZONE ONE, on the other hand, is unequivocally a work of literary fiction, with the requisite long, carefully crafted paragraphs and an endlessly musing protagonist. Those are the facts about the style, and maybe it doesn't make this book sound very compelling, but I assure you that I'm fascinated by the main character and his post-apocalyptic world, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Stuart Horwitz tackles the difficult problem of story endings in How Not To End Things: "For those of us who have struggled to end a piece of writing, we know that there are a series of pitfalls that the ending can fall into."

October 31, 2011

My November Challenge

As I explained, I won't be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. It's odd to be waiting for trick-or-treaters and not also waiting to begin a new novel at midnight, but mostly I'm content to sit this year out.

However, I was talking to another longtime NaNo devotee who's also taking a year off, and we decided that we should do something to harness the NaNo buzz around us and funnel that energy toward our revision projects. So my friend and I agreed that we'd each commit to a certain number of revision hours during November. We intend to stick to these numerical goals with the same fierce dedication that we've always had for our NaNoWriMo word count.

I've given myself a goal of 65 revision hours in November. It's a number that should be attainable, but only if I buckle down. So while hundreds of thousands of people worldwide start filling in their word count meters, I'll be starting my own count.

Best of luck to all my NaNoWriMo buddies as you embark on your November challenge!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent discusses subplots and how to evaluate them in revision: "Whether in foils, themes, motifs, parallels, or any other kind of non-plot element, relevant subplot echoes will relate in some way back to the main plot. That relationship will serve to underscore the element in the main plot -- that is, the subplot serves the main plot by making some aspect of the main plot feel more significant through repetition or reversal."

October 28, 2011

Thoughts on The Submission and 9/11 in Fiction

Last month I read THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman. I've already briefly described and praised it, but I wanted to expand on a couple of points.

I'd read and listened to a number of pieces about this book before I read it, including an interview with the New York Times Book Review podcast (August 19, 2011 episode). I remembered Waldman mentioning that the words "September 11" never appear in the book, so I'd taken away from the interview that the story involved the aftermath of an event that evoked but wasn't 9/11, perhaps in a generic city. Once I started reading, I immediately found that the setting was explicitly New York, and soon I was sure that the characters were choosing a memorial design to commemorate the same events that occurred in the real world. Everything matched, from the description and location of the destroyed buildings to the fact that the attacks occurred on an "insultingly beautiful morning." It's quite true that the phrases "September 11," "World Trade Center," and "Ground Zero" don't appear in the book, but the details are so unambiguous that it might be possible to read without even noticing the omission.

So I was surprised to listen to the Book Review interview again and hear that Waldman actually used the phrase "a 9/11-like event": "The premise is a fictional and entirely anonymous competition to design a memorial for a 9/11-like event. I say that only because I never use the actual words '9/11' or 'Ground Zero' in the book." It's curious to me that Waldman describes the book that way, though I guess I can see why she would as part of the choice to leave out the specific references.

What's more interesting to me is that she made that choice in the first place, and that she's not the only author to do so. The plot of NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill has little to do with 9/11 itself, but the story takes place in New York during the months that follow. Yet O'Neill often seems to resort to vagueness and euphemism in order to avoid naming the events. In this case, since the book has a first-person narrator, the avoidance can be attributed to the character's own general reluctance to communicate, the source of many of his problems. Similarly, the young narrator of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer tends to avoid direct references to 9/11 even though that's most of what's on his mind, since his father died in one of the towers.

At this point I have to confess that I have no conclusion to draw about any of this, except perhaps that I've spent too much time during the last decade observing the incorporation of 9/11 into fiction. At least I know I'm not the only one.

Now, putting aside THE SUBMISSION's context and premise entirely, what most impressed me about this book is how carefully and swiftly the story unfolds. The term "tightly plotted" is used a lot in reviews, and this novel made clear to me what it means. On just about every page, a new complication appears. Each new obstacle is a natural, believable development, but rarely could I predict what would happen next. Perhaps most importantly, everything that happens in the novel is connected and no scenes feel extraneous. Not bad for a story that follows half a dozen different characters.

The characters themselves are well-developed, complex personalities. Waldman didn't choose any easy portrayals. The Muslim architect who designed the winning memorial is as patriotic as any grieving New Yorker, but he's also arrogant and self-centered. One of the prominent opposers of the design, the brother of a dead firefighter, gets branded a bigot but is really far more conflicted and confused by his own actions in front of the media.

I hope to someday produce a novel as intricate and well-executed as THE SUBMISSION, and I'll be turning to this book again as an example of how it's done.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bert Archer asks, What’s wrong with a readable book?: "...the best analogy might be livability and architecture. Can a house be excellent if it is not also livable? If you find yourself stumbling on the stairs because they're not big enough for your feet, or if you get wet when it rains because there are cleverly carved holes in the roof, I would say you have a legitimate complaint against the architect." (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 25, 2011

Writers, Show Us Your Scenes!

