Friday, October 29, 2010

Paul Harding's Tinkers: Not Quite a Review

One of my long-term projects is to read all of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels that I haven't already read. I try to read the new ones as soon as they're announced and I'm also trying to get to a couple older ones each year. I figure that--with my already too-full reading schedule--I'll be caught up with all the previous winners in a few years. It's part of my larger project of reading more American novels and reading more contemporary American literature. What this means to you is that I have recently finished Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novella Tinkers and I'm about to bore you with some thoughts I have about the book. I had mixed feelings about Tinkers while reading it and my feelings remain mixed, but I find that over time the proportions of that mixture keep changing.

Tinkers is the story of George Crosby and his father, Howard. The book opens with George lying on his deathbed in the living room of the house he built, moving in and out of dreams, memories and hallucinatory states. Harding shows us George's connections with life and the world breaking down, and the recurring metaphor of the universe-as-machine gets introduced in an absolutely gorgeous passage taken from a fictional book about clock repair. In places like this, Harding's prose shines like gold and I was breathless reading it.

As George's mind and body break down, the story of Howard Crosby bubbles up and takes over the narrative. Howard is an itinerant salesman in the back woods of New England, a soft-spoken, gentle man who suffers from violent, terrifying epileptic seizures. Howard's sense of the universe as something that can come apart at the seams is similar to George's experience of falling away from life, and I think Harding does a good job arguing his point that life, both communal and private, is a fragile thing made up of many parts that aren't held together by much of anything. I really enjoyed the "Howard" portions of the narrative, and found myself becoming frustrated when the story shifted back to George.

By now you've probably already heard the glowing praise for Harding's attention to detail and the way the story is built up from lovingly-writ passages that describe bits and corners of the physical world. You've probably heard that the narrative is loosely-structured, folding in on itself and traveling nothing like a straight line. So this is a book full of beautiful writing and formal experimentation. I keep thinking that it's a sort of Ulysses and Remembrances of Things Past in miniature. Which sounds really cool, doesn't it?

The only problem is that it doesn't work. It doesn't add up and while there is much to love about Harding's writing and his observations of humanity caught in the machinery of life, Tinkers is a frustrating experience for a reader. As a writer, I am very glad I read it because a lot of Harding's prose experiments are fascinating and, as I keep saying, beautiful taken in isolation. But that's part of the problem with the book: it's a lot of experimental pieces that Harding hasn't pulled together into a whole. There seems to be no underlying structure to the work, no movement, and ultimately very little meaning.

It's as if Harding had essentially one thing he wanted to say, and he found fifty different metaphors to illustrate it and assembled them together, without actually hanging them onto a story. There seemed to be no point to the "George" portions of the novel. Harding abandons his "185 hours before his death, George..." structure halfway through, and begins to loop around and play with point-of-view, voice and a laundry list of other narrative technique, some of them lasting no more than a sentence or two. This is where I think of Ulysses. The difference between Harding's book and Joyce's, however, is that Joyce was using all of his technique in the service of a story, and Harding doesn't seem to be. Joyce was able to sustain formal experimentation over a 500-page narrative but Harding's brief experiments stumble over each other in a book that's less than 200 pages in length. I'm all for experimentation in literature, but the basic materials of Tinkers seem too slim to support the weight of all the formal ideas piled upon it.

A lot of what Harding does in Tinkers is interesting, gorgeous and well worth reading if you're a writer or if you want to see some of the possibilities there are in formal experimentation. I have no problem with this book winning the Pulitzer Prize, for a number of reasons I won't get into. But at the same time, reading Tinkers frustrated me because I wanted more than experiment and gorgeous prose; I wanted Harding to talk about more than one idea over and over; I wanted the incidents in George Crosby's life to have some sort of dramatic or emotional meaning. Tinkers seems, in the end, to lack a beating heart around which all this lyrical prose is wound. If Harding's fundamental materials had been less slight, he could have kept all his experimentation and variation-on-a-theme metaphor and I'd have loved this book instead of merely admiring it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Why Won't Scott Just Shut Up About It?

