Thursday, March 28, 2013

the rest is marketing, part four(?)

Spotted on the shelf at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday evening:

Sales continue to be steady, which is nice. I don't know what sort of people are buying the book or what they expect. That's all out of my hands, which is simply very strange.

Meanwhile, I have reached the point in revisions to Go Home, Miss America where I believe--in a fragile, delicate sort of way--that I am going to succeed in my goals for the two story lines, that the narrative will actually work and that what I'm making is a pretty good book. It's strange to be writing about ideas of sainthood, but one never knows where a narrative will lead us, does one? Not if one is me, that is. Anyway, I feel cautiously optimistic about this book. Mona in the Desert will be another interesting revision process, as that book really certainly doubtlessly is "literary fiction" in that on many basic levels it's fiction about literature, but that's being put off until at least this winter. I have other stuff to do first.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Too much in the sun

No, this is not about gardening or the weather. It's about Shakespeare, and lots of it, I say. On Sunday evening Mighty Reader and I sat through an abbreviated (90 minutes!) “Julius Caesar,” a performance by the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “traveling company” of six actors who perform in rural schools all over the state. Often these “road show” performances are the first Shakespeare the students have ever seen, and sometimes they are the students’ first exposure to theater in any form. So they are doing important work which deserves our financial support and, because the plays are designed for an audience of kids, the scripts are greatly simplified. The plot of “Julius Caesar” was reduced to “Caesar is a bully, so let’s kill him. Hey, Cassius lied to Brutus about his motivations. Hey, Antony and Octavian are trying to kill Brutus. Hey, everyone’s dead. I’m not sure who won the moral victory.” It all hung together well enough but I missed having Caesar’s first line be simply “Calpurnia,” which I think is important in the original to show character (I am clearly doing nothing here but quibbling, no?), and I missed the Porcia subplot as well, and the rioting in the streets of Rome after the assassination. There was some clever staging, there were a lot of costume changes, and each actor played four different roles (so costumes were very important). It was not brilliant, but it was pretty good and if I wasn’t familiar with the original (“Julius Caesar” was the very first Shakespeare I ever read, way back in 1975 or so, which makes it maybe the one of which I am fondest), I would’ve enjoyed it well enough, especially were I a middle- or high-school student. That sounds too much like faint praise, and I'm sorry about that. It's a clever, fast-paced reduction. The traveling company is also performing “Romeo & Juliet,” and it must be interesting for the six actors, having to learn two different plays and eight different characters. I’m sure all that study keeps them well out of trouble. Before the performance, I was looking at the cover of the program and I have decided that I must do something (possibly in Mona In The Desert) with the idea of a pair of plays called “Romeo & Julius” and “Juliet Caesar.” Yes, that will be fun. Nobody steal that, okay? Unless someone has already used it, in which case I’m going to steal it, okay? Okay.

We also saw “Love’s Labour’s Lost” on Wednesday night, performed mostly in its entirety by the regular troupe of Seattle Shakespeare. I’m almost always happily surprised by the ideas SSC brings to the plays, and setting LLL in the Roaring Twenties was great fun. The costumes were marvelous and the drink cart and all the gilt mirrors were funny. Aloysius the Teddy Bear was maybe too much, a too direct reference to the BBC-TV production of “Brideshead Revisited,” but otherwise it was grand. Act V had the typical Shakespearean mean-spirited bit you find in all his comedies and at that point the play stopped being fun (neither Mighty Reader nor I had read/seen this one before), and well done Mr Shakespeare giving his comedy an indeterminate ending. I hear that a sequel was produced, a play called "Love’s Labour’s Won," but that play has apparently been lost. Next up, to finish out the 2012-13 season, is the “trailer park” version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” which is my most favorite Shakespeare comedy, despite the misogyny and the ending which breaks Kate’s spirit. It’s got that line about Padua, after all. The SSC’s production stars David Quicksall as Petruchio. Quicksall is very good, and very funny, and I like him in every role he acts.

