September 28, 2012

It's Not Just Me

I am insecure about my process. Sure, I make all these confident declarations about how everyone knows creating a novel takes a long time and that I'm committed to revising until it's right. But come on, would I really explain at such lengths if I weren't desperate to validate the fact that I'm still revising?

So it's always a relief to come across other writers talking about putting large amounts of time and work into revision. Yes, I know rationally that revision must be part of any successful author's process, but I still crave the stories of ripping a draft to pieces or starting over from scratch. Not every writer revises so extensively, because some manage to plan enough in advance that the plot and sequencing are more or less right the first time around. But I suspect that making huge changes between drafts is the more common phenomenon (and that when it isn't done, that can often be a mistake).

I was thrilled to read in a recent post by Jennifer R. Hubbard, "I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising." I thought, "Yes! I'm not alone!" Jenn's post is a response to one by Jane Lebak, who advises making drastic revisions by writing the whole story over again fresh rather than editing old material. Yes! I did that!

When the subject of big revisions comes up in author interviews, I always pay extra attention. Here's Michael Chabon's revelation about the first draft that eventually became THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (a book I loved):

Mr. Chabon wrote a 600-page draft in the first person that he ended up trashing after a year. It had the same characters -- Landsman; his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, also a policeman; and his cousin and partner, a half-Indian, half-Jew named Berko Shemets -- but a completely different story. He feels as if "Policemen's Union" is its sequel, he says.

And here's Joshua Henkin, author of THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, which I'm looking forward to reading, discussing his process on an episode of Notebook on Cities and Culture:

I think you have to write a certain number of bad pages in order to get to the good pages.... MATRIMONY [his previous novel] took me ten years to write, this [THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU] took me five years to write, but in both cases I would say that the vast majority of the book that got published got written toward the end, like in the last year of MATRIMONY and the last six months with THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. And it wasn't like I was sitting around eating bon-bons all that time and then I decided, "Okay, time to kick in." I think it's much more that you spend a lot of time making mistakes until finally something clicks and then in the last few months the book sort of miraculously starts to write itself. So I very much feel it's not throwing away stuff, it's more about investing all those days and figuring out who those characters are.

Yes, yes, yes! And also, see how speedy I am compared to him? At least so far, if I hurry up and finish revising?

I feel so validated.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire presents What Kind of Book Reader Are You? A Diagnostics Guide: "For as many books as exist, there are also any number of different reading types a book lover (or even a book hater) might demonstrate. What kind are you?" (Thanks, Books on the Nightstand!)

September 26, 2012

Characters Behaving Badly

Last month I mentioned that I'm writing an unlikable narrator. A number of blog readers expressed interest in this topic, so I've been trying to organize some further thoughts on it. It's a tricky subject to figure out, though.

I have read and enjoyed plenty of books with main characters I didn't like. There's the category of protagonist who makes your skin crawl -- the famous example is Humbert Humbert in LOLITA, as Henri reminded me. I recall that while Humbert is despicable, he's also far more pathetic than evil, and that's one of the reasons the story works as well as it does. It's a good tactic for a writer to humanize unlikable characters (and every other kind of character, too), because even if their weaknesses don't make readers like them more, it does build a certain sympathy.

Then there are characters you love to hate. In my recent review of BEAT THE REAPER, I guess I didn't mention this, but the narrator is kind of jerk. His morals are questionable, and he's not that nice to the people in his life. I might not want to hang out with him, but I still found him awesome to read about because he was so funny and competent. So that's another factor: An audience is generally willing to be impressed by characters, even when they're unlikable on a personal level.

Katje brought up the fantastic television series BREAKING BAD, which capitalizes on the "love to hate" element (pun intended). Walter White is a brilliant scientist and problem-solver who does a lot of horrible things. At this point in the series, viewers mostly can't stand him, but that hasn't made the show any worse. We still want to find out what Walt is going to do next and how he's going to overcome the latest obstacle. But it is important that Walt started out as a much more sympathetic character who evolved over many seasons -- the show wouldn't work if it started with the Walt of season 5.

By contrast, in the TV series MAD MEN, we find out right away that the main character, Don Draper, isn't a very nice guy. (I should blog more about all the TV I watch, because a lot of it has good writing lessons.) Don's a brilliant ad man, but he's arrogant about it, and he's a bad husband. He's a character I love to hate, but honestly, I don't really hate him. Don is human, flawed, and complicated, as are all the characters in the show, and the mix of good and bad traits works together to create people I want to watch more of, even when I'm not thrilled with their actions.

I guess the main thing that makes an unlikable character work must be the complexity. Because I've certainly read and watched stories with characters who I didn't like and also didn't care about following any longer. Once the audience stops caring, it's all over, so that's what I want to avoid as a writer.

