Monday, December 21, 2009

Something Old, Something New

It's entirely possible that I won't touch this blog for the rest of the year, so here's a short report on the progress of my books.

So Honest a Man is still in the hands of Jeff Kleinman, my agent. At some point he'll get back to me and tell me what he thinks of my latest revisions. Some time next year, if there is a god at all, the book will actually go out on submission to publishers. Last night while riding the bus from Ballard to downtown, I had a new title idea: A Fine Pair of Jackdaws. I like that one, for a variety of reasons. We'll see.

Cocke & Bull remains in unfinished first-draft state. I've got a few hundred words to write to finish out Chapter 13, which I may attempt to do during lunch today. We'll see. I might go shopping for stocking stuffer items instead. Anyway, the book sits at around 30,125 words and I have long ago lost track of the bodycount. It's high, that's all I know. Not yet double digits I think, but certainly I'm giving Shakespeare a run for his money. There are at least four more corpses to come (not to mention all the destruction that will result from a handy natural disaster in Chapter 21). Stay tuned.

Edited to add: Chapter 13 is finished! Yay, me! I wrote about 750 most excellent words during lunch and got to the end of the chapter. It ends on a prepositional phrase, in case you were wondering. Now I get to skip forward in time a bit, a week or so though I plan to not specify exactly how far as it doesn't really matter. First sentence of Chapter 14: "We've gone too far west."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Year-End Roundup: Books Read in 2009

Every year I tell myself that I'm going to keep scrupulous track of the books I read, and every year I manage to keep an accurate list for about the first four months and then my scruples abandon me and it all goes to hell. So here's what I can remember in the way of books I read (or, in many cases, re-read) in 2009. Certainly Mr. Melville and I spent quite some time together this summer, but even so I know that this list should be longer and that there are missing titles. For the life of me I can't think of what they are. Anyway, a pointless list of books for you:

Paradise Lost John Milton
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
The Uncommon Reader Alan Bennett
Literature and the Gods Roberto Calasso
Transmission Hari Kunzru
A History of the Devil Gerald Messadie
Primitive People Francine Prose
Hamlet Had an Uncle James Branch Cabell
A Preface to Paradise Lost C.S. Lewis
Song of the Crow Layne Maheu
Grendel John Gardner
The Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling
The Boys on the Bus Timothy Crouse
March Geraldine Brooks
Bridge of Birds Barry Hughart
Moby Dick Herman Melville
Finn Jon Clinch
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
The Turn of the Screw Henry James
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz
All About Lulu Jonathan Evison
Big World Mary Miller
The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri
The Art of Subtext Charles Baxter
Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America Thomas A. Foster
Early American Dress: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods Edward Warwick, et al
American Colonial Prose Mary Ann Radzinowicz (ed.)
Common Whores, Vertuous Women, and Loveing Wives Debra A. Meyers
Everyday Life in Colonial Maryland George Schaun
New World Faiths: Religion in Colonial America Jon Butler
Lectures on Literature Vladimir Nabokov
Technique In Fiction, Second Edition Robie Macauley, George Lanning
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight Vladimir Nabokov
The Art of Fiction John Gardner

If I were to make a list of books I'd intended to also read this year, it would be just as long as this list. I'll spare you, though. There is never enough time for all the reading that must be done.

Chapter Thirteen Report: Uh, Not Done Yet

Last night Mighty Reader was kind enough to let me ignore her while I sat in the Designated Writing Room and worked on Chapter 13 ("South"). I'm about 2300 words into this chapter and not done yet. There are two more scenes to write (or two and a half, I guess) so I'm thinking that maybe I have about another 1000 words to go before I can figure out what I'll be doing in Chapter 14 ("Indians and Frenchmen" or something like that).

This chapter has been a real trial to write, as it's sort of the emotional heart of the book, whatever I mean by that, and so there's a lot I need to get right. Or at least, at this point, not get too wrong. Anyway, I realized that whenever I sat down to work on this chapter I got depressed, and then I realized that I was getting depressed because I'd made so many fucking pages of half-conflicting notes for the chapter that I couldn't form a picture of the story in my head and go forward. So last night I ignored my notes (except for the original notes I'd made some time ago) and just wrote. Out came about 1500 words of story, and while some of it's admittedly rough, some of it is--at least in today's changable opinion--the best stuff I've written so far. I have one difficult scene to write (difficult because it's all about character so I have to really concentrate and mean what I'm writing) and then I can finish up the chapter quickly as my notes are pretty solid for the last scene, and then, finally praise Allah, it's on to the next chapter and the rest of the Second Act which should come easily enough. We'll see.

The first draft is looking like it's going to be a tad on the short side, say around 60k words. Which is fine, and as Mighty Reader reminded me, my books always get longer during revisions no matter how much I cut because I Can't Shut Up.

