While I was writing my first novel, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for books on "how to write a novel." Most of them concentrated on the early stages, like getting inspiration, while offering tips on how to find time and/or make a habit of writing, so you could produce the seemingly vast quantities of material required to constitute the finished product.
This was well and fine, but I already had inspiration. And, at that time anyway, I had enough time and self-discipline to create enough material. What I wanted to know was something like--how do you build a plot? Do you outline or not? What if the outline changes every day? How do you know if some thread is worth pursuing or not?
The short answer to all these questions, I discovered later, is "Don't worry about it." Not only does everyone have a different process, I suspect that everyone has a different process for each book. There are many maps; all can get you home.
For example, in the past, I've thought it a bad idea to show my writing group (or anyone) chapters as I wrote them. I thought it best to wait till at least one full draft and probably one revision was done, so that I knew what I was doing before receiving critiques. I didn't want to spend all my time second-guessing and revising; I needed to keep moving forward.
But now, here's why I think the opposite can be true. When you are still planning and plotting and inching forward, chapter by chapter, showing people chapters as you go can give you a good idea of what's coming across, what's interesting, what's likely (though not necessarily) going to cause trouble, which characters they "get" and which they don't.
The risk with this approach is that you may want to immediately start revising the previous chapters based on this feedback. And then you'll never write more than fifty pages--rather, you'll write the same 50 pages 20 times and then (if you're me) collapse in frustration.
But if you can just *take note of* the feedback, say in something called a "notebook," and keep going, that feedback can provide guidance for moving forward. Not absolute direction--you are not handing control of your manuscript over to anyone else--but guidance. What do you need to keep an eye out for as you move forward? What *might* this interesting but still-unformed character turn into and contribute? What plot twist might readers absolutely never accept unless you do it extremely, extremely well? In the early going of my latest venture, this has proven extremely useful. Maybe it wouldn't have been for another novel, but for this one, I think it's only helping. And the encouragement to keep going is damn essential.
This is all to say, as many have said before me, there is no one way or right way to write a novel. Whatever keeps you moving forward is what you need to do.
Some thoughts on desecrating the flag, for Flag Day:
Throughout his life, my gentle father
mostly avoided conflict. But one summer, almost thirty years ago, we had what I
would call an argument.
On July 25, 1990,
Rosanne Barr sang the national anthem before a San Diego Padres game. It went
poorly. As Barr later recalled in a Washington Post interview, she is
actually a fine singer, and she’d intended to perform the anthem seriously. But
on that notorious night, she’d started off too high and soon found herself “screeching.”
Rather than starting over, she decided to push on through, growing increasingly
distraught as boos enveloped her and every note came out more horrible than the
last. Then she made an even worse mistake. She had planned to pause for a
respectful interval after the song was over, and then add a comedy “tribute to
baseball players.” By this point, though, her timing was way off. As her final
scream dwindled away, she hastily grabbed her crotch and spat. Amid a thunderstorm
of verbal abuse and hurled bottles, officials hustled her and her son out of
the stadium. On the eve of the first gulf war, President George H. W. Bush
rebuked her, and for years afterward, she endured a string of professional retaliations
and required police protection.
committed, it was nearly universally agreed, a desecration. Not only had she
screeched the anthem, she’d obscenely spat on it and the flag it celebrates—in
other words, on America itself.
shouldn’t have done that,” my father said quietly, a few days later. “That
seems to me that it was evening. We were in my parents’ back yard, winding down
a picnic amid humid green shadows and the piercing scent of citronella. I had
come back to Ohio for the semi-annual filial visit. A young graduate student at
U.C. Berkeley, I was giddy with my sudden understanding of the world via postmodern
literary theory. I explained to my father why he was mistaken.
signifier is only arbitrarily connected to the signified, by means of contingent
power relations,” I said (or something like that). “The anthem isn’t America.
It’s only a song. Just like the flag is only a piece of cloth. Who cares if
someone spits on it, or burns it?” I may have gone on to say that Barr was
essentially making the same point (even if, it turns out, that wasn’t her
intention). Isn’t this all bullshit?,
she seemed to ask. Why do we sing this larynx-convulsing song—based on a drinking song, no less—before settling
in to watch grown men swing at and mostly miss a little ball with a stick? Why
do these celebrated athletes get away with spitting and crotch-grabbing while
millions are watching them on TV, when they’d be thrown out of a restaurant for
doing the very same? I probably also mentioned the gender politics of defining
women’s vs. men’s “vulgarity.” My mother, a vocal liberal, took my side. I
think she was surprised, as I was, that my dad would espouse such a position.
