Archive for the ‘novel’ Category
The tie they decided on was so wide it might as well have been a bib.
You can’t see how tired she is until you get real close.
First, some words from two of my favorite Russian writers:
“Everything I am writing at present bores me and leaves me indifferent, but everything that is still only in my head interests me, moves me, and excites me.”
— Anton Chekhov
“I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child. “
— Vladimir Nabokov
Several times a day, I get an idea. I think it’s good. I write it down. I read it. It isn’t good. I work at it for a while and sometimes it gets good (or, at least, good enough). But it’s never as good as it was in my head. I can’t just connect a cluster of cords from my brain to my readers, Navi-style, so I have to keep writing until I get closer to what I first heard in my head. Will I get there? Probably not. Will I get close if I try hard? I’d better.
This year I’m going to finish the novel. Really. I’m hoping that announcing it will make it more likely that I’ll do it. We’ll see.
One person not having any trouble getting her writing going is Grace Guterman, age nine. On New Year’s Eve, out of nowhere, Grace decided to use her whiteboard to show us how to write a novel.
First, as you see in the picture, you have to pick a genre. She went with fantasy. Then you have to figure out who the characters are. She likes to start with pairs of characters, such as a boy and a girl, a horse and a cat, or a doll and a teddy bear. She considered many combinations, decided on a boy and a doll, and started writing.
A second draft comes next, followed by the final one. “I usually write two ‘draphts’ and then go on to the real thing,” she advises. Although she started with a boy and a doll, she switchd to a boy and a horse. Her premise: “The boy was a prince and the horse had diabetes.” The story had medical complications and a trick (O. Henry-ish) ending. Did I mention that Grace is nine?
She’s also writing another novel, apparently, about the three most important things in life:
He sure wasn’t playing arenas now.
Have a great break, all. I’ll be back here after Jan. 4. If I have enough stamina, willpower, and luck, it’ll be the last year I have to inflict these novel-in-progress sentences on you.
For a long time, Neal used to wash Lenore’s Mercury Monarch every Saturday afternoon.
A writing pal and I are going on a blinders-on fiction sprint in November, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting or Facebooking (?) or anything that month. (I will continue blogging and tweeting and Facebooking (?) for work, though, for the obvious reason.) Email responses will be slower than usual, too.
Seeya December 1. I’ll tell you how it went.
Everyone rocks together; everyone suffocates together.
“There are fellowships, rings, kings, and towers everywhere.”
“I’d like to work with you,” Jack says, “but you have to promise never to serve me a meal again.”
Part of that history, alas, is a Hampton Inn in an industrial park.
The more she chews, the more bitter it tastes.
Perhaps, he thinks, he should have kept that one in his head.
No one on stage is thinking of Middle Eastern food or depressing dressing rooms or motels without even basic cable or interviewers who don’t show up or missed connections or flat tires or hemorrhoids from sitting in the van too long or unchilled beer or guarantees unmet or promo people who don’t show up or girlfriends who don’t call or ex-girlfriends who do call or the real reason the first marriage broke up or the disappointment that hovers over them every time they see a family member or the deal they should have signed or the deal they’ll never get.
It was more like a fried-beer sandwich, with a bit of cod thrown in by accident.
When I’m not working or writing or sleeping or trying to be useful around my family, there’s a good chance I’m reading Proust. I’ve written here plenty of times of my love for his big novel, so I won’t repeat myself. But I’m almost halfway through my every-other year exploration of it, things come to mind, that’s what a blog is for, so here we are. I know I should be writing when I’m reading, but sometimes reading leads to better writing. I hope it does, anyway. Anyway…
Something I read in The Guermantes Way reminded me of a passage from William C. Carter’s welcoming biography of Proust:
“This relationship set a pattern that Marcel would follow with future couples: he would ‘fall in love’ with the fiancee or mistress of a man who appealed to him. Such an arrangement had a number of examples: he could love the woman from a safe distance, exchange confidences with the man and woman about each other, observe the dynamics of sexual love, and have the illusion that he was an active participant experiencing all the joys, enthusiasms, and jealous sufferings of both partners. It was also an ideal vantage point for a novelist.”
