June 30, 2023

Sticking Points

A few weeks ago, to get myself unstuck on novel planning, I turned to sticky notes.

While I do all my writing by typing into a computer, for the planning stages, I often apply pen to paper. Usually small pieces of paper, like index cards, or small areas of paper, like the margins of a printed draft. My handwriting is barely legible, even to myself, and it's even worse when tiny, but I find a lot of value in scribbling down thoughts, despite the effort required in interpreting them later. Switching away from the keyboard into a mode with something physical to see and touch helps me generate new ideas.

The ideas I'm trying to generate right now involve that novel I've been working on that is still more like piles of sticks than a bridge. I'm in the process of figuring out all the questions about the plot and characters that remain unclear to me, and there are more of those left than I'd like.

As one example, a major part of the story I decided on long ago is that one character is involved in wrongdoing, and then at a particular turning point, another character catches them. But I have yet to construct the exact scenario in which the catching plausibly happens, in a way that couldn't have just as easily happened far earlier in the story. And ideally I want this event to be a result of some events in another plotline, or at the very least not include any details incompatible with those other events. So there are many sub-questions for each of the big questions, and it's a lot to get my brain around. I hoped that unloading some of my brain onto paper might help.

Last fall, I had great success working out the basic plot for this novel by lining up index cards on my rug. This time, I felt like trying a different, more freeform medium, so I arranged sticky notes on poster boards, some in orderly columns and others stacked up haphazardly.

June 7, 2023

May Reading Recap

I'm continuing to read as many books as I can!

YELLOWFACE by R.F. Kuang: June Hayward and Athena Liu met in college and both published novels not long after graduating. June's debut performed modestly, and she hasn't written anything since. Athena has produced multiple bestsellers, so the casual friendship between the two involves a strong current of jealousy from June. One night, Athena dies suddenly, leaving behind a completed manuscript she hasn't shown to anyone. June takes the draft and finds it fragmented and rough, but brilliant, and it inspires her in a way nothing else has. She rewrites the novel, historical fiction about the Chinese Labour Corps in World War I, and presents it as her own, justifying to herself that she's worked hard enough to deserve all the credit. To stave off questions about June, a white author, writing Chinese history, it's suggested she publish under her full first and middle name, the ambiguous Juniper Song. But the better the book does, the more questions and suspicions arise, and the harder June has to work at denying the truth of what she's done.

YELLOWFACE portrays the worlds of publishing and social media with an insightful accuracy that makes the story as compelling as any unfolding online disaster. At every step, Kuang imagines plausible iterations for the Twitter outrage, and she finds new ways to complicate it. Nobody in this story is entirely good or bad, always right or wrong. The nuance extends to the issue of literary appropriation, both of cultures and of personal experiences, and I appreciated that the novel doesn't take a clear position but instead leaves the reader to ponder. My only disappointment was that the ending was less spectacular than I was hoping, and some details I thought were early clues didn't wind up factoring in. Still, this was a gripping read for me, particularly as someone immersed in the online book world.

SWING TIME by Zadie Smith opens with the unnamed narrator returning abruptly to England after losing her job abroad in some dramatic fashion. She looks back at the events that brought her to this point, especially the two complicated friendships that shaped first her youth and then her early adulthood. At a childhood dance class, she's drawn to Tracey, the other brown girl in the class. They both have one white parent and one Black, but their lives are otherwise quite different, which becomes a constant source of fascination and judgement. From a young age, it's clear that Tracey is a gifted dancer while the protagonist is not, and this is one aspect of the rivalry that permeates their friendship. In her early twenties, the narrator has the chance to meet the pop star Aimee, whose records she listened to as a child, and makes such an impression that Aimee hires her as a personal assistant. Aimee is a white celebrity who takes on the cause of girls' education in West Africa in her own stubborn, naive way, so for many years the job involves spending time in a village to oversee the creation of a school. As the narrative shifts between the main character's earlier and later life, the full story of Tracey and Aimee's impact on her life emerges.

I ultimately really liked this exploration of complex relationships of many different and unexpected types. It did take me a while to get into this book, but eventually I became invested and was eager for each new chapter, especially those in the Aimee storyline. The novel packs in a lot of events that develop the layers of the characters while commenting on dance, race, money, and family. At times there's so much to cover that it slows the story down, and since many of the nuances rely on remembering details established earlier, I think the book would have benefited from being a shorter, faster read. It's still well worth reading, but I'd also recommend Smith's first two novels, which I read long ago but remember as tighter stories.

WRONG PLACE WRONG TIME by Gillian McAllister: Jen is waiting up for her teenage son on the night the clocks turn back, when to her shock, she witnesses him stab a stranger to death outside their house. After a horrible night, she finally sleeps, then wakes to find that time really has turned back for her. Somehow it's the previous day instead of the next, and the stabbing hasn't yet happened. Maybe there's something Jen can do to stop it, or at least to understand what would drive her sweet and nerdy son to murder. She spends the day trying to work out what's happening and get anyone else to believe her, but she makes little progress. When she wakes the next day, it's not the next day, or the same day, but the one before. Jen is moving backwards through time, hoping there's some discovery she can make that will bring her back to her present and save her son.

This is a fun page-turner of a story. It's the sort of book that's all about the plot, and that plot is a solid one that kept me in suspense and surprised me multiple times. The characters are fine, not the best developed but also not flat, and for the most part their actions are believable. The time-reversing element also generally maintains the necessary internal consistency. If a thriller that plays around with time appeals to you, I think you'll enjoy this.

BROTHERLESS NIGHT by V.V. Ganeshananthan: At sixteen, Sashi already knows she wants to be a doctor, and her mind is on the exams she'll need to pass to enter university and then medical school. Her four brothers, three older and one younger, are mainly focused on their studies and futures as well. But it's 1981 in Sri Lanka, and civil war is on the horizon. Soon Sashi and the young men in her life, all part of the country's Tamil minority, find their futures interrupted by violent conflict between militant separatists and the government. In the years of tragedy and displacement that follow, Sashi does manage to pursue her dream of studying medicine, but her family's future is also changed by complicated alliances with the Tamil Tigers liberation movement.

I knew nothing about the Sri Lankan civil war, and I learned a great deal from reading this novel. Ganeshananthan uses the experiences of Sashi and her brothers to portray many years of brutal history and convey varying perspectives on the militant groups. While the book served as a valuable history lesson, I found it less effective a novel. Sashi and the other characters felt flat to me, lacking specifics that would have brought them more to life. As a result, I never connected with the story emotionally in the way that most other reviewers have.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders discusses her approach to revision: "It's easy to think of a first draft as a series of IOUs that you wrote to the story. But this is where I've been finding it helpful to think of it as a set of presents to unwrap, instead. Take those scenes that feel so half-baked or sketchy, for example: there's a really good scene in there somewhere, and you just have to find it. Usually -- definitely not always -- the weak version of the scene contains plenty of seeds, or clues to help you find the better version." (Anders offers more revision strategies in her next post.)