Thursday, December 29, 2011


So now that I'm fully engaged in the waiting game, I'm not too sure what to do with myself. "Work" for money is not really happening at this time aside from teaching, so I have a lot of time to fill during the day. I watched all of my Christmas present from Matt, all 19 blessed episodes of My So-Called Life, which was actually better than I thought it was at 13, for completely different reasons. (Although Jordan Catalano was no less attractive. God above, that boy.) I found myself surprised at the writing influence of that show; the first few episodes reminded me of the way The Sopranos is written, the sort of psychic circularity of certain concepts (remember the ducks? like that), and the extreme character delving that's done. The last several reminded me of Buffy, what little Buffy I've seen. But now that I've marathoned those 14 or so hours of TV in three days, I'm twiddling my thumbs a little bit. Matt's brother gave me the MST3K Gamera collection for Christmas, but believe me, a little Gamera goes a long way.

The obvious thing is to write. I do have this horror novel that I've been nursing for a few years, but as I mentioned the last time we were together, I'm very uncertain about its direction. I forced a few paragraphs out beyond what I had written the last time I left off, but when I think of it, I feel unsure that I can make it novel-length, that I can fix its major flaws (too much dialogue, not enough events, I like my main character less than my supporting ones), that I seem to have this really obvious pattern for how I write books that isn't necessarily a good way to write books and I'm doing it again and I'm not sure about it. Namely, this is the second book I've done serious work on that has a long section of another piece of media. In the Greenland book, it's a few thousand words of fictional history from the fourteenth century as told by one of my main characters, and in the horror book it's not quite ten thousand words (with no immediate end; I'm still writing it and don't know whether or when to end it) of a diary kept by the antagonist. I don't exactly know where I'm headed and can't gauge if where I've been is any good. Major revisions will be necessary. Whine whine uncertainty whine.

There are a lot of things I'm worried about with this project. This makes it no different, really, than the Greenland book, but for some reason my doubt is no less potent considering I already made it through this process with what I consider moderate success. I wasn't really sure I'd finish the Greenland book and I did; I felt the same "I have no PLOT" panic about that book and I came up with some. Why can't I ditch the insecurity?

Apart from all that, the main reason I haven't really gotten down to business on this horror book, not really, is that I feel like it's too soon to walk away from the Greenland book and head onto another project. I don't know what's giving me this feeling, because I'm not tired, or missing the urge to write, or blocked, or anything like that. It's like swimming; when you're a kid your parents yell and scream endlessly (or at least mine did) about not swimming at any time less than half an hour after you eat. When you grow up, you're better able to judge when you're too full to comfortably swim, or whether it's safe enough (supervised pool, etc.) to take the risk and swim anyway. But you still retain this little yelling voice inside that says no, no, no, don't swim, you'll get a cramp and diiiiiiie!

The conventional wisdom would seem to be that diving back into the waters of another novel so soon after finishing all the work it's possible to do at the moment on the just-done novel is simply a bad idea. Too much Greenland residue, my brain should be plumb wore out, if I get heavily into the horror novel I won't be able to revise Greenland effectively. Some such things. But I honestly don't know what else to do; I don't have any significant ideas for short stories, I have one for an essay but I don't think it's ready yet, I'm not interested in taking any continuing ed classes, and at the moment there are long stretches of every weekday that are unfilled. To plug the space with Netflix feels like I'm not doing my part for the household.

Until my readers get back to me with suggestions (and oh, will Matt be happy when they do - I've already asked him what he thinks they think of it about 400 times when I know that in all probability no one has cracked the spine yet, figuratively or literally), what I can do with my chosen profession during these days is, um, do it. Write. I just can't get rid of the little voice that calls it unwise.

What do you, the viewers at home, think? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Auditioning My [Un]talented Child

Waiting for people to tell you what they think of your work is a special kind of hell, I think, and I can't imagine it's a whole lot more fun for the people who are reading the work. The last time I sent work out to friends was...gosh, two, three years ago? Neither friend ever finished reading what I sent (to my knowledge), after being so enthusiastic about it. One friend read about a third of the material and talked to me in wonderful detail about it, so helpful, and then it dropped off his radar and I never heard about it again. The other friend never got back to me at all.