I keep encountering books in which a crucial emotional scene happens off the page and is only presented to the reader in the form of one character describing the events to another. It seems like a fairly obvious writing guideline that it's always more exciting to show a scene and let the characters react in real time rather than to have someone tell a scene, so I've been puzzled by the author's choice in some of these examples, though in other situations I can understand why it had to be done that way.

The problem with writing a novel that sticks to one character's viewpoint, whether in first or third person, is that the reader can only be shown scenes that the viewpoint character has some business being present for. Sometimes the logic of the plot requires an important event to take place without that character. When this happens, the author has to decide whether to switch to another point of view for a specific scene (as J.K. Rowling does several times in the Harry Potter series, usually at the beginning of a book), entirely rethink the POV choice, or let the viewpoint character and the reader learn about the scene from someone else after the fact.

The last option isn't necessarily a bad one, but it bugs me when the author basically writes the scene the way they would have with the character present, and then encloses the whole thing in quotation marks. A person talking about an event is not going to make the same descriptive choices that the author would in writing a scene, so this comes off to me as phony.

In one example I encountered, a character -- not a particularly poetic individual -- was telling the main character about his visit to a building where he was to receive some potentially horrible news. He described the exterior of the building, including the flowers. Who would relate those details in that situation, even if they'd notice at the time, as a character experiencing a scene might? I had to assume that the author had originally written the scene from the main character's point of view, but later decided it stretched credibility for her to be there, so converted the scene into the other character's account. I sympathized with the difficulty of how to present the scene to the reader, but I wasn't impressed with the solution.

I was even less impressed with a different novel when I came across the same problem of a character describing an event exactly as the author would write the scene, but the character was the book's first-person narrator. And the scene she recounted wasn't some long-ago event that might have been awkward in flashback, but instead an incident that occurred in the gap between the current chapter and the previous one. I'm still baffled as to why this scene, which was exciting and action-packed, couldn't appear in the novel as an actual scene, rather than a clumsy conversion to dialogue.

Writers, please: Let your readers experience the important events in your novel along with the characters. And when that isn't possible, please, please attempt to make your characters believable storytellers.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Vintage & Anchor Books presents The 10 Oldest Books Known to Man: "Typically of Egyptian, Sumerian, or Akkadian origin, the world's first works of literature provide an integral glimpse into how the peoples who initially recorded their histories, stories, and religious beliefs lived out their daily lives." (Thanks, Conversational Reading!)

→ Alicia Rasley at Edittorrent offers great advice on describing settings and character actions: "Filtering through the character ... means presenting [description] as an observation by this person. What would she notice? How would he describe it? This gives the description the secondary purpose of developing the character."

October 21, 2011

Differentiating Narrative Voices

One reason that I'm revising my novel one narrator at a time is to help differentiate the voices. I don't think my three narrators sounded exactly alike before, but I was concerned that they were a little too similar.

When I started in on this second storyline, I thought I might have a lot of trouble switching out of the voice of the narrator I'd been writing for months and months. I worried that I'd given the first character too many of the traits that are important in the second character and that I hadn't left enough room for differences. The two characters are father and son, so a certain amount of similarity is to be expected, but even in my own head, they were merging together, so I didn't know what was going to come out in the text.

To my pleasant surprise, I only had to write a few pages before I started settling into the new voice. And while I don't have the distance to be certain, I'm pretty sure that this narrator doesn't sound like the other narrator at all. He has his own personality and his own perspective on the world, and I think the voice reflects that.

I find that it helps for me to keep in mind a few basic characteristics of the narrator I'm writing. These are big blunt generalities like "he is methodical" and "he has high expectations." I hope the text doesn't scream these messages, because the character's full personality is (supposed to be) more complex, but these bullet points help remind me how the character might react in a situation.

I've also been giving some thought to the specific vocabulary the narrator uses and slipping in some language related to his profession. Again, this is something that could be much too clunky and obvious, so I want to be sure not to go overboard. I'm even considering sentence structure and trying to create some subtle differences between narrators there.

If I can get all this right, I won't have to worry that my readers will ever get confused about who's talking.

October 19, 2011

In the Beginning

Because I've been working on my second storyline, I'm back at a beginning again and musing on all the things that are fun about the beginnings of stories. I love setting things up: introducing the characters, establishing their situation, hinting at what might happen.

I've been writing about two characters who are starting a relationship, and as they fall in love, I'm falling in love with them all over again. And I'm hoping that readers will fall in love with them, too, and root for their relationship to work out.

Throughout this revision, I've been paying more attention to backstory and when I reveal it. My previous draft suffered from the problem that I revealed important pieces of character history too late. I recently linked to a post by Livia Blackburne in which she talked about her changing attitudes toward backstory. I've gone through the same shift.

With my last draft, feedback from readers showed that they often didn't sympathize with characters until later in the story, when I got around to sharing some insight that explained why the character was behaving in a particular way. Duh. I've been moving this kind of information to the beginning of the story, and I can already predict that it's going to make a big difference for the next batch of readers.

I've been pleased to note how many of the narrator's important characteristics I managed to establish within the first chapter, and often within the first few pages. Most of what matters in this storyline has been referenced or hinted at in the beginning.

