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.