February 27, 2023

Left as an Exercise for the Writer

I reached the end of a novel draft last week. The accomplishment doesn't feel as momentous as it usually does, but it's still an important milestone.

The reason for my ambivalence is that what I've been writing devolved into less and less of a "draft" the closer I got to the "end". Early on, my scenes contained a lot of placeholder brackets. Later, the scenes themselves became placeholders indicating the sort of scene I wanted at that point. By the final stretch of my outline, I'd given up on scenes and dialogue and was instead writing out ideas about different possible plot directions and reminders about what story threads to follow up on.

Back in November, I said, "I've been thinking of this draft as a model of a bridge, constructed of popsicle sticks and string in a somewhat haphazard manner. It may not be possible to drive even a toy car across it without jumping over gaps, and it's certainly not designed for real traffic, but it should wind up approximately the right shape to represent the bridge I want to build." Sometime in January, my mental bridge model started relying heavily on piles of popsicle sticks strategically placed for later assembly. And then more and more often, those stick piles didn't consist so much of wood but rather scraps of paper with drawings of popsicle sticks or scribbled notes reading "IOU building materials". What I'm saying is, I'm going to have to do a lot more work and imagining before I get something shaped like a bridge, or a coherent story that anyone else could read.

But none of this represents wasted process, because in the course of sketching out all those sticks and possibilities and placeholder scenes, my ideas for this novel grew so much more solid than they were four months ago. I've identified all sorts of compelling conflicts and clever ways for events to impact one another. I still have a ton to figure out, like what's motivating those conflicts and how to get the characters into place for those events, but now I have a far clearer sense of what it is I'm trying to figure out.

In January and February, I kept up the daily writing habit I established in November and December. I wrote at least a hundred or so words every day, except for a break around the end of the year. That consistency was helpful in keeping me moving forward, as was the steady accumulation of words I could track and set weekly goals around. My final word count was close to 95,000 words, a good size but not necessarily correlated with the length of a more complete draft.

Next week, I'll read through everything I wrote and determine how to proceed. I have an intimidating number of missing pieces to figure out, and I'm not even certain how to approach the task. I may also need a new quantitative goal to keep me in the writing groove, since word count is less useful in planning stages. Before I start puzzling out those problems, though, I'm taking little time to bask in what I've already achieved.

February 1, 2023

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off great, with lots of books and lots of variety:

AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor opens with a gruesome accident: a speeding Mercedes mows down five people who were sleeping on a Delhi sidewalk. The drunk man who the police find in the driver's seat, Ajay, is well-dressed but recognizably a servant and not the owner of the car. He's carted off to jail, though there's a sense that he might be taking the fall for someone else. Then the story jumps back to show Ajay's impoverished childhood, the events that led to him being sold into servitude, and how he eventually became an employee of the wealthy and powerful Wadia family. Further shifts in time and perspective provide a deeper look at the characters Ajay quietly serves and observes. The heir Sunny Wadia dreams of doing something positive with his money, but he struggles against his father's corrupt influence and the ease of sinking back into frivolous partying. Sunny briefly finds happiness with the journalist Neda, who is also torn over whether to walk the difficult or the easy path. The narratives of these characters and others weave together to reveal everything that led toward and away from the accident, and how all that is part of a larger power struggle.

If you're at all interested in reading a literary crime thriller, I highly recommend this tense, layered novel. While during the short opening section I was unsure I liked what I was getting into, once the story flashed back, I was quickly drawn in and remained fascinated until the end. The prose is masterfully crafted, sometimes clipped and sometimes lush, to control the drama and emotion. My sympathy was with the characters even though their behavior was often reprehensible. I enjoyed exploring a world I knew nothing about, the extremes of wealth and poverty in Delhi and northern India in the early 2000s.

The book ends at a pivotal moment, leaving the reader to imagine the consequences. It didn't occur to me that made it unfinished until I learned this is the start of a planned trilogy. I look forward to more.

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE by V.E. Schwab: Addie made an ill-defined deal with a shadowy god, and now she's cursed to live forever but never make a mark on the world, including in the memory of people she meets. As soon as a conversation or a passionate night ends and she's out of a person's sight, they forget her entirely and have no idea what transpired between them. For three hundred years, Addie has survived in this lonely, precarious existence, holding tight to the moments of happiness since she can't keep hold of much else. Friendships or a job are impossible, and even securing lodging is unreliable because at any moment she might be mistaken for a trespasser. But Addie has persisted from eighteenth century France to modern day New York City, when she meets someone who just might change her circumstances.

I appreciate stories that do a good job exploring what it would be like to live under some strange magical constraint, and this novel delivers that. I enjoyed getting to know Addie and the other characters she encounters across a range of historical settings. I had fun guessing at what was coming and often being surprised. The book could have been shorter, because certain aspects of the story became repetitive after a while, but aside from some impatience in the middle, I was glad I picked up this novel I've been hearing about for a while.

THE ROUTE OF ICE AND SALT by José Luis Zárate, translated from Spanish by David Bowles: This novella is narrated by the captain of the ship that brings Dracula to England, though of course he's unaware what story he's a part of. The captain's own story is that he's filled with desire for other men but will not allow himself to do anything that would reveal this to his crew. He watches his men at their work and imagines licking the sweat from their bodies, but he will never touch, only fantasize and dwell on old memories. On this journey, the ship's only cargo is fifty boxes of earth, and this seems to be having some strange effects on the rats aboard. As the days pass, events grow stranger, and the crew becomes more uneasy. Then the men start to disappear, one by one.

The short book is divided into three sections, each with a different style. The first is atmospheric and often erotic, with gradually building dread. In the second part, the quickly escalating situation leaves no time for longing. At the end, the doomed captain is mostly lost in memories. Every section was interesting to read but more literary and abstract than I was expecting. Two introductions and an afterword provide useful context about the book, which was first published in Mexico in 1998 and translated in 2020.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout: Lucy goes into the hospital for what should be a routine appendectomy, but unexplainable complications arise, and she's stuck there for almost nine weeks. During that time, her mother comes to visit her for five days. The narration establishes these durations at the outset, because Lucy is writing her story years in the future, so scenes at the hospital alternate not only with memories of her past, but also with events that occur after the hospital stay. Lucy's relationship with her mother is strained, following a childhood of abuse and poverty. Though their conversations during the five days together are mostly about other people from their small town rather than their own family, Lucy comes to understand her mother better, to a certain extent. Later on, when Lucy pursues her dream of becoming a writer, when her marriage falls apart, and when her own children grow older, she eventually understands how her relationship with her mother shaped her.

This short book read to me more like an extended personal essay of self-reflection than a novel. The writing is good, and what Lucy has to say about herself and her life is interesting enough, but there was less to the story than I was expecting. Strout has written additional books about Lucy and the husband she divorces, and I have it on good authority that the series gets better with each installment, so now that I've learned Lucy's background, I'll probably read on.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dan Kois at Slate writes about the bittersweet feelings of publishing his first novel at HarperCollins, where junior employees are on strike: "So here's my novel, which I've spent years on. And here's my desire to feel joy and excitement about its arrival. And here's my sadness that many of the assistants and designers and marketers and salespeople who have helped get my book into stores remain poorly paid and disrespected. It creates a real dissonance—and I'm not the only one feeling it."