I'll grant you I was pissed off at the time, but since then I've let go of it. (Oh, how generous of me.) I put myself in their shoes, and imagined having this obligation that I thought was going to be a pleasure, and embarrassing myself by being excited about it and then not getting around to it for days stretching into weeks, and knowing that my friend really, really cared about this thing that I was starting to consider a stone around my neck. What a very yucky feeling. Or, worse, maybe I had read it, and didn't like it, and didn't know what to say; maybe I'd presumed it was going to be a lot better than it was (or at least a lot more polished), and didn't know how to explain that I'd been disappointed.

On my side of the fence there's this beautiful albatross, this beloved child of my typing fingers, and I need to send her out for auditions, so we can find out from an unbiased source whether she has a shot of making it to the big time. To do this, and wait at home for my pretty child to return with a bevy of information about how to improve her weak voice and her droopy tits and then to hear nothing nothing nothing, is torment. But the people in whose hands is the work, it's not their fault. They have a lot of auditions to get through. My albatross is no more important (much less, in fact) than all the other items in their lives. She's my kid, but she's their burden.

If you ever find yourself in this position (I'm substituting myself for any author, here), please know that I want to hear about it if my kid sucks. If you're an early reader, it's not awkward for you to tell me, "Wow, I really thought this would be good, since you spent good years of your youth on it, but it stinks like yesterday's diapers, and here's why." Not awkward. Exactly what me and my kid need to hear, so we can get voice lessons and a boob job and move forward, marching on to Broadway.

(Did that [long-term] metaphor work? I feel like it did, but I'm not sure. See, this is why we need readers.)

The point is, we're both in shitty positions, the author and the readers, and I'm taking this opportunity to acknowledge that I know it. That for me to sit here and bite my nails bloody is no harder than for a reader to look at the manuscript sitting in the corner and know that she has to get back to it eventually. I know that. And what we both need to do is just let it be, calm down and do what's needed (even if what's needed is to walk away and never look back).

Whilst waiting for my dear, dear readers to get with the program finish their extremely difficult task, I've gone back to work on a horror novel I started two winters ago, and it's very slow going swimming back into it again. I don't know if the 30-some thousand words I already have on it are any good. At all. I don't know how to add another 40-some thousand (or more), when the story's pretty simple and I don't have a great deal more plot. Of course, that was my problem during the second half of the Greenland book, too, and now I have too many thousand words. If Matt will once more brainstorm with me and give me exactly the right book to read, I'm sure I'll be fine. Until then I'll flounder on.

In other parts of my life, I continue to cruise along in uncertainty. Christmas approaches. The thing I chose for my homemade gifts this year is by necessity a last-minute thing, so I'm planning to get to work on it tomorrow. There's this little panic critter in my head hollering that I'm running out of time and have nothing prepared and there are so few days left! and I'm having to remember over and over that it's a last-minute thing, I can't prepare any more than I already have. CHILLAX.

That's kind of the leit-motif of this month, actually. When I remember to take that advice, everything's awesome.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


It's Catalog Season in our mailbox, and the other day we received a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog - we probably purchased a single gift from them three years ago or something and are now on their holiday list ad eternium. As is the Schlemmer way, they had a lot of cool stuff in there, but something that particularly caught my eye was a home electrolysis...thing, a little machine about the size of a lady's electric razor that did permanent hair removal after numerous repetitions of swiping the thing over your unsightly body hair.

At first glance, I thought, YES, this is like a zillion times cheaper than salon electrolysis would be, and yes I'd probably have to swipe for several months in a row, but NO MORE SHAVING MY UNDERARMS, thank God, sign me up.

Then I thought about it some more. I thought about the idea of actually having no hair under my armpits. Ever. Again. Or on the tops of my toes; the little golden hairs that have grown there since I was in middle school are deeply humiliating to me (which is why I'm telling the whole internet about them). Or...well, no, those are the only two places that have hair I'd like to be permanently rid of. I'm kind of conservative that way.

The more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the idea of forever removing that hair. I never let my underarm hair grow out for more than a day or two, in part because I don't like to show hairy pits to my students when I'm teaching and I teach a few times a week. But the idea of it gone forever was very disconcerting.