I've added in some little moments and details that will be echoed later in the story and grow in significance. I love doing this and always feel so clever when I do, which probably means I've created far too many of these moments and that I'm hitting the reader over the head with them. I'm sure my critique partners will let me know.

In the beginning of a story, I'm always very self-congratulatory. All the doubt and despair is hiding somewhere in the middle.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Atlantic features an interview with Colson Whitehead about ZONE ONE, released this week: "Early on my career, I figured out that I just have to write the book I have to write at that moment. Whatever else is going on in the culture is just not that important. If you could get the culture to write your book, that would be great. But the culture can't write your book." (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo Is Gearing Up, But I'm Not

The National Novel Writing Month site has been in active mode for a week now, and I still haven't looked at it. That feels kind of strange. For so many years, I've spent the beginning of October eagerly refreshing the site to see if it's live yet or if it's recovered from one of the inevitable many crashes. Usually by now I've made dozens of forum posts introducing myself, making plans for local get-togethers, offering advice for NaNoWriMo newbies, and describing my ideas for my novel. In addition to all that time spent on the site, my Octobers are typically devoted to pondering the first draft I'll write during November, to the tune of 50,000 words in 30 days.

This year, I'll be sitting out NaNoWriMo. I'm a bit sad to think of all that exciting activity going on without me, though I expect I'll peek into the forums eventually and perhaps crash some write-ins next month. But mostly I'm relieved that I didn't come up with a new novel idea compelling enough to make me want to set aside my revision of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for a month or two.

I'd made a deal with myself that I'd only participate in NaNo this year if I thought up an entire story that I wanted to write all the way through. The past three Novembers, I started with a premise and some characters but no actual plot, and I ended up with a pile of rambling, unsalvageable pages that I didn't care about. Great stories can emerge from vaguely formed ideas, and plotless NaNo-wonders always have some nuggets of brilliance hiding in there somewhere, but these positive results are less frequent when the writer has only negative feelings about the story.

In general, the whole NaNoWriMo endeavor becomes rather painful and pointless if you lose all passion for what you're writing. That's why last year I dropped out of NaNoWriMo ten days in. It wasn't an easy choice, since I'd counseled other people against quitting so many times, but I decided that the event had lost some of its significance for me because I'd already proved to myself that I could succeed at it, seven times over.

I still believe strongly in the concept behind NaNoWriMo. For those who dream of writing a novel but have always been too intimidated to get far, it produces self-confidence in the ability to write huge chunks of text. For more experienced writers, NaNoWriMo can be a great way to quickly get out a first draft and move past all that uncertainty over what a story is really about. I still proudly declare that NaNoWriMo changed my life.

This year, I'm celebrating that change by accepting that it's not always a good idea to spend November writing something new. I'm moving right along with my revision, and I need to keep riding that momentum to the end. By next November, maybe I'll have another new story demanding to be told.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders at io9 diagnoses and treats The 10 Types of Writers' Block: "In fact, there's no such thing as 'Writer's Block,' and treating a broad range of creative slowdowns as a single ailment just creates something monolithic and huge. Each type of creative slowdown has a different cause -- and thus, a different solution." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

October 13, 2011

Off to a Good Start

I'm really getting into the revision of my second storyline now, and as I predicted, I've gained a big boost of motivation from the fact that I'm working on something new. It's still part of the same novel I've been revising all this time, but moving to a different narrator and plotline has eliminated that burnout I was experiencing.

Since I pondered over the backstory this weekend (no dolphins were harmed), the story has been clearer than ever in my mind. This week, I sat down for each writing session sure of what I wanted to say, and the words have flowed fairly smoothly.

It is still, alas, a matter of placing one word after the other until they form a novel. It's going to be a while yet until all the words are in order. But this part is off to a good start.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Mark O'Connell offers an appreciation of bad bookshops: "I live in a suburb of Dublin where the only bookshop within any kind of plausible walking distance is a small and frankly feeble set-up on the second floor of a grim 1970s-era shopping center, above a large supermarket. It's flanked by two equally moribund concerns, a small record store and a travel agent, thereby forming the centerpiece of a sad triptych of retail obsolescence."

October 11, 2011

Pondering the Backstory

I'm often surprised by how far it's possible to take a novel without really thinking through the backstory.

Say I've decided that before my protagonist, Daisy, started her successful chain of hot chocolate restaurants, she trained dolphins for an aquarium show. I probably have some excellent reasons for choosing this backstory. For example, Daisy always loved to drink hot chocolate after a training session, when she got out of the warm water into the cold North Dakota air. And in my novel, Daisy often compares her experiences with managing a restaurant chain to her past teaching dolphins to catch rings on their snouts.

So I tell myself that this is Daisy's backstory. I write the first draft of my novel, in which I tell readers that this is Daisy's backstory. I revise my manuscript to introduce the backstory more gradually, having Daisy think about her dolphin-training days at relevant emotional moments. I research, learning how trainers teach animals tricks and that a dolphin's nose is more properly called a "beak."

