Category Archives: Giving Birth to a Book (That’s Why I’m Screaming)

What I’m writing at the current time and how it’s going.

Words That Wake and Walk Around

old train stationIt’s one thing to think about writing a book, picturing the characters vaguely in your head doing….something, and won’t it be great when they do? It’s another thing entirely to think seriously about the book, to take paper and make notes, to do research and make further notes, perhaps talk to people about what you’re working on.

But the actual thing itself, putting down a word and another and another until you are creating a place and time and people who were not there before, this process of writing is so different from thinking or planning or making notes. When writing, you not only use your tools (knowledge of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, etc.), but now there must be coherent sentences that make sense, and each sentence should reasonably follow the one before it in a way to tell things.

Even if you have the ability to make all this work mechanically, such ability does not necessarily make the writing interesting, or beautiful, or meaningful. And yet, at some point, if you really are going to write, you have to sit down and do it. At that moment, you realize how profoundly different writing is from planning to write. All along you may have said, “Oh, I want to begin with the old woman in her garden remembering previous years working there,” but what exactly is that first sentence supposed to do? Describe the woman? Describe the garden? The sky? Should she start in the house and then walk outside?

In the past week I began working on some sections of the next novel, sections that will be inserted into the book at various points. They are all flashbacks in time, so they aren’t directly in the flow of the main narrative, which made me think I could go ahead and write them separately. They concern a character named Wanda who will become a temporary cook for President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve made notes on Wanda, and I drove down to Roosevelt’s house in Warm Springs and made notes there, but how to actually write this? So far, here is the first sentence of the first section: “Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn.”

I decided to open the scene with Wanda traveling down to the town of Warm Springs, to show that she is not from there, and opening with a train also helps to create a feeling of a time when you could actually travel on a train in the United States. In that opening sentence, in addition, I tried to give some sense of the rural setting, which has a certain importance for the place, and I wanted to use a bit of evocative detail, so I mentioned the cotton and corn. And of course, the cotton goes along with a rural Georgia setting, particularly in 1937.

In the second sentence, I brought Wanda herself in, and I began doing the little things that you use to build a character, such as indicate her emotions, show a memory, give some of her background. By the end of the first paragraph, I brought her to the town of Warm Springs and implied further action with the man waiting. I might instead have spent longer on the train, given more description, used more of her memories, but this is what I’ve done.

I can’t say I won’t change things in revision, but for now I decided to go for a faster opening and jump into action more quickly, and thus I had the man waiting for her. Below I give the first paragraph and a few lines after that. I will also say that this process, the writing part of writing, as difficult as it is, is 10,000 times more fun for me that all the rest of it.

********************************

Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn. Wanda Reed watched the fields pass by, trying to draw calmness from them, to still her anxiety. Out the window she saw a man sitting in a wagon pulled by a horse down a dirt road. The sight reminded her of her own father, several hours earlier, who had taken her from their farm in Mule Camp Springs to the train station in Gainesville, riding in a similar wooden cart, though theirs had been pulled by a mule. When they had arrived at the station, a ticket had been arranged for her, to ride to Atlanta, change trains, and head further south. From stopping at so many stations, the trip had seemed slow to Wanda, but at last the train pulled into the small town of Warm Springs, where she got off. Standing on the platform nearby was a white man in a dark suit, who saw her and said,

“Miss Reed?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m Jack Brewer, of the Secret Service. I came down to the station to pick you up.”

She nodded, not sure what she should say to him. This kind of attention from anyone, much less from a white man, seemed strange to her.

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Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie

Recently I got an email from a friend now living in Israel, originally from Russia, and she was telling me about reading Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (in Russian, obviously). About a year ago I read that book myself, so I was very interested in what my friend was saying. It was her opinion that Tolstoy was not the world’s master in creating characters who have distinctive voices. She made the argument that most of his characters, other than the soldiers, all sound rather alike—they sound like Tolstoy. I see her point.