Just a quick one (while he's away). Any day now, my chosen handful of readers will have printed versions of the manuscript to read at their leisure, after which leisurly reading they can all tell me how much they love, hate or are unmoved by my book. Very likely before I hear back from any of those chosen readers, I'll give the ms yet another very quick look and then I'll email it off to the East Coast of the USA and wait wait wait for my agent to find the time to read it. Very likely, he'll have one of his assistants read it first and if he/she doesn't say "hey, this really stinks; why you wasting my time with this?" then he'll read it himself and at some point, possibly around the New Year, he'll get back to me with comments. Thank God some things (like, say, emergency surgery) aren't run the way the publishing world is run.

What I find interesting about this is that I no longer ever think of anything as being "finished." Everything I write is in a provisional state; everything can be rewritten and changed around and there is no endpoint, there are just times when I decide to stop working on a narrative and have someone else look at it. Every previous time I have sent the MS to my agent, I've felt like I was done writing it, but this time I don't, and I don't see myself considering anything I write from now until the end of time as being finished. Revision, this is all to say, is a powerful tool and we should all remember to read the owner's manual. This winter while I'm not actually working on a novel, I might go back through all my short stories and see about knocking them around and possibly improving them. It could happen.

Although--and I hate to admit this--last night on the commute home, I wrote the briefest, slightest, sparest, most faint outline for The Next Book. It's going to be really cool, I think, with three timelines that all overlap and intertwine and will possibly work backwards (I haven't decided on that one yet) and I have no real idea how I'm going to write it all out in the first place though I have some ideas. So possibly I will launch right into another novel after I finish reading the joyful thing that is Tristram Shandy. And about Mr. Shandy: Hey, Laurence Sterne, I know that it was perfectly legal and socially acceptable in the 18th century to slag on Catholics because the English government took away religious freedom and you Anglicans were all empowered and mighty and shit, but that trope is beginning to get old for this reader. Give it a rest, will you?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Thirteen

The book continues to amuse and delight. Tristram continues to not be born yet, although Obadiah has finally returned with Dr. Slop's bag of instruments. Dr. Slop has expressed his intention of climbing the stairs to see how Mrs. Shandy is coming along in her labor, but Mr. Shandy has stopped him; it seems that Dr. Slop is only in the house in case the midwife requires his assistance. Dr. Slop is not pleased with his auxilliary role in this birth, but Mrs. Shandy will have her way in this and Mr. Shandy is not prepared (or was, rather, unsuccessful in his attempts) to fight her on this point. Meanwhile, Corporal Trim has read out a sermon writ (and misplaced into Uncle Toby's copy of Stevenus) by Pastor Yorick, about the general failure of men's consciences to keep them on the path of righteousness. I have the feeling that this sermon was actually one of Laurence Sterne's own and that he was inordinately proud of it and so felt compelled to include it in his novel. I dare say that Pastor Sterne's prose fiction reads better than his sermons and I sympathize with his congregation.

However, the unborn Tristram Shandy gives more advice on structuring a narrative:

I have dropped the curtain over this scene for a minute,--to remind you of one thing,--and to inform you of another.

What I have to inform you, comes, I own, a little out of its due course;--for it should have been told a hundred and fifty pages ago, but that I foresaw then 'twould come in pat hereafter, and be of more advantage here than elsewhere.--Writers had need look before them, to keep up the spirit and connection of what they have in hand.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Third And Final Revision

And, hopefully, this is my final revision post about this damned book. I am revising the MS for the third time, and I think after this round of work I'll be done enough to send it off to my stellar agent guy. I find that I can't really describe in any intelligible way what it is that I'm actually doing during the current rewrite. Keeping an eye to mood and character, mostly, I guess, and smoothing out little bits of language. Possibly this is a quality-control check for internal consistency. Really, it's hard to say. As I mentioned to Mighty Reader a few nights ago, I currently enjoy a rare state of clarity regarding the entire story, and I'm not going to waste this opportunity to revise while I can see the whole of the tale at one time. I almost never have this sort of awareness of the narrative-as-a-whole, and it's such a rare thing that I find I cannot even describe it in a meaningful way, so I'm not even going to try. Hell, I don't even remember what the original impetus was to write this blog post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Seven

More advice from our humble narrator about writing:

Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all, so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all. The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.

For my own part, I am etrnally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.


