novels

WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

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A WRITING DAY

danny-shanahan-i-try-to-write-a-little-bit-every-day-new-yorker-cartoon

Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.

ON ITS FEET

bambiI’ve been working for a couple months on a revision of my novel. I’ve been in no hurry to see the actual new draft get shaped into itself. In fact, the opposite – it has started to seem that the longer I delay propping up the new draft, creating the manuscript, the better it will be for it. Instead, I did some things I’ve pretty much never done. I created lots of overlapping documents that worked on individual scenes, characters and plot lines. I tracked arcs. I wrote bios/psycho-socials of my characters. I created two outlines- the long chapter outline and the shorter chapter outline. (Shorter seems to be winning out.) I wrote a brand new chapter (chapter 2) that introduces new historical events, a new country and people, and that puts my main characters in drastically different conditions than they were before. I doggedly avoided reading what was already there.

Today I stayed “home” from my working vacation, in a blissfully unadorned, uncluttered hotel room in Costa Rica, skipping two hospital site visits, and I propped up the prologue and the first two chapters of the new draft, 50 pages in total. It was an all day affair. I’m sure they’ll get propped and re-propped as the next few months and hundreds of pages pile in, but it’s on its feet. Reminding me of Bambi on the frozen pond that first time. Wobbly as hell, but worth rooting for in all his unformed strengths and beauty. I’m not sure who Thumper represents. Probably the best kind of successful novelist friend who routinely cheers, “Come on, Bambi, you can do it!”

SHORT FORM (AND THE NOVEL, ALWAYS)

I came to writing through poetry. I still have the composition notebook I started in 1980, at age 10, of my first poems. I wrote about nuclear war and fortune tellers and the great unknown that was after death. (Although it was probably at age 11 that I switched my thinking to the great nothingness.) I wrote and read a lot of poetry all through high school and college. A year after college, when I decided to apply to grad school in creative writing, I filled out my applications for MFA programs in poetry. These were paper applications – so quaint. Then, like a true twenty-three year-old, I was struck by the epiphany that I already knew how to write poetry. I’m incredulous as I write this. So I re-did my applications for fiction, thinking I should learn something new in grad school. I had about three weeks to write my first two short stories. How, oh how, I got into Sarah Lawrence College for fiction writing cannot be explained in this life or in the after-nothingness.

As soon as I arrived in my MFA program, I was intimidated by the short story. Within weeks I began writing the novel, The Sign for Drowning, which was published about 14 years later. And in short order I begged my way into the graduate poetry workshops, where I felt the most comfortable. But at the end of the day (degree) I had committed to fiction. But not fiction merely, only the long form, novels. Nothing I wrote was shorter than 100 pages. I wrote a novel, several novels still in-progress and a novella. I never really attempted the short story. Gradually poems evaporated.

This year something changed. I think my increased on-line reading had something to do with it. Finally recognizing how much gets published every day, how much there is to read- all short form. (I am a person that always has an actual book, a novel, in my bag. I am always reading a novel, one to the next.) I also grew increasingly aware of the huge number of literary magazines, on-line and in print, that publish short form works. And I think I matured as a writer. I have probably said a hundred times, “I don’t write short stories,” without ever questioning that statement or fact. I know I grew frustrated and impatient with the one and only form I’d embraced taking about ten years to come to fruition. So I stepped away from my third novel for a while. I practiced creating a narrative arc in a 6000 word space. I adhered to the third person, which has been such a refreshing change for me. I wrote two short stories that stretched me and gave me the gratification of finishing a piece of writing. I have submitted them out into the world. And I’ve written a personal essay and some poems again. I consider this blog the greatest example of my decision to take on the short form. To have another kind of writing, straying from my primary relationship with the novel, a relationship which is such a long-term one with all that entails. This short form writing might have even helped me take the plunge again into the third novel. I did return to write chapter 7 with renewed energy and focus. And the chapter has its own narrative arc almost like a short story. I think there’s a great lesson in that, a lesson that was partially learned by not saying anymore, “I don’t write short stories.” And writing anything I want to.

Finally, with good cause, I’m about to enter a long process of revising a novel, my second completed novel. And my writing brain has been taking deep, deep breaths for the last week, knowing the dive will be deep and the time underwater long. But I’m going to maintain the short form, in this blog and elsewhere, as little islands to land on between the huge crossing.