The distinctiveness of characters for me is one of the most important aspects of a book. All readers are different, and well-developed characters may not be what you look for, but I’m interested in the human aspect of novels. For me a novel, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is an exploration of human existence. More than once I’ve laid a book down in irritation, thinking, “That person would not do that.”

Let’s say the author has created a character who never goes anywhere, never does anything, and appears to be content with this life. If that character suddenly agrees to accompany someone on a dangerous cross-country trip, I’m not buying it without a good explanation. It is not rare—for bad writers—to have a character do something only because the author wants it to happen. That action moves the plot, even when the character has been created as a person who would not do the thing the author wants.

Character development all about illusion, of course. There’s not really a person there, it’s just words the writer chose. And yet, if done right, the people in the book can seem to rise off the page, take a breath, and wink at us, saying Sure, I only exist here, but I’m REAL here. We think about those characters, carry them around in our heart, and our own lives seem touched, as though we had met a living person.

I understand how incredibly, almost freakishly, difficult it is to make real characters in a book. No blog entry could possibly get into much detail about this process, but I’ll talk about working on one character I intend to use in Moonapple Pie. At the moment I’m doing a little background work on character development for the four main characters of this book (at least that’s how the book is developing so far).

I’m using a technique I’ve used in the past, of writing down random potential facts about the characters, but as I’m working, I notice that it’s not entirely random, and I’ll illustrate this with a character named Elliott, one of two twin brothers. In what at first appears to be a random process, I gradually find myself making notes on three types of things: (1) information necessary to the plot, (2) information important to the mental development of the character, and (3) trivial bits and pieces. Here are examples for Elliott:

(1) In 2018, when the novel will take place, he is 43, born March 4, 1975. This kind of stuff I try to be careful with and use a calculator, so that someone thirty years from now doesn’t say “Oh, look what this dumbass writer did.” Also as plot information, Elliott graduated from Georgia Tech as a mechanical engineer and got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met his future wife. She’s from Glassboro, New Jersey, which is very close by (which I know because I lived there). This type of information is what I need for the mechanics of the plot, but in fact I don’t have to tell the reader all of it. Maybe it will be things I know that will never be mentioned.

(2) The most difficult thing I’m trying to do is figure out who the character is and what motivates him. Some of the notes I’ve made in that regard are that while he was in Wilmington he made a trip to Ireland, as it’s part of his family background, and he wants to go back and take his sons. Also while he was living in the north, he was sometimes teased about being from the south. While the teasing wasn’t much, it made him slightly defensive about being southern and about things from the south. On a different point, Elliott and his twin brother took art classes in high school, and even though Elliott eventually followed his “tinkering” side to become an engineer, he is still interested in art.

(3) The third category of notes I’m making is for things that are actually unimportant in themselves, as they could be almost anything, but these are the kinds of details that make a human being. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, but you need to have them. Thus, Elliott loves dogs and has three named Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie (named after Allman Brothers songs: Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, Hoochie Coochie Man). All three dogs are beagles, and he trains his dogs, is very disciplined with them.

I also know from extensive past experience, in novel after novel, that no matter how much I make these notes, no matter how detailed I decide to get with this process, no character ever opens their eyes and breathes until they are actually in the book. Only when I can see them move around and hear them speak do they start to become a real person for me.

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Start With This

The Master and Margarita book cover

The Master and Margarita

Being, as I be, in the bedeviled state of beginning to write a new novel, I must decide how to start the book. I heard on the radio that you should begin by commencing, though I’ve also heard contradictory advice on that. My long centuries of writing experience, which include many words splattered onto otherwise innocent sheets of paper, followed by the reactions of some readers and the occasional flicker of bemused interest from a literary agent, followed by the inevitable curled lip of negation, have given me much cause to ponder book openings.

From talking to literary agents and reading their blogs, advice, and appalled emails of rejection, I have come to realize that the ideal book opening contains these elements:

  • time travel
  • a car chase
  • oblique references to something godawful in the past
  • a mysterious young man with a pistol, looking for the meaning of life

The best books, of course, will contain these things in the first paragraph. If you’re a writer of secondary capacity, such as myself, it may take as long as two pages to mention all these things.

