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June 25th, 2013 / 2:11 pm
Craft Notes & Vicarious MFA

How I wrote my latest novel, part 1

writing survival kit

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I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (still unpublished) as an anti-Giant Slugs: whereas GS is a mock-epic with dozens of characters and locations, covering several years, “TNBF” is a single scene featuring four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.)

Before I get to the specifics of this project, a few more words about my general procedure. The biggest lesson I learned while writing Giant Slugs was to discipline myself, and to write every day. That isn’t a sacred rule, and I do miss days and take time off: in the past forty days, I really only worked on this new novel for twenty-eight. (But isn’t resting part of the process?) I find I need a regular schedule because otherwise I’ll fill my time with hundreds of other things, like watching movies and going for long walks and weightlifting. A lot of the decade I spent writing Giant Slugs consisted of me wanting to write Giant Slugs, yet working only in occasional bursts. Looking back now, I can see that I wasn’t putting in the necessary time. I didn’t want to write a novel so much as I wanted to have written one.

In 2005–6 I started setting aside two hours every day to write—the same way I set aside time to work out—and that’s made all the difference. The final version of Giant Slugs took 700 hours to write, and even “The New Boyfriend” took 150 hours. (This new project took I think 100, though I didn’t count.) I had to put all of those hours in at some point. Having a regular schedule also helps me relax: I can set a target deadline, and not feel as though I need to do everything each time I sit down. Instead, I can focus my attention on whatever that day requires.

I write in the morning, after I get up, either at home or a nearby café. Ideally, I like writing very early, between 5–10 am, and always want to be done before noon (though it depends on the rest of my schedule). I find I can easily put in 2–3 hours in the morning; after that, I feel worn out, and want to do something besides sit in a chair. I drink coffee while working but don’t eat much besides a small breakfast. After I finish my work, I email myself a copy of what I did, along with some notes as to what I accomplished. (I keep a writing journal, more about which in a bit.) Then I eat lunch, work out, run errands, and enjoy the rest of the day. I try to focus on other things, although I will make notes if I get ideas. I think I took the basics of this routine from Philip Glass, who stated in his autobiography that he composes for four hours each morning. He also claimed he ignores ideas that occur at other times; his argument was that in this way he had trained himself to get his ideas when he worked. I’m not as strict as that, but I have found that employing a regular routine has made me feel more creative, and eliminated writer’s block (I haven’t had any in years).

So that’s my basic routine. That said, as I near the completion of a project, I find myself wanting to spend all my time working on it. Right toward the end, when all I want to do is finish, I’m willing to clear my schedule and devote whole days to finishing. This final stage is my least favorite part of the writing process, and the next time I write something long, I’m going to experiment with ways to make it more pleasant.

Now to speak more specifically about this project, “Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell.” I had the initial idea on 29 April (I made a note), which was that it would be fun to write a pornographic novel that didn’t contain any sex, but that still had the structure and feel of pornography. I got this idea while rereading Ken Sparling’s Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall: there’s a scene where a guy’s having sex, but Sparling describes it abstractly, and you can’t be sure what’s happening until you reach the end of the passage. And my first thought was to try writing a longer version of that. This synced up with another idea I’d had a while back, to write a novel in which the characters are engaged in bizarre rituals that are described in explicit detail, but the purpose of which are never made clear.

From that starting point I got the idea of writing a novel where it seems as though the characters are going to have sex, but then never do. I described it as a porn film in which a pizza delivery guy shows up at the sorority house, but then sits down with the ladies and eats some pizza, then leaves.

I shared this idea with some friends; talking over ideas forces me to clarify what I mean. I also spent some time sketching out the concept. Whenever I get a new idea (which is often), I first make a note, then I try producing an example or two. I find this step important because the initial impulse, and its execution on the page, are two very different things, and making sketches helps me better see the formal issues at play. I think of this step as checking whether the idea “works” or not. In this case, I jotted out two or three pages, and it seemed to work all right (although, later on, the project changed in other ways).