What's happening in the book: Mrs. Shandy has gone into labor, ready to finally give birth to baby Tristram. The laying in is at the rural estate of Shandy Hall at the insistence of Tristram’s father. Mrs. Shandy--during the previous year--took an expensive trip up to London under the pretense that she was pregnant, and a clause in the marriage contract states that Mr. Shandy need only pay for one such trip to London per pregnancy, real or imagined. Mr. Shandy has invoked this clause and Tristram will be born in the country, 200 miles from the physicians of London. Mr. Shandy is hoping he won’t regret this decision. The midwife has been sent for, but before her arrival Dr. Slop, the man-midwife, has arrived for a casual chat and is without his bag and instruments. Mr. Shandy’s manservant has been sent to Dr. Slop’s house to fetch the bag. Tristram’s father and Uncle Toby (who lives just up the road) have been speculating as to whether Mrs. Shandy will allow Dr. Slop to deliver her child, or if she will insist upon employing the midwife. The women of the household are upstairs attending to the birth while the men, downstairs in the drawing room, are smoking pipes and discussing wind-powered carriages, among other things. This is at about page 100. Tristram will not actually be born until about page 300, because there are plenty of things that our narrator must relate before we can get to that happy moment (where, I believe, we will learn also how he came to be called “Tristram,” a name his father despises above all other names).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Killing Hamlet: More Thoughts On Revisions

A quick one: it occurred to me that with every novel I've written, at every stage of the writing process, my awareness of what writing a novel is and how it should be done has changed, often radically. This interests me. It also interests me to note that these changes of perception/opinion have not formed any sort of linear progression. It's more like a game of mental Twister than a path I am following.

It also interests me to notice that the more I write and revise, the less I think consciously about certain things, not only regarding process but regarding story, narrative structure, use of language, and all manner of things. So I keep changing how I think about writing, but I think less about how I think about writing all the time.

I note with some alarm that in some ways it's becoming more difficult for me to discuss craft issues, the better I am able to actually deal with those issues. Of which, huh.

I am also tired of all these repetitive posts about how I'm revising this book. Don't I do anything else? Don't I? Well?

Okay, Mighty Reader and I saw "Never Let Me Go" last night. I confess that I have not read the book, but I am assured that--as far as movies go--this was a pretty faithful version. There was a blatant Statement Of Theme in a scene tacked onto the story at the very end that was not in the book and, in my opinion, weakened the impact of the film and that's unfortunate. But still, it was one of those beautiful, well-acted and surprising movies that leaves you for hours afterwards with the impression that all of the air has been sucked out of the atmosphere and you'll never be happy again. Yay, indie films! I might actually read some of Ishiguro's books now; Mighty Reader has all of them, as it happens.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Five

I wasn't going to post updates on my reading of Sterne's postmodernist premodern novel, but today at lunch I ran across this gem:

Writers of my stamp have one principle in common with painters. Where an exact copying makes our pictures less striking, we choose the less evil; deeming it even more pardonable to trespass against truth, than beauty. This is to be understood cum grano salis; but be it as it will,--as the parallel is made more for the sake of letting the apostrophe cool, than any thing else,--'tis not very material whether upon any other score the reader approves of it or not.

In other words, the narrator announces himself unreliable: if he must choose between truth and beauty, he'll choose beauty and he doesn't much care how you feel about that.

Killing Hamlet: Ready For My Close-Up

I think I'm finished (really, this time) with my revisions to the MS. I added a passage to each of two scenes last night (one with Ophelia who continues to charm, and one with Sir Yorick, who used to keep a wolf as a pet) and I'm most pleased with them. The MS sits at about 80,350 words right now, and I think I'm about ready to send it off to my agent. I'm giving myself until the end of the month to think about things, though, rather than running off half-cocked and wishing I'd waited to send it. I've decided to ignore the project until next weekend, when I'll read the whole thing through and concentrate on nothing but the story and characters and see if the narrative adds up to a good sum. It is inevitable that I'll make changes, because I can't help myself, but hopefully I can sit and read it like a reader, not so much as a writer. If all goes well, I'll send it off to New York around Halloween. I should email my agent and see if he's okay with that. I have no idea what his schedule is like these days; busy, I'll bet. He's always busy. I swear the man never sleeps.