Proust had it both ways. Another of his biographers, Edmund White, calls him a “playboy-monk.” He lived life, but he also observed it from a distance, eventually retreating, alone, to his bedroom. But throughout In Search of Lost Time, he describes it intensely and intimately. For the reader, it doesn’t matter how he got his information. And, as with so much else in his life and work, Proust found an unexpected, roundabout way of gathering that information and using it to build something weird and new. A step away, the distance somehow brought him closer to his subject. His book never stops revealing mysteries, perhaps because so much of what he wrote about was mysterious to him, too.
The last time he heard anything by her was on a compilation album called A Devil Put Aside for Me: The Punk Rock Tribute to “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
And now he’s dealing out of the back of an abandoned Quiznos near the Tappan Zee Bridge.
I’m going to try to post a new one every work day. (What are these sentences?)
Couldn’t sleep last night when I wanted to. Eli’s got an afterschool job, so he’s working late on homework and I don’t want him to be the only one in the house still awake. Thought I could work or write for a bit, but I wound up watching part of Shine a Light and I wrote the following:
It’s almost embarrassing how exciting the opening of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” still is at this late date. The greatest rock’n’roll band in the world, ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones.
I’m not delusional. I realize, as I write this in 2009, that the Stones, the great Rolling Stones, haven’t released a thrilling album since Some Girls (31 years ago) and they haven’t released a good one since Tattoo You (29 years). I also realize that Mick and Keith and probably Charlie care only for themselves and their bank accounts. They’ll whore themselves out for any product and they’ll put out any piece of crap, cut any corner, to make another unnecessary buck. All evidence suggests that they’re creeps. To which I respond: So what? The sound of Keith’s guitar and Charlie’s drums and Mick’s harp is smarter, slyer, truer than anything anybody can say in words. They’re as full of life and potential as a screaming newborn. I believe that. As people, the remaining Stones stand for no one but themselves — and sometimes even that seems like too much work for them. But when that guitar and those drums lock in, even on one of the many crappy songs from the past quarter-century, that primitive genius Keith playing exactly the wrong note at exactly the right moment, it’s something to believe in.
I mean that. I’m sure I would detest the members of the Stones if I spent much time with them, but I feel as close to their music as I do with almost any person. And I do have fulfilling, intimate friendships; I’m not looking to music for something I can’t get in real life. Even when the Stones don’t believe in what they’re doing (1981-present), I do. The sound of “Street Fighting Man” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “When the Whip Comes Down”: that’s what makes life worth living. The novel I’m trying to write (i.e. the novel I should be writing this very minute) is the story of people who know that or who are afraid of what it might mean. All these people made a choice whether they were going to live normal lives or go into rock’n’roll. Decide one way and you can’t go back. The people who said “yes” to something different feel paralyzing self-doubt on an ongoing basis. They fantasize what it might be like to live like civilians, but for all their protestations they know there’s nowhere else for them, nothing else -– except for love, for some of them, sometimes -– worth bothering to believe in. When their work or their lives dip, it’s because they’ve lost their faith in those guitars and those drums. Same with Mick, Keith, and Charlie.
For years he was so nervous about performing that he would throw up before every show. Now he throws up after every show, which everyone around him feels is an improvement.
I’m a big Philip Roth fan (maybe for some reason I am particularly interested in Jewish writers from New Jersey), but Indignation isn’t very good: slight as best, exercise at worst. It’s not that the main character is unlikable; all Roth protagonists are jerks in one way or another. It’s that this jerk narrator is boring and what happens to him is uninteresting. He complains, he reacts to things that happen to him, he dies. That’s it. For an author who excels at creating repulsive protagonists you want to read about forever (hello, Mickey Sabbath!), this is disappointing. But even greats produce subpar work (among New Jersey artists, this is known as the Human Touch rule).
I write that having just finished it in one evening. So what am I doing dismissing a book I devoured all at once? How bad could it be, really, if I couldn’t put it down? It’s because of what Robert McKee identifies as the difference between literary talent and story talent. Roth’s spectacular literary talent grabbed me and pulled me through the book. His sentences are elegant, highly charged, surprising, as always. But the story is hackneyed, tossed-off, nowhere near as considered as the words Roth uses to tell it. Technically, Indignation is strong and lots of fun. But those marvelous words and sentences and paragraphs are wasted on a character and a story unworthy of them. Literary talent isn’t uncommon; story talent is. Roth has both by the truckload and it’s a surprise when the latter abandons him, even if only this one time. In traditional fiction, it doesn’t matter how thrilling the sentences are if they’re not in the service of a story.