Because of my school commitments at the time, I couldn’t return to the project until mid-May. Once I’d finished grading student papers and writing a term paper of my own, I sat down and asked myself what I wanted to do. I have no shortage of projects (including blogging), and some are more pressing than others. This time around, I wanted to “reward myself” for having completed my coursework by writing or finishing a novel. Upon further inspection I found myself wanting to work on this particular project. I told myself, “I think it’s doable, and I don’t think it will take me very long.” My close friends have rightly learned to laugh whenever I say this.

I started this project the way I start any other: I just wrote! In the early stages I do not sweat the details. I just bash away, throwing text down on the page, exploring the situation. I find it crucial at this point not to censor or second-guess myself—I often don’t even correct typos. I just explore. (Sometimes I use a typewriter for this, because it’s exciting to bash away at the keys.)

I should explain what I mean by “situation.” At this point, I’m really exploring the work’s form. I had the idea of the pizza guy not getting jumped by the coeds, so I knew right away that I wanted to write a scene where sex seemed inevitable, then failed to occur. This led me to the following formal ideas:

  1. there should be several chapters (the way a porn film contains several scenes);
  2. those chapters should be different from one another (there should be variety);
  3. those scenes should be scenes, with a bare minimum of summary or narrated exposition;
  4. the narrator should be as invisible as possible (no strong voice, no editorializing);
  5. it should all be done in “real time,” by means of straight description and dialogue;
  6. each chapter should be long (at least twenty pages) to help create that “real-time” sense.

None of this was set in stone, but those formal constraints all felt right. And while I’m extremely analytical and formal, I’m also pretty intuitive. Actually, I don’t see a contradiction between those things, and find they support one another. So once I get the sense of a project, I run with whatever feels good. As it so happens, I immediately ruled out the pizza guy and the coeds, because that felt too obvious—too much a dumb joke. (When I told others about the idea, two of them asked me if a plumber would show up, which helped me realize that I wanted to avoid stock porn scenarios.) I was after something more beguiling.

However, I still liked the notion of substituting meals for sex, and from there I advanced to the following structure: six friends sharing six meals over the course of a single day. I was influenced here by an actual porn film that I, uh, researched: Janie Summers: Private Lessons, where the coitus is motivated by a paper-thin plot involving workout sessions with fitness trainers. That movie contains ten characters over five scenes, but for some reason I decided to go with six characters over six scenes—probably because I worship Satan. I decided on three women and three men, and knew that three of the meals would be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Breakfast soon became brunch.)

I also decided that I wanted one character to appear in the first two chapters, then disappear until the end. I already had the hunch that the novel would prove mostly conflict-free: the friends were going to pleasantly share meals, not fight. I had begun thinking of the project as being “perversely innocuous,” where it constantly felt like some other shoe was going to drop (and then never did). I liked the risk and challenge inherent in that formal design, but realized I was staking rather a lot on it. So in order to give the reader something other than frustration, I decided to build in as much suspense and payoff as I could (more about this later). At the same time, since the novel would probably end up being pretty weird, I wanted to help the reader learn how to read it (which is something that Curtis White impressed upon me when I studied with him).

Having one character appear in chapters 1, 2, and 6 contributed toward both of those goals. It established right away that characters would repeat across chapters, but then create some suspense: would this character return? And when that character came back, her return would complete an A-B-A pattern that helped indicate closure. (I wrote more about that kind of patterning here.) I should note that Janie Summers appears in the first two scenes of her film, then disappears from the rest—director Robbie D. has obviously not read Viktor Shklovsky! (I was also influenced here by Harry Mathews’s great novel Cigarettes, where Elizabeth appears in the first two chapters, then disappears, then returns.)

I also wanted some chapters to feature two characters, and some to feature three (for variety’s sake), and then for the final chapter to feature everybody (which was another way of signaling closure). I quickly wrote up a list of names and assigned them to different chapters, so I could keep going. As it turned out, I stuck with my initial set of names, but finding the right combination of characters and meals would prove a substantial formal challenge—more about that next time.

So that’s how I started; I’ll pause here. I envision this as as a three- or four-part series—I’ve already sketched out the rest (in one of my morning writing sessions), but haven’t yet put in the details. And I want to be very detailed because that’s where God lives.

In the meantime, let me know whether you’ve enjoyed this? I’ll be eager to read your comments!

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