Why am I talking about Shakespeare? I don’t know. It occurred to me last week that Mighty Reader and I see about six Shakespeare plays each year, and I read about the same number, and Shakespeare is just, you know, part of the fabric of life if you’re me. And that’s worth talking about, I think. This summer the “Shakespeare in the Park” folks are putting on “Henry V” and “The Tempest.” I’ve never seen “The Tempest” performed, and I’m very curious because last year I read the play for the first time and, on the page, it’s a mostly lifeless and pointless lump with maybe 100 lines of really stellar dialogue that, alas, don’t seem to redeem the play. But people rave about this one so I want to see what all the fuss is about. The 2013-14 schedule of Seattle Shakespeare Company has just been released, and it looks pretty fine, so I have to remember to renew our subscription right away so we can keep our good seats. Shakespeare all the time, kids. It’s good and good for you.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The rest is marketing, part three

My good friend Anne Gallagher has posted an interview with me over on her blog, Piedmont Writer. In it I claim that '"literary fiction" is an awful term.' I also shill for the novel. Pretty shamelessly, too.

Meanwhile, it's snowing in Seattle. Light snow, but snow nonetheless. Panic ensues, as usual.

Monday, March 18, 2013

the rowboat in the stream

As I work to revise the current draft of Go Home, Miss America, I pause to think about what I’m actually doing when I revise a novel. I don’t know what other writers’ first drafts look like, how rough they are or how much work they require to expose the intended story and put the major sections into the intended order. The Astrologer went through about seven major versions, with the basic skeleton of the book (by which I mean characters, themes and plot) rearranged, sometimes drastically. The version that’s made it to print is essentially a completely different novel than the first version I wrote. I am of two minds (at least) about that, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. One of the many lessons learned from writing The Astrologer (also known as “Ophelia’s Ghost,” “So Honest A Man,” “The Stars Are Fire,” “The Secret Parts of Fortune” and “Killing Hamlet”) is that I need to have a pretty solid idea of what I intend the book to be before I write very much in the way of prose. I need to have the overall structure in mind, I need to know how the story ends, and I need to know a lot about what things in the story interest me, so that I can develop those ideas as I write my way from end-to-end of the first draft. The idea is to have a first draft that, while far from being anything like perfect, is a good approximation of the book I had in mind when I originally sat down to write. There will of course be drift along the way, and the second half of my novel is usually closer to what I intend than the first half is, so most of the heavy lifting in the revision process will take place in the first 30,000-40,000 words of the narrative. That’s where things are most vague and tend to point in lots of directions, where I start down paths regarding character or theme only to abandon them when I realize, a couple of chapters later, what I really want to do. But even with all the false starts polluting the first half of the novel, usually I have something pretty strong to work with. Usually there’s not a great deal missing.

But there are missing elements, and there is all that pollution. There is also a great deal of rough, or lazy, or inexact or cliché-ridden prose, because I try hard to draft quickly and what I end up with is often more of a sketch of the idea than a real development of it. So revisions to novels, for me, come down to three tasks that I attempt to do simultaneously, more or less:

1. Justify the story outcomes (how things are left at the end, that is) with the necessary foreshadowing and development. That’s one of the larger tasks with Go Home, Miss America, as one of the storylines concludes with an action that might seem to come out of the blue, even though I had it in mind the whole time I was writing the novel. The ending was inevitable to me, but not to the reader. I did not adequately prepare the ending, so I need to go backward through the story and make sure that the argument for this conclusion actually exists and develops along the necessary lines.

2. Prune away the wrong turns, where for example Catherine Lark’s mother locks herself into the bedroom and weeps for a week holding a photo of her late husband and a rosary. That’s just over the top and not at all what I want Catherine’s mother to be like. It was an idea that didn’t work, so out it comes.

3. Fix the prose. This is a huge topic because the book, the story, is made entirely of prose. There is nothing else on the page but prose, so the book is the prose and the prose is the book, so concerns 1) and 2) are tied into working with prose, because each word in our language has a specific meaning and so the words I use must exactly fit my intent. That’s pretty obvious, I guess. But there also needs to be a propulsive, forward-moving drive to the prose, an interconnection and overlapping of speech rhythms (and non-speech rhythms too, because you can do things with the written word that are impossible with spoken English), and the sounds of the words themselves must be beautiful according to my aesthetic, which shifts all the time and is generally undefined and has to do with the speed and accents that inhere within Latinate versus Anglo-Saxon words, though I have no hard-and-fast laws about the poetry and music of the written word; I improvise within certain self-imposed constraints, you see. I got lost in that sentence, I think.

So the process I use when revising is to first read the draft, quickly, making notes about story, theme and character. What structural elements will need to be repaired, replaced or built? I make lots of notes and think about the new or altered scenes I’ll require, and I don’t do anything with the book until I know how I’m going to fix the broken parts of the story itself. The prose is all going to change around, so there’s no point at this point in fucking around with the words, because at first the work is primarily conceptual. Though of course I like to get as much as I can of the new scenes written down as close to how I think they should be, because the closer I think I am to having the hard work finished, the greater my confidence when I start to push through 90,000 words.

