March 29, 2012

What Am I Doing?

I'm frequently asked, "How's your novel coming along?" In fact, if you're reading this blog, there's a high probability that you've asked me this question at least once. So the first thing I want to say is thank you for asking. Thank you for your caring and interest and support. I really do appreciate it.

The second thing I want to do is explain why I cringe when you ask me this question. Why I become evasive and defensive and try to change the subject. Why, especially if you outright asked the question that's always there in subtext -- "When will it be finished?" -- I might have bitten your head off.

Believe me, nobody is more eager for this novel to be finished than I am. And I know that none of you are trying to put any pressure on me when you ask. But I'm generating more than enough pressure all by myself.

One of the things that's most frustrating about how long it's taking, and I expect one of the reasons that my friends and family are a little confused about how much time has passed, is that I've already finished this novel. Twice. I've written it, and now I'm revising. Shouldn't revision be faster?

And what is revision? What am I still doing to my finished novel that's taking so much more time? I think that's the question most people are really asking when they inquire about my novel with anything beyond the most superficial politeness.

The answers I give in conversation are rarely satisfactory, either to me or to my well-meaning querier. So I thought I would take the time to organize my thoughts and then answer at too great a length in a series of blog posts that you can look forward to in the next couple of weeks.

For today, let's just pretend that the last time you asked, "How's your novel coming along?", I replied, "I'm really glad you asked!"

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily St. John Mandel at The Millions analyzes (with graphs!) a title trend that's long bugged me, The ___'s Daughter: "I was curious to see how many of these books there actually are, so I did a search for books with 'The' and 'Daughter' in their titles on Goodreads. Afterward I spent some time copying and pasting all instances of The ___'s Daughter into an Excel spreadsheet. How much time? A lot..."

March 23, 2012

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Recently I discussed one excellent alternate history book. Around the same time, I read another, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon. It's a great story, and I recommend it for all readers.

In the backstory of this novel, the state of Israel wasn't founded in the Middle East during the aftermath of World War II. Instead, the district of Sitka, Alaska was given by the U.S. to the Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. Chabon didn't invent this idea: There was a real, failed proposal during the war to grant Alaskan territory to Jewish immigrants.

The book is set sixty years later, a few months before Sitka is slated to revert to Alaskan territory, leaving the three million Jewish occupants without citizenship in any nation. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman is avoiding this problem and all his other personal problems by escaping in alcohol and work. When an unidentified murder victim is discovered in the seedy hotel where Landsman has been living since his divorce, he starts an investigation, only to be told by his new inspector and former wife that the case must be closed unsolved. Despite this warning, Landsman and his partner pursue the investigation, and the more they dig, the deeper the mystery grows.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION reminded me of THE CITY AND THE CITY by China MiƩville, which I raved about last year, because it's through the police investigation plot that the reader is introduced to an unfamiliar setting with a richly imagined culture and slang. (Though perhaps if I'd read more detective stories, I'd be less inclined to lump these two together.) Chabon draws on real Jewish and Alaskan Native traditions to create a detailed, plausible modern society that could believably arise from the speculated history.

The slang in the book is particularly clever. A glossary at the back defines the Yiddish words, many of which have been pressed into new usages in Chabon's Sitka, where Yiddish is the common tongue. For example, Landsman's handgun is a sholem, explained as "(Sitka slang, lit., 'peace') gun; ironic bilingual pun on American slang 'piece'."

This is an exciting story with wonderful characters in a fascinating world. It's also frequently hilarious, which serves as a nice balance against the darker material. Read it!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Annie Murphy Paul, writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, looks at neuroscience research about reading fiction: "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated."

March 21, 2012

Best Laid Plans

My day-to-day life is pretty routine and predictable. Wake up, read, go for a walk, avoid writing for a while, get some writing done. Not too much variety -- I even eat the same things for breakfast and lunch most days. I like the consistency. It works for me.

As I've discussed before, when my life deviates from the usual, I get all thrown off for much longer than the interruption warrants. I just returned from a trip, and I didn't plan to even mention it here because I was going to have blog posts all ready to go last week so nobody would notice another hiatus. Obviously, that didn't happen.

