Don’t despair: A novel takes awhile

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The novel, nearing completion

I’m in the final stretch of my novel Viral Times, doing the Ultimate Edits based on the reading and revision notes that I received from Jill Dearman — last summer. For a very fair fee, she read and marked 350 manuscript pages of the Summer, 2009 version of the novel. (I also got a five-page summary of the weak areas and the strengths of the writing.)

I am just doing the calendar math here, and June of 2009 — when I was pulling together and slashing down 144,000 words to 98,000 — is, yeah, about two and half years ago. There’s reasons as well as excuses about that span of time. A growing writing workshop practice, reading hundreds of pages of Manuscript Group books. It could have gone more quickly.

But I’m using the collective energy of National Novel Writing Month to get the end of this Ultimate Edit. It’ll be ready to read on Dec. 17. Just in time for flu season. Have a look at the work in progress — complete with a log of how the work progressed — at viraltimes.net. Leave me a comment, too.

Know what you’re aiming at in your war

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In his new book The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell teaches us that a story’s premise must be supported by fresh, solid scenes. Bell, who’s also written suspense novels and the great Plot and Structure, reminds us of fundamentals: make your dialogue flow; cut or hide exposition (delay it if you can, eliminate what’s not working); flip the cliched situation (so a big-rig truck driver might be a woman.)

But in his scene summary, Bell reminds us that every scene needs to have a thing it is aimed at — a bull’s eye. It’s a moment or an exchange, he says.

A bull’s eye can be a few lines of dialogue that turn the action around or reveal something striking. It can be as subtle as a moment of realization, or explicit as a gunshot to the heart. Many times, it is found in the last paragraph or two.

In the Writer’s Workshop Tuesday sessions, we have an exercise where we’re given the last line of a piece of writing, then invited to write toward that line. Bell says that a scene that doesn’t have a bulls-eye should be cut or rewritten.

We bring away writings of 300-500 words from our Tuesday sessions, scenes or sections that might be a little off target in our first draft. That’s what rewriting is for.

Popular and good writing can be exclusive

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A USA Today story reports that Stephanie Meyer of the Twilight series is now “dominating” the paper’s bestseller list. These books of the undead, and the movie franchise they’ve spawned, are lively enough to have earned her publisher Little, Brown $40 million already. So the author has her own $4 million in royalties to bank.

By most accounts, though, the writing is weak. Especially compared to the Harry Potter series, which USA Today was quick to compare to Twilight. Bestselling seems to be the only point in common. A reading teacher reports as much in the comments on the USA Today site.

I’m a Reading teacher, its my job! And I must say JK Rowling’s books are far superior in writing, character development, plot, and readability, just to name a few things. Meyer is good, but Rowling is great! I put Breaking Dawn down utterly disappointed, compared to the tears of joy and sorrow that were gushing from my eyes when I put The Deathly Hollows down. Meyer may break records, but overall Rowling is Queen.

Does Stephanie love it, and live the creating like Rowling did? Her publicist reports that she’s taking a break from the romance of vampire passion.

When Meyer might publish a new novel isn’t known, says Megan Tingley of Hachette’s Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She’s “enjoying the writing process without a deadline or targeted publication date.

What writer wouldn’t enjoy that kind of writing life? Wealthy beyond her dreams, with only millions of Potter fans and the reading teachers of the world to sniff at her work. As for the publisher, they want the books as fast they can get them, to piggyback on the publicity. As the article points out, Stephanie has tapped the motherlode of young female readers with Twilight, Edward and vampire fantasy. If you desire good and popular writing all at once, working for the first might be a better place to start to get to the second. Unless you’re plugged in to the fantasies of YA-reading women. They buy a lot of books.

I’m reminded of the line from Citizen Kane, when his business manager Bernstein is interviewed. “Making a lot of of money isn’t difficult, if all you want to do it make a lot of money.” I’d be wary of starting a vampire novel just about now, though. When every publisher wanted the next DaVinci Code when it was soaring, imagine how many candidate queries poured in trying to be just like the Flavor of the Last Three Months. The time of just-average writing of vampire teen romances is gone by now.

Know what your story desires to tell

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NPR has a great interview with Richard Russo you can listen to on its site. The author of the divine Empire Falls (a Pulitzer winner) has a new book, That Old Cape Magic. The book is about a writer, a device that lets Russo explain a common author’s problem, for those still learning the craft. It’s not easy understanding what a story needs to say.

In his novel, [his character] Griffin decides to write about his childhood on the Cape — including his love for a neighboring family. But his first draft of the story isn’t any good because the characters don’t come to life.

Russo, who used to teach fiction writing, says this is a problem that he frequently sees in beginning writers.

“The deepest failures any fiction writer is likely to have are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story that he or she is telling. And I think that’s why Jack Griffin can’t write this story … there’s something about himself that he hasn’t quite recognized.”