When unlikable characters didn't work for me, often the problem is the character has only one unlikable trait, and that's it. I don't want to read about a greedy character motivated by greed who greedily lays off all the poor workers and then goes home to bask in the luxuries acquired through greed. If that's all that's going on, it's boring. But if the character is struggling with the memory of childhood bullying or caring for a sick parent or in the middle of a divorce from an even more greedy spouse, maybe you'd have something there.

I'm trying to write an unlikable character who readers will still care about following because he's a complex human with good traits as well as bad. He's a loving father, deeply devoted to the welfare of his family (Walter White's major redeeming feature), but he's also a bad husband (like Don Draper). I had intended to make him more sympathetic during this revision, and I think I've successfully made it clearer that the love for his family is genuine, but I also keep writing scenes in which he behaves worse than in the last draft. This bad behavior continues to interest me because the character has no idea what a jerk he is. He is so good at rationalizing that he always believes he's doing the right thing. It's awful, but it's intriguing. I hope readers will think so, too.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hilary Smith explains common problems with story conflicts: "[I've] noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.... It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It's like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it's not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it's in the tank--and conflict sort of works the same way."

September 24, 2012

The True Meaning of Smekday

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex is a hilarious book about a girl whose mom has been abducted by an alien species that takes over the earth and forces all the humans to leave their homes. Hilarious. I mean it. Oh, and also, this is a book for kids.

The hero of the story is an 11-year-old girl named Gratuity (it didn't mean what her mom thought it did). When the moving orders come down from the Boov invaders, she sets off in the car she's learned to drive, accompanied only by her cat, Pig. They soon run into trouble and receive unexpected assistance from one of the aliens, who calls himself J.Lo. He's friendly and eager to help, but he's also frightened, because he's made a very big mistake that will result in serious trouble for everyone on earth, both human and Boov.

Gratuity reluctantly teams up with J.Lo, and they go on a wild road trip across America, dodging obstacles and attacks and bickering all the way. They spend some time with an underground would-be rebel group at Happy Mouse Kingdom, a wonderful alternate version of Disney World (amusingly, the novel is published by Disney Books). In the course of the journey, Gratuity and J.Lo learn more about each other's cultures and form a strong bond that allows them to work together to save the world.

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY is a very clever book in a variety of ways. It's funny throughout, full of wordplay, ridiculous misunderstandings, and astute observations, particularly about the behavior of grownups. The book is enhanced with great illustrations by the author and even a few sections in comic book form. At times, the story points out or implies comparisons between the alien treatment of earthlings and the past actions of invading human civilizations, but the message is never heavy-handed.

I'm an adult reader, and I enjoyed this book and didn't feel it was too young for me. But it's written for children (or at least, marketed for children) with a designation for ages 8 and up. All the material is appropriate for kids, though some of it may go over the heads of very young readers. This would be an excellent book for a family to read and discuss together.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A Beyond the Margins contributor shares a 1960s essay by his father that shows how little a Day in the Life of a Writer has changed: "2:17 – Pose before mirror. Believe profile with pipe will be best for book jacket picture. 2:26 – Start third paragraph."

September 21, 2012

Ramping Up

Deadlines and goals are useful. I mean, duh, right? They certainly work well for me, so I always have this nagging feeling that if I were operating with a real deadline on my novel, I'd be a lot more productive and probably finished by now.

What qualifies as "real" in my head is a funny thing. I've successfully met the deadline for National Novel Writing Month many times -- and without it, I might never have written any novels -- but the penalty for failing is only self-flagellation and maybe some mild disappointment from friends. I'm great at self-flagellation, so I ought to be able to set up a personal arbitrary deadline at any point, and I can create the potential for mild disappointment by announcing it on my blog or even just telling a few people.

I guess I have done that at least once, when I committed to an hour count goal last November as a parallel challenge to NaNoWriMo. I met my goal, and it helped me be more productive than usual. I was kind of intending to repeat the challenge a couple of months later, but that never happened.

I'm constantly making goals for myself about when I'm going to finish this scene, this chapter, this whole damn draft. But I never make them real by telling anyone else, so they're meaningless.

Thinking about this more, I realize that I'm only comfortable committing publicly to a goal based on a certain amount of time (or in the past, a certain number of words), not to one involving progress through the story. That's because I can't know for sure if a scene or chapter will be painless to write or will require long thought and agonizing over every sentence. I'm afraid that if I have to meet a deadline, I'll rush when I shouldn't, and the quality will suffer. Which would be a counterproductive use of productivity, so of course that's why I'm not comfortable with it. I mean, duh, right?