I was also going to finish revising the current storyline before I left on my trip. Okay, no, I would complete this chapter, and then I'd have the remainder done before the end of the month. Well, at least I'd get through this scene...

Back in the fall, I would have said the entire revision would be completed by now. But while I'm very good at following a routine, I'm very bad at anticipating that life doesn't always conform to my routines and intentions.

I couldn't help but ponder the fate of best laid plans on Monday night as I sat stranded at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport along with hundreds of other travelers due to heavy storms. After a lovely trip to Florida to visit with my grandmother and parents, I was supposed to get home in time for dinner in California. Instead, my layover in Dallas coincided with the arrival of a vicious thunderstorm that closed the runways for four hours.

When planes began flying again, I experienced a series of hopes and disappointments as I watched the cancellations and delays on the flight schedule board. Finally around midnight, I boarded a plane that made it as far as attempting a takeoff, but an engine problem sent us back to the gate. In the end, I spent an uncomfortable night in the airport. I made it back to California at noon on Tuesday.

It wasn't the journey that I had planned, and it took a lot longer than I would have liked. Similarly, I would prefer to be done with my revision journey and have the polished manuscript out to all the kind friends and family who are so eager to read it. But things take as long as they take. Eventually I'll reach my destination.

In the meantime, it's some consolation to realize that revision is rarely as unpleasant as roaming around a chilly airport at four o'clock in the morning yearning for my toothbrush.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Charlie Jane Anders reveals How Not to Be a Clever Writer: "Because what matters isn't cleverness, but the actual storytelling. If you're not telling a story that rocks, then all the cleverness in the universe won't matter."

→ Nancy Kress considers the connection between Jane Austen and Gregor Mendel: "Good novelists intuitively understand the composition of real families. And real characters -- rounded, believable, interesting -- do not exist in a vacuum. They have, or at least had, families, which they were partially shaped by."

March 12, 2012

The Significant Scenes I Didn't Write

As I work through revising the latest chunk of manuscript, I've been noticing that often the parts I leave out of the story are very important events to the characters, if I consider them as real people. But since they're fictional creations of a sadistic author, these significant scenes sometimes take place off the page. And it's not because in a moment of kindness I'm giving the characters some privacy for their big moments. The reason these events occur during the chapter breaks or in summary is that sometimes, the important episodes are repetitive or boring on the page.

You've probably seen a movie in which something tragic happens, or a character does something terrible, and when the bad news has to be broken to another character, the camera pulls back and the soundtrack covers the conversation, so all we get is the initial tears or expression of horror before the scene cuts away. The rest of the breaking-the-bad-news scene so often occurs offscreen for a couple of reasons. First, if the audience already saw the event in question, another scene in which the same event is described would only be a weaker rehashing. Second, unless the character is going to react to the news in an unusual manner, the audience can accurately imagine the grief or anger that's sure to occur, and leaving it to the imagination may be more powerful than what the script and acting could portray.

Along similar lines, I was recently trying to figure out how much to include of the fallout from my narrator's bad behavior. He did something stupid that was going to upset his wife, and I'd planned on a scene where she confronts him about it, but then I started having second thoughts. As in the breaking-the-bad-news example, a scene in which characters discuss the events of the previous scene is dangerously repetitive. I'd already given readers enough information about the characters that they could imagine how this conversation would go. So maybe it was better to leave it out.

That felt kind of strange, though, especially when I started thinking about how for the characters as people, this conversation and its impact on their relationship would be a lot more significant than the event that prompted the conversation. But I realized that's okay. Throughout the story, I gloss over important moments for this couple, such as their wedding, while dwelling on conflicts they might later forget about. Crafting a good story is all about deciding what to leave out, and it's not only the mundane occurrences that fail to move the plot forward.

As it turned out, I did give my characters a chance to deal with the narrator's actions on the page. After a bit of summary in which I established that there was a week of unproductive arguing during the chapter break, and then hinted that maybe things were improving, somebody got drunk and finally said what they'd really wanted to say. Things are in motion now, both for the relationship and the plot. And I'm not entirely certain it's going to end up where I need it to, but that's a topic for another time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund advises writers, Don't Answer Every Question: "There's often a tendency to answer everything as we write in an effort to ensure we get our points across. If the question isn't a big thing, though, it’s usually best to leave the smaller questions unanswered."

