Friday, July 13, 2012

That’ll be $45, please.

I find that while I am officially not writing, I am very busy indeed with writing projects. This is why I will not live to be a very old man. I crave time in which to relax and then I fill that time with work. And then I get cranky because I’m always tired. Someone, I’m sure, working at a pharmaceuticals company, has a solution for all of this. But I resist leisure and luxuriate instead in the hum of ideas. And, apparently, I luxuriate in this long and clearly pointless introductory paragraph, which I will abandon now.

Salman Rushdie continues to amuse and entertain with his novel Midnight’s Children. I only wish that he was dazzling me more. There was a passage I read a couple of days ago, on page 140 of the Everyman edition, that I might quote here if I remember it tonight. It was a wonderful bit about the birth of the Indian state, possibly the best prose so far in the novel (I’m about 200 pages in, so not quite at the halfway point yet). There are great things in this book, and of course Rushdie has quite the imagination and is admirably brave in the way he grafts absurdities and improbabilities into his narrative, but he has mannerisms that wear on me and I do wish he’d just fucking settle down some. I know this novel is almost 20 years old at this point, and The Satanic Verses was less frenzied and possibly his recent books are still less overcome with desperate postmodernist energy, and maybe I’ll have a look and find out. But my reading of Midnight’s Children is going along about the way my reading of The Satanic Verses went: I admire the book, I really like parts of it, but I am not becoming a fan of Mr Rushdie nor does this book make me want to read all his other books. Madame Bovary made me want to read more Flaubert. Hadji Murad made me want to read Anna Karenina. Anything by Chekhov makes me want to read anything else by Chekhov. You see what I mean, I hope. Books by Rushdie are interesting but they don’t give me an appetite for more Rushdie.

Though perhaps Rushdie’s modernist/postmodernist games in Midnight’s Children are making me want to be more experimental in my own next book, currently working-titled Devotion but likely that’s just a placeholder. Some of you might know it as “the Haydn book.” Anyway, I’ve written out a five-movement one-page outline of the plot, and I’ve begun to break down each movement (here I am borrowing terminology and ideas from symphonic writing, but for “movement” you can read “act”) into chapters. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is to be in 18 chapters, each about 1,000 words long, I think. I’ve figured out who the multiple narrators will be, more or less, and which characters they’ll be presenting in their chapters. Two of the narrators are deceased at the time of the story and will speak from beyond the grave.

When starting a novel, I always am confronted by the technical element of voice. What’s the tone of the piece going to be? What’s the vocabulary going to be like? What are the literary influences on the narrative voice? That sort of thing. I don’t have (nor do I care about) what I’d consider to be my own “individual voice as a writer.” I think that idea of voice is pointless, limiting, and egotistical. What I’m interested in is the “voice of the piece,” which is to say, the best way of narrating the material, or a good way that I can manage successfully which contains hidden possibilities to be discovered as I wade through the end of the second act. So I’m making sort of sketches of the opening chapters, trying to decide what sorts of things people will talk about and how they’ll talk about those things. I will be doing a lot of reading of 18th-century letters, I believe. Which will be fun and informative even if I don’t use a lot of that material in the novel. Research is always edifying.

What else, what else? I’m reading more colonial American history right now and assembling material to put into Cocke & Bull. I’m excited by this revision, and I’m making a list of new scenes. I think the book will take on added dimensions and whatever themes are buried in the narrative (I try hard not to think about theme; it’s not my job, kids) will become richer, maybe, or at least more complex which is good. In any case, the narrative will have more facets and will possibly become more impenetrable and I like that. So I’ll be messing about with that project this summer.

The first draft of Go Home, Miss America is on its way to me from a printer, because I like to read the drafts as bound books. Next week, I think, Mighty Reader will read a copy. A week or three after that, I’ll read a copy, and then I’ll see about revisions. At some point this summer, maybe in August, The Astrologer will finally go to the publisher for editorial. No doubt I’ll have some work to do on that MS in the fall.