I think it's because I've never quite reached comfort about the amount of hair removal women are societally requested/required to do, and which I go on and do in order not to be frowned upon in femininity. Every time I see a woman with publicly fuzzy pits, I give her a little mental fist-bump: way to not conform, grrl. I wish I had your fuck-'em-all attitude. But I don't. It's not a step I feel comfortable taking, and that kind of bothers me, that I'm not gutsy enough to let my armpits be what they are and to hell with anyone who'll disdain me for it.

There's always the "I want to be as awesome as Patti Smith" defense.
Which, you know, is a thing.

I can't think of any occasion in the future where I'd want my armpit hair to grow, nor can I think of any kind of life situation I am likely to experience in my remaining years on this planet where I won't regularly "need" [want? have?] to remove it. But that hair is a part of me, the real me who sweats during exertion and gets crud under her toenails and relieves herself via urination and defecation. These are human things, and the way that our society paints over them with obsessive hygiene and creams and powders and soaps and unguents of every possible configuration, consistency, and aroma, is something that I'm often grateful for (on subways, etc.) but I'm also often kind of dubious about. It smacks of a lack of acceptance of our essential humanness, and it leaves us all with a shade of illusion over the bits we most genuinely have in common, for better or worse.

So although there's a big part of me that can only think of how awesome it would be not to have to scrape my armpits raw every day or every couple of days, there's another part that's warning me no. Don't ditch that unsightly hair. Our unsightly parts are the parts that keep us grounded and whole, the parts that prove that under the most expensive perfume and the most perfectly coiffed hairdo, we are still beautiful animals with feet of clay.

Or, as the kids say, everybody poops.

Friday, December 16, 2011


I have a shelf in my bedroom, a "floating" shelf that's screwed into the wall, with room for only a few books. I've had it in some version of my bedroom for a long time, and in every incarnation it's had the same little group of books on it. Holes, Alias Grace, Rebecca, The Light of Evening, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (UK edition). Several others. They're the books that remain important to me year after year, that changed my life the first time I read them and minutely change my life again every time I reread them, that make me stay up too late to read them, that make me feel like the ocean has crashed gloriously on my head when I'm through. Right now I'm in the living room and there's a bookshelf to my left with books that have applied for admission: Travel Light, Fun Home, The Autograph Man, The Brief History of the Dead. But it's a very selective shelf, and I haven't felt right about adding anyone to it in many a moon.

One of the books on that shelf is Bag of Bones, by Stephen King. I was astonished when I was finished reading that book, because it's the only really literary book I think King has written (to date; I haven't read his JFK book), and it's still the book that I think is his best. (Aside from the Dark Tower, I've read all but his two or three most recent.) When I found out a few years ago that the movie rights for it had been sold, I was disappointed, but unsurprised; King properties are likely always going to be sold to Hollywood. But I hoped it would sit in development eternally. For various reasons, I was pretty sure Bag of Bones wouldn't translate to the screen.

Its rhythm is slow, and matched to grief in the way it turns back on itself over and over during the first third, which would just seem mistaken and boring in a film. It has intricate plotting, much more so than any other book of his I can think of, that is too subtle and word-based to move to a more fleeting visual medium. It has its own talismanic sort of language, lots of repetition like wards against evil, and that gets tiresome to listen to when it doesn't to read. It also has a very strong interiority, with the protagonist's thoughts and feelings and imaginings more central to the plot than any real activities he engages in (I think). It's hard to do that interiority in a movie and make it convincing, especially since the majority of adaptations of King's work have been so regrettable.

Yet A&E took it on, and made it into a miniseries (two episodes, three hours), and put it on the air last weekend, and I DVRed it and, last night, watched it. I stayed up too late to do so, and I really should've just put the remote down and gone to bed, because it stank. It was lazy and unsubtle and rushed and unfocused and bad. It made the writer's life look exactly as uninteresting as it is, only with bewildering yelling in the face of writer's block; it stuffed exposition into its cracks like mortar; it changed details that--I'm not saying this in a fanboy kind of way, just in a practical way, I swear--should not have been changed. I'm not laying blame on anybody except the screenwriter and the people who thought it would be a good idea to adapt this book to a motion picture. The cast acquitted themselves as well as could be expected and the direction was...not so terrible. But sheesh, you guys, some books shouldn't be movies. I say that as a better student of film than I ever was or ever will be a student of literature.

