Wednesday, May 30, 2012

clocks and static electricity

I’m making better progress with Chapter 13 of the new book than I thought I was. It just occurred to me that I’m halfway through the chapter. At this rate I may finish it and the next chapter before the end of June. That would be nice for me. I think—though my memory is admittedly awful about this sort of thing—that the last quarter of all of my books have been written fairly quickly. I hope so; I’m looking forward to taking a break when this draft is done.

The writing worried me for the first couple of pages in this chapter. They seemed to contain a lot of internal monologuing and I’ve gone over them several times to (as the note I wrote to myself across the first page says) ground the action in the physical world. (I also wrote “more verbs!” and “too static” when I thought it was sounding a bit D.H. Lawrence.) In a novel that’s driven by exploration of character rather than working out of plot, it’s easy (for me at least) to produce page after page of interior landscape that stops all forward motion of the narrative and begins to read like someone’s diary. That sort of writing works if you’re Beckett or Proust, but it doesn’t work for me, so I’ve tried to come at all of the internal movement via external action. Which is a rudimentary technique, but I’m not preaching “show, don’t tell” here. I'm not doing that awful stuff where the character is angry but rather than writing "Jimmy was angry" I'm writing "Jimmy threw his cup to the ground and stomped off" or whatfuckingever bad writing one would attempt there. No, what I'm doing is allowing the inner life of the characters to go on how it will, but I'm making sure that the character is taking up physical space somewhere, performing some activity (even if it's slight) while the inner life gallops forward.

A week or so ago I was talking about character-driven novels with a writer who’s also working on a first draft. We discussed how it’s easier to write from a plot, because it’s usually pretty clear what’s happening and why and what should come next. When writing from character, you have to come up with dramatic action that illustrates the evolving character arc, and the actions don’t have to form any continuous chain of events from one end of the book to the other. It's never clear what the characters ought to do next in the physical world, and in a lot of ways it doesn't actually matter. That makes for slow going in the drafting because what goes on the next page is generally never obvious. Although at the same time, you need the bones of a story to prop up all of the character evolution. It’s some tricky. My next book will be a potboiler and therefore easier to hammer out. Just you wait, Higgins.

None of this was what I was going to write about. I don’t remember what I was going to write about. Making good progress, I suppose. Grounding the narrative. Passage of time, the weight of objects, the taste of sunlight, I don’t know what all. I do think I’m writing some lovely prose just now, and the book is beginning to make sense to me again. That’s probably a good thing. I was frightened there for a couple of chapters.

Also, I found this line in my pal Michelle Davidson Argyle’s novel The Breakaway:

She focused on the second hand ticking its way around, around, around.

That’s just perfect. There’s also a Seamus Heaney reference on page 2 or so that made me smile.


  1. This is an interesting point of view, and I think you're right. I always thought of the actions and internal journey as both having to have a sense of continuity (and of course that works too), but I can see that with some character-driven work that's not really required. Maybe my failures haven't been such big failures at all, huh? Huh?

    And a nice Argyle line!

  2. I think there has to be a continues line through the narrative, even a tenuous one, but it doesn't have to be the plot. It could be a theme (or group of themes) or a symbol, or anything else that will create unity. But I don't think the interior connectedness of a narrative has to be built of the surface elements of the story, if you know what I mean. So much of my current literary theory is being expressed in vague terms that sometimes I don't know if I'm actually saying anything.

    That's a fine Argyle line, indeed. There are many more. I saw the name Bailey on the first page of another book recently, and that made me smile.

  3. Just don't let my undying devotion go to your head!

  4. I think the closest I have come to character-journey stories is in my short story writing. Plot seems to always have some sort of huge weight in my novels. My novellas are the closest to trying to lift that weight.

    There is a Mr. Bailey and a Mr. Bailey's son (one of the main characters) in A Curse So Deep. I may or may not have been thinking about a certain someone I know when I named these people...

    Scott, I think it's fun you are trying all these things in your books. I have so many things I want to experiment, but it takes forever because each book is a different experiment. Curse is my first attempt at something set historically, as well trying my hand at first person. Blech. Not sure I'm nailing it!

  5. Nothing wrong with a good, solid plot! I'm not kidding that my next novel will be driven by action, and character will mostly be for comic effect. Which will be big fun for me.

    I agree about your short stories: plot-wise, they're very still, but character-wise, they've boiling over.

    Good luck with Curse. You know I've sworn off first-person!

    I'm about a third of the way through Breakaway. I didn't know if I was going to like a book about a kidnapping (because, you know, ick) but I'm sucked in. I like the parallel development of the mother and daughter. And all the books. Books are cool.

  6. A lot of my favorite books are plot-driven. I'll admit it. :) But I love me some good, solid character stories too.

    I'm happy you're sucked in! I haven't been sure if you'd enjoy the book or not. It's a more laid-back style of writing for me compared to other things I've done, but if you dig deep, you'll find some great layers. Pay attention to color! It's a nod to The Awakening and to Gatsby. And I love that Rhemalda put the chapters in Roman Numerals. That's how the chapters are numbered in The Awakening. It's the little things, I tell you. :)