Russo says this idea of missing the point is as common in life as in novels. And as memories corrode or morph, people — parents and children, husbands and wives — tend to form different ideas of the past.

How to avoid this pitfall? Keep crafting that three-paragraph synopsis, if it’s a longer work like a book. In this format, paragraph one describes the inciting event. Two tackles the expansion and evolution of the story. Three delivers the Big Message: Why your readers should open the book, to learn a larger story, like how faith can overcome fear of the future.

Big truths of stories cover common ground, so a reader has empathy with the lesson: “Hey, I lived that one.” Or knew someone who did. Or failed at the lesson.

By the way, Russo sounds like a dynamite interview subject on the radio. A voice as crackling as his characters.

When a book is finished

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I’ve taken a couple of months away from this blog and the manuscript workshops to complete the first full draft of Viral Times. It’s been a process of learning craft and considering workshop responses over more than six years to finish this first novel. (Thanks to all who read this in progress; you’ll be in the foreword.) Although it took longer to finish this draft than I expected, it feels delicious to have transformed my creative work from a project into the bones of a book.

ScrivenernotecardsAt the end, in the last gallop to the wire, I used Scrivener on my Mac to make a pack of 51 chapters into a cohesive narrative. (It runs on Windows, too.) I’d been searching long and hard for a piece of software that would take dozens of Word documents (one per chapter) and line them up in my sequence of plot. The most brilliant part of Scrivener is creating what’s called scrivenings: an test-run of scenes and sequel to make up a chapter, or a proposed set of chapters to devise a book.

I’m lucky in being able to bull my way to the finish with the Mac and Scrivener. Some of this fortune comes from earning a journalism degree rather than an English degree more than 25 years ago: the journalism pays for things like the 24-inch iMac and provides time to work on the book. I figured, back in 1980, that learning journalism would give me a better chance to earn a living than a proper literature degree. While I had to learn the craft of fiction over the past six years (a education in process), I was at least writing all the while to run a house and a business.

Now I’m in the rather comfy spot for awhile of waiting on an agent’s response. A lucky connection with Cameron McClure of the Donald Maas Agency netted a request for 100 pages. Big chunk of a 293-page book, good agency, and an agent who sells stories like this future fiction tale of mine. No promises, but the book is on its way to whatever it will be in the months and years to come.

When is something this large really finished? You never can be sure, and I still think of what could have gone into it, or been cut out. Those things might still happen (and probably will) as the book moves toward publication. But one marker of completion is length. Scrivener helped in an enormous way with this. Few books should be longer than 120,000 words, with the rare exception. Fewer still will sell at under 70,000. Those numbers come from the Maas Agency, where one of the agents posted a great article on book length.

And now that Viral Times has come in at 98,000 words, I can look forward to my manuscript workshops of this fall. By the time we’ve met for half of the 8 monthly sessions, I’ll have read and responded to 100,000 words. I come back to that work renewed and ready after my summer vacation.

Slow and careful writing about love

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I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale this month. Margaret Atwood’s story about a future America dominated by religion and males, with women subjugated and forced to bear children, does contain love and passion, too.

I was struck by the passage below, so beautiful that I made a note of it in my Kindle copy of the book. The writing shows off how loving Atwood is with words of love. Here, the heroine of the book describes her illicit, secret lover, her respite after she’s lost the memory of her husband Luke.

I want to see what can be seen, of him, take him in, memorize him, save him up so I can live on the image, later: the lines of his body, the texture of his flesh, the glisten of sweat on his pelt, his long sardonic unrevealing face. I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars, the singular creases; I didn’t and he’s fading. Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless. For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what he wanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit. But he does not require such trimmings. We make love each time as if we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.

Five summers ago I took a Novel seminar at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we studied Atonement. Our instructor advised us to deliver the details of a body your character has come to know and love. Atwood gives us this as well as anybody I’ve read.

Are we reading differently?

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The evidence in today’s audience suggests the answer is yes. A fun article on Tim Bray’s Ongoing blog suggests that our language skills are hard-wired to grasp conversational writing, because 90 percent of human language history used only talk to communicate.

There’s nothing much on the Net that’s without precedent in spoken language. What’s new is that written discourse is becoming less like oration and more like conversation. It’s not clear that this is bad.

Then there’s Karleen Koen, a novelist who’s working on her fourth book, historical fiction based in France. She writes on her blog

As I polish (which means cut, smooth out, delete, write new things that make the reading slick) I do believe people are reading differently, with less patience — and the inherent problem with a historical novel is that a writer has to set up the background so the reader understands the world he or she is entering, and that can’t be done in a quick paragraph or two. Or at least I can’t do it.

There will be readers who love to immerse themselves in a book, get lost in the pace. But are there enough of them now, growing up in a Twitter generation, to give writers a livelihood? Bray notes that books are losing market share and adds, “Unsurprising, because when you start at 100 percent, there’s nowhere to go but down. Books are now competing, on a fairly level playing field, with the Net media: blogs and Twitter and mailing lists and fora of other flavors.”

But a certain kind of story can only achieve its potential as a book. A good friend of mine just landed a nice contract for a first book. It will be an impressive debut when she finishes. A literary pace will probably govern her writing, though. Are you patient enough to give yourself over to a pace that will match your vision for your work? One clue: How long can you sit in the chair and just write, or just revise? I don’t know many novelists who tweet on Twitter.

Hooray for a Pulitzer’s worth of stories

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Short stories get short shrift. These gems of tales, usually less than 3,000 words, usually can’t find a publisher or a publication, but everybody professes to enjoy reading them. Count among the satisfied the jury of the Pulitzer Prize, which awarded the 2009 fiction prize to a collection of stories by Elizabeth Stout, Olive Kitteridge.

To be precise, this lovely book is a “novel in stories,” a collection of tales with recurring characters but not bound up with a narrative though-line. Reading a novel in stories is easy for people who only read once in awhile. You always feel like you’ve gotten everything there is to tell in a novel in stories, so long as you finish the chapter you’re on. Every chapter is a self-contained story.

Six years ago, I saw a novel-in-stories slammed by a prize-winning novelist. Ann Patchett came to Austin to give a keynote speech at the Austin Writers League “Why Fiction Matters” conference. Patchett spoke knowing she’d just won the PEN/Falkner award for her novel Bel Canto. In the course of her talk Patchett said in passing, “and then there’s the novel-in-stories, a form I loathe, by the way.” We didn’t all want to know what she liked to read, or thought was worthy. But some of us knew something Patchett didn’t. The conference organizer Karen Stolz had published a successful novel in stories, The World of Pies.

So maybe — since Stout’s novel in stories won the Pulitzer, like fiction of Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon — Patchett might want to revisit her judgment about the worth of novels in stories. She could reconsider while she’s dusting off the section of her bookcase that’s still waiting for a Pulitzer prize. Bel Canto is based on the Lima Crisis news event, but Olive Kitteridge doesn’t need that kind of based-on-a-true-story leg up. It’s Elizabeth Stout’s world of coastal Maine residents. Booklist said in a starred review

But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this “novel in stories.” Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope.

Never let it matter that anyone, no matter how awarded their career might be, reviles your writing style. You can find single-star reviews for Bel Canto on Amazon, after all. Be your own judge and let yourself — not just your writing or publishing — be the beauty in the world.

Sol Stein on humanity and authority

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My good friend and fellow novelist Larisa Zlatic sent me an excerpt from a good writing book by Sol Stein. Her excerpts from Stein on Writing include these:

The first step in revision is to make a judgment about your main characters. Character problems must be dealt with before beginning a general revision. This method of revision makes certain that you have humanized your characters.

Do you think about them in situations that are not in your book? If so, good. It means your characters are alive in your mind and should come alive in the minds of the readers. If you can’t think of an important character in situations away from the story that character may need more work. Ask these questions:

• What is about your character that you like especially? Is it also your own trait? If yes, it is a symptom of the autobiography trap, creating a character that is too like yourself. Resolution: give a character a trait (positive or negative) that you absolutely don’t have.

• If you’re going on a vacation how would you feel if your character were going along? Would you look forward to that? You may need to add some sparkle to your character, some interesting eccentricity, personality characteristic that will make his company more enjoyable.

I have Stein’s How to Grow a Novel on my bookshelf, and Chapter Eight offers on advanced point of view. He summarizes the explanation of how to distinguish first from third from omniscient, then he says, “I can’t recall a manuscript that didn’t have a couple of glitches in the handling of point of view. Sometimes dozens. The need to be caught in revision. The novelist’s authority depends on it.”

Authority in writing transmits the “dream state” to the readers, the means to lock them into the world you’ve created. And believe me, I’m working on maintaining authority in Viral Times right now.

One chapter at a time, revising goes

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I’ve assembled a schedule to get me to the end of Viral Times, the novel project of my past six years. Two hours a day, five days a week, three or four chapters. Taking a carving knife to 129,000 words. Not so bad, if you look at science fiction standards, where 120K is the top end. I always wanted to start at the top, after all.

It’s especially educational to revise writing that you penned more than four years ago. Talk about a cooling off period…

Chapter 25 is now complete, with 22 more to go in about six weeks. I’m in the oldest material now, one of the five attempted starts to the book. (It’s finally got a prologue, so there’s no doubt where it begins.)

The good news is that the writing to come will get easier to revise, because it’s fresher. If there’s a shiny center to this cloud of words, it might be in seeing how much my craft has grown up. A funny thing to consider, growing up, when you’re already past 50.

“You just have to take it bird by bird, buddy.” That’s the advice that Annie Lamott’s dad gave her brother, who had procrastinated on a school paper about birds. In Bird by Bird the boy had dozens of books on the table and it was time to finish. For me, too. There’s another, newer book, about a much older time, waiting inside.

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