In other news, Mighty Reader asked me yesterday if all of the Shakespeare I've read over the last couple of years (primarily "Hamlet," of course; I've read that play dozens of times now) has influenced my writing. Of course it has, and in really great ways. Here's my short, quick-and-dirty list of things learned from the bard:

1. Great drama is multidimensional and ambiguous. The reason, I think, that Shakespeare's tragedies continue to be read and performed is that they are complex and do not draw clear conclusions for the audience/reader. They present difficult moral issues from a variety of points of view and there's no easy way to sum up the plays. Ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning are good.

2. Put a comic scene right before an emotionally draining scene. It can't all be dark skies, and contrast is always good.

3. Give your side characters some good lines and some good scenes. A lot of Shakespeare's supporting cast are more interesting humans than his protagonists, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom but conventional wisdom is often unwise.

4. Clever and surprising language is a gift for the reader, and you shouldn't be stingy with it.

Also, and unrelated to Shakespeare: I continue to read and love Tristram Shandy, but I probably won't be posting much about it. I am going to start reading a lot about Antarctica soon, and I probably won't be posting much about that, either. When I finish the Sterne, though, I'll start on Finnegans Wake, of which I've read sections over the years but never the whole of it. I may post about that experience. What will I do when there's no more Joyce to read, I wonder? I've sort of been saving FW so that I wouldn't run out of new Joyce. Well, one can't have everything, can one?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Three

It is so long since the reader of this rhapsodical work has been parted from the midwife, that it is high time to mention her again to him, merely to put him in mind that there is such a body still in the world, and whom, upon the best judgment I can form upon my own plan at present, I am going to introduce to him for good and all: But as fresh matter maybe started, and much unexpected business fall out betwixt the reader and myself, which may require immediate dispatch, 'twas right to take care that the poor woman should not be lost in the mean time because when she is wanted, we can no way do without her.

So concludes Shandy's long digression about Parson Yorick, who paid--at his wife's behest--for the training and licensing of the midwife (so that his parish would have a midwife of its own). You'd think that at this point the narrator would tell us directly about this midwife. But first there is the matter of a particular article in his mother's marriage settlement. This brings us to Shandy's mother, of course, and his father, and honestly we must needs hear about them before we could possibly even think of further discussing the midwife.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Tristram Shandy, Day Two

The narrator has told us that he was conceived " in the night betwixt the first Sunday and the first Mondayin the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand sevenhundred and eighteen." He has good evidence to support this claim. On November 5th, 1718, he was "brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours." Hey, it's almost his birthday. Now that we know when Tristram was born, he must tell us also how. Which means that he is now telling about the midwife, but before he gets too far into the midwife's tale, he must tell us about the parson whose wife took it upon herself to help the midwife get her training and license in midwifery, but before he tells us about how that came to pass, he must tell us about the parson's horse, who bears a great resemblance to that horse of legend, Rosinante.

I'd quote you some of it but it wouldn't really work, I don't think. The narrative moves forward and backwards in overlapping segments with promises of things to come and remembrances of things past and loads of literary allusions (the aforementioned Cervantes reference and the fact that the parson riding the old nag is named Yorick; the parson will die in a few chapters and, of course, Shandy will say "alas, poor Yorick" and there have been other Hamlet references by now). Well, I'll give you one paragraph that won't tell you a thing about the story but it might give you a small taste of this novel's flavor:

I know very well that the Hero's horse was a horse of chaste deportment, which may have given grounds for the contrary opinion: But it is as certain at the same time that Rosinante's continency (as may be demonstrated from the adventure of the Yanguesian carriers) proceeded from no bodily defect or cause whatsoever, but from the temperance and orderly current of his blood.--And let me tell you, Madam, there is a great deal of very good chastity in the world, in behalf of which you could not say more for your life.

The "Madam" here is any presumed reader. Sometimes it's "Sir" and sometimes it's "Gentlemen" and sometimes it's "Your Lordship." Shandy has no idea who's reading his autobiography, but takes no chances at alienating anyone. There is an amusing bit where he offers to sell the dedication to the highest bidder.

Anyway, I really like this book. I can see where a writer like James Branch Cabell picked up elements of his narrative style.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Today at lunch I started reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. I was supposed to read Joyce's Finnegans Wake next, but I had the Sterne with me and I needed to read something and I've already got a good start into the book so I'm going to stick with it. When, a week or so ago, I told Mighty Reader that this book was close to the top of my to-be-read stack, she wrinkled her nose and asked why I wanted to labor through it. I can understand her question; Tristram Shandy has a reputation for being a difficult and unreadable novel. The irony of me delaying the reading of one difficult and unreadable novel (Finnegans Wake) for a different difficult unreadable novel (Shandy) is not lost on me. But that is by the bye.

