Monday, September 24, 2012

A Powerful Feeling of Disquiet: Another Middle

I draft my novels longhand, in spiral notebooks that are easily carried around in my briefcase. I write at lunch and on the bus commute home, pretty much five days a week. I don’t write at home (home is where I keep my other, more entertaining, distractions) though I have what I call a "writing desk" set up before a big window in a nice room there. The work I do at the "writing desk" is typing up my handwritten drafts into a laptop. So I’ve been carrying around a notebook that’s now about full of first draft for a novel(la) I’m calling Mona in the Desert, and this weekend I typed a bunch of that draft into the laptop at home because I become increasingly worried that I’ll lose the handwritten draft during my perambulations about town and were that to happen, I’d just abandon the novel rather than attempt to reconstruct it. All of which is preface to the announcement that I think I’m at about 30,000 or so words through this draft (though I’m not sure because I’ve only typed up about four chapters of the draft out of the six and a half chapters I’ve written). Thirty-thousand words puts me somewhere in the middle of the novel, or somewhere toward the sixty percent mark if I stick with the plan of making it a 50,000-word novella. In either case, I’m now in the middle of the middle. I discovered this project middleness not by figuring the word count of the draft, but rather by noticing that I have been feeling a powerful sense of disquiet about writing. The feeling that this novel is an empty, pointless thing and that indeed every novel I’ve written is an empty, pointless and likely embarrassing book is a sure sign that I’ve arrived at that stage in the drafting process where I’ve got to just brass my way forward through the writing and work toward the final act, which I recall once thinking was a good idea to write. This feeling is so familiar and so predictable that I am almost bored by it. Yes of course, I say. Right on schedule. The temptation is to abandon the novel, to spend more time reading or exercising, to think about other things. But of course I won’t, because I’ve been here before and I know how it works. Also, because I’m writing this novel without any sort of outline at all (damn you, Davin Malasarn), and because I have no real idea what I’m doing except attempting to keep the narrative moving forward, I’m aware that it has some odd things going on with it formally and that the revisions are going to be tricky in order to push the bits around and give them some sort of coherent structure. A couple of years ago I told someone I wanted to write a novel in the shape of leaves blown off a tree in an autumn windstorm. I think this might be that novel.

Also: this is from Chapter 3; I promised Michelle another excerpt about Mona.

It’s a long drive, especially in the summer in a steel-bodied car built before the invention of air conditioning, but it’s possible to get from eastern Colorado all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in eight hours. That was my aunt’s intention, but she was not much experienced at either highway driving or long-distance driving back in 1950. She took two days to guide the car she’d borrowed from her brother Red—it was a Buick that Red could spare because he’d be out of town on his own mysterious business for a couple of weeks—as far as Santa Fe. Mona didn’t like the speeds people drove on the interstate. She didn’t like negotiating the onramps and the exits, she didn’t like the tedium of the barren landscapes and she didn’t like driving at night; the headlights of the opposing traffic blinded her and gave her headaches. Red had been surprised when Mona asked to borrow his car. Do you even know how to drive, he asked. He demanded that Mona produce her driver’s license, and he examined it closely as if suspecting it to be a forgery. Mona had to drive the Buick around the neighborhood for half an hour, Red tense in the passenger seat, before she’d convinced her brother that she was capable of operating a motor vehicle. Mona drove with the windows down, her sunglasses on, her left arm along the door, a lit cigarette trailing hot ash down the road. When a car passed her she gripped the wheel with both hands. If a van or a truck passed her, Mona would clutch the wheel, take her foot off the accelerator and drift toward the shoulder, never looking to her left because vehicles that large, that close to her, moving at those speeds were terrifying. My aunt never lost her fear of big trucks or being passed on the highway. She kept the car radio switched off because she found the music distracting and she was afraid to take her attention off the road ahead. Mona sang to herself, in her terrible contralto voice, mostly hymns like Oh Sacred Head that she remembered from childhood. She hadn’t been to church since she’d turned seventeen. Mona was fine with God, but she found church a waste of time and infinitely boring. No wonder she later joined that cult with their big boat on the mountaintop where God was sleeping. My aunt only led a dull life because for the most part she was blind to all the excitement there is to be had; it took something truly bizarre to be visible to her through her social myopia.


  1. The writing you posted held my attention and that's not easy to do because I'm a bit flighty. I especially liked this part:

    "No wonder she later joined that cult with their big boat on the mountaintop where God was sleeping."

