Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chekhov and Gin

This is another self-involved post about drafting my work-in-progress, a novel called Go Home, Miss America. I’m about 75% of the way through the narrative. In a traditional three-act structure, it would be time for the protagonist’s low point, his “dark night of the soul,” followed by the necessary resolution of his inner conflict that makes possible the climax, the resolution of primary external conflict of the plot. And all of that stuff. But I’m not working with a traditional three-act structure; I’m working with ideas of actions and consequences and the shape of the narrative is determined more by the intersection of two competing linear story lines, each with its own internal structure. But none of that is important to anyone but the author. Although the idea of narrative shape is possibly important here. We’ll see. I won’t know what I’m trying to say until I’ve said it.

Go Home, Miss America, as I say, does not have a traditional structure. I almost feel as if I’m writing a couple of overlapping biographies rather than a novel. I’ve made lists of events, actions and reactions of the main characters and the people around them, and I’m recounting them and playing them off each other. In previous books I’ve been careful to write in well-defined scenes, structured narrative units with a beginning, development and ending that clearly advance plot, theme and character. The three-act structure had become a habit and it was easy to build a narrative of nested three-part elements. That sort of writing started to dissolve when I wrote The Last Guest, and has gone entirely by the wayside for this new book. I’m working with the chapter, rather than the scene, as the basic building block of the story.

What that means for me is that I have to imagine the narrative as composed of larger units, and I have to know what the structural purpose of those larger units is. A scene is easy to figure out, easy to define, easy to write. A chapter is a pretty arbitrary unit. For me, with this book, it means a chunk of 5,000 words centered around either David Molloy’s character or Catherine Lark’s character. The dramatic purpose of a chapter is the change the relationship of the character to his/her life, which is a relatively opaque way of saying that the character makes some sort of decision that will increase the amount of conflict in the story, by either complicating an existing tension or adding a new tension. None of these large structural definitions tells me what to write in each chapter, or how to write the chapters. I have to figure that out as I go along, chapter-by-chapter. As I say, I won’t know what I’m trying to say until I’ve said it.

As an example, when I sat down to write Chapter 12 I made a list of events I wanted the chapter to include:

1. St Catherine of Siena
2. Catherine Lark at the office
3. Dr Weissman scene
4. Violet Molloy visits
5. Dinner with Toby Robertson
6. St Catherine of Siena, redux

That’s my idea of an outline. Usually I’ll pad it out to a page or so with bits of dialogue and images I want to include, but the above is not really a list of scenes and this chapter certainly has no rising action, climax and resolution. Like all the other chapters in the book, there is a sort of incremental change and increase in overall tension, interrupted by moments of comedy.

I had no idea how to introduce Catherine at her new job, which she started during the break between the previous chapter and this one, so I took a cue from Laurence Sterne and “began some distance from my target and worked my way towards it.” The chapter starts off with a discussion of the change of season in Seattle, from spring to summer as it relates to what plants are in flower as the year progresses. Here in the early summer, California lilacs bloom and drop loads of rich blue petals all over the sidewalks, very pretty. So I put in the fallen blue lilac petals, which allowed me to have Catherine walk through a carpet of them on her way up the steps to her new office. She makes a cup of tea and thinks about the book she’s reading, a biography of Saint Catherine of Siena, after whom she was named. She sits down to work (a lot of data entry), has a brief chat with the assistant dean and here we get Catherine’s impressions of David Molly, the leading male character and also Catherine's new boss. Violet Molloy (wife of David Molloy) drops by the office. We get Violet’s impressions of Catherine, and then we get Catherine’s impressions of Violet. After work, Catherine goes out to dinner with her new beau Toby. We learn some about how their relationship is developing, and then we have Catherine alone, going to evening Mass and standing at the shrine of her namesake saint, considering the existential questions. And that’s the chapter. A woman goes to work, has a few conversations, goes to dinner and then goes to church. I’m trying to make the whole thing as seamless as I can, with each encounter leading into the next, building the sense of disquiet. I can’t say if this is a series of scenes. Hopefully there’s continuity from event to event, and hopefully it’s clear how each event comments on/adds to the story in progress.

The going is slow, writing this way. I can’t lean on the old scene structure of setup-build-climax-resolve for the actions of the story. What I find is that the writing is more like trying to steer a wide-ranging conversation into a particular direction for a few minutes, then steering it toward a new topic for a few minutes, then a new topic again after that. So the unfolding seems slow, but I don’t think it actually reads that way. I think it reads fine; the difficulty in traveling from one idea to the next is all mine, all in this writing stage. Surely the reader won’t have to labor the way I’ve been doing. So I tell myself.

I had hoped to write two chapters this month, but once again it looks like I’ll be lucky to scribble out Chapter 12 by the end of May. It really begins to look like I won’t have a finished first draft until late September. In October, I swear, I ain’t writing nothing for nobody. I'm going to read Chekhov stories and drink a lot of gin.


  1. Good luck! Sounds like a lot going on, but what a relief it will be when you're done.

  2. Like I say: Chekhov and gin! Lots of both!

    The main impulse for writing this too-long post is that feeling of steering, of pushing pushing pushing against the inertia of the narrative to make it go in a different direction, and then pushing pushing pushing to make it maybe go back to the original course. It's exhausting, and I could make it all go more easily if I'd just write it like a normal novel. I blame Davin Malasarn for all of this.

  3. I've been frustrated by my own methods lately. Half the time I feel like they are absolutely necessary to guide me in discovering new things. Half the time I feel like they produce books with missing limbs. Pagani Project is missing at least some of its essential anatomy, and I wonder if trying to make it more complete will only ruin what's already there. An outline would have made my life easier. (I'm not sure I really mean that.)