Here's the thing: Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766, and has not been out of print since. There must be a good reason for that. It's a comic novel (a term this year's Booker Prize winner hates, I hear) and a metanovel and a postmodern novel written before there was postmodernism. But none of that's got anything to do with my decision to read it. My interest has to do with a theory I have that a lot of the allegedly "difficult" novels in the English canon aren't really difficult, they're just a bit mannered and stylized and once you figure out the mannerism and the style, they're as easy to read as Dick and Jane. A couple of years ago I read Ulysses and it was brilliant and sometimes dense and often challenging but mostly, it was a lot of fun to read. Last summer I read Moby Dick. Admittedly, Mr. Melville and I had some ugly moments on the high seas but I stuck with him and eventually I got it and when I finished the book I wished there were 400 more pages to read. Even now I sort of wish I was still reading that book. I miss Moby Dick.

So I'm betting that other allegedly "difficult" books are going to be a swell time for me, and I'm going to read them in the spirit of fun. Which is the spirit in which literary fiction should be read, kids: F.U.N. So far Mr. Sterne has not disappointed me. It's as much (or more) about the process of writing the book as it is about the story told within the book. Sterne (or Shandy, if you will) addresses the reader directly on almost every page, explaining how he's structuring the narrative and how you really must bear with him if you don't quite get the references just yet and yes, we're strangers now but eventually we'll be fast friends so you must just trust your narrator. It's all quite good and I am expecting a picaresque novel of 18th-century England and a lot of silliness along the way.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Killing Hamlet: An Excellent Final Chapter

I was very diligent today and read through the second half of my MS, revising as I went along, cutting here and putting in there. On the whole, I am well pleased with my little book. The final act works better than I'd imagined it would, and the last chapter is the best thing I've ever written, I think. I remain in love with the final passage in the book.

I am not in love with what work remains to be done, though. I edit/revise by hand, so I have a stack of the last 150 pages of MS with my handwritten notes in red ink, sitting next to my computer on my desk. They wait for me to type all my changes up into the Word(tm) document. I really really loathe that particular task. Not only is it dull work, but I tend to introduce errors into the text at this stage. Which is just annoying. Still, it must be done and the job that's never started takes the longest and all of that happy crap. Not that I'll be starting it tonight, mind you. I'm not crazy. Not that crazy.

As I went through the narrative I wrote notes to myself on 3x5 cards, mostly just questions to answer (Chapter Fifteen: Is the scene with the hat necessary, or is it just padding and one joke you can't let go?) and big-picture issues I want to think about for a few days or a week before I declare the book finished enough to send off to my very patient agent. There are not many of these 3x5 cards, but if I act on a few of them it will mean some major rewriting to a couple of chapters, so I want to carefully consider things before I move on. It's been my experience that if I have any question at all about a chapter, a scene, a single word or a whole dramatic arc, something is broken and I need to fix it. One must trust one's instincts, you know.

Still, I am happy to report that the narrative is not substantially different at the end of this round of revisions than it was before I began. All hail the power of positive outlining.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Cranium Is Suddenly Lit Up

It's difficult to talk about the creative process without sounding like a nut job. If, for example, I were to say to you that when I have an idea that's really good--like a passage that will push a scene out into nether space and expand the meaning of the whole narrative--the inside of my cranium is suddenly lit up with a bright white light of such power that it should blind me and everyone sitting nearby, and that I'm not speaking in metaphor but that this light actually does exist and I can feel it in my head and while it shines pure rays of bluewhite, I can feel the forepart of my brain getting sort of cold but in a pleasant way, like when one has a glass of clear ice water on a hot summer day, you might be inclined to think that Bailey has gone off the deep end of whatever shaky pier he's been treading.

But that's just the way of it: when I have a really good idea, it's as if my entire physiology has altered for a moment. Possibly I'm just having a seizure. How would I even know? Frankly, I don't care if I am. It's a good trade: some stray brain cells I probably don't use that often in exchange for three perfect sentences and one near brilliant image.

