How I went about writing the damned thing

Fourth in a series of slightly portentious entries stemming from my recent novel-writing attempt. Here are links to the first, second, and third entries.

Like I said, the outline I started with was about 100 words long. When I completed the novel, it had grown to about 850 words long. As I got to be 1/3rdand then 2/3rds of the way in I started making little notes to myself about: A) what things I had just invented that needed to be hinted at earlier; and B) what kind of stuff I wanted to hit in the rest of the book. This is much more outlining than I usually do for a short story (or for my last novel).

It’s my experience, in writing, that you mostly manage to do okay at whatever you’re thinking about. This time around my primary concern was having a structure that felt right. I was willing to sacrifice a lot in order to do that. I’m always really impressed when someone gets their form right. Sometimes I think that people think I am insulting them when I tell them that what they wrote really sounds like its genre. Like, I have an acquaintance who writes political commentary for various magazines and it just sounds so much like the political commentary you read in magazines! I was amazed! And I have another friend who published a story in a science fiction magazine and I wrote to him being like, “Wow, this sounds just like a science fiction story!”

Okay, when I put it that way, it does sound pretty insulting. But I don’t mean it that way, honestly. In his book About Writing, Samuel Delany says (I’m flipping through my paper copy here):

“This book would be a lot better if it had an index”

But in the Google Books version he says (and I am patching together this quote something from a long and very awesome section on the nature of literary talent):

As far as I can see, talent has two sides. The first side is the absorption of a series of complex models—models for the sentence, models for narrative scenes, and models for larger literary structures….Generally speaking, the sign that the writer has internalized a model deeply enough to use it in writing is when she or he no longer remembers it in terms of a specific example or a specific text, but experiences it, rather, as a force in the body, a pull on the back of the gonue, an urge in the fingers to shape language in one particular way and avoid another….,The second side [of talent] is the ability to submit to those models. Many people find such submission frightening. At the order, even from inside them, “Do this—and let the model control the way you do it,” they become terrified….Acknowledging that there are models to submit to is much the same as realizing there are standards to be judged by….(most bad writing by people who write easily comes from submission to demonstrably poor models, like vampire novels).

Okay, he didn’t write that last clause, but I am pretty sure he was thinking it.

Anyway, in my writing, I kind of knew my model, and I was willing to have the story be a total cliché as long as I did the cliché right. It only takes being bored like hell by one beautifully written novel by a brilliant short story writer (see, for instance, Aimee Bender’s first novel) to realize that there are things which are more important than originality…things without which no one will even notice your originality.

But the converse of doing okay at whatever you’re thinking about is that you fall down on pretty much everything else. In my case, it was description, big time. About halfway through the story I just started writing long scenes of just dialogue, and only putting in movements where they were necessary to the plot. I stopped describing people and settings unless I needed to (or it seemed fun). All the stuff that come under what Delany is talking about when he writes (quoting Gertrude Stein) that one third of the glory of English literature comes from simple descriptions of what exists and daily life on the island (of England, I guess).

I also started to waver a lot on the narrative distance and tone. It was hard for me to maintain distinct syntax and diction for twenty different characters (something I am normally not bad at). Voices started getting blurred together. I had wanted, when I started, to write in a different diction than I thought a high school student could easily convey, so I had a fairly distant third-person narrator, but the narrator started getting all tangled up with the character, and well…yeah. I mean, I don’t particularly care about realism (one thing I know about high-schoolers is that in their heads they sound a lot smarter than they do to adults), but I would like my novel’s internal fantasyworld to have some kind of consistency. If high-schoolers are going to talk like jaded twentysomethings then they should do so all the time, dammit!

Umm, anyway, I will fix all that stuff in revision (and yes, I am actually planning on revising this one). The main point is that I am not going to do things like swap scenes around or write new scenes or delete scenes. It’s all going to be sentence-level from here on out.

One last word on outlining. Although I didn’t make an outline before I started, I did make one as I completed each chapter. It detailed each scene, their length, the number of characters therein, and a brief description of the scene. I did this because it made a pretty good way to begin each day of writing, and because I know from experience that later on making it would feel like actual work. I have this fantasy that when I look at this reverse outline in a few days, I will immediately be able to spot where I can delete scenes and where I can expand them. After I finished reading my last novel (like fifteen days ago) I still had no idea what was happening where. I had no sense of the work as a whole, and was left poking at it with a stick, trying to get it to rear up and show me its belly.

            Next: Terrible things that can happen to your mind and body in eight days of writing

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