Of course the beginning of a novel should make the reader want to read more. That’s a basic fact of psychology and biology—we try things briefly to see if we’re interested, like tasting food, but we aren’t going to live for hundreds of years, damn it, so we need to pick and choose. What is the magical opening that will pull a reader in? There are people who will tell you how to write fiction, but usually such people do not say just who they are writing for, which makes all the difference in the world.

In pondering how a novel might begin, I went looking for some examples that I could quote here (without being sued). I’ll quote the opening sentences of three books, to give a feeling of the writing, and then I’ll summarize what happens in the first few pages of the book

Return of the Native

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

[Several pages of description of the landscape follow: by Thomas Hardy, published in 1878]

Alice in Wonderland

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice “without pictures or conversation?”

[Suddenly a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows it down a hole: by Lewis Carroll, published in 1865]

The Master and Margarita (I’m doing my own translation here from the Russian)

“On a hot spring evening at Patriarch’s Ponds two persons appeared. The first was around forty, dark-haired, chubby and balding, and he was dressed in a light summer outfit. In his hand he carried an elegant hat, while unnaturally large glasses in black horn frames graced his face.”

[Someone falls onto the tracks in front of a streetcar, and his head is cut off: by Mikhail Bulgakov, written between 1928 and 1940, but because he lived in the Soviet Union, writing about society under Stalin, the book was not published until the 60s]

What can we see from these openings? One thing we learn is that in 1878 you could write a book that began with landscape, then did more landscape, and was only getting warmed up in describing the landscape. Could you publish a book today that began that way? The literary agents would hurt their hands in the speed with which they would throw that back at you.

Alice in Wonderland was intended mostly for children, so of course it was going to do something more immediately entertaining than a novel by Hardy. It has almost no description, but goes immediately to action. It occurs to me as I sit here that since a requirement of modern novels is to immediately grab the reader’s attention with action, does that mean that modern readers are being addressed as children? A difference between the two books above is that Hardy was comfortable spending a long time setting the scene, while Lewis dropped the reader into the middle of the action.

Bulgakov’s novel opens with a famous scene that certainly grabs the reader’s attention. This 20th century novel seems to do the kind of thing that is demanded of novels here in the early 21st century, jump in there with something exciting. It doesn’t have a car chase, but later in the book, it does have a witch fly across Moscow.

For the book I’m starting to write (so far called Moonapple Pie, here are the first three sentences (until I change them sometime in the next few years):

The village of Mule Camp Springs sat silent below the lake. In the middle of the street, down in the dark waters, lay a boat that had tragically gone down one Fourth of July, drowning two brothers who were drinking beer and fishing. The sunken boat had come to rest next to the disintegrating remains of the Mule Camp Methodist church.

I’m still working on the obligatory car chase, which I guess will have to end up in the lake.

 

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More Champagne

glasses of champagneThe first time I finished writing a novel, lo them many years ago, I wanted to call all my friends together and have dinner and celebrate the great occasion. I felt sure I had done something huge and serious and people should join me in commemoration of greatness.

Many years later, having written two or three more books in the meantime, I finished writing another novel, and that time I went out to dinner by myself. It happened that there was no one convenient then to go out with me, but still I wanted to do something nice to mark the occasion.

This past Sunday evening, I finished a book that I’ve mentioned here a few times, one I’ve been revising for a while. This time celebrating didn’t really seem possible, no one to go out with, trying to conserve money, and in any case, the next day was Monday and I had to go to work. It’s also true, unlike years ago, that now I can go out to a restaurant if I want to, and I do. Back in the days when I finished writing that first book, eating in a nice restaurant (or any restaurant) was a major and extravagant event.