So lots to do, and not as much time to do it as one might like. Also, I’m still working on tango music. Last night I practiced about four tunes and I must say, they seem to be coming along nicely. I wish I was a better player, to really do the pieces justice. I’m listening to a lot of tango music these days, too. It’s all good stuff. Merely having a narrowed focus (“let’s learn a dozen tangos!”) has been good for my technique. My advice about the bow arm is that you should think only about your elbow and index finger. You should just relax the rest of your arm/hand and forget it exists.


  1. I'm excited about how you are structuring Devotion, Scott. Are you planning to do a more extensive outline for this book? Do you find yourself returning to your old strategies?

    I'm also excited about Cocke & Bull. I'm curious to see what you do to it.

    As for the tango, I know very little about it. And I know very little about the violin, although more about the violin than about tango! And I know very little about elbows and index fingers, although maybe more about them than the violin.

  2. I like Tango music. Cool that you're learning to play it. I'd break a violin if I tried to touch it.

    I always seem to be busy doing writerly things when I take a writing break too - research, edits, reading books on writing. No plotting though, unless you count writing the notes out on how to use the research.

    Congrats on getting The Astrologer ready for publisher. I'm sure the rest of the projects will be ready soon too.


  3. Davin, I outline each book a little differently, because there is no way to outline a novel that is satisfactory. Essentially the first thing I do is write a one-page summary of the story, thinking in terms of beginning, middle and end and main characters. I just try to throw that onto the page and see how it might break down into large sections. Devotion looks like it works in five acts, so I'm going with that. This is the time for decisions, for broad strokes and boldness. So once I got the five-act one-page outline written, I started to think about the first act. I have the first pages of the first chapter already written, and I have some notes on how I want that chapter to go on. I have my list of the 16 chapters that make up Act 1. It's just a list of things like:

    1 Martin by Daniel Dohnayni
    2 Theresa by Marie Antoinette (deceased)
    3 etc

    so I know whose plot is being narrated, and by whom. So I have a list of 18 characters/narrators and I'm breaking that into three parts of 6 chapters each and will need to figure out the three-act structure of the first act. Because no matter what I do, when it comes to writing the through-action of the plot, I still go back to beginning-middle-end for a skeleton underneath everything else. And I try to either write in scenes or to have the writing be very visual and grounded in the world. So this is sort of like my usual approach to outlining, but different because each book is different.

    My focus on Cocke & Bull rewrites is to expand the characters, the way I did in The Last Guest, sort of. Anecdotes and inner lives intertwined. We'll see what I come up with. I'm making a lot of notes.

    Tango is cool. Your right elbow raises for the lower-pitched strings and lowers for the higher-pitched strings. Your right index finger controls how much weight you put into the strings through the bow. Everything else stays relaxed and mostly passive.

    Donna, I just bought a book about Mozart in Vienna today and started to read it during lunch. I don't think of making notes from research as plotting, though often my research gives me ideas for scenes.

    The detective novel is pretty close to ready as is. Cocke & Bull needs a couple of months. Miss America will need another six or eight or fifteen months. I have no idea how long it will take to write Devotion. The book after that one is going to be a novella and my "research" is just going to be re-reading Moby Dick and selected books from the Old Testament. And some Dostoyevski, I think. Lots of fun. And more tango, of course.

  4. I'm excited to see what you do with C&B too! Now that I have an even more renewed interest in colonial America. :)

    I'm with you on the voice thing. As I begin my sequel for The Breakaway, I am running into stuff I've never had to deal with - as in keeping the same type of voice as in the first book. But, it happens two years after Breakaway ends, so the voice is going to be a little bit different, naturally. And honestly, in a lot of ways, the book stands on its own and is pretty much a separate story, not so much of a "sequel." Because I don't really care for sequels in the long stretch of things.

  5. Yeah, my master plan for Patience Quince is to write three books, but I can't guarantee that the second and third books will be like the first one. Especially in terms of voice. We'll see, I guess. I think the most important thing is to be true to the material at hand, not to some abstract idea about how I write prose.