Oh, before I forget: bodycount for Chapter 13 = 1.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Not Busting Up The Chiffarobe

So on Saturday I did not do any writing, because Mighty Reader and I were driving a rented SUV to an antique shop out of town to fetch the 1940's-era china cabinet shown here. We managed to load it into a Honda Element despite the protestations of the antique shop's owner, who claimed it would be impossible. Those side doors on the Element? Brilliant idea. Anyway, here it is in our kitchen, loaded for bear. The picture frame above the cabinet contains a letter from Stuart McLean of CBC Radio's "The Vinyl Cafe," in which Stuart explains why he didn't make it to our house warming party in August. At least he sent the note.

Speaking of notes, while I didn't write any actual prose on Saturday, I did get out of bed at one point on Saturday night and, after rushing into the Designated Writing Room, made some notes about Chapter 13 and they were good notes so I'm pleased.

Sunday was also a no-writing day, though I had an epiphany about the climax of the book and have gained a new way of thinking about dramatic arcs and character development, so that's good.

Today at lunch I pulled out the notebook and the notes I made on Saturday night and managed to scribble out about 500 more words of Chapter 13. I'm not exactly sure, from paragraph-to-paragraph, what I'm doing in this chapter but so far it's following my large-scale structural intentions, so I'm calling it good at this point. I've got about 2500 more words to write for this chapter, I think, but I'm pretty sure those words won't fight back much, and after this chapter, the rest of the Second Act should be easier to get down on paper and my plan to have the first draft done by springtime ought to hold. Unless, of course, when I hear back from my agent he'll request more time-consuming and extensive revisions to the MS of "So Honest A Man." We shall see.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Whiskey and Oysters

An hour later Cocke stepped out back to use the privy and saw two mounted English soldiers, slowly walking their horses in the direction of the tavern. It was approaching sundown and in the slanting rays of ruddy light the soldiers looked to Cocke in his half-drunken state like some kind of demons. The red of their coats glowed like hot iron; the brass buttons on their turned-out cuffs and fronts caught the light and glittered, flashing over the riders’ arms and chests. Mounted on coal black horses and wearing broad black hats, the soldiers put to Cocke’s mind certain images of Hell he’d seen one afternoon when paging through Father Dowd’s catechism.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chapter Thirteen, Underway

After all the dithering I've done about the middle of the novel, I have finally resumed actually writing the damned thing. That means that during lunch today I got out my pen and notebook and managed to scratch out about 700 words. So far so good, I tell myself. I seem to be on the right track again. Let's hope that continues. I am pretty sure I know the way this chapter is going to go, and how it fits into the Second Act of the book, and it all seems to be making sense. So I'll just keep writing.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chapter Twelve is Past Tense

Yes, this evening (after a day spent shopping for Xmas trees and then purchasing a fine 1940s-era china cabinet for the dining room) I finished Chapter Twelve, "South." It was, and I don't mind saying this, a real bitch to write. I took a couple of days off from prose writing to figure out where I was in the story and what needed to happen, because I'd gotten lost. What I actually did to find my way again was start at the end of Chapter 17 and work backwards through the story to where I was in Chapter 12. That worked a treat and now I have a much more solid map through the Second Act.

wordcountometer = 26,147!

The wordcount is a bit low by my estimate, which might worry some folks, but I know that revisions will expand things I've only sort of sketched in at this point. I always find more things to say, you know.

Next up, Chapter Thirteen, Cocke & Hope. There was no killing in Chapter 12, but there was sex. Same deal for Chapter 13, though I consider producing a corpse, just because it's been a while. We'll see.

Thursday, December 3, 2009



The moon over Seattle was quite gobsmacking tonight. Mighty Reader took this hasty photo a couple hours ago. I think it looks very Edward Gorey, myself.

The Fictional Dream

Writer and teacher John Gardner had a concept he called the fictional dream, which was the idea that fiction does its job by creating a dream state for the reader, and as long as the writer is doing a good job of maintaining that dream state, the reader won't "wake up" from it and will continue to read and believe in the fictional world the writer has created. Gardner argues that this fictional dream first happens in the writer's head, and the writer's job is to write it down for the reader:

“In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”

For me, at least, this is a pretty accurate description of what writing is like, at least some of the time. As I work my way through the second act of "Cocke & Bull" I am finding that even though I've got a couple of outlines written for the book and I'm accumulating notes to myself about what the second act is all about, the tool upon which I am leaning the most to get the writing done is my imagination. Last night I was trying to write a simple scene in which three people camp out for the night in a pine forest, and when I imagined the scene I found myself imagining all sorts of surprising action and then I found myself describing this action in all sorts of surprising ways. I read back over what I wrote and at one point had to ask myself where a certain symbolic image came from; I didn't remember writing it at all but there it was on the page and it was perfect.

All of which should give me confidence as I move forward through the middle section of the book, but still I feel like I'm taking a white-knuckle ride through the story, because even though I know certain things that have to happen by the end of the second act, in some ways I have no idea at all what's going to happen during the course of this act and I'm still feeling my way blindly through the story even with my pages of notes and outlines and maps and charts (yes, charts). I breathe a sigh of relief at the completion of each chapter, as if I've survived some harrowing experience. Which, you know, I have.