The book I just finished was twenty years in the writing, beginning back in 1997. It was hardly a novel then, just six separate stories about different characters, linked slightly, but I called it a novel. In the ensuing twenty years, I’ve revised the book three times, each time involving drastic reconsideration, removing characters, adding characters, and throwing away a lot of what I had written.

For the current revision, again I threw out about half the book and brought back a character who had been removed the last time. What was left I cut into pieces and put together with new material. Approximately the second half of the book did not exist before, so from the middle on, I was really writing a new book. In this version, I removed a major character entirely, and another major character now has a supporting role.

As I often do with book names, I labored mightily for years trying to come up with a title, and in different versions the name has changed over time: The Cost of Music, The Land of Melancholy Spices (OK, I liked it at the time), and now it’s called Birds Above the Cage. In effect, however, those were three different books.

The next step is now to find a few people willing to read the novel and give me feedback. I know that asking for a critique of a novel is asking a lot, and ideally I’d like to have people who read literary fiction and may have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. In the past, I’ve asked someone to read a book who said yes and never did, I’ve asked someone who said yes and months later had not touched it, then seemed irritated when I asked, and I’ve had someone  offer to help and ask to read a book, and even after that never did. Nothing about this process is easy, not in my house, anyway.

I thought I would end this blog entry with the opening paragraph of Birds Above the Cage:

“We think that the ghosts who roam the earth would be immune to natural disasters. For most disasters, such as earthquakes, tidal waves, or broken hearts, no doubt the ghosts are unaffected. A tornado, however, is such a violent force that even ghosts can get caught up in it. It can’t hurt them, but it will whirl them away, sometimes by the hundreds, translucent spirits of the dead whipped and whirled around and around by those powerful winds, helpless apparitions circling off across the countryside. The tornado that hit Gainesville, Georgia, in 1936 like a giant bomb sucked up all the ghosts in Hall County and integrated them in the maelstrom, made those black and white ghosts equal before the wind.”

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She’s Such a Character

abstract bird artWhat does it mean to say that a character in a book is real? I mean, they’re obviously not real, just words on a page. But one of the ways we talk about characters in literature is how much they seem like a real person. As with everything we read, the character is created entirely inside the head of the reader, who takes the words and puts them all together somehow, to mentally picture someone.

Because the reader is using the words the writer provided, the writer and reader are actually working together to create the character. Sometimes fiction writers make it easier, but there are other writers whose characters never seem to acquire much depth. We could also ask whether or not it matters if a character becomes real.

Sometimes, no, it doesn’t really matter. Some books exist just to tell a story for entertainment, with no other purpose, and for those books, while the reading may be more fun if the characters are somewhat real, in the end, the story is what matters, and the characters are only tools to help tell it. Also note that since character development is a cooperative enterprise, with writer and reader working together, for some types of books, if the reader has to work too hard, they may feel the book is less entertaining.

I don’t write those kinds of books (i.e., the kind that sell easily), such as romance, thrillers, spy novels, detective novels, and so on. I never made a choice not to write such books, I just write what I write. That’s not who I am.

When I’m writing, it matters A LOT whether the character seems real. In fact, that aspect of the book matters more to me than anything else about it. I want my characters to remain in the reader’s mind afterward, almost haunting, as if these people I’ve created were someone you really knew. I’m not sure whether I actually manage to do this, but that’s what I want.

I’m finishing up a book right now (called Birds Above the Cage), and I find myself using a technique I’ve used on the last couple of novels. When the book is “done” in terms of the story, I then go through it once for each major character, looking only at sections that have that character, and I focus on character development. This time I also tried something new, kind of eccentric. I went on the web and searched for photographs, choosing one that I thought represented each major character, and I downloaded those photos. From time to time I’d look at the pictures to give me a sense that I was writing about a real person.

So at the moment I’m working with Lily. Something I did this time was scan quickly through all her sections of the book, making notes on things I said about her: she doesn’t like coffee, she reads Newsweek, etc. Now that I’m going back and reading her sections more slowly, I keep looking at that list, to see whether I can use any of it, to reinforce something I’ve already said.