I bring my revised draft to my critique partners, an insightful, knowledgeable, and astute bunch. One says, "Daisy always yells at her employees for making mistakes. If she was any good at training dolphins, wouldn't she be more patient?" Another points out, "You make a big deal about how Daisy hates waking up early. I've read that dolphins are most receptive to training right after dawn, so you should have Daisy reflect on how this was a big problem in her last job." A third asks, "Even if it was cold in North Dakota, wouldn't training dolphins be such strenuous exercise that Daisy wouldn't want a hot drink afterwards?"

Back home after critique group, I cry into my pillow for a little while, and then I think about the questions my readers have raised. Each observation is valid and needs to be addressed in the novel. I'm going to have to make some changes to the story, and that will be hard, but the payoff is that the novel will grow richer and more complex as a result.

I turn over and stare at the ceiling, and then I start thinking about Daisy's backstory. Really thinking about it. When I began work on this novel, I'd defined a history for her and sketched out a few specific incidents that shaped her life. But I hadn't given her past much more thought than that. In the course of a couple of drafts, Daisy's character had evolved and deepened, and the backstory had remained as vague as ever.

I think about Daisy and how she behaves in the course of the novel. I imagine a younger, more naive version of my character during her aquarium days. I ask myself some very important questions that I should have asked earlier: Why did Daisy become a dolphin trainer in the first place? Was that her true dream, or perhaps a role she settled for because there were no openings in the cephalopod department? What aspects of dolphin training did Daisy excel at, and where did she struggle? What was her daily life as a trainer like? When did she realize she'd had enough and that her real ambitions lay in the hot beverage industry?

Lying there in bed, I tell myself all sorts of stories about Daisy's past. It's great fun, and so much easier than having to write stories down for the benefit of readers. I realize fascinating details about Daisy's character and come up with exciting new subplots. As a dolphin trainer, Daisy would have experience with scuba diving. What if the restaurant operations manager who betrays her in the novel was previously her diving buddy? They'd have a history of trusting each other with their lives, making his later treachery that much more painful.

I am bubbling with ideas. I can't wait to start revising again.

This example, of course, is unrelated to the novel I'm currently writing. (To read about Daisy's adventures, you'll have to wait for my next book.) But it's an experience I've gone through many times. Just this weekend, I realized how few specifics I knew about a backstory in which two characters meet online. I made that backstory decision when I first conceived of the novel and then worked on the manuscript for years without fleshing it out. I finally realized that I was going to have to know more about their online beginnings if I wanted the story events to be consistent and believable.

So I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, telling myself stories until I fell asleep.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black offers great advice at #Amwriting about suspension of disbelief: "The reader will give you one freebie. They will suspend disbelief for you, no questions asked, exactly one time."

October 6, 2011

That's Better!

Some of my posts from the last couple of months may have made clear that I was feeling kind of frustrated and burned out on my novel. A week's vacation from writing certainly helped my mood, but even better for my motivation levels is that I've moved on to revising the next storyline.

To review, for those not intimately familiar with my manuscript: THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is about three generations of a family. The book has three first-person narrators, one from each generation, and the chapters alternate between points of view. The slightly tricky bit is that the narrators aren't following the same plot: each narrator is relating the events of his life as a young man, so there are three plots spaced about thirty years apart, all involving the same family.

I wrote the first draft in the order that the chapters appear, and when I rewrote the novel from scratch, I did the same thing. For my current (big, big) revision, I'm doing one storyline at a time to fully focus on creating a consistent character voice and plot. For a variety of reasons, I started with the storyline that occurs last chronologically. I finally reached the end of that story, and it's a thousand times better than it was in the last draft.

And now I get to move on. A new narrator! A new time period! New characters, or at least, the same characters much younger than in the storyline I just finished! It's almost like starting a new novel, with all the excitement and energy that goes along with that. It's been a huge relief.

Let's hope my enthusiasm lasts and that posting is more optimistic around here for a while.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Robin Black at Beyond the Margins compares revision to home renovation: "The thing that trips me up time and time again, is not a resistance to cutting beloved aspects when they aren't serving a story well. I'm pretty good with that. What more often gets me is a complete failure to recognize that doing so is even an option."

October 4, 2011

October Reading Plan

As I recapped yesterday, I'm still in the process of reading two books from last month:

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I'm hoping to make it to the end this month.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I expect I'll be working slowly through this one until the end of the year.

Two more books for this month's list:

LONG DRIVE HOME by Will Allison - I read this Slate essay by the author in May. I was moved, and I was curious to see the book that resulted from the difficult work he described, especially when I read the description. The story involves a family in the aftermath of a car accident.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - This zombie apocalypse novel is coming out on October 18th and is the first selection for the new Bookrageous book club. Bookrageous is a podcast about books that I just might be slightly obsessed with. I wasn't necessarily in the mood for any more zombie books, but I do like Colson Whitehead, and as I said, I'm a devoted Bookrageous fan, so what else could I do but preorder this book?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne shares the strategies she's using to build strong characters and emotional depth in revision: "My opinions of backstory have changed quite a bit over the past year. I used to avoid it because people so often warned against backstory overload, but I'm coming to realize how important it is for character bonding."

