Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Victoria, R.I.

Mighty Reader and I spent a long weekend in Victoria, British Columbia. There was a lot to see and do and I felt, by 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, that I'd been seen and done out. "What do you want to do now?" Mighty Reader asked. "More than anything else, I'd like to get out of this fucking country," I said. Nothing against my Canadian friends, but I was tired and I wanted to go home. We spent yesterday in our own back yard with our cat and our laundry on the line and our flowers encircling us and cocktails and books and warm summer sunlight and that was a fine time indeed and I'm glad to be back home.

Home, where I will soon begin revisions to my philosophical detective novel's first draft. I have no idea how long that will take, but I'm guessing a couple of months. It would be nice to have Draft Number Three ready by, say, Halloween, but that might be too ambitious. I haven't read the full draft yet, so I can't pretend to know what sort of work it really needs. Some, though. I already have a stack of notes.

I'm also 11,000+ words into yet another new novel, which I'll be setting aside while I work on the revisions to the aforementioned detective book. I think the new new novel is going to be pretty cool if it all works out. It's already got some of my best bits ever.

I also have a new long-range project of reading all of Chekhov's short stories. Mighty Reader was kind enough to purchase the Ecco 13-volume set for me (birthdays can be wonderful, I admit) and so I'll add those volumes to the ongoing mix of old novels, new novels, Shakespeare plays and nonfiction. During our trip to Victoria I read Volume 1, which ends with the novella "Three Years." I was unfamiliar with this novella and I must say that it's one of the best things I've ever read. The more I read of Chekhov (I think I've read about a fourth of his stories; maybe fewer), the more I wonder why I read anything else. The guy was absolutely brilliant.

Also, this was our favorite piece of public art in Victoria:


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

7% of Me, Some 25% of Murakami

I continue to read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I'm a little over 200 pages in right now, and I'd say the first act has ended. The protagonist's wife has disappeared; the protagonist has been told by the missing wife's brother to get a divorce; the protagonist has heard bits of a story possibly involving paranormal activity in Mongolia (including the notion that something mysterious remains buried near a river out there); the protagonist has become involved with a psychic prostitute. The protagonist has come to realize that he's been adrift for the last six years of his life, but he's just stood up to the overbearing brother in law and stated a sort of revolutionary manifesto. Et cetera. So this appears to be a sort of magical-realist mystery story that nods to Kafka, Garcia-Marquez and Camus. I expect it to turn into a hero's quest any page now. I'm not exactly enjoying it.

Oh, it's better than Sputnik Sweetheart, the only other Murakami novel I've read. Sputnik is a badly-written total waste of time, frankly, which confuses obscurity with profundity. There was almost nothing to that novel. My fear is that, when I get to the end of Wind-Up Bird, I'll have that same feeling that all the buildup and running around was there to hide the fact that there really aren't any solid ideas behind the book.

I continue reading, mostly, to see if Murakami can bring the goods. I'm not actually invested in any of the characters or situations. I don't care what happens because I'm pretty sure nothing will happen. Mostly, despite the clunky and repetitious language, it's easy to read on my morning commute. Non-challenging, we'll say. The reader has no work to do because if you didn't understand some subtlety of the narrative, Murakami will restate it for you. A few times. And then once more in case you forgot. No wonder this book is 750 pages long. I don't understand all the hue and cry over Murakami. The blurbs on the book jacket proclaim him a genius, but I don't see it. Someone needs to explain to me the attraction of reading this pretty long pretty nothing of a story.

Meanwhile, I'm 7533 words into my own new novel. 3000 words from now I'll be done with Chapter 2, I think. I still have to write about HIV treatments and children running after goats. The lead female character is going to get a nickname. And then it's back to the lead male character.

I've been trying to decide if reading Murakami is doing anything to my own writing. I don't think it is. I really wanted to love Murakami, especially Wind-Up Bird because so many people I know loved it, but I'm having a hard time seeing past the postmodernist cliches. Murakami is certainly not mainstream fiction, but he's not possessed of the vision of those writers he imitates.