I, of course, don’t have a fraction of Roth’s story talent. He’s written 25 novels, most of them of the top rank, and I’ve written, oh, let me count … zero. So feel free to ignore me. But maybe novices can be heartened that even their heroes don’t knock it out of the park every time. And that reminds me: I have something else I should be writing right now…
Like many in the insulated west, I’ve long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I’m half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of reunification.) I’ve read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I’ve explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I’m not sure the subplot it’s part of will earn space in the final draft.
So it was a delight this morning when I saw that my hometown website published Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken this year, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue’s recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. I won’t reproduce them here, but they are diverse, surprising, and well worth seeing.
At that moment she realized she would have to hide the lighter for the rest of her life.
The six-word novel meme has been around for a good long time. Every now and then, to clear my head, I give myself six minutes or so to come up with as many six-word novels as I can. It’s a fun, easy, low-pressure way to get started writing for the day. Here’s what I came up with the last time I tried (according to my notepad, I took a whopping 11 minutes):
Got hit. Got famous. Got revenge.
All I learned didn’t help me.
Made four promises. Kept only three.
Mother, wife, daughter, mistress, second wife.
I think I saw Mom’s killer.
Dog person and cat person disagree.
He knew the secret and told.
He did too much and paid.
Enjoyed the view. The view changed.
Hated the whale. Whale hated him.
He wanted to show his father.
“I don’t have enough.” He did.
It had to come out somehow.
Telling him stories kept her alive.
He wanted to tell her everything.
She kissed him. It didn’t help.
If only my much-longer novel-in-progress was anywhere near as worthwhile as a couple of these…
That was before she lost her job as a David Lee Roth impersonator.
(It’s time to return to this exercise, as descibed here.)
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
There’s been none over the past few weeks. None.
The novel, of course, is a hobby, a side project, a creative endeavor, far from my reason for existence. It’s not my pay-the-mortgage work and it never will be. I really enjoy my paid work, but there’s a lot of it to do and I have to do a lot of it to be any good at it. Something has to give. Recently, it’s the novel that has given. I hope to have renewed progress to report next week. But I don’t guarantee it. Especially when there’s eelgrass everywhere.
In a throwaway line in his review of The Band’s Visit, ace critic Anthony Lane nails what I’m trying to write a novel about:
“When in doubt, strike up the band.”
If I had a monitor, I’d tape that quote on it.
For many years, I’ve joked to friends and family, usually during public radio pledge drives, that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. You get back to the regular programming you’ve paid for. I thought that was something I could work into an article or a story someday.
One night last week, I was at a dinner party, listening to someone who was building an innovative radio for the BBC. Also listening was a respected colleague. He said that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you’ve paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. Independently, he had come up with the same line (for me it was a joke; for him — a successful entrepreneur — it was a potential invention). I felt uncomfortable saying something like, “Hey, I thought of that, too,” and stepping on his line, so I said nothing.
This reminded me of something that happened when Jane and I bought a hybrid car back in 2002. A neighbor said he’d thought of a hybrid engine years earlier. I laughed about it, but it illuminates a point that’s also relevant to the public radio joke/invention line: It doesn’t matter so much that you have an idea. What matters is whether you do anything with the idea. Otherwise it’s just a line in your notebook doing nothing.
I know it’s procrastination (like blogging isn’t?), but sometimes when I should be working on the novel, I read about working on novels. Raymond Carver once said “You have to decide whether you’re a reader or a writer.” I guess I’m still working on that.
Last night, when I should have been writing, I started James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I’m still early on, but since two of the first characters he quotes are Maisie Farange (from Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) and Mr. Mallard (from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings), two characters I have come to love over the years, I suspect this will be a good read/distraction/whatever.
Swirling through my head today is the Henry James epigram with which Wood kicks off the book: “There is only one recipe — to care a great deal for the cookery.”
What a lovely observation. Without respect for our tools, the products of our tools won’t be worthwhile.
This dovetails nicely with a welcome non-fire-extinguisher-requiring cooking experience I had yesterday. I made Jane the North African cauliflower soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, a recipe with which I’ve had success in the past. I wanted to be careful to respect the instructions and I followed them much more closely than usual.
So I was disappointed when the soup turned out noticeably thinner than usual. I was nervous — did I put in two few potatoes? too much bouillon? — but Jane complemented me on it.