He, too, was quite liberal in other matters. Why did he even care about this manufactured
an insult to those who serve their country,” he said.
The argument ended
then. Like my dad, I really wasn’t much for conflict. And at that moment, high as
I was on deconstructionist bravado, I realized why my father believed in those supposedly
empty signifiers. As a young Navy officer, he had been deployed to Hawaii in
the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Luckily, he’d never seen combat. There’d been a
tsunami, he’d sometimes recount, and he and some other men had gone out in a
small boat to look for survivors. They’d found none. Otherwise, they’d spent their
time exploring the mountains, and on one ill-fated outing, he’d fallen into a
treetop. That was about it, he’d say,
with a little laugh. He had found Hawaii beautiful. He had never been back.
Yet even as he’d always
minimized his own military service (or perhaps because he felt it had been
minimal), the experience had forever shaped the way he read certain symbols. That
garish piece of cloth and that weird song embodied something otherwise
inexpressible, especially for a taciturn Midwestern man: his respect and
gratitude for all who offered their lives for the nation. Intentionally or not,
as our soldiers prepared for a new war that many of us thought was wrong, Barr
had mocked those very real—and to my father, sacred—emotions. And so had I.
But I had argued
with my father for another reason, which I think I stopped myself from bringing
up. In truth, I didn’t believe those signifiers were empty, either. I just
didn’t like what they contained. I actually approved of Barr’s anthem act, not
as a postmodern prank, but as an apparent expression of righteous anger. Today,
I still feel drawn toward that opinion.
On May 26th,
2017, Jeremy Joseph Christian allegedly murdered two men on a Portland train as
they defended two young women from his racist tirade. In April, Christian had participated
white-supremacist rally, wearing a 1776 flag as a cape, shouting the
n-word, and delivering Nazi salutes. As Sinclair Lewis (or, possibly, someone
else) famously stated,
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a
cross.” Although the fortuitously named Christian seems to consider
himself a pagan, he otherwise fulfills the prediction. That whoever issued
the warning likely did so in the 1930s shows that many left-of-center Americans
have long viewed the flag—or at least its use in certain circumstances by
certain people—with varying degrees of distaste or alarm.
That’s pretty much
true of me. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve noticed a flag
snapping in the breeze over a public building or plastered on the tailgate of a
pickup, I’ve tended not to flush with pride, but to flinch—immediately thinking
of people like Jeremy Christian, along with the many more powerful and discreet
figures who embed his views in policy. And then I flinch again, because I
regret that automatic first response. I recall, once again, that I’ve too
easily ceded control of a language that I believe should—despite its often violent
and oppressive history—belong to everyone else, representing not the worst
among us, but the best. Christian and his enablers may believe the flag points
only to them. They may think it’s their rightful mantle as the ultimate
patriots—as Christian shouted at his first court appearance, “You call it
terrorism, I call it patriotism!” But my father, who died in 2006, would consider
Christian’s flag-cape incongruent; he’d hear “patriotism” in Christian’s voice
as dissonance. He’d know that this man desecrated America more thoroughly than
Roseanne Barr ever did—although, in her recent reincarnation as a “racist
Twitter troll,” she may still do real damage.
symbolic sacrileges matter, though his actions have been infinitely worse,
because they can cause us to perceive and communicate our own values as
reactions, rather than first principles. It’s not a new idea that the left must
“take back” the language of patriotism. One sees bumper stickers proclaiming
“Peace is patriotic,” or the occasional flag sticker on a Prius’ back window. But
these statements feel defensive, reinforcing the counternarrative by shouting,
“me, too!” We can’t win a merely semantic tug-of-war (“you call it x, I call it
y”). First, I believe, we must feel the language in our bones. It must be
sacred to us.
To that end, I
offer one final desecration image, both hideous and comic, tragic and—bear with
me—surprisingly useful for one small project I have begun.