Well, who of us is? The list of writers I admire but am not equal to is as long as my arm. Longer, truth to tell. There's still plenty of time for Haruki to wow me, so I'll keep reading.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

No Known Direction of Travel

My work in progress is confusing me. I've figured out the story arc for the first eight chapters (or, rather, I've figured out how to structure each of the two main storylines' first four chapters and have decided to alternate them chapter-by-chapter so that adds up to eight, right?). I've got a good idea about who/what/where is going on for each of the main characters. But what I lack is any idea at all about where everything goes after that. Yes, I said I was going to write this book without an outline, without figuring out the ending in advance. I plan to find it all as I go along. A grand voyage of discovery, eh? A wander through my subconscious and my guideless research. An adventure!

I hate it. I have things that might be symbols, but if I don't know what the story is, what the themes are, what's going to happen, how do I go about building the symbolic framework of the novel the way I always do? How do I know what's important at this point? How do I know how to introduce subjects? Are they metaphors? Are they just themselves? I don't know what any of the parts do, how they connect, what their function is. It's all just a bunch of stuff. It bears a passing resemblance to a novel in progress, but I'm not sure it really is one, or will add up to one when I'm done. It frustrates the hell out of me, kids, it really does.

But that, perhaps, might be the point. I am attempting this grand farce of a process in order, hopefully, to learn something new about writing and the only way I can do that, I assume, is to see it through to the end. Which means that I will keep at this fucking novel, one word at a time, and it'll be a protracted fistfight. Yay. I can only assume that I'll be quoting Nietzsche about that which doesn't kill me for the next year or so. Hurrah.

Possibly I can get into the mindset where I tell myself that I'm making a big clay sculpture and I'll just keep adding more clay, moving bits around and tearing off handfuls here and there until the shape makes itself apparent and then I'll start refining it. Seems like a damned messy way to make art. I'm used to preparatory sketches and reams of preproduction notes. Storyboards, even (the finale of my novel Killing Hamlet was first "written" as a little cartoon that I still have pinned to the wall by my desk at home). Anyway, this writing without a net or a known direction of travel pisses me off but I'll keep at it.

Edit to add:
Because someone says roosters can lead you astray, I give you here the first page of Chapter 2. All the usual caveats about it being rough, etc.

An hour before sunrise, the rooster was already crowing. His cry was loud but querelous, as if he was unsure of his right to announce the coming dawn. Er-err? Er-err? he crowed, strutting along the top of the fence, his black feathers invisible in the dark. Er-err? The world did not respond to his vague calls, the sun did not rise above the eastern hills and the rooster put his head under his wing and went back to sleep.

The rooster's name was Augustine. The nuns had named him after the saint. Most of the animals on the farm were named after saints. The bull was Luke, of course. The goats were Sebastian and Theresa. The cow was Martha. The nuns hadn't told the bishop that they'd named the animals for saints. The bishop would not have approved. The bishop seemed to be a man lacking entirely in humor but he was very old and the nuns prayed for a friendlier man once God saw fit to bring the current bishop home to Heaven.

The farm sat on the western edge of the village, at the foot of a line of low hills. There was a barn, a chicken coop, a small fenced yard, a storage shed and the farm house. The house was built of unpainted concrete blocks and had a roof of corrugated tin. The barn and the shed were unpainted wooden structures roofed with thatch. The nuns were saving money to replace the thatch with sheets of tin. Inside the house there was a stove, an open pantry, a plain wooden table and six plain wooden chairs, a small wooden bookshelf, a kerosene lamp, a brass crucifix and a small shrine to the Virgin. There was only one room. In one corner of this room there was a steel trapdoor that was locked from below with a heavy padlock. Beneath the trapdoor was the underground chamber where the four nuns slept on narrow wooden bunk beds, and where the visiting female missionaries also slept.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

3% Solution

Today I surprised myself by adding a new supporting character to my novel. He's a fictional version of one of my favorite associate deans. I'm giving him all the best bits of dialogue. It might worry me that this is turning into another one of those novels that takes place largely on a university campus, but them's the breaks. Inspiration comes from whence it comes and I have no control over that. Probably it was inevitable that I'd write about university life when I decided that I was going to set my next novel in the present day. What else was I going to write about? At least it's about administrators and not about professors. Professors are so passe.