That’s not enough, however. When it comes down to it, I simply have to read a scene and stare at the computer until blood is running from my eyes, thinking, “What else can I do here?” For this kind of writing, good enough is not nearly good enough. There are various “sets” of approaches that I can use: (1) thoughts of the characters, which is very useful, but I want a fuller sense of the person in space as well, (2) physical appearance and motions, like frowning, brushing back the hair, walking quickly, and so on, but it could be easy to overdo this, (3) the setting as it relates to the character, like piano music she left lying on the table, a bag of oranges she just bought, photographs hanging on the wall.

Here’s a small example from about an hour ago. Lily gets a phone call from her estranged father, who she hasn’t talked to in years, and he gives her some astonishing news. I wanted to enliven the scene a bit physically, have more than just lines of dialogue, so I had her suddenly stand up in amazement from a chair where she was sitting. That gave a little physical motion to the scene, and it also said something about Lily’s emotional state, that she would be provoked into that action.

I was also going to have her look out the window and notice something outside. I had in mind seeing a chipmunk run by, as she sees a chipmunk much later in the book, but then I thought that under the circumstances of the phone call, she would have such a strong emotional reaction she probably wouldn’t notice anything around her. To stay true to her psychology, therefore, I ignored the outside.

Doing this kind of writing, for me at least, is extremely challenging. It’s hard work, and I keep thinking, “I want a nap. I want a glass of wine. I want a cookie. I want a hug.”

Anything but sit here working on this book.

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It Depends on So Much

Signs saying "no"

Until they say yes

A tiered cake stood on one end of the table, and on the top tier were two figures, decorated cookies perhaps, looking a bit like cartoon characters. Written on the cake was the phrase “It all depends”. There were also other cakes on a table that ran ten or twelve feet, heavy laden with food: tiny ham biscuits, pimento cheese sandwiches, platters of fresh vegetables with dip, candied nuts, more pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon (now that’s a brilliant idea), rolled up sandwiches of some sort, and still more.

This spread was laid out to celebrate my friend, Anna Schachner, who has just published a novel called You and I and Someone Else from Mercer University Press.

The celebration of Anna’s book was sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book, held at the Decatur library, an event that began in the small theater downstairs, then moved over to the meeting room, with the cake, and did I mention pimento cheese with bacon?

I’ve known Anna since 1990, when we were both English grunts teaching at Dekalb College, and we were both reading stacks of fiction submissions for the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review. Since then I’ve gone on to whatever in the world it is I’ve been doing, while Anna stayed at the college and eventually became the editor of the magazine. In the twenty-seven years that I’ve known Anna, I’ve watched her work and struggle, writing, then writing more, then writing more, going through multiple literary agents (you know, the people who “help” writers). It has taken a while, but her book is now out there.

Quite a nice crowd showed up to fill the theater on Tuesday, and it was good to see Anna get such recognition. Other writers also came, of course, and on the stage with Anna were two writers who some people will recognize, Joshilyn Jackson and Karen Abbott. As it happens, Anna, Joshilyn, and Karen have helped one another as a writing group, and—here’s an interesting little factoid—Anna and Joshilyn are planning to each a class together at a prison.

For the book event, Joshilyn introduced Anna and Karen, and Karen then interviewed Anna about the novel that has just been published. They both had microphones, which were totally not working, and I wondered how it was the people running the event were looking at the stage without making a move to fix that.

So I couldn’t hear that well, but I was gratified to hear Anna describe some of the creation of this book, which went through multiple iterations over fourteen years. She described it beginning as multiple short pieces, which then turned into connected short stories, and finally into a novel. The book that I’m now revising (which I first began twenty years ago) has done some similar things, also gradually drawing together more and more tightly into a coherent story. I felt a little justified to hear Anna describe her long-birthing book that is now before the world.