October 3, 2011

September Reading Recap

I'm back from a wonderful, relaxing week in Hawaii, where I spent lots of time gazing out at the blue Pacific and almost no time thinking about my novel. Now my view is gray clouds and rain falling on my backyard. While I was away, northern California went from an extended summer directly into what passes for winter around here.

Tomorrow I'll get back to writing. Today was all about many loads of laundry, plus this recap of last month's reading.

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman - I was really impressed by this novel, which has a fascinating premise and fantastic execution. At the beginning of the book, a committee selects the winning design for a September 11th memorial. (Before I started the book, I described it as taking place in the aftermath of a "9/11-like event," but that was based on my misunderstanding of an interview I listened to.) The submission process for the contest was anonymous, and the jurors are surprised when they discover that their chosen designer is an architect named Mohammad Khan, an American-born Muslim. When this unexpected result is leaked to the press, it sparks emotional reactions from many sides. The story's events quickly spiral out of control, but the writing remains tight and focused throughout.

THE TASTE OF SALT by Martha Southgate - I read most of this book on the flight home from Hawaii, and it kept me distracted from the letdown of returning to normal life. It's an engrossing story, but not a light read. The main character is Josie, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where she's the only black senior scientist. Josie has distanced herself from her hometown of Cleveland and the memories of growing up with an alcoholic father. Life hasn't gone as well for her brother, who is getting out of his second stint in rehab. Josie finds she can't stay as disconnected from her family as she'd like and that her own life isn't as simple as she wants to believe. The narration moves between Josie's voice and those of the other major characters to tell the story of this struggling family.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I read a little more this month, but I'm still less than halfway through. The pace of the story is definitely picking up, and I'm interested to see how it's going to unfold.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I started reading but haven't gotten too far in yet. So far, it's the same mix of personal and political intrigue and intricate scientific detail as the first two books of the series.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ SF Signal has created a flowchart for navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. (Thanks, Jason Black and io9!)

September 23, 2011

Over and Out

My bags aren't packed, and I'm not ready to go, but tomorrow I leave for a week's vacation. When I return, I'll be moving on to revising the next storyline of my novel. We'll see if it really does go more quickly, as I predicted, or if you all get to laugh at me.

I gave more thought to my quandary about the next step and decided that I'll go directly from one storyline to the next, without even reading what I've just finished rewriting. If I look over my recent work, I'm going to want to make more changes, and then I'll never move on. I've already thought of a few things I need to add, but I'm sure to come up with more as I go through the other storylines, so I might as well save it all for later. I have detailed notes in SuperNotecard, and it will all be waiting for me when I'm ready to return to it.

As for you, my loyal readers, I'll return to you on October 3. Have a good week!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tahereh Mafi says, Don't Be Afraid To Write A Bad Book: "the majority of us (read: the vast, vast majority of us) did not sell the very first thing our eager fingers ever created. many of us had to write not 1, but 2, 3, 15 manuscripts before figuring out what worked." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

→ Michael Kardos muses in The Millions about Writing the Jersey Shore in the Age of Reality TV: "When we set a work of fiction in a real place, we do so hoping that those unfamiliar with the place will come to know it as we do, and that those who already know it will recognize in our depiction something familiar and true. But place's allegiance in fiction is ultimately to the story, not to its own exactitude."

September 22, 2011

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I'm long overdue to write some book recommendations. For example, this one, which I made notes for weeks ago and then never got back to.

Last month I read 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. This novel is funny, inventive, thought-provoking, and educational. A cast of great and often larger-than-life characters learn, debate, and fall in love, and along the way the reader is introduced to philosophy, psychology, game theory, Hasidic Judaism, prime numbers, and assorted other topics.

Cass Seltzer is a professor who studies the psychology of religion, a field he's the world's expert in, "but only because nobody else wanted it." Cass publishes a book on the subject that unexpectedly becomes a bestseller and rockets him to fame. Time magazine calls him "the atheist with a soul." However,

He would never have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes -- he certainly doesn't -- but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It's the Appendix that's pushed him into the role of atheism's spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The Appendix in question consists of 36 frequently used arguments for the existence of God and a rebuttal to each that points out the flaws in the reasoning. It's at the end of Cass's (nonfiction, yet fictional) book, and it also appears as a real 60-page appendix to Goldstein's novel. (The entire appendix is also available on the publisher's site for the novel.) Both the arguments for and against are an engrossing read.

The novel itself contains large chunks where the story stops for an educational break, delivered either through the narration or in the form of a monologue by one of the characters. These interludes of philosophy, mathematics, Jewish culture, and so on do relate to the story, and I found it all entertaining and enlightening, but this style won't appeal to everyone. It's not a dry academic text -- I often laughed out loud while reading -- but it is dense.

A range of perspectives on religion can be found among the characters in this novel, from Cass's detached fascination to the hardcore atheism of his friends to the complete and life-controlling faith of the Hasidic community that features in one of the story's main plots. I think this book would interest readers of any belief system who are curious about what leads people into different beliefs than their own.