At a rally in
Tampa, in June 2016, our president, then the presumptive Republican nominee, added
his own special dimension to the portrait of American fascism: he wrapped
himself around an American flag. Over the ensuing year, it has become ever more
apparent that this full-body flag-hug (not his first, The Hill tells us), did not represent Trump’s love for America. Speaking
of grabbing crotches, it’s difficult not to see, in place of that flag, one of
the many unwilling women he has so proudly sexually assaulted. And that makes
sense. To him, the flag, like every person, object, and creature in this
universe and all others, represents only a potential extension of himself—an
empty vessel waiting to receive his Trumpian essence. The flag-hug is a
blissful self-caress. In his mind, there is nothing outside of, or other than,
… has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is
great and everything is tremendous. Any word can be given or taken away. NATO
can be “obsolete” and then “no longer obsolete” … And then there is Trump’s
ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing. […]
word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we
breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is
polluting is the space of our shared reality. This is what language is for: to
enable you to name “secateurs” [garden shears], buy them, and use them. To make
it possible for a surgeon to name “scalpel” and have it placed in her open
palm. To make sure that a mother can understand the story her child tells her
when she comes home from school, or a judge can evaluate a case being made.
None of this is possible when words mean nothing.
Hugging the flag, our
president throws it on the heap of emptied language. By claiming it for—or
as—himself, he claims the right to annihilate the meaning of any symbol, any
time. Gessen rightly calls his anti-speech “polluting.” It doesn’t matter whether
Trump is doing it deliberately to secure his own authoritarian power, or his
extreme narcissism allows him no other path. When a ruler repeatedly desecrates
not only particular words, but language itself, Gessen tells us, civilizations
die. In the final paragraph, she warns:
fear that there will come a time when we, individually or in groups, discard
certain words because they have been robbed of their ability to mean something.
I can give up “tremendous.” But it’s our job to make sure that we enter the
post-Trump future with other words that still have meaning: “law,” “freedom,”
“truth,” “power,” “responsibility,” “life,” “death,” “fifty-nine,” “president,”
“presidential,” “unprecedented,” “lie,” “fact,” “war,” “peace,” “democracy,”
“justice,” “love,” “secateurs.”
At this crisis point, fighting for
our country literally entails fighting for meaning—not just particular meanings
of certain words or symbols, but meaning as
such. That’s why we must love meaning, and our ability to make and
understand it, even more than our president loves himself. And as Trump’s daily
desecrations throw all we’ve taken for granted about our country into sharp
relief, I think we’ll discover how much we need the particular American
language that some of us once ignored or even despised. As he callously dumps
the vessels out, we can reverently refill them.
To that end,
here’s the plan I’ve undertaken. I know I will still cringe every time I see a
flag—now more than ever. But right after that, I will straighten up, calm down,
and imagine my father standing quietly beside me. I’ll remember his humility
and humanity, as he lived and as he lay shockingly ill and dying. His wish (as
I imagine it) to have done more for his nation and his family—though it’s my
opinion that he did enough. In time, I may move on to picturing other American
people or things I love: a beautiful place our country has created or
preserved; a work of art I can’t live without; large and small acts of heroism,
sacrifice, defiance, or dignity. All of this is America, and all sacred. At the
moment, though, to think of everything we stand to lose—and all we have left to
make and do—feels overwhelming. In our fraught time, too much meaning may be
just as paralyzing as too little.
So I will begin
here, with this one little-known American. For today, he is the meaning I hold
close. To keep on marching, calling, writing, commiserating, and hoping for tomorrow.
I have just started reading Dan Chaon's Ill Will. I am existentially obligated to read this, because it is a darkly humorous horror story set in CLEVELAND. (Yes, all stories set in Cleveland are darkly humorous horror stories.)
Then I read this very interesting interview with Chaon, which suggested a writing method I've used in the past and think I will try again. Chaon mentioned writing the book as a series of chapters, and trying to complete one every night. In the completed book, many of the chapters are quite short, and the narrative is somewhat fragmentary, jumping from one point of view to another, and from one time period to another.
This was more or less how I wrote my first novel, although I didn't have that much intention about it. I simply wrote short pieces I was interested in, with the hope or faith that because I was interested in them, eventually they would all fit together. Writing the connective tissue (i.e., the plot) can come later, but it may not be completely necessary in all cases. Sometimes the theme is strong enough to connect otherwise disparate sections.