After the interview we all stood up and mingled a bit. I was surprised to see my friend Lamar York, who started the Chattahoochee Review, as I knew Lamar had driven four or five hours down from North Carolina, where he now lives. I knew quite a few people, mostly faculty or former faculty from the two schools I used to be associated with, who had come to help Anna celebrate.

I also took the opportunity to introduce myself to Joshilyn Jackson and talk to her for a minute, something I had intended to do if I ever had a chance, as I reviewed one of Joshilyn’s books for a local arts website a few years ago. In addition, I had a brief chat with Karen Abbott, so I was rubbing shoulders with the gentry, and I offered to go outside and watch their horses if they wanted me to.

For the kind of literary fiction that I write, Anna is the only person I know who does that type of writing as seriously as I do it. After watching her try so long and hard, I’m glad I was here in Atlanta to see her sit on a stage and talk about her book. You go, girl.

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I Checked All Your Adverbs

woman drinking a cup of coffeeThis seems like a complicated point to make. When we write, at least in a subconscious way, we imagine a reader who is reading it, and as we imagine that reader, we picture them understanding our text exactly the way we want them to. If it occurs to us that the imaginary reader will not understand something, then we change it.

Sometimes, however, when a real reader actually reads what we wrote, holy Jesus! how did they come up with those ideas? That’s not at all what we meant. The fact is, as a writer, you really don’t know how a reader will perceive what you’ve written. Until a reader, or multiple readers, see what you’ve done (and tell you), you’re guessing whether or not it works. After all, writing is not merely about writing, it’s about being read. We do not write just to admire the alphabet.

As hard as writing is, as much blood as you have to leave behind while doing it, when you finally have a finished manuscript, if you can get the opinion of some readers before you hand it out to the world, you can feel more confident of what you have. You don’t necessarily have to change anything based on what the readers say, but if three people are all confused at the same point, would you pay attention to that? I certainly would.

Getting this kind of help is one reason people seek out and attend writing groups. For a novelist, however, there are two potential problems with such a group. One problem is inherent in any group, the difference between critiquing and copy editing. Critiquing is seriously considering the content in a piece of writing as well as how it is presented (style, structure, and so on). Copy editing is only looking at what is written to see whether it has any mistakes, without much attention to the content.

Many people who attend writing groups, in their “critique” of someone’s writing, will merely copy edit, pointing out a mistake here and there, or talking about some feature of style they personally like or don’t like. This slight copy editing, which requires little effort, creates the illusion that they are taking part in a writing group. It isn’t serious, and it isn’t much help.

The second problem with a writing group applies particularly to novelists. Even if the members of a writing group are both competent and willing (and you’re damn lucky if you find both of those things in a group of people), the group members necessarily read only in bits at a time, so if you have a novel, then you eventually need a critique of the whole book, and you can’t get it there.

Thus, when you finish the draft of a novel, you’re fortunate if you can find someone who is capable and willing to give you a critique of the book. It’s quite a lot of effort, and a lot to ask of someone. And yet . . . it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to a novelist. I’m jealous of writers who have a circle of writer friends who gladly expend the effort to give critiques. I mean, I assume such a situation must exist, although I’ve never encountered it.

With the last book I wrote, The Invention of Colors, I found two people who were willing to give me a critique. One of them even went so far as to ask if she could do it. I felt lucky to find two very smart, well-read people who would do this. I felt lucky, that is, until they both fell off the earth and disappeared, and six months later I have heard literally not a word from either of them.

I’m currently critiquing a novel for a friend, and my focus is on two things. First, I’m thinking about overall plot flow and whether I see problems in the logic, in plot, or in the flow from section to section. Second, I’m focused on the psychological reality of the characters. One point I’ve found to criticize, which I’ve seen in other books, is when a character does something not because that character would actually do such a thing, but only because the author needs for it to happen in the plot. That’s weak writing, and I’ll always jump on that like a bulldog on a wedding cake, or . . . anyway, you get the idea.

But whatever I say, the book doesn’t belong to me. I will offer advice, and then the writer decides. The writer should always own the writing.

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