At times, the characters and tone of 36 ARGUMENTS reminded me of another academia novel in which disciplines collide, THINKS... by David Lodge. I recommend them both.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund discusses A Problem With Writing Research: "One of my pet peeves as a reader is when it's clear that the writer is dumping into the story unnecessary things they discovered while researching."

→ Jenn Hubbard reminds us that any individual's tale is only One true story: "...we think of our own lives as normal, our own experiences as universal. (But of course, this may be a generalization also! Maybe others are more aware than I was of how specific our lives really are.)"

September 20, 2011

When Am I?

It's about a million degrees outside (in Fahrenheit, that's 93), and I'm grateful that last year I finally gave in and accepted that I live in a place where sometimes it's an excellent idea to have air conditioning. Here in northern California's Santa Clara Valley, we have nearly perfect weather, except when we don't.

The kind of heat wave we're having this week occurs more often in July than late September, but the weather has been unusual all year, here and everywhere else, so what are you gonna do? (Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.)

It's not as though I ever know what month it is anyway. I think it's likely that many people who grow up and leave behind the school calendar sometimes lose track of their place in the year. But this is especially a problem for me because I spend so much time inhabiting a fictional world. In there, I'm quite clear on the date. Out here, is it my birthday yet? And did you say 2011?

Inside my novel right now, it's chilly and the sky is gray and it's been raining. It's November, mainly because this novel started as a project for National Novel Writing Month, which occurs during that month. (I'd love to do a study to find out how many NaNoWriMo novels are set in November.)

Soon I'll move on to the next storyline, and I'll be in a different season and a different decade. And in the real world, I'll be wandering around confused, wearing shorts and wondering when it got so cold.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dwight Garner writes in the New York Times about authors who release books only once a decade: "Distressingly, this kind of long gestation period is pretty typical for America's corps of young, elite celebrity novelists." (Thanks, Guardian Books Blog!)

September 16, 2011

Talking It Out

Yesterday I had a lovely lunch with a group of writing buddies. Naturally there was plenty of discussion about writing: where we're all at in our current projects, problems we're encountering, methods that work for us.

One of my friends is looking over a first draft and considering what needs changing in revision. Her big sticking point is that she can't figure out how to justify that the main character doesn't do the obvious smart thing near the beginning of the story to avoid the conflicts that drive the plot.

This is a common issue for writers. So many books would be over in twenty pages if only the protagonist acted less foolishly, behaved better, or decided that honesty is the best policy. Plots require conflict, and conflict often arises from people doing the wrong thing.

My friend laid out the basic story scenario for us and said how she was thinking of solving it. The rest of us offered a bunch of additional convincing factors that could result in the character's mistake. Maybe he's too stubborn to take advice or too proud to imagine his downfall or too loyal to consider a betrayal.

I'd like to think that our suggestions were useful and that the friend with the plot problem might expand on one of them to strengthen her novel. So many times in the past, I've explained a story problem to friends and been rewarded with perfect solutions. I have brilliant ideas all the time, of course, but other people are surprisingly clever, too.

It's easy to get so lost in your own story that you aren't sure how to find your way out. Talking it over with someone else lets you take advantage of a fresh perspective and spot the right path.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the #Amwriting blog, Jennifer Spiller discusses how to Write What You Know and Slaughter the Cat: "My own view is we should write what we know and understand or can imagine vividly, emotionally. Then, if you want to write about a place or type of person outside your experience, you must RESEARCH. A lot."

→ Ian Dudley explains that Writing a novel is like writing a book (or a novella, only longer): "You have to use letters. Preferably strung together into words. Words of a language that, again preferably, you know. Or at least a language your readers will know."

September 14, 2011


I just finished writing an emotionally intense scene. Yes, another one. This one's a real doozy, probably the emotional climax of the whole novel. I'm exhausted. Most of the time I wouldn't classify writing as "hard work," even though it's difficult, but scenes like this take more exertion than physical labor.

For reasons that I can barely even justify to myself, I had to write this scene while sitting and lying on the floor rather than at my desk or in a soft chair. I guess the best explanation is that I needed some discomfort to get into the mindset required for the scene.

I think I'm content with how the scene turned out, but as usual, I'm sure to hate it tomorrow. And I won't know if it really works until the draft is done and I start getting feedback from other people. The version of this scene in the last draft received lukewarm reviews from my critique partners, but it's changed considerably, and I believe the new situation and execution is much more compelling.

Right now, I could really use a nap.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Ned Beauman looks at the TV Tropes website and discovers The Million Basic Plots: "It's best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you're anxious to do something original, but not so long that you're paralyzed."

September 12, 2011

You Can't Rush Brilliance

As I've vented about previously, sometimes I get frustrated that my novel isn't yet finished and out the metaphorical door. But just as often, I conceive of some new brilliant idea for the story that makes it so much better, I can't believe I might have considered the manuscript complete without it.

Over the weekend, at some random moment (was it in the shower? I get all my best ideas in the shower) I had a realization about a plot problem I hadn't even been thinking about. The solution is so obvious and fits so perfectly that I'm a bit embarrassed not to have thought of it before. Happily, it's even in one of the storylines I haven't started revising yet, so I haven't even created extra work for myself.

It's a little alarming to think that this idea might never have occurred to me, especially if I'd revised more quickly, and that my novel would have been worse off because of it. (Am I only grasping at any justification for my slowness? I'm pretty sure that I'm not.) And it's even more alarming to think that someday the book will be really finished and out in the world, and then I might still come up with ideas about how it could be better.

This is the kind of worry that keeps me awake at night. That and the constant flood of brilliant ideas.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Since many of my favorite books defy a genre classification, I enjoyed Alma Katsu's Beyond the Margins post on The Perils of Writing the Indefinable, Genre-Crossing Novel: "Publishers are often leery of these books because they can be hard to market. At the same time, these genre-defying books are often the ones that catch fire and become wildly popular because they are so different."

September 9, 2011

My Infinite To-Read List

At lunch today, a friend was telling me about a book she recently read. She thought some of the book's ideas and the structure might appeal to me, but since she had complaints about other aspects of the story, she was reluctant to endorse it with a real recommendation.

(We have a lot of conversations about books that go this way. It's great having such a long history of discussing our reading habits that we can accurately anticipate each other's tastes.)

(I'm especially lucky in that I have multiple people in my life with this level of book sharing intimacy.)

I listened to her review of the book, agreed that it did sound interesting, and said I'd like to read it at some point, but probably not before everything else I'd like to read at some point. My friend reaffirmed that she didn't rate the book highly enough to put it ahead of all those other books. She's well aquainted with my infinite to-read list.

I write down fewer and fewer of the books that catch my attention these days, which is a good thing, because I learn about books more and more quickly as I expand my consumption of book-related media. (I should post about some of my sources soon, shouldn't I?) My list continues to grow nonetheless.

Mostly what happens with my list is that I'm only reading (and therefore removing) the books that I added within the past few months. This is in part because I make an effort to buy and read some of the new releases I hear about. It's also because I can't find the other end of my to-read list -- it's infinitely far away.

Even the idea of looking through my list to prune and prioritize is daunting. I've been wondering if GoodReads is a useful tool for managing a to-read list, or if it's just a dangerous source of too many more recommendations. I'd appreciate hearing from any readers who can address this topic.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Buzz Poole muses on The Consequences of Writing Without Reading: "How can anyone claim to be interested in writing without being serious about reading?" (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 7, 2011

Ends and Odds

As I get toward the end of rewriting one of the storylines in my novel, I'm remembering various exciting and intimidating things about endings. I still have a lot of revision ahead of me, with two storylines left to go, but since the stories are interlaced throughout the manuscript, I'll soon be working on the book's final chapter. This is also the story that occurs last chronologically, so it's the last chance for the characters to find resolution before their lives go off into unchronicled territory.

Whenever I get close to the end of a manuscript, the note-taking becomes more frantic than ever. My chapter notes fill with reminders of all the loose ends that need to be tied up, and then each annotation tends to bounce around between the last two or three chapters several times before finding a final resting place within the text. At the end is also where I discover all the small details that I want to refer back to but somehow forgot to introduce earlier, so more notes get attached to chapters near the beginning.

This points out a quandary of reaching the end of a revision, particularly in this case: Do I now immediately go back to the beginning and make the numerous small additional changes that I've discovered this storyline needs? Or would it make more sense to move on and finish revising everything, with a final sweep at the end? I can see benefits and drawbacks to both options.

At least as I approach the ending this time, I'm not experiencing the common early-draft panic about whether I'll even be able to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. While there have been many changes to this storyline during this revision, the very end will stay about the same, and I think it now works much better than before. I might even keep the same final sentence that I had in the last draft. But I won't be sure until I get there.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Josh Rolnick traces his journey toward a career of writing and publishing short stories in My Life in Stories: "I am not, however, one of those writers who has always wanted to be a writer. My mom will tell you: I wanted to be an entomologist."

September 2, 2011

September Reading Plan

Next up on the to-read list:

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I'm a quarter of the way through. I'm enjoying Jane as a narrator well enough, and it's interesting to read about what life was like in the mid-1800s, but I could use a little more plot. I have high hopes that the story will get more plotful soon.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - All sorts of intriguing developments happened toward the end of GREEN MARS, so I'm curious to see what's next.

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman - This book has been receiving a lot of buzz due to its well-timed publication close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and unveiling of the Ground Zero memorial. Waldman's novel concerns a fictional contest to design the memorial for a 9/11-like event. In the book, the submission process is anonymous, and one of the finalists turns out to be an American-born Muslim, which leads to the expected sort of uproar. THE SUBMISSION has been reviewed well, so I'm expecting a story that's strong as well as timely.

THE TASTE OF SALT by Martha Southgate - I read an essay by Southgate in The Millions, and the title and cover of her just-published novel intrigued me. When I discovered that the story involves siblings, addiction, and oceanography, I had to buy it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Necee Regis at Beyond the Margins recounts the lessons of downtime in Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned On My Summer Vacation: "Sometimes you need to take a break from your manuscript. A sign this might be necessary is if you can recite vast tracks of your book from memory without pause and yet you have no idea what you're saying. Plus you think it’s the worst piece of drivel ever written. When that happens, try putting it in a drawer and letting it rest while you distract yourself with other projects. When the time is right you'll return to it, refreshed."