I mention all of this because I had one of these bluewhite flashes yesterday afternoon, on the bus homeward, while I was revising Chapter 10 of Killing Hamlet. It was then that I remembered what I love about revisions: to revise--to rewrite--is not to sit and check my grammar, usage and spelling; it is not to pore over the MS and see how I can be more concise or more precise or whatever. It is to hover over the narrative I've built so far and recognize that what I've wrought is not a book, but a scaffold on/in/around which I can be more creative and on/in/around which I can spin yet more ideas and push boundaries and discover new thoughts I'd never otherwise think. Revisions, that is to say, are where the going gets cool.

This is something I had not remembered quite yet, and now I feel like I should start at the beginning of the MS again and go over all that I've already revised and look for places where I ought to be adding more coolness, straining at the seams of the world, making scrimshaw out of my exposition and fireworks out of my plot points. Or something. Anyway, I think this is going to be a good book. I don't know why people find revising their work to be so odious. They must be doing something wrong.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Revisions Revisions Revisions

I am making excellent progress through the manuscript, I am pleased to report. As usual, no matter how many passages I cut, the wordcount keeps creeping up. See earlier reference to Xeno's manuscript and the impossibility of actually making it to the end of revisions.

Knowing how the story ends destroys any mystery while I read this, so I can't exactly say if things like foreshadowing are working. At times like this you just have to trust in the process and trust that you knew what you were doing during the drafting phase, and trust your own grasp of story mechanics and narrative structure. We'll just see if it all works when I let someone actually read the damned thing.

Although Chapter Nine? That totally rocks. The last page is amazingly cool.

Also: Last night Mighty Reader and I saw Guided By Voices at the SODO Showbox. The crowd was a bit too heavily populated by beefy guys drunk on too much beer with man-crushes on the amazing Bob Pollard, but the band rocked and Bob was in fine voice and they played all my favorites ("Striped White Jets!" "Motor Away!" "Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen!" "Hot Freaks!" Too many more to name!). I was worried that it would be sort of sad, a bunch of old geezers up on stage playing loud music, but GBV were awfully cool and amazingly amazing and I am happy to have had the chance to see them live. This was the final stop on the reunion tour, and this lineup will likely never hit the stage again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Revisions and the Writerly Eye

I have noticed that when I'm reading a novel, not only am I attempting to actively engage with the narrative and enjoy myself, I'm also sort of on the lookout for things that I would consider failures of craft. I can't help it; it's just the way I read.

Every novel is in part the result of decisions the author has made and most of the time, I am sure, those authors have made different decisions than I would have made had I been writing their book. Sometimes this results in my surprise and delight as a writer comes up with something much more cool than I ever would have stumbled into. Most of the time these decisions are invisible to me and I'm just caught up in the narrative.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking along the lines of, "Gosh, I wish he hadn't done that. I hope there isn't going to be a lot more of that as we go along." This is what I think when, for example, the author telegraphs a punch or gives a clumsy explanation for character action or lays out a slab of prose that doesn't flow well with the surrounding prose or just uses a word I dislike (for not all words are created equal, and some words are just ugly in the ear and invoking them destroys the poetry of the passage).

Anyway, this is what I think of as reading with my writerly eye: remaining vigilant to lapses of craft in whatever prose is before me. It's an irritating way to read and frankly it's caused me to read much more slowly than I did in the past. This writerly eye is, I am sure, a by-product of my own writing and revising, because it is the way I read my own works.

This doesn't mean that my inner editor is my primary reader, though. I read first and foremost for pleasure, like any other sane person. Reading just feels good in my head, and I love the simple process of converting graphics into concepts and stories and gosh, but whoever invented the alphabet and writing is my best friend forever. I also read for surprise, for the delight of character and plot and theme and all the other values I have learned to appreciate in fine writing. The writerly eye is more like a separate and parallel process that goes on in the background while I read. Sometimes I think of a narrative as a river through which I am wading upstream and my inner editor is like a hand trailing in the water and sometimes things that don't belong in the river get caught by the fingers of that hand. If it's my own narrative, I pull the seaweed or tin cans or other junk out of the river and throw it to shore and then admire the clean sparkling water flowing around me. If it's someone else's book, the junk remains caught in my hand until--if it's not a well-written book--too much of it collects and I decide to shake all the crap off my fingers and go find a different river to wade.