Therefore, here's another hour-based goal. Back in the spring, I did an assessment of how much time I spent working, and I wasn't pleased with the results. I resolved to push myself to focus more on writing each day, and that's been going pretty well, if you overlook a summer full of breaks. I'm currently more satisfied with how much I'm getting done.

So now it's time to boost the numbers and raise the stakes. I'm going to increase my hourly goal each week for the next four weeks. At the end of that time, I'm going to post about this again and tell you how well I'm doing.

And if I don't, your mild disappointment will rain down upon me! Believe me, this is one of the scarier fates I can imagine.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Author Keith Ridgway confesses in The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, "I don't know how to write.": "I've written six books now, but instead of making it easier, it has complicated matters to the point of absurdity. I have no idea what I'm doing." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

September 19, 2012

Breaking the Monotony

My novel is roughly one-quarter characters talking over meals, one-quarter conversations while dishwashing or cooking, and one-quarter discussions in bed. Among the remaining quarter of the scenes are a small number of action-packed episodes, but the rest are characters talking in other locations. I desperately hope this doesn't make the story as boring as it sounds.

Since my novel focuses on the relationships between characters, I'm pretty sure it's okay that it's mostly conversations and arguments. And I guess it's inevitable that if over the course of the story I need to write dozens of one-on-one discussions between the same husband and wife, most of the scenes will happen in their home as they go through the activities of daily life. The story takes place over years, so while the characters are always wrestling with conflicts, most of the problems aren't momentous enough to stop the necessity of carrying on with eating and cleaning and putting the children to bed. That's life, in the real world and in my story, and when my characters take time to deal with their issues, it has to fit in with that reality.

I can't justify sending my characters off to gallop across the plains on horseback or jump out of an airplane or hit the blackjack tables in Vegas just so that they have a different backdrop as they negotiate the terms of their marriage. It wouldn't make sense in the story for them to go on these adventures, and anyway, it might make even less sense for them to have those conversations while doing such things. But I do get awfully tired of writing variations on, "That night, as we were getting ready for bed," and I worry that readers will be bored by the repetition.

Yesterday, I was facing this problem once again. My characters had an argument in front of their friends, so at least that provided a different setting, but I knew they had to deal with the fallout once they got home and put the children to bed. Where would they talk? In the bedroom? The living room? The kitchen? The idea of the scene felt equally flat to me in any of those locations because I was so bored of them all.

I thought, "Well, they do have a back yard, with patio furniture. But it's too cold for them to want to go outside." And then I considered that some more, and I thought about the effect if one of the characters is also so bored by the inside of their house and the routine of their life that she would rather sit outside in the cold. And suddenly I was interested again.

I wrote the scene that way, and it wasn't the conversation I'd planned for the characters, but it was better. There was less rehashing of the same conflict and more that went significantly unsaid. The characters looked at the night sky while they were out there, and that gave me an idea for a bit of backstory that intrigued me. I put the memory in but then reconsidered because it was largely irrelevant. Then I thought about it for longer and came up with a way to tie it in with the characters' current issues. And now I like this scene.

It's interesting how just a small break from routine can open up new possibilities.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Benjamin Percy, writing at The Rumpus, describes learning to slow down as a reader: "I realized--as do so many in their twenties--that no matter how swiftly I turned the pages, I wasn't going to make my way through all the books I ought or wanted to read. And then I realized, after taking a forms class with Mike Magnuson, what it meant to read as a writer, to truly relish every word and study every sentence strenuously so that I might pirate tools to employ on the page." (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 17, 2012

The Age of Miracles

THE AGE OF MIRACLES by Karen Thompson Walker is a recent debut that received a lot of attention from critics, and for good reason. This is a gripping, beautifully told story that builds from an ingenious premise.

In THE AGE OF MIRACLES, the rotation of the earth begins to slow. Scientists announce that for no reason they can explain, the planet is taking an hour longer to revolve. The slowing, as it comes to be called, increases with each rotation, and the days and nights become longer and longer.

I love to see a good what-if explored well, and Walker does an incredible job of imagining the repercussions as the slowing grows worse. The change in the earth's rotation affects gravity and the magnetic field, longer days and nights impact ecosystems and crops, and everything that's happening changes human society in a variety of ways that all seem both plausible and insightful.

Walker, perhaps recognizing that one of the most immutable forces in modern civilization is the horror of middle school, presents the story from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old girl. Julia is a thoughtful, lonely child, unpopular for no reason she can explain. The boys pick on her and the girls don't invite her to parties, and the slowing doesn't change the misery of her school life. (Until I wrote out that description, I didn't really think about how fully I identified with Julia. I've tried to repress my memories of middle school.)