Once the conceptual/story work is done, I just sit down with a printout of the book (I actually like to have print and bind copies of the manuscript that look a lot like trade paperbacks, because the size is convenient for editing on the bus or in restaurants, which is where I do most of my work. I have a couple of fine-point red pens and I mark up the pages of these bound manuscripts.) and read it from page First to page Last, marking up the text, cutting things that don’t work and rearranging the prose so that it means precisely what I intend at that particular moment and sounds as beautiful as I can make it at that particular moment. Note that “beauty” includes the idea of harshness, of ugliness. I mean some sort of undefined aesthetic pleasure more than I mean “prettiness.” The prose of Fitzgerald, for example, rubs up against the reader’s expectations and creates areas of discomfort (mostly by using startling adjectives that don’t quite seem to fit at first), but I still call his prose beautiful.

The image I have of the revision process is of me sitting in a rowboat, moving upstream against the current, with my fingers trailing over the side of the boat as I catch up and remove from the stream anything that doesn’t belong in the current. Sometimes I have to use a rake, or a big damned net to pull out the rubbish that floats by. That image, of me in a boat with dead twigs and leaves catching against my spread fingers, is the image I wanted to give you when I began to write this post. Probably I didn’t need all those additional words to get to this point, but they were the only footpath I could find that led from a blank page to the rowboat in the stream.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

some of it just deadens my brain

Last night after dinner I read the final five or eight pages of Finnegans Wake and they were marvelous, magical, transcendent in the Kantian sense of lying beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge. Yes, I do mean that, you boys. At the same time, it was all grounded in the earth, the speech of the river forever seeking the ocean, the drowned learning to swim, the sleepers yearning to awaken. It was, I swear to God. Breathtaking music. Poetry. Life and death and love. I have not, however, finished reading Finnegans Wake.

Perhaps I should go back a bit. I'm on about page 105 of the book, in the Modern Classics edition. The judge is hearing evidence about the crime HCE has committed; the letter has been placed into evidence but not, I don't think, read into the record yet. As far as I can tell, the letter accusing HCE of the sex crime was written by ALP, the wife of HCE. I may be wrong about that. The book is famously difficult to decipher.

I've been reading five or ten pages of FW each night, strolling or struggling my way through the narrative, depending on how much I think I've understood during each session with Mr Joyce. When I pick up the book to continue along, I realize every night that I don't know what's just happened in the story, and I won't know what most of the sentences I am about to read are supposed to mean. Some of it's just glorious stuff, as I say in the first paragraph of this little essay, but some of it just deadens my brain with the ongoing lack of real meaning. Perhaps that's Joyce's aim, to put me into a dreamlike state where the images flow past my mind's eye but can't be readily interpreted. I am left with odd impressions, of history and characters and names and attitudes, but I am not left with a sense of action or causation. There's a story going on, but it's happening at some distance from me, and Joyce's tower of babble holds me back from engaging with the story in the way I'd probably rather experience it. So this book, this Waking in the Wake of the Fenians, is not about reading a story.

After a few paragraphs last night, on page 105 or so, I had pretty well decided that I'd just put Mr Joyce's odd novel back on the shelf and find something else to read. There are plenty of ancient Greek plays and poems I want to get to, after all. There are those Shakespeare history plays, too. And uncountable novels written during my own lifetime. I was getting ready to stand up and carry Finnegans Wake over to the bookshelf where we keep the Js but first, I thought, I should read the ending pages. See above. The ending pages are a treasure. When I got to "riverrun" I opened the book to random spots and read a paragraph or a page and I quite liked everything I read. Why do I like reading it like this, I wondered, but not straight through from end to end? What's the difference between following it straight through, and skipping around in the narrative, reading a page or two here and there? It's not like it makes any more or less sense either way.

So I did not put Finnegans Wake back on the shelf, but I don't know how I'll approach reading it tonight, or tomorrow night or the night after that. If I read it out of order, how will I know what I've read, or when I've finished reading it? This book, it vexes me. But either I'm not done with it or it's not done with me.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The rest is marketing, part two

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. --Anton Chekhov

This is my official announcement that my novel, The Astrologer, is officially published today. I did not cross out all of the lies in it, but some of that was deliberate.