September 1, 2011

August Reading Recap

Checking against my August reading plan, it looks as though I didn't do much reading this month, only getting through one and a quarter books:

36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - I really enjoyed this engaging story about belief and love and knowledge. I laughed out loud (and got strange looks from other people in the room) many times while reading it. The characters and premise are inventive, and the book is packed with information about topics that include religion, prime numbers, and game theory. Next week I'll post a more detailed discussion that might better explain how Goldstein combines these subjects.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I've read the first quarter. The story is taking longer to get going than I'd like, but I think I've just about reached the part where things begin to happen.

I didn't even start BLUE MARS.

However, I fudged a bit in creating this month's list, because as I mentioned in my June/July recap, I wasn't done with all the books from that list. Here's what else I finished:

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - An excellent second book that builds well on the first book of the series without seeming like a repetition. The characters and situations all feel very real, whether the scale is a lovers' quarrel or a global crisis.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell - My family finished our group listen of the audio version. There was a lot to discuss about this book, so sharing it was a good experience, though the many alien words in the text made it sometimes a challenging listen. I liked THE SPARROW overall and was particularly impressed by the well-developed, unusual structure of the alien society. However, I thought the book should have been shorter and paced differently, with less time spent in the timeline that followed the aftermath and the main character's crisis of faith. In other words, I wanted this to be a different kind of book than the author wanted it to be, which is always a problematic type of criticism.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Geoff Dyer writes in the New York Times Book Review about What We Do to Books: "[T]he book should be in near-mint condition when I start reading it, but I am not obsessive about keeping it that way. On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans." (Thanks, Office of Letters and Light!)

August 31, 2011

Acting Out

I usually keep my office door closed when I'm writing. It's not that there's too much noise from the rest of the house. It's that I'm often making too much noise inside.

I read my work aloud frequently. Reading aloud is a great way to check that your sentences flow, that dialogue sounds lifelike, and that you haven't accidentally left out any words.

But when I'm writing a big emotional scene, as I so often am lately (this series of confrontations between my characters may drag on forever), I don't simply read the words. I act them out, speaking with the appropriate tone of voice and even the appropriate volume if nobody is in earshot to be disturbed. I wave my hands and stomp around the room and occasionally grimace at myself in the mirror.

There is, I think, a point to doing this. A line of dialogue that sounds perfectly reasonable in a calm conversation might be too long to believably shout in anger. In acting out an argument, I might decide it needs more sputtering and interruptions to convey the level of the fury the characters have worked themselves into. I might realize that a fight fizzles out too suddenly or that the characters have been shouting long enough to make themselves hoarse (I can end up quite worn out after one of these writing sessions).

In all kinds of scenes, I find myself needing to position my body parts in the same way as my characters in order to accurately describe how that looks or feels. (Do I really mean "all kinds of scenes"? That question is left as an exercise for the reader.) How exactly do you explain that hand gesture that means "so-so"? What precisely happens to the eyebrows in a worried expression?

For a few years in high school and college, I wanted to be an actor. I was only so-so at it (that's: "I held out a flat hand and waggled it"), and the desire passed. Now I'm happy to do my acting behind the privacy of my closed door.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mary Robinette Kowal describes her clever strategy for avoiding anachronisms in a novel set in 1815: "I decided to create a Jane Austen word list, from the complete works of Jane Austen, and use that as my spellcheck dictionary. It flagged any word that she didn’t use, which allowed me to look it up to see if it existed."

August 29, 2011

Be Careful What You Repeat

I was sending email to a friend about a book we'd both read and both found problematic. The book had an exciting plot that was bogged down by unnecessary description and repetition.

As I was listing my complaints to my friend, I realized that too much repetition doesn't only leave readers bored and wishing the author would hurry up and get to the new stuff. An even more serious problem with repetition is that readers might be led to incorrectly believe that an oft-repeated detail has some important significance that will be revealed later.

In this particular case, the narrator frequently remarked on the oddness of a certain phenomenon. I spent the whole book waiting to find out the secret cause of the phenomenon and coming up with various theories of my own. At the end, it remained unexplained. This was apparently just an odd occurrence after all.

If the detail had been mentioned only once, I wouldn't have expected it to mean anything extra. The multiple repetitions made it appear highlighted for a reason, but I now think it was just another instance of sloppy writing and editing. Grr.

Writers, take care that what you include in a story, and especially what you repeat, doesn't result in readers focusing on the wrong points -- unless you're doing that deliberately and carefully. Once again, this is one of those areas where getting feedback from early readers is crucial, because it's very difficult to spot in your own work.

I repeat: Get feedback on your work from early readers! There is no substitute for an outside perspective.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins on Obsession: What’s Healthy, What’s Not: "The key to transitioning from one type of obsession (destructive) to the other kind (productive) is very simple: write anyway. Find the doubt, the discomfort, the anxiety, and write anyway."

→ Livia Blackburne dissects the Anatomy of a Death Scene: "Then I started thinking. People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings."