I’ve wanted for a while now to try writing a story “live” here, posting my work as I went from initial idea to finished piece. I might still do that, but for now, here’s a related series of posts. I spent the past forty days writing a new novel (“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” though my working title was “The Porn Novel”), and want to share with you how I did that. My hope is this will prove less an exercise in vanity and more something instructive—like, you might want to do the exact opposite of me.
Let me state up front that I don’t think there’s any one way to write novels, or fiction, and I don’t approach all of my projects in the same way. And what works for me may not work for you. But I have developed some basic procedures that I find useful and that you might enjoy trying. Also, this time around, I encountered some formal problems that should make for good discussion.
I write pretty quickly, but forty days is the fastest I’ve written a novel. (This is the third one I’ve really completed.) My first novel, Giant Slugs, took nearly a decade from start to finish, during which time I wrote three completely different versions of the book. That experience was, on the whole, difficult and often mystifying. Only in the final two years, when I wrote the final version of the novel, did I feel as though I understood what I was doing, and even then I felt crazily out of control most of the time. I had by then a Master’s in Creative Writing, but never received much instruction in novels, so I had to figure out a great deal on my own. (Perhaps that’s inevitable?)
I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (still unpublished) as an anti-Giant Slugs: whereas GS is a mock-epic with dozens of characters and locations, covering several years, “TNBF” is a single scene featuring four characters, set in a single location on a Sunday afternoon/evening. That project took me seventy-five days total, which taught me that time is a resource, and some projects take less of it than others. I’m sure I’ll return to more time-intensive projects later, but for now, I’m having fun sprinting.
Recently I’ve wanted to try writing a novel in one month, and when I dreamed up this new project, it seemed a good candidate for that. (And, no, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, though I have done the 3-Day Novel Contest about six times. I learned a lot from doing the 3-Day, but never produced what I’d consider a finished novel.)
David Fishkind recently asked “Are You Afraid of Politics?“, and a lot of people, myself included, chimed in. Since then I’ve realized I have much more to say on the subject.
I normally don’t think of politics in Democrat/Republican/presidential election terms. I’m registered as an independent, and I prefer to live my politics on a daily basis—which is why I don’t drive, buy organic food when I can, and support local businesses run by people I know, etc. But it would be damn foolish of me to not recognize that “the political is personal” (to invert a phrase), and that the gentle people elected to the state and federal levels regularly impact both my daily life and my career as a writer. Specifically:
When I was finishing up my Master’s degree at ISU, I worried that I still didn’t know much about writing—like, how to actually do it. My mentor Curtis White told me, “Just read Viktor Shklovsky; it’s all in there.” So I moved to Thailand and spent the next two years poring over Theory of Prose. When I returned to the US in the summer of 2005, I sat down and started really writing.
I’ve already put up one post about what, specifically I learned from Theory of Prose, but it occurs to me now that I can be even more specific. So this will be the first in a series of posts in which I try to boil ToP down into a kind of “notes on craft,” as well as reiterate some of the more theoretical arguments that I’ve been making both here and at Big Other over the past 2+ years. Of course if this interests you, then I most fervently recommend that you actually read the Shklovsky—and not just ToP but his other critical texts as well as his fiction, which is marvelous. (Indeed, Curt has since told me that he didn’t mean for me to focus so much on ToP! But I still find it extraordinarily useful.)
Let’s talk first about where Viktor Shklovsky himself started: the concepts of device and defamiliarization.
You no doubt read Greg Gerke’s deeply critical post about Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Curtis White has now posted his own much more positive impressions of the film. I’ve tried convincing the two of them to go at it like me and Chris Higgs—I even introduced them during AWP—but they’re being too polite. Chime in in the comments section, demanding blood!
(My own thoughts on Tree are here. I have nothing to say about Anonymous.)
Every Friday at Big Other, I’m posting links to feature-length films that are up at YouTube. And I’m doing it for you!
Death x 3: Frances Bay, Curtis White on lit’s (lack of) future, & “Why Originality Isn’t All That Important”
2. My mentor Curtis White wrote something pretty pessimistic at Lapham’s Quarterly about the future of literature.
3. I wrote something a little more optimistic about why originality isn’t all that important.
My friend Tadd over at Big Other has a post up about why Plato wanted to kick all the poets out of his ideal republic. And I’m no philosopher. But my understanding has long been that Plato’s problem with poets/art (besides the whole mimesis “copy of a copy” thing) is that art is messy, uncontrollable.
Like, consider this:
Someone—some artist somewhere—decided to make this. Is it good? Bad? Funny? Sick? Evil? Juvenile? Calculated? Hip? Clever? Stupid? Immoral? Amoral? Sure—it’s all those things, and more! It supports a variety of readings. In fact, the better an artwork is (I think this is a pretty OK one), the more irreducible it tends to be (at least, according to certain lines of aesthetic reasoning that I think Tadd would agree with).
Good art disrupts the social order. It wakes you up, shocks you, makes you feel alive—it makes you see the world again, differently. Bad art is boring, predictable, prescribed, a weak illustration of what you’ve already been thinking. (That’s my problem with so many depictions of September 11th, Roxanne—they reduce that day into something so digestible, so mundane, it’s as though it never happened.)
Been a little while since we checked in with Stephen Elliott and his merry band.
Rumpus original fiction! “Bobcat,” a short story by Rebecca Lee: “Ray was failing at being a person. He’d been fooled by life. It had triumphed over him. I wanted to call out to him, over his wife’s head, Hey Ray, life has triumphed over you.”
Jeremy Hatch points us toward “The Dark Side of Sustainability,” which is itself commentary on “A Good Without Light,” an essay in the new Tin House by Curtis White which is happily available in full online. Hatch: “White argues that our capitalist industrial technocracy, underpinned by an arrogant scientism, has led us into this mess and is incapable of leading us out; that we must look beyond this economic system, and draw from other “systems of value” (religion, the arts, even social science, and I’d add secular philosophy to his list) to find a way out; and that we can do this without necessarily discarding all of capitalism, industry, technology, or science.”
Ted Wilson reviews the Bible and finds it wanting: “Usually I’m better at finishing books, but the Bible is comically long. Whoever published it used super thin paper, so it’s like twice as long as it looks. (I think there might be some duplicate pages accidentally printed.) And it certainly doesn’t help that it’s written in that old-timey language. Plus, I’ve never liked fantasy and the Bible is full of magic powers and other worlds. That’s just not my thing. It would probably appeal more to Harry Potter fans.” To be perfectly honest, it’s this kind of well-worn “satire” that’s just not my thing. But I assume I’m in the distinct minority on this, so if the preceding entertained you, you might as well click through for a whole lot more of the same.
Max Ross reviews Sleeper’s Wake by Alistair Morgan: “[I]n Sleeper’s Wake, the first novel by the South African writer Alistair Morgan, Wraith’s penis is actually a pretty neat literary device. It provides character depth and motivation, is the jumping off point for learning about Wraith’s past, and is central to every plot twist in the book.”
And Stephen himself has new Notes From Book Tour (#10) : “Then yesterday I went to a free clinic in Alameda for H1N1 vaccine. When I arrived there was a line that stretched for three blocks, thousands of people, almost everyone pushing a stroller or holding a baby against their collarbone. A woman behind me blew her nose and an old man coughed loudly. He looked like he was dying. I thought it would be ironic if I caught flu while waiting for the vaccine.”
Oh and for New Yorkers, the Rumpus is back at the Highline Ballroom on 11/17, with Rick Moody, Starlee Kine, Jonathan Ames, Todd Barry, the Six Word Memoirists, something called Care Bears on Fire, and who knows what else.
November 11th, 2009 / 11:29 am