  2. Cynthia, thanks! Like I say, I'm just trying to maintain a sense of forward motion here.

    That line about the church of the sleepy God has led to all sorts of interesting developments in later chapters.

  3. It's good that you know who you are as a writer and that this "middle disquiet" is just something to be got over.

    Your Mona in the Desert sounds a lot like me when I drive. Are you channeling me, Mr. Bailey?

    On another note, I have just published the mess of short stories I've been working on and I will now be attempting to write the novel starring Gregory Francis Scott, 6th Earl of Bailey. Hope to get it finished by Thanksgiving. And just so you know, I will definitely be channeling you.

  4. I'm trying to pattern Mona after an idea I have of one of my actual aunts, but who knows what the real influences are, hm?

    How do I find your short stories? I'll poke around on the interwebs. I'm guessing the Earl is tall, handsome, witty and charming. Also highly sucessful but modest to a fault.

  5. The shorts are all Regency based and probably not your cup of tea, so to speak. If you'd like, you could just go to Amazon and punch in Anne Gallagher. I've got my own page now. The book is called A ROMANTIC REGENCY COLLECTION. (yeah, I'm not one for titles as evidenced by my others.)

    And yes, the Earl is tall, handsome, and witty, however, not so charming as he tries to impugn the reputation of a spinster who he finds has written all of her father's scholarly papers of the last decade (the poor codger has gone mad you know.) That being said, when Bailey finds the man-next-door is about to blackmail the fair maiden into marriage (so her father will not end up in debtor's prison) Bailey steps in to help. Sappy romantic drivel, I'm sure, but fun to write nonetheless. I hope you don't mind if I paint Bailey as a dastard at first, but then I will redeem him. Naturally.

  6. How charmed and flattered I am! You know that nobody likes Bailey when they first meet him.

    I confess that I just googled "regency period" to make sure I know what it meant. The politics got confusing quickly, but if I just remember Regency=Austen, I'll be fine.

    Hey, waitaminit: Bailey=dastard at first? I'm goddamn Fitzwilliam Darcy! Who knew? Now where's my 10,000 pounds/year?

  7. When I make my first million, I'll send you your per annum.

    Or at least a copy of the book when it comes out in paperback. Unless you've gone the way of all these other bibliophiles and bought yourself a Kindle...

  8. Kindle? Isn't that what you do with eReaders and a fireplace? Where I come from, books is made of paper, dammit!

  9. Whee! You posted more! I don't know how you do it, but you captivate me with your little excerpts. :) And I know how you feel with the "Right on schedule" feeling. it's annoying and starting to get old.

  10. Michelle, thanks! The narrative hangs together in little bits like this, but I'm not sure about the overall shape of the book. I just this afternoon wrote what would in most books be the plot point at the end of Act 1. In my story it comes past the halfway point. And I've already spoiled the outcome of the story. But somehow I don't think any of that matters in this narrative. I think it all works out of order, with the reader aware the whole time of what will happen to the protagonist. I'm betting on my telling being good enough that people will keep reading anyway. There's no reward without risk.

  11. Hello! Scott, more and more I admire how vivid your characters are. I feel like I always see Mona as I read through this section, every detail comes to life and reveals who she is.

    And, Anne, I'm glad you mentioned your collection. I'm going to check it out as well!

  12. Davin, welcome back to the online world, such as it is!

    These days I don't really think about anything other than character when I write. All the plot/theme stuff is just a toolkit to talk about character. There's a real plot in Mona in the Desert, about Mona traveling to New Mexico to confront her boyfriend's mother, who has had a premonition that Mona will ruin the boyfriend's life. But I spoil the ending of that plot in the first chapter; we know on page two that Mona's going to have three marriages and three divorces. So the trick is to keep the reader reading, even though the outcome of the plot is given away right off, because the characters are so interesting.

    You will note that I've stolen your idea of telling the reader what happens to each character at the beginning of the book, before the story gets underway. It's a good idea; I couldn't help stealing it.

    Also, I've read more Woolf and a lot more Chekhov since writing my earlier novels. Chekhov demonstrates that you can do anything you want with characters. Woolf demonstrates that any single object contains within it the entire world; you just have to know where to stand and how to squint properly in order to see it (so everything is a prism once you know the right trick with light).