As Julia navigates sixth grade and watches problems develop in her parents' marriage, the slowing and its effects keep growing worse. Sometimes the events of the slowing are a background to Julia's coming-of-age, and sometimes they have a direct impact. The threads of the story blend together wonderfully. I was torn between not wanting to stop reading and not wanting to reach the end.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but this is a heavy, depressing book. As long as you're up for that, I highly recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chris Abouzeid at Beyond the Margins considers what writers can get out of the subjects they avoided in high school: "Huge portions of the working world deal in numbers: not just scientists and mathematicians, but tax auditors, computer programmers, game designers, pilots, actuaries, economists, bankers, carpenters, musicians, even drug dealers. If some of these showed up in my work, would I need to study calculus to draw their characters accurately? No. But think how much more convincing they would be if I understood what they do and how that affects their worldview."

September 14, 2012

Next Time

Next time I write a novel, I'm going to do a bunch of things differently to make the process easier:

1. The characters will always tell the truth and say exactly what they mean. That way I won't need so many notes to keep track of what's going on, and I won't have to write nearly as many scenes.

2. All the problems that the characters face will be simple to resolve. Again, this will help considerably with my book length problem, as it will take far fewer pages to tell the story.

3. I'll heed that old adage, "Write what you know." If I only draw on characters and situations similar to what I've encountered myself, I won't have to do much research or spend so much time imagining what experiences might be like.

4. I will make an outline in advance and stick to it faithfully, no matter what other ideas I come up with during the drafting process. It's way too much work to constantly readjust the plot by taking the story in directions I didn't plan.

5. I won't be such a perfectionist and insist on rewriting the manuscript over and over. This novel is taking so long, there may never be a next time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Carl Wilkinson at The Telegraph takes a look at how different authors handle the issue of shutting out a world of digital distraction: "Clearly the distractions of YouTube cat videos, unsolicited tweets and the ping of an email arriving in your inbox are not conducive to writing an intricately structured 100,000-word novel." (Thanks, Christopher Gronlund!)

September 11, 2012

What I Do

Last week I once again had to answer that dreaded question from a new acquaintance: "So, what do you do?" By now I ought to have a well-rehearsed reply, but I always struggle in the face of this question and its inevitable followups.

This time, though, I think I nailed it, because I came to the question with a newfound perspective. I've had some recent insights about the whole novel-writing endeavor, partly due to time away from my manuscript this summer and numerous conversations with family members about my work. Also, I'd had some recent adult beverages.

"I hate answering this question," I said to the table full of non-writer strangers. "Because I'm an unpublished novelist. Eventually I'll be a published novelist, but the trouble is that it takes a very long time to write a book that's ready to be published. I'm already many years and many drafts into the process, so I'm well on my way, but I'm not there yet."

Then I knocked over my glass of water and it shattered into a plate of appetizers, but right before that, I think I saw everyone nod knowingly. They got it. I'm not an unpublished novelist because I've never made it past chapter 5, and I'm not unpublished because I'm a terrible writer but don't realize it. My dinner companions recognized that I'm doing whatever mysterious writing thing all those successful authors have done, but they're meeting me at the point before the success. Because there always has to be a certain amount of work before success.

Someday those people will hear that my novel is coming out, and they'll be pleased to be able to say, "Oh yes, I know her. She's the one who made a glass explode all over the chicken wings."

Good Stuff Out There:

→ David Abrams describes how he cut half the words from his debut novel after it was acquired and Laura Miller at Salon reacts by discussing why some novels should be longer than others.

September 4, 2012

Shine Shine Shine

Lydia Netzer does something brave with the beginning of SHINE SHINE SHINE: she opens the book with a man in a spaceship. A spaceship says "science fiction", but this isn't a science fictional story at all. It's a story about a family trying to live a normal, earthbound life when none of the members are quite suited to the world they've found themselves in.

The jacket copy and various descriptions I've read for this novel give too much away, in my opinion, so here's a spoiler-free summary:

The man in the spaceship is Maxon, a robotics expert on a NASA mission to the moon, where he's going to set up robots that will construct a colony where humans can eventually live. Back on earth is Maxon's pregnant wife, Sunny, and their four-year-old autistic son. Sunny has worked hard to build a perfect life for their family in their ritzy Virginia suburb, but while Maxon is away, the careful facade of normalcy begins to crack.

I loved this book. The characters are wonderful, complex, and deeply individual. Much of the story is about not fitting in and the various ways people either try to fit in or try not to care. Another significant part of the plot is the history of Sunny and Maxon's relationship, and I found their geek love story very appealing and romantic. SHINE SHINE SHINE is a little on the weird side, which I consider a plus, but I think it will appeal to anyone who likes reading about family relationships.

This is Netzer's debut novel, and she's hard at work on the difficult second one. I can't wait to read her next creation!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Andrew Shaffer at mental_floss tracks How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read, covering the controversial origins of mass-market and trade paperbacks. (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)