Jimmy: But it’s not thick enough.
Jane: Yes it is. You usually make it too thick.
Respect your tools. Sometimes it’s the Moosewood collective offering them up, sometimes it’s Henry James. And sometimes the person opposite from you at the kitchen table will be kind enough to let you know if, at last, you finally paid attention.
A bit more on the same topic:
When you’re deep into a project, so deep that objectivity was gone long ago (i.e., when you’re writing a novel), you have to find a way to look at it with a fresh and new mind (a “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen masters — and today’s productivity bloggers — put it). It’s hard to do that as a critic — the whole point of being a critic is making judgments informed by experience — and the jump from critic to novelist is high indeed, at least for this one. Critics can refer to anything; the best novelists create their own world and ignore anything that doesn’t fit into it. It’s rare that someone (I’m thinking John Updike) can do both with equal authority and style.
Since I first read it in The New Yorker more than a decade ago, I’ve never gone more than a few months without rereading Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” later collected in his The Night in Question. I read it again in January, and — while ruminating on the difference between interpretive writer and creative one — this line, regarding the critic about to meet his untimely end, jumped out at me: “He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.” That’s the blessing and curse of the critic: he can call on all he knows, but he’s limited by his knowledge. That knowledge is crucial to his calling, but it prevents him from creating with a “beginner’s mind.” I don’t want to sound like a parody of a Jedi master here, but I’m trying to call on everything I know — and then set it aside so I can do my job as a would-be novelist.
(See this post on Leaf-Stitch-Word for a more interesting take on the benefits of being a novice.)
I want to know everything.
If I want to be a competent novelist, I have to stop.
Here’s why. Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet, let Dr. Watson know why he doesn’t care that he doesn’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun: “What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the Sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”
I want to be up-to-date on all political, geopolitical, business, and technology news. But none of that will help me write a better novel. None of it. If I want to be truly creative, I have to put on blinders.
Back to it…
People sometimes ask me for rules about writing and I claim I have none. Well, I don’t. But someone in my house does.
Last year, when Lydia was in fifth grade, she came home with an index card she had filled out at school.
In 20 syllables, only three more than a haiku, she elegantly and authoritatively states what is to be done.
UPDATE: As Lydia notes in the comments below, the index card was a fourth grade project, not a fifth grade one. Senior moment?
Hello to both of you who’ve waited for this humble weblog to return. I’m going to try something different this year. As those closest to me know, structure and I are not close friends. Everything reminds me of something else, which reminds me of something else, which … well, you get the idea. No structure. If I’m going to stick to blogging for more than a little while this time, I suspect it will be only if I create a structure that encourages me to post here almost every day. And a different topic every day keeps this blogger unbored.
So, here’s the structure that I’m going to attempt:
Every Monday, I will post about Cooking. [insert pause for laughter.] Yeah, I know, but hear me out. When I look at the things about myself that I want to improve, cooking keeps coming up at the top of the list. Partly it’s because I’m a lousy cook (married to an adventurous, imaginative one) and I want to become a better one. Partly it’s because my failure in the kitchen often feels like a metaphor for other failures in my life. Just as last year my cryptic decision to post sentences here from my novel-in-progress helped me focus on writing every day, I’m hoping that chronicling my disasters and occasional successes in the kitchen will keep me focused. The possibility of public embarrassment remains a powerful motivator.
Every Tuesday, I will post something Work-Related. The vast majority of my writing these days is for my work at O’Reilly (and, to a much lesser degree, Harvard). On Tuesdays, I’ll post something related to what I actually do for a living.
Every Wednesday, I will post the latest Greatest Song of All Time of the Week. No further explanation necessary.
Every Thursday, I will post something related to the Novel-in-Progress. They may be sentences from the work (currently, but tentatively, titled The Rock Star Next Door), they may be complaints about the process, they may be lessons I’ve learned.
Every Friday, I will post nothing, probably, because Man was not meant to blog with the weekend coming so soon.
Random Crap can appear any day, as it is, er, random.
I will also tag each post, to make searching by topic easier, and to help anyone coming here who wants to peruse, say, the music posts but none of the cooking posts.
No one thought to stop the fighting, because it looked like part of the act.
“It’s only a song.”
“But you wish things between you two were that way?”
“Of course. That’s why I wrote it.”