It's also worth noting that even though my lead male character is not likeable, the novel looks like it could be a lot of fun to write. Hopefully that will translate into it being a good read, though I don't mean to say that this is a comic novel. It's just a novel. And I still have no real idea what will happen in it. Once the female lead shows up I might have a better idea.

Oh, and about the title of this post: if the new novel's first draft is to be 100,000 words long, then I'm about 3% into it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I Must Have Structure, Apparently

My current writing project vexes me a bit. One of the challenges I've set for myself this time around is to write a novel without either an outline or any idea of what will happen as the story goes along. I am doing this one by the seat of my pants, just to see how it goes. Every day I resist the urge to sit down and hack out a rough three-act structure; instead of pouring my ideas into a formula I want the ideas to find their own shape.

The problem with that method is that I don't know what I'm writing. I don't have a direction and without a direction I'm not moved to put pen to paper. Which means that, once I finished the segment for which I had a strong idea, I stopped writing. Last night, in fact, I quite distinctly thought, "I'm going to have to let this project go; I can't write it." Perversely, the very next thing that came to mind was an idea for a loose structure that will allow me to write the first arc of the novel. Irony is busy everywhere, as Shelly never said.

Anyway, some part of my mind realized that what my character needed, in order to be written about and examined in any sort of depth, was an activity. I need David (the lead male) to be in motion, moving through the world of the story, which means that he needs to be doing something even if that something isn't necessarily related to the primary conflict. The beautiful thing, of course, is that when the primary conflict of a novel is internal, everything your characters do is related to that conflict, because everything they do will be informed by that conflict. So it all works out and David will be running some errands to prepare for his 10th wedding anniversary. Not exactly throwing the One Ring into the Fires of Mordor, but I can poke fun at the idea of the hero's transformative journey if I like. Which wasn't the idea, but now I see the possibility so why not, eh?

I am also considering that this novel might be best written out-of-order, by which I mean that I'll just scribble out the ideas as I have them and attempt at some point after producing a lot of material to cobble together some sort of ordered draft from the bits of scattered prose. Might not. We'll see. I am no friend to disorder and there is so much chaos in this new method already that I'm quite put out of sorts enough. Possibly I'm hoping that at some point a strong storyline complete with ending will occur to me. I am being very mindful about the plot, though. I have rejected almost every idea that's occurred to me already because they're all sort of cliche. I've decided that a relatively uneventful storyline is better than an active-but-predictable one, and so I turn my back on all of the hoary old tropes. I admit that might just send me into the arms of other hoary old tropes that I won't recognize for hoary old tropes. One does what one can, though.

Also, writing about the writing process (and really, who cares about that?) without giving away too much of the actual prose is damned difficult. And I can't dismiss the possibility that this new writing project is simply something I'm doing to take my mind off the finished MS that I'm letting marinate for a month or so before I begin to revise it. I might, that is, simply be filling in time and giving my imagination something to work on that's not the philosophical detective story. I have a great capacity for self-deception, you know. Ask anyone.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Almost There

I am something like 300-500 words away from finishing the first draft of my philosophical detective story, which is either called The Last Guest, The Transcendental Detective, or something else. I think I know my final sentence and I think I know how to get from the last sentence I've written to that sentence. I also think that I can bridge that gap of 300-500 words this evening, on the bus that takes me to a fine pizza and beer place. If I manage to finish the book tonight, I'll be a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, which a Virgo will always find pleasing. A lot of ifs, I know. Writing the final scene of a novel always makes me twitchy, and I'm twitchy now and no mistaking. But I'm very very close. Very close.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reading Lydia Davis

I am reading Lydia Davis' Collected Stories, a 750+ page book of Ms. Davis' short (sometimes only a sentence under a title) works of prose fiction. I bought it at the airport a few months ago because our flight was delayed and our bags were already checked and I like the cover. Also, Lydia Davis. I mean really.

