July 3rd, 2013 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes & Vicarious MFA

How I wrote my latest novel, part 2

Last week, I documented how I came up with the initial idea for my latest novel—“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” which I was then calling “The Porn Novel”—and how I simultaneously began exploring that idea and laying out some basic formal parameters. I also provided a general overview of my general writing process. Today I’ll cover how I finished this initial exploratory period and settled into a stronger sense of the project as whole. Again, my hope is that these posts will prove useful to other writers, and interesting to everyone on God’s green earth. Because I remember very clearly that, during the decade I spent writing my first novel, Giant Slugs, I often felt frustrated and confused. And while every writer must figure ultimately things out for her or himself, some of my strategies and methods might prove theft-worthy—or at least provide a good laugh.

So I’d gotten to the point where I’d translated the original idea (“a pornographic novel that doesn’t contain any sex”) into a more specific approach: six chapters featuring six friends meeting up for six meals. I knew that each chapter was going to be long, to make the absence of salacious material more palpable. And I’d whipped up some character names, and sketched out a list of potential meals.

I also tried estimating how long each chapter would have to be. I decided that, in order to convey the proper feel, the first five chapters should be at least 20 pages each, and that the final chapter (the group dinner) should be longer—at least 30 pages. That added up to 130 pages minimum, which felt like the shortest the project could be. I translated that into word counts, since I think better that way (for one thing, I always single-space my manuscripts, since years of teaching/grading, not to mention taking writing workshops, have led me to despise the look of double-spaced manuscripts). I had a sense that the project would be dialogue-heavy and not contain any long paragraphs, running maybe 250 words/page. Hence, the projected numbers worked out to 5000+ words apiece for chapters 1–5, and 7500+ words for chapter 6. These were just targets, of course, but having a rough idea of what I’m aiming at helps me pace myself, and estimate how long the writing will take.

I also started my writing journal. I use Excel for this and it’s nothing extravagant; I just note each time that I work, and jot down a few words as to what I did. I also track the word counts as they change (using blue for increases and red for decreases). And while this habit of mine is probably the sign of a diseased mind, it helps keep me motivated, encouraging me to “log in” every day, and stick to my routine. It’s not unlike tracking my workout routines, or the movies that I watch. Plus it yields data I can later analyze, which is the only thing that sustains me through the long cold Chicago winter. (Dear NSA, I hear you had an opening recently? Call me!)

Now before you think me entirely insane, consider this. I have a simple litmus test for what enters/exits my writing routine: is it fun? I write a lot, and want to enjoy it, and make it something I look forward to doing. As such, I’m always looking for little ways to reward myself, and to make the situation more pleasant / less stressful.

For example: when I was younger and writing only fitfully, I mostly wrote late at night, even though I never had much success doing that. Writing was something I did after stressing out about it all day, feeling guilty about not having gotten any work done. After a decade or more of that, I switched to writing in the morning—and, believe me, I did not think I was a morning person at that time. But I started living with a yoga instructor who taught early morning classes. So I started getting up at 5 AM and, amazingly, I discovered that I was much more productive and happier when I wrote then. (I also realized that predawn is my favorite time of day.) That experience taught me to examine the rest of my writing routine, and to try making it more enjoyable overall. So my Excel files are in some sense silly, yes—but they are my only friends, and I name them, and I love them.

Here’s a snapshot of the journal that I made:


(That’s the finished version. I fill it out line by line, day by day.)

I also made a second spreadsheet, where I could visually track the word counts of each chapter as they developed. This provides further motivation—I find that one of the more challenging aspects of writing a novel is the absence of the immediate gratification provided by stories and poems (and blog posts). You have to keep plugging away and believing you’re making progress. Watching the columns creep upward helps me feel like I’m getting there:


All right, now you may think me thoroughly insane.

I’m not saying that making colorful Excel sheets like this is for everyone. And I might finish novels faster if I skipped making them myself. But have you also considered that humans invented writing in order to give them an excuse to make colorful Excel sheets?

Back to the literary form that was gradually emerging. All this time, I kept bashing out text, freely exploring ways that the conversations could go. As I did that, I tried imagining or distilling larger principles that could guide and structure the work. Again, I went with what felt good, though I also asked myself why I thought it felt good.