What I'm doing here, of course, is searching for the proper metaphor for the process of revisions. Some of it is like trailing your hand in a moving river, but some of it is like untangling a knot of string, and some of it is like taking in the waist of a pair of pants and some of it is like patching a hole in a wall and some of it is like planting bulbs in the fall and hoping they'll all bloom beautiful flowers in the spring and some of it, of course, is like trying to decipher Linear B when you have no knowledge of ancient Minoan.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Revisions, Day 3-ish

I have begun to revise the latest draft of Killing Hamlet, and I think that—because I did so much pre-planning before starting the draft—the revisions will be pretty straightforward and, mercifully, quick. I already have the story down, and the characters are pretty solid and there aren’t any big issues I need to figure out to make the plot work. It all seems to be secure structurally and so I’m just going to be working on balance and language, I think.

The main thing I see so far is that I used a lot of what I’m calling “approximate language” in this draft, where I wrote something like what I mean, but in an imprecise manner. So I’m revising for precision, to get the exact meaning down on the page. This entails a lot of rephrasing and reordering of sentences and phrases, because my drafts sometimes resemble unorganized sock drawers, where all of the items are there together, but not quite matched up the way you might like. This is just dealing with the mechanics of language and grammar, so it’s not hard work and the results are immediate and pleasing.

Another task is to make the beginning match the ending in terms of voice (my first chapters are always written in a very formal language that strikes me as too stiff when I get to the revisions stage and I have to fight to loosen it up a bit). The first draft of the first chapter almost always makes me cross and it’s some work to get through it. I have to take a couple of whacks at it before it stops being in Martian and reverts to English prose.

Other things to do include working in images that became important later on (images that I only discovered while I was writing the draft, making the second half of the book a richer narrative than the first half until I pull these images back through the story to the beginning); making sure that the characters are the same people all the way through (because sometimes I only figure out who a character really is during his death scene so I have to make sure that everything leading up to that moment will actually match that moment); cutting out dead-end ideas and misfired Chekhovian guns, cutting out repetition and repetition; putting in or strengthening foreshadowing; and adding repetition and repetition of symbols and ideas.

So while I am changing almost every single sentence (Mighty Reader is taken aback by the amount of red ink on my pages in what I tell her is a “light edit”), it’s generally pleasant work having to do with storytelling and aesthetics. There are two minor scenes—or possibly just they are additions to extant scenes—that I’d like to work into the first third of the book somewhere, but other than that I don’t see myself making any structural changes to the narrative. Which puts me, if I’m right about all of this, on track to send the new version off to my agent by the end of the month. Which would be totally awesome, as the kids say.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Odds and Ends: A Brief Update

So, first off, I will admit that I have put Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom back on the shelf, unfinished. I have pushed onward through 350 pages of this book and I realize that, with the exception of some fine passages in the first act, most of the writing--the prose itself--is simply okay, and this sort of ongoing okayness is getting on my nerves. I am simply not enjoying the simple act of reading this book, so I quit. Also, I think that not only is the prose merely okay, the story--that is, the characters, the premises, the plot and the conflicts--is also merely okay. Possibly the story is less than okay. Hell, the story is insignificant and I just don't care what happens to any of the characters. Neither, I suspect, does Mr. Franzen care so why should I bother with it?

This book is alleged--not by Franzen but by many reviewers/readers--to be about modern day America, and is alleged to discuss important topics like the Iraq war, corporate greed, the environment, et cetera. But the thing is, Franzen and his characters mention all of these topics, but none of them are actually discussed. Nothing of any real import is explored. This book is not about anything except the vapid and selfish lives of some folks from the Midwest. Everyone is sort of just floundering about in the middle of this floundering novel and I have swum to shore from where I can sit and watch Freedom sink to the bottom without me on board. So that's that. I'm going to read other things (first Tinkers and then Finnegans Wake).

Also, tomorrow I begin revising Killing Hamlet. First step: read the entire manuscript. I have already got a growing stack of notes for bits and bobs I want to add to the narrative, and this afternoon it occured to me that it might be both fun and appropriate to have Hamlet allude to Beowulf, which is the prototypical Danish myth. We'll see.