Her stories are so short, she claims, because she's reacting against the long sentences of Proust, whom Davis translated to great acclaim. I'm not sure if this is flash fiction per se, but in many cases it really works because Davis' idea of "story" isn't the same as mine and so some of her pieces are six pages long and strike me more as character sketches or something. But some of them are amazing despite (because of?) their brevity. Here is "Fish" in its entirety:

She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her--there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.

That's great stuff. And there are, as I say, 750 more pages of stuff like it. "Break it Down," much longer, is amazing. So go buy and read, kids.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Purpose of the Novel

"the story is told . . . for the sake of some study of the difference between human beings"

--G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Transcendental Detection on the Beach

Chapter 11 of twelve chapters is finished, hurrah hurrah hurrah. Possibly the action is a bit rushed because I wanted to get to the final scene in the chapter before I forgot the image I wanted to present to the reader. I'm not sure and likely I'll stretch things out during revisions. Anyway, the murderer has been named and pursued and things end on a beach. It's a sunny afternoon and birds are singing all around. I remain pleased with my two policemen. Chapter 12 comes next, where we have a wrap up of loose ends, some, and one last twist. The discovery and reading of letters (all but one) will occur. Lots of fun because I really don't like denouement.

Current word count is about 65K. I already have a long list of things I need to do to the MS during revisions. Last night I was thumbing through a volume of Aristophanes, looking for the play in which a judge extemporizes poetically about birds. It turned out, of course, to be the lawyer character in the play "Birds." I also reacquainted myself with the Biblical story of Jephtha and his daughter.

I dreamed last night of the brief but intense little scene where Banquo is murdered by the three assassins hired by Macbeth. That must be indicative of something. Possibly only that I shouldn't read Shakespeare just before bed.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Reading About Books

Of the blogs I read about books, most of them are maintained by people who read fiction but don't write it. Writers tend to write about writing, not about what's been written, and most of the time writers writing about writing is pretty dull stuff. Your humble author includes himself in that pretty dull group. So mostly I read about books on blogs written by readers (some of whom are professors of literature and some of whom are "just readers"), and that's much more fun.

One trend, or meme, or whatever that's been seemingly making the rounds of the book-blogging world is the "how best should one review books" question. Readers are questioning their role as writers, as reporters, as cultural arbiters. Whom do they serve (the writer, the reader, themselves)? What is appropriate and acceptable (negative reviews, gushing recommendations, amateur deconstruction)? That sort of thing.

I think this sort of thinking is putting it all the wrong way 'round, frankly. The best writing about fiction out there is not coming in the form of a review. Seeking the optimal review template is not the path to good writing.

My advice (for what nothing it's worth) is:

1. If you don't enjoy reading about books, you should not be writing about books. Find something else to blog about, even if you read 5,000 books a year. Be a fan of your medium, not just your subject matter, because what you will be doing is working in that medium, not reading books.

2. Write about what is interesting about what you're reading. Don't have a checklist of topics you should bring up for each book you read. Yawn. Honestly, yaaaaawn.

If nothing about the book you're reading is particularly interesting, the odds are slim that anything you write about it will be interesting. So don't feel obliged to write about every book you read. "'Royal Schism' is a dull book," is dull writing, and not very helpful. If you don't know what to say about a book (or about books), maybe you shouldn't say anything.

3. Write in a manner that interests you. Some people I read have very dense, academic styles and others have more conversational, informal and witty styles. What's most comfortable and familiar to the writer will likely result in the most engaging prose.

And that's really the point. Your writing should be engaging, it should be writing you'd enjoy reading yourself. Don't put on some sort of prosy journalistic hat that's not your size just because you're writing about professional writing. Write something you'd want to read in a way you'd want to read it. Don't think about the "needs of the reader," and think instead about writing something that's interesting and engaging. My bet is that this road will lead you to talking about books in a way that's actually more useful and honest than you'll achieve by hewing to a formal schema* designed to satisfy some hypothetical book buyer.

*how often do you get to say "hewing to a formal schema" in real life?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Clean, Well-Lighted Tragedy

Reading "Macbeth" of course makes me think of other Shakespearean tragedies, particularly "Hamlet." "Hamlet" dates from 1601, the year Shakespeare's father died, the year Essex unsuccessfully rebeled against Elizabeth, a year in which the succession to the English crown was on the minds of a great many nervous people. "Hamlet" is a dark, dense and claustrophobic play. Yet it's interesting to note that while a lot of corpses pile up onstage, it's not a particularly gory play. Most of the murders are committed with poison, after all.

"Macbeth," on the other hand, is a bloody play indeed (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are covered in blood during one memorable scene, and the images of blood on the hands continues through the rest of the play) but it's set often out-of-doors and the characters don't come across as prisoners to their environment. "Macbeth" has three grotesque witches but their scenes confront and amaze, rather than back us into a corner the way the ghost of Hamlet's father does. For a tragedy, "Macbeth" is, for want of a better phrase, an open and airy thing.

"Macbeth" was written several years after "Hamlet", with a couple of comedies and a run of tragedies ("Othello" and "King Lear") coming in between. None of Shakespeare's tragedies is as gloomy and closed-in as "Hamlet"; "King Lear" takes on madness and harrowing loneliness as major themes but even it fails to imprison the reader the way the Dane's tale does. It's got nothing to do with the ghost of Hamlet's father, either. It's in the language, "Hamlet" being full of eyes and ears and spying and prisons and evil portents and graveyards. "Hamlet" always makes me feel boxed in.

I keep making attempts to describe the difference I'm feeling between "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" in terms of level of claustrophobia and it must--it absolutely must--be in the prose, because there's nothing else but prose in the plays. Though maybe it's not; maybe it's in the action. Macbeth and his wife are murdering in secret, but they do it in full view of the audience. There's no question as to what they're doing, or why. "Hamlet" is, on the other hand, a sort of detective story, where we're not really sure who's telling the truth or who is allied to whom. Those things are all made clear to us in "Macbeth." Every character is onstage as himself, and while the story is more overtly brutal, it's also less murky than that of "Hamlet." It's a clean, well-lighted sort of play. Maybe it's that Macbeth is a happier guy than Hamlet Junior, and Hamlet's moods of moroseness color all the action in his story. I don't know. I think it's deeper than that. I wonder about the mood the author was in when he wrote "Hamlet." But I don't want to go looking into that, because I want to compare the works themselves, not speculate about Dead Billy S.

This is all a hash, an unorganized and poorly thought out stab at something I can't articulate. Tone, maybe, is the thing I should talk about. Well, I'll think about this some more.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Philosophical Detective Meets the Police

When writing a classic detective story, I am certain that the proper way to do it is that as you get closer to the climax, the more you focus on the plot and the less you focus on messy intangibles like theme and character. Only, I'm not...really...doing...that. I'm cutting it the other way, as Paddington Bear would say. And while I'm certain that this isn't the expected direction to take, it certainly feels right.

Some details: We are now well into Chapter 11, the penultimate chapter wherein the murderer is revealed and the mystery mostly demystified. A couple of policemen are entering the fray from an oblique angle and I'm very happy with them. Likely I should've introduced them earlier so they'd be, like, Chekhov's policemen or something, but I have not done that because there was no place for them earlier in the story. So they come in, fully-formed as though birthed from the head of a Greek god, on the opening pages of Chapter 11. Their introduction also serves a legitimate structural purpose that can be found in works going back to Shakespeare, so I like my policemen coming in where they do.

Also sandpipers, crows, Wobblies, unrelated unsolved crimes and other cool stuff!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ubu, Thane of Glamis

“We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well.”

I'm reading Alfred Jarry's "Ubu" plays right now (they're short and I read all three of Ubu Rex, Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Enchained on Sunday afternoon, but I'm reading them each a couple of times because they're just that much fun), and because Ubu Rex is a twisted version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," I'm reading that play, too.

"Macbeth" is a real page-turner, and has some of Shakespeare's best lines. Macbeth himself is a wonderful character, convinced that he's fated (through no conscious desire of his own) to be king of Scotland but not quite willing to be an assassin in order to reach that end. Oh, he admits that he'd do the deed if it were easy and there were no repercussions. He'd do it if it were merely fulfilling neutral destiny and not murdering his cousin, his liege. Well, we all know his hesitation doesn't last.

Lady Macbeth is wonderful, too. She recognizes that her husband is "too full of the milk of human kindness" to bring about his fated kingship on his own, so she'll take charge of the mission if you don't mind, ta awfully much. She'll "unsex" herself (that is, stop being a woman because to be violent is to be a man) and do what's necessary. Anyway, it's all been fated so nobody, really, is to blame personally, right? Besides, she loves her husband and the two of them are each other's confidantes, something you see nowhere else in Shakespearean marriages.

Pere Ubu, the hero of Jarry's plays, is a vile and selfish creature, lacking in depth but more than making up for it in creative obscenity and comic violence. He wants in Ubu Rex to be king mostly, I think, for the fancy clothes. There are some hysterical bits about finance (or Phynance, as Ubu would say), especially the part where Ubu hands out gold to the peasants so they can afford to pay their taxes. Just like real life! Alas, Ubu seems forever doomed to failure, losing his kingdom in the end, despite having prayed a bear to death and saving his surviving Palcontents (who betray him! but then don't!).

Ubu Cuckolded is more "Timon of Athens" than "Macbeth," maybe, but it's also frighteningly side-splitting. What can be said of a play where the main character keeps his conscience in a suitcase and only speaks to it when it tells him what he wants to hear? The best bit (aside from the scary resemblance of the three Palcontents to Dr. Seuss's Thing 1 and Thing 2) comes when Ubu accuses the innocent Rebontier of having cuckolded him (the irony is that Ubu has been cuckolded, but by someone else). Pa Ubu declares of infidelity:

"Basically, we are of the opinion that cuckoldry implies marriage and therefore a marriage without cuckoldry has no validity. But for form's sake we have decided to punish him severely. Palcontents, knock him down for me!"

And there you have Ubu in a nutshell: if you don't cuckold him, you imply that his marriage is a sham and you insult him. If his marriage isn't a sham, he must have been cuckolded and he's obliged to execute the offender. It's that sort of logic that keeps the trains running on time, you know.

I've read a few articles which talk about the Ubu plays and having written this brief bit I realize that there's no way, really, to describe the works. What are they? Well, extreme theater of the absurd that mocks power and cruelty. But there's more to it than that, because they're funny and horrible as Pa Ubu is, once you've met him you wonder how you ever did without him. You wonder how you can gather your own small group of palcontents. You worry about being disembrained.

And also, you can't read "Macbeth" quite the same way ever again.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Metaphor For Today's Writing

Driving too fast in a car with faulty steering and no brakes along a cliffside road that overlooks the ocean. Between the trees that blur past my window I get glimpses of high waves smashing against sharp rocks far far below. Also, it's raining and the wipers don't function and I've never been on this road before. But there is, at least, a battered steel guardrail most of the time. If I get to the bottom and climb out of the car I'll look back up at the winding steep road and tell myself I was lucky to make it and I'll be exhilarated and impressed with myself but I won't want to make the drive again.