For instance, the more I worked, the more I began thinking about the novel’s style. I wasn’t revising or editing the prose yet—far from it!—but I was looking at the words that I was producing, and wondering which way they might eventually go. And I started thinking that I didn’t want the language in the novel to be particularly clever or acrobatic. That is to say, I wanted the finished language to be on the simpler, plainer side, neither intricate nor ornate.

I should stress that this is a real departure my other novels. Giant Slugs consists of nothing but clever sentences:

We’ll all follow the finer taboos, the tattoos of a pro percussionist’s tom-toms. I’ll recall the tablets my kiddy fingers traced, guided by my father’s gauzy own, which when young gripped the blunt reed and delicately dedicated his bird-like words to clay.

“We’ll all follow” = “We’ll all fall” (extensive Humpty Dumpty imagery runs throughout the book). And “pro percussionist’s tom-toms” = “proper customs”—in writing Giant Slugs, I did scads of “word splitting,” a technique I described more thoroughly in this post. That book required that I spend long hours revising the language, packing in as much wordplay as I could. And while my second novel, “The New Boyfriend,” is far less punning, its first-person narrator is still a clever person (a “wordy“), who relates events in a wryly circular style:

I tried to deny it, but there was simply no use in denying it: the two of them made a very cute couple.

“You make a cute couple,” I said at last. “There’s simply no use in denying it!”

“Still,” Lauren exclaimed, “I can imagine you denying it!”

“No, not true, not true!” I cried, very playfully. “I wouldn’t ever!”

“You’re such a denier,” Lauren said; she said this mainly for the benefit of the new boyfriend. There was no use in telling Melanie—she already knew this (and much more) about me. “Just begging to differ—such a contrarian, very contrary.”

Well, I could see that there would be no use in my denying that.

In the case of this new novel, I wanted to try something less self-conscious. The writing would still be stylized (all writing is), but I decided to make it as invisible as possible. The way I articulated it was that the story’s third-person narrator should have no psychology whatsoever. (Mind you, I don’t think that’s really possible, but I tried to approach that concept the way a parabola approaches its asymptote.)

This decision felt right to me for various reasons. Pornographic films employ small talk and flimsy plots as a means of getting to the “real” content: the pizza guy shows up at the sorority house, and there’s some dialogue about how big a tip he should get—but that’s just an excuse to justify the sex, and no real effort is spent on it. It just has to be “good enough.” In the case of this novel, I wanted nothing but the pretext.

At the same time, however, I knew that I didn’t want to use any double entendre, even though that’s a staple of pornography. But I wanted the finished book to be innocuous—totally stripped of any titillating content. Double entendre functions metaphorically: the literal content stands in for some other meaning. I wanted only literal meaning, and no direct allusions to sex. (It helped me to think that sex might not even exist in the fictional world I was describing.)

Writing very plainly helped make the novel feel more perverse to me (and, despite the dearth of titillation, I wanted the prose to achieve a perverse quality—I just didn’t want to do so by including or alluding to sexual content). And here the novel’s form was influenced by the literary culture at large. Because I’ve felt for a while now that, in general, the literary writing scene overvalues clever and ornate language, valorizing it at the expense of other formal issues in writing (see, for instance, my critical post “The Barthelme Problem,” which I think I should try revisiting). I don’t think that literary excellence hinges on clever writing. This new project, then, offered a chance to try making something literary and enjoyable without employing dynamic sentences or an overly flashy style. (I’ll say more about the style that did develop in part 3 or 4.)

All this time, I kept thinking about the characters and the meals they would be sharing. I knew I wanted three women and three men, and had assigned them names (which never changed). Since a lot of the rest of the novel was shaping up to be pretty homogeneous in both style and form—meal after meal after meal, rendered in a pretty straightforward fashion—I decided to introduce variety at the level of character, setting, and event. I started brainstorming scenarios that I wanted to include: a scene in a restaurant, a scene in a workplace, a scene in a garden. The characters also started coming into focus: Monica was a tall elegant European woman, slightly fussy and bossy. Charlie was a somewhat heavyset older man, and something of a glutton and a lecher. Mark was a goofy hipster writer. Suzi was a spunky Asian-American photographer, unselfconscious and uninhibited.