March 7, 2012

The Mirage and Meeting Matt Ruff

I'm excited to talk about the newest book by Matt Ruff, who has been my favorite author for about twenty years, since I picked up THE FOOL ON THE HILL in a bookstore because I was a Beatlemaniac and attracted to the title. His five novels are very different from each other, and I recommend any of them. The latest, THE MIRAGE, is a strong, ambitious addition to his work.

THE MIRAGE opens with a prologue set on the morning of November 9, 2001, in the bustling city of Baghdad, industrial capital of the superpower nation, the United Arab States. Life changes for the citizens when planes crash into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers, hijacked by Christian fundamentalists from one of North America's warring third-world countries.

The rest of the novel takes place eight years later, in the post-11/9 world. A team of Arab Homeland Security agents is tracking a cell of crusaders, who have been a problem in the UAS while the long War on Terror continues in America. When they capture one would-be suicide bomber, he tells a crazy story: The world they are in is a mirage, a backwards version of what he claims is the real world, in which America is the superpower and the terrorist attackers are Arab. As the agents investigate further, they discover that many crusaders are telling this story and that their own government seems to be involved in a cover-up.

It's a challenging premise, but Ruff pulls it off. The mirror world he presents is a carefully researched and imagined setting, enhanced by encyclopedia entries throughout the book from The Library of Alexandria: A User-Edited Reference Source. The characters are real and sympathetic, each struggling with personal problems that complicate the investigation of the book's central mystery. The story is full of both humor and big ideas to ponder. If you're intrigued at all by the premise, pick up a copy. Matt Ruff should be much more widely read.

Last night I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend an appearance by Ruff at Borderlands in San Francisco. He talked about the book's genesis, performed a great reading of the opening section, and gave thoughtful answers to questions from the audience.

Afterwards, I asked him to sign my well-loved copy of THE FOOL ON THE HILL, and he recognized me from Twitter! I think I just about nearly almost kept my cool and uttered a few more coherent sentences before returning to my friends and squeeing. Thanks, Matt, for making a fan's year.

March 5, 2012

Hello Again

I'm back from my blogging hiatus. I missed you all! And I missed writing the blog while I was away, so I hope I'm returning with some new energy to inject into the project. I have various post ideas lined up, including several book recommendations for the upcoming weeks. (I'm going to skip a monthly recap and cover two months of books at the beginning of April.)

No, I didn't finish revising my novel while I was away. I didn't even complete the current storyline, but I did accomplish a lot of good writing and planning that will take me through to the ending of this story. As I've written about before, endings involve plenty of extra thought and notetaking, so they tend to go slowly.

Well, I should specify that it takes time to craft a reasonable, satisfying ending. When I wrote the very first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE back in National Novel Writing Month 2007, I whipped out the three ending chapters in a single day, because it was November 30, and I had to.

My notes from that day explain: "I wrote all day long, except for breaks for meals, and it was my wordiest day EVAR (8597 words). I wrote the final chapter to each of the three novel storylines, producing three rather cheesy endings. I finished with only 15 minutes left in the month. Woo hoo the end!"

We're talking endings so weak and implausible that one character is basically like, "Well, I have this drug addiction that was supposedly ruining my life, but you and I kind of started this relationship a couple of days ago, so maybe I could get over it and be okay." In the current version of the novel, none of the plots resolve the same way they did in the first draft (and thank goodness for that).

Writing a decent version of that novel I originally bashed out in 30 days is obviously taking a little bit longer. And then a little bit more. But it's going to be so worth it when I'm done.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Anna Solomon writes at Beyond the Margins about why focus is overrated: "I've gone on countless runs, determined to figure out a problem in a story, and every time, it's the same: only when I get so bored that I forget my purpose does the answer come to me. At my last residency, I spent as much time staring at deer as at my computer, yet I churned out a record number of words on a daily basis."