In the past I've made the case for working from a pre-existing plot and allowing it to evolve as you go. Now I'm arguing that the opposite can also be effective. Just writing scenes or chapters that seem somehow related to you--or don't seem related as yet, but still intrigue you--can help you build up a deeply resonant narrative over time.
This can also work well with the 20-minute plan, which helps prevent excessive rumination and lends itself to the compact but still potentially fertile fragment.
Obviously it's not easy. That my previous post was in late January speaks volumes. The last few months have felt like years, and doing any work voluntarily, as opposed to under strict instructions or deadlines, has seemed close to impossible.
Nevertheless, here I am.
In the last few weeks I've tweeted rather proudly that I've started writing for 20 minutes a day. Rather than focusing on word- or even page-counts, the only thing that matters here is the time spent. You can just open your file and stare at it for 20 minutes and close it again. But if you're like me, you'll at least start seeing sentences you'll want to change, and from there get a few ideas on how to proceed.
So far, my new--yes, dystopian--novel is eight pages long and has the meandering format of a mostly un-outlined freewriting exercise. But so what? At this point the process is as much about note-taking and idea-generating as actually writing a story. And I find I have ideas in the hours I'm not at the computer, which means there's a there there, and that's reassuring.
The closest thing I can relate the T___p era to is watching a close family member slowly, inexorably, painfully die. It's hard not to feel helpless and sad and frustrated and angry, and to suspect that one's little acts--political, artistic, social, professional--make no difference whatsoever. But my greater fear is of allowing myself to give up, and of looking back on myself in a few years--if we're all still alive--and realizing I rolled over. And wasted the time that still belonged to me.
A few weeks or months ago (time in the T__p era is already a blur, events and hours run together as if in a dream), I lamented one of the many problems of writing in the beginning of the end times for America. The particular problem concerning me was the need--I felt--to give all stories and novels an explicit totalitarian context. Anything written before November 8, 2016--especially written *right* before--seemed newly non-credible. How could anyone write about, say, a family coming apart at the seams or vampires falling in love without acknowledging that it all takes place under a completely fascist regime? But then again, how to stay out in front of all that this regime can and will do, so that even your worst predictions don't end up seeming quaint by publication time?
This, as you might imagine, has proven a mostly paralyzing mindset. Trying to plan a new novel and a new story, I found myself adding layer upon layer of complexity, trying to inject government perfidy into every aspect of my character's lives. Too many threads competed with each other and the gears of narrative ground to a halt.
So now I'm thinking of starting very small. As Jonathan Franzen said in a Powells.com interview years ago, "The real pleasure in writing [The Corrections], for me, was discovering how little you need." I'll begin with one character, one story line and work outward, rather than first attempting to create a whole world system that will never be as strange or sinister as the one we now inhabit.
I have a feeling the larger totalitarian context will arise of its own accord.
In an uncanny, almost freakish coincidence, our cat Bella, littermate to the late lamented Zee, has died of the same illness (lymphoma), almost exactly one year later, i.e., during the recent holidays, which are already horrible by nearly all measures, at least for me.
So, first off: Rest well, beloved Bella. We miss you.
I've just noticed that I am coping with my devastation in a way that replicates the premise of my first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby. That is: we shop because we grieve. I suspect I've bought more unneeded items for myself in the past 24 hours than I did all last year. And, sad to say, these purchases somehow make me feel better, if only temporarily.
Notions of "filling the void" come to mind, but seem inadequate, as an explanation. Perhaps there's an illusion of control--I find something I want, I buy it, I own it--that eludes us when a loved one is ill or dying. When we shop, we complete a concrete transaction with a gratifying result. There's no helpless guessing what might happen if we make one choice or the other; and if we don't like what we bought after all, we can usually return it (or the consequences of our mistake are usually minimal).
But the grief we feel may be more inchoate, which was an underlying theme of Bigfoot. Though I'm not religious, I believe Judaism and Christianity capture this feeling well with the story of the Fall. Our lives are rooted in a tremendous sense of loss, of reaching for that paradise we can never quite envision, let alone regain. Every actual loss resonates with that fundamental condition, making grief seem both bottomless and holy.
What evolutionary advantage this might give us, I can't really say. But it does give a real boost to consumer capitalism.