I should emphasize that all of these thoughts were happening simultaneously and influencing one another. Knowing that I wanted the style to be on the plainer side affected the way the characters would speak, which in turn affected their personalities, and vice-versa.

Looking back now, the characters and the finished chapter/meal structure strike me as obvious, but it took me a while to figure it out. My 6/6/6 structure, for instance, didn’t seem viable given my desire to have one character appear in chapters 1, 2, and 6. (See part 1 for more on the reasoning behind both of those decisions.) The problem here was twofold:

1. It looked as though one character would have to appear in too many chapters, and I wanted the novel to be about the group, not a single character. So I didn’t want anyone to show up more than three times.

2. It seemed unrealistic that the characters would eat so much in a single day, and I wanted things to be generally plausible.

Whenever I run into formal problems like this, my preference is to tackle them head-on, because ignoring them only creates bigger problems later. Also, solving problems early on helps me clarify what’s important. My method is simple: I ask, “What should my priority be?” or, “What do I most want to do?” Answering that tells me what’s negotiable and what isn’t. (This is one way that I’ve applied to my writing the Russian Formalists’ notion of “the dominant”).

Seeing as how I’d reached a make-or-break point, I set aside a morning to hammer things out. I went to one of my favorite local cafés, taking along some of my favorite materials: cheap blue Bic pens and a yellow legal tablet, plus David Bowie’s brilliant album Heathen, which Shaun Gannon turned me on to (thanks, Shaun!). Settling in with a bottomless cup of coffee, I proceeded to make a list of the things I knew I wanted:

  • for there to be 6 character / 6 meals / 6 chapters;
  • for the novel to take place over the course of a single day;
  • for each character to appear in 2–3 chapters—no more, no less;
  • for one character to appear in chapters 1, 2, and 6;
  • for two chapters to feature three characters (male-male-female and female-female-male);
  • for the final chapter to include everyone;
  • for the whole thing to read plausibility (I realized that I was writing realist fiction, which was a first for me—all of my other fiction is fantasy).

But whatever combinations of characters and meals that I tried, I kept running into problems. One character, it seemed, would have to repeat too many times. And I still couldn’t figure out why they were they eating so damn much! I considered removing one or more of these criteria: having the novel take place over a few days, or adding one or more characters. But those solutions felt wrong.

So I kept hammering away. In the end, two things helped me solve this problem (or interconnected set of problems):

1. I remembered that I wanted to feature variety at the meal level. The six meals didn’t have to be equal in size or importance. Making three of them smaller accomplished a great deal. I revised my list of meals and decided upon coffee, brunch, lunch, a snack, tea, and the concluding dinner party.

2. I also employed a trick I learned while writing Giant Slugs: write the problem directly into the work itself. Why would some of the characters meet for tea if they were going to a dinner party in just a few more hours? Well, what if they themselves addressed that very issue? I immediately sketched out some dialogue in which one of the characters apologized for the tea being simple and light, since they would soon be heading to the dinner party. So why then were they meeting for tea? Well, they’d been talking about doing so for months. One of the characters had never had a proper British tea before, and was desperate to try it. But why would they meet up on that particular day? Well, the fellow in question would soon be leaving the country, and this was the only day that all of them were free. So they were doing it to say that they had done it.

One of the characters, Tyrell, thus became British. He was also a painter, and Suzi had been modeling for him as of late. The two of them had shared tea many times before. Mark and Suzi were leaving soon for Thailand, and Mark was the tea virgin. Suzi and Tyrell were eager that Mark should join them for tea at least once before the trip.

I also decided that the party in the final chapter should be a surprise birthday party. That way, at least one of the characters (Charlie, who became the birthday boy) didn’t know it would be happening, which made it more plausible that he’d eat a lot at brunch. (I also made him something of a glutton, with a tendency to announce that he shouldn’t eat something right before doing so.) Charlie, meanwhile, was planning his own surprise party for Mark and Suzi …

Now I had a good sense of what I wanted to accomplish, how long the novel would be, and how I was going to structure it:


With this now resolved, I could focus more on the conversations that the characters were having, as well as building suspense and intrigue into the novel. … More about which in part 3!

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