All it did was make me want to read the book again, to recapture that ocean-crash feeling and the intimacy I had felt with these characters and this situation, which the adaptation totally failed to replicate. So I went upstairs and I did just that, I took the book off my special shelf and I read all my favorite parts. When I was done, it was two in the morning, and I briefly entertained the idea of staying up all night to read the thing cover to cover. (It's that good of a book, y'all.) I didn't, but I was so relieved that the adaptation hadn't spoiled anything for me. I still heard Mike Noonan's voice the same way I always had (not through Pierce Brosnan), and I still found Sara Tidwell to be too much a phenomenon to really imagine what her voice sounded like. I still thought it was a spooky, wonderful ghost story, way more than a horror story, I still marveled at the literariness of the thing being tumbled through Stephen King's declaratory, up-front, it's-just-you-and-me,-babe style and at how well that combination worked, and I still felt a jolt of unfairness like electrocution at certain aspects of the ending. Like Casablanca, it can't end any other way, but like Casablanca, OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. She can't get on the plane. Maybe this time around it'll end differently. Right? Right? Life can't be that unfair?...FUCK.

That's the stuff I'm looking for out of my books. That's what those books on my little shelf have in common. Whether it's FUCK YES or FUCK NO, it's that frisson that keeps me awake at night that I seek, the thing that makes me read the last sentence over again and say OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. I can't believe you've made me feel what I just felt.

As a postscript, one of the most disappointing books I ever read was Lisey's Story. I haven't gone back and read it again since I read it originally, and I'm a serial rereader, especially of King. I expected Lisey to follow on where Bag of Bones left off, literarily at least, and instead it just seemed like a weird mess. I was less compelled, by a factor of about a thousand, by Lisey than I was by Mike Noonan (ironic, since I'm female), and it was one of his [many] books that I think could have used a more ruthless editor. I expected it to be as intimate and as complex as Bones, and I felt it was anything but--it just seemed to rattle on and on without any sense of structure. If I'd read Lisey with lower expectations, or before I'd read Bones, I might have liked it, and if I tried it again now I might like it. But I remember thinking "this is Stephen King's seventh wave?" Just shows that we all have myopia about our own work.

On that note, I wrote 5,000 words yesterday, those two chapters I was whining about, and after honing today I think I'm ready to create a proof of the whole thing. I've already got one reader, a person I trust greatly whose imminent jet lag is a gift to me and a curse to him. Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Broken Speedometer

Matt finished his reading of my Greenland book this week. He's the first person to have read the majority of what's in there, and even the experience of hearing him say my characters' names was weird. It's been a private experience to write the thing until now - which has really not been a positive thing - and to suddenly have someone else know what I wrote has been both wonderful and kind of unsettling. He helped me with some minor problems and suggested solutions to some major ones, although so far I've been too lazy to take them. (That's my task for today. Thus far I've accomplished a lot of reading on and this blog post. Well done me.)

On Tuesday into Wednesday I did another read-through and fixed small issues, eliminated a lot of dialogue tags that weren't necessary, and looked for the right place to incorporate the one new scene Matt suggested. He also advised me to rewrite the ending and gave me a context for a new one that is probably better than the one I have, but I'm very reluctant to do that because of how much fun I had writing the current one. When those changes are completed, I'm planning to wheedle help from some more friends. (Some of whom are likely reading this. You poor saps.) I think what I'm going to do is print the book as a private project on Lulu, order five or six paperback copies, and send them out that way. It'll be a lot easier for my unlucky friends to read than a honking great sheaf of paper, and while I don't think I'll actually save money on paper and toner cartridges (although I might), it'll be simpler and easier to ship.

Technology, man. Can you imagine when I would have had to type carbons? Egh. The very thought of it makes me queasy.


I told Matt yesterday that I think my anxiety-meter is broken. If you'd told me six months ago that my life would be situated the way it is, with so little security and so much chaos and every day bringing new uncertainties, I would have fainted dead away and had a panic attack upon awakening. But I've got this eerie new confidence, not only that things are going to be okay but that they're going to work out the way they ought to (whatever that way may be), that in the meantime we'll manage, and that all the things that appear to be obstacles are really just smoke and mirrors. I told him I thought my anxiety-meter, previously such a source of terror and heartache, was now like a broken speedometer; no matter how much I gun the ignition, how fast things may be hurtling by outside the windows, the needle rests patiently at zero. (Incidentally, in this metaphor, I'm driving a kickass Chevelle Super Sport.) I am imperturbable. It's kind of like the beginning of Office Space, when thanks to that shrink, Peter is just...chill...about his workplace all of a sudden.

Maybe I'm just mentally ill. Maybe someone's been feeding me Quaaludes. But I'll take it, you know, it's a zillion times better than the awful scratching anxiety, which makes the inside of my head sound exactly like this all the time. It means I can write, and sleep, and devote real energy to teaching my yoga classes. I don't really need to know exactly how fast I'm going.

Monday, December 12, 2011

(It Doesn't Have Anything to Do with Buddhism)

The other night, I finished a book called Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka. I found it via The Rumpus, a site that, from this perspective, is so much immersed in the literary life in the San Francisco area that it's a little myopic. However, it's helped me to learn that there exists an underground literary scene here in this country, and I read Zazen in part to find out what that scene is like. (The book reviews on the site also led me to a book called The Postmortal, on which I gave up a third of the way through because I couldn't sleep after reading it. Like Feed, which gave me waking nightmares for months on end, only not as succinct.)

I knew before I read this book that I was not likely to be a part of this scene, not now or ever; I'm not an experimental writer, and my few attempts to imitate edgy po-po-mo fiction have resulted in work that's so disconnected from my instincts that I don't even know if it's any good. Now I'm certain: this scene is not for me, and this type of work is not really for me, either. I enjoyed reading Zazen enough to leave it on my Amazon wish list, because I'd like to refer back to it and maybe read it again in the future, but I didn't really understand the mechanisms of the fiction as I was reading it. It was an artifact from another land.

Veselka is a fascinating writer, with intelligence burning like a gas flame under every word, incredible metaphors, and gorgeous, hard-hitting sentence-by-sentence craft. The book was kind of like an octopus in my mind, tentacles worming their way in and clinging and dragging me in, so that my face was right up close to the book's bizarre world, and I had to take the time to get re-tendriled into that world if I took a break before reading on. It reminded me of two other books: Beloved, by Toni Morrison (in the way that time and space were not very well-described but I still had a solid sense of place), and more strongly The Open Curtain, by Brian Evenson, which is probably the most unnerving book I've ever read. Madness lurks in the basement of that book, and the experience of reading it is a little like going mad yourself; the world kept tilting, gradually, as I was reading until I'd look up from the book and it would take a moment for everything to right itself again. Zazen resembles but doesn't resemble the world I know now, so it was like diving into a different dimension every time I opened it again. The narrator is plainly not all there, or perhaps too much there, and seeing her world through her was uniquely effective and a little frightening.

Yet the book was so poorly copy-edited that I kept being un-immersed in frustration every chapter or so to try and figure out what the author meant through the errors. You always end up wondering, if there's poor copy-editing, what else might have been better served by more attention to the text - what else the author and editors missed in the proofs. And there was so much about the book that I found unclear. Some of the metaphors extending from chapter to chapter were too obtuse for my middling non-underground intelligence, and eventually I had to accept that I couldn't quite know the order of events - during the first third or so we kept skipping around in time (I think) without clear markers. I also found the politics of the book to be sort of screamy. There was a lot of ranting that I think the book endorsed rather than merely presenting. I'm quite a bad activist, because I like my art carefully partitioned from my politics, with only little leaks along the wall. Any relationship more intimate and you wind up sacrificing the quality of one or the other, I've found. Most political artists would disagree (naturally), but if I am opposed to the politics of the art, I have a harder time enjoying the art on its merits instead of dismissing it altogether, and that dismissal isn't fair. It's an unpleasant paradigm.

I think that people who write and read in this style of literature regularly would either accept these things or treat them as part of the art. Vagueness, in particular, seems to be a facet of edgy/literary fiction that is well-celebrated but that I personally never enjoy. And I think they find frustrating or opaque books to be that much more arty and interesting, finding the shining diamond edges more compelling than the mud which sometimes surrounds them. I always ask why the mud couldn't just be cleared away. And I think that's why experimental lit isn't for me.

Still. It was a good idea to stretch outside my usual fare, to see what's possible out there in west coast fiction. And like I said, I really enjoyed the experience of reading the book. I just know I don't want to restrict my reading to that kind of book (too cerebral, too much of a project), and I doubt I'll ever write a book like it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Married to the Martyr

A few weeks back, I went to a midnight screening of the fourth Twilight film with a friend of mine. I'm not much of a Twi-hard, because I think the books are pretty godawful and the universe is pretty problematic. (Not getting into that right now, Dracula-type fans.) But I find it an interesting cultural artifact, I enjoy some of the laughably terrible dialogue and presentation, and I'm a complete sucker for the appealing way [certain aspects of] sex and romance are presented in the movies.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 troubled me in a way the rest of the movies didn't. When I got over my midnight-movie hangover, I wrote an essay explaining why. I sent it to Slate (for Double X) and to Salon, but neither one of them was interested, so instead the whole internet gets it for free. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

At Long Last, a Labor of Love

Enough, I say, I have called a halt. The polish draft (i.e. silver, not i.e. Warsaw) is completed, and I'm giving it to my husband to read.

I worked stupid hard to bring this about, ignoring most else that was supposed to be going on. Looking back on the last week, I'm reminded of the way it is to be around my mom when she's working - or used to be, when I was a kid. She'd say "just a few more minutes" and then get lost in whatever it was she was doing, so I'd end up waiting about twice as long as I expected to wait for her (usually it was something like 10 minutes instead of 5 minutes, so not criminal, but oh, bothersome). I totally did this to Matt a bunch of times in the last few days, telling him I just needed a few minutes to get through a chapter and then finding I had to go on to the next one to figure out whether it all hung together. So he'd wait a while and then just fix breakfast himself. And I felt guilty. But it's all over now, the draft is polished, that first closed-door draft is retooled and ready for a reader. Throughout all of it, I only lost a few paragraphs of work, and easily redid them. No computer disasters so far. (nok nok)

Many other things have happened in the last week. The job situation in our house is...weird. I've taken a part-time paralegal job, although I'm not positive it's going to move forward in exactly the way I expect. Everything has been changing from day to day around here lately, so tomorrow I could have some brand-new bit of news that means I won't need the job, or will need an even higher-paying job, or we're moving to Mars. (Dr. Manhattan might need an assistant?) My personal situation notwithstanding, I think I've finally figured out, for good and all, what I want my job to be. I want to be a writer.

Oh, golly, big news, Katharine. Shocking and surprising. Yeah, well, hear me out.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Benjamins

This past week, I've been using the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice to reward myself, in half-hour increments, for my work editing the book,  and this time around I noticed something very sly about it. My understanding is that part of the reason Austen's work is important is that she reimagined the rules and reasons for marriage; a love match was a lot less common than a money-match in those days, and for Lizzy to wish to marry someone for love, just because, was laughable in its presumption. Dowries and connection and heirs, that was where it was at, and if you loved your spouse as well, sheesh, did you ever luck out.

But here's the thing. Mr. Darcy pays in the neighborhood of £10,000, in 1813's pounds (see here and text-search 10,000 for an explanation of roughly what this meant), in order to discharge Mr. Wickham's debts and convince him to accept Lydia Ninnia for his bride. Had Mr. Bennet had that money, he would have been the proper person to give it over to Wickham. Darcy then marries Lizzy for virtually no dowry at all.

Due to the discretion of all involved, Mr. Bennet was insensible to the trade inherent here, but I'm not: Darcy paid that £10,000 for a bride. He skirted having Mr. Bennet's hands on the money at all, granted, and the money functioned as a way of showing Lizzy how decent he was rather than being an obvious payment for services rendered, but it's still money-for-wife at the bottom of it.

As I understand, the trade usually went the other way, with a father having to pay a stack of sterling to a gentleman to take his worthless daughter off his hands. But I can't believe that Austen didn't do this on purpose, having Lizzy desire (unconsciously?) to pay Darcy back with her hand for his help. Everything was set to rights that way.

Perhaps all would have been explained to me if I'd studied Austen above the high school level. But, alas, my degree functions to help me appreciate the positive qualities in the motion picture versions rather than the depth of the text. Oh, well. The pleasures of the A&E version are well worth it, and I suppose that's what master's degrees are for, in any case.

Friday, December 2, 2011

From Pebbles, a House

I read in Slate this morning that there are no fewer than four first-time novelists on the New York Times Best Books of 2011. The article's thrust is the fact that Stephen King, he of the "penny dreadfuls" (oh, Harold Bloom, you wretched snob), was also on the list for the first time in his long career. But the thing that gave me food for thought during my shower was the first-time novelists. Why did 2011 spawn so many unusually good ones, according to the Times?

I have a theory. Publishing is a harder business than it used to be, on all sides of the desk. One of the elements that I think has grown more difficult is getting a publisher to look at diamonds in the rough from the slush pile, work that could be great and could allow a novelist to grow further in a second and third book, but is still a run-of-the-mill first novel as yet. I'd suggest that now, in order to sell that first novel, your work has to be perfect, polished and gleaming and flawless, before a publisher is going to take a chance on it. Not enough hours in the week for an average editor to spend time shaping the average first novel into something saleable. So, by that logic, any first novels that are published are bound to be in the top of the heap of novels written in general. And that's why those four made it onto the list.

Maybe not. Maybe the Times' book editors just took a few extra pinches of snuff this year.

Every now and then, when I'm reading along in a book, I'll come up short against something that takes me out of the book and makes me question myself as a reader. The text will mention some incident that I don't remember being a part of the book, and then I have to go back and look for it and be puzzled when I can't find it, or will repeat something about a character that I remembered quite well enough that I'm not sure why it bears repeating. Inconsistencies with the experience of reading, I guess you'd call them. These always bothered me - how could it be so hard to remember that you'd never explained that one thing?

In the process of editing my now-91,000-word manuscript (over halfway done in terms of pages, but a good bit more writing and shaping to do in the pages ahead), I finally begin to see how this could happen. I have to keep the whole thing in my head at once, including all the changes I've made, the things I put in and took out and moved around, and remember all the internal reactions that every character has ever had, along with knowing all their personalities well enough to know exactly what they would do or say, and determine whether I'm being too subtle or not subtle enough (which is highly subjective, if you're me), and how much is too much in terms of tone and censorable content, and where exposition crosses the line from necessary to TMI, and gaaaaaaah. It's enough to drive me bonkers. And if I take a day's breather (as I'm seriously considering doing today), I risk losing what familiarity I have with it all and may have to read skimmingly through the whole thing again before I can start where I was.

There are so many levels to editing a text this big, from word choice in any one of the ninety-one thousand to the grand arc of the plot. And everything in between: is this chapter too long? Am I telling enough of the story from Rose's point of view, or is it too focused on Jackson? Do I have too many sentences that begin the same way? Why did I invent these two conniving sisters and then have neither of them do anything?

Plus, I don't think I appreciated what I was getting into in terms of constructing a world that's totally isolated from modern society, with its own language and culture, but which is nevertheless derived from a real ancient culture that's extremely well-studied. The word I would use when I stand back from it is "ambitious", although I know that's an arrogant thing to say about something I wrote myself. From the first-person perspective it's just overwhelming.

There's a little bit of good news, though, about the text. Yesterday I was in the middle of the slog and I just--couldn't--take it--anymore--so I decided to do the first draft of the glossary. It was sort of a menial task compared with the rest of what I've been doing, so I no longer had to think about all the big stuff. This was a really good decision, because it perked me right up; in defining all the words, including breaking the verbs down to their roots from the conjugated versions, I saw that I had actually, like, invented a language.

It doesn't have a very large vocabulary, because I only invented the words I needed to and I didn't see the point of having characters talk on and on in Luquenora to the exclusion of the reader (a-HEM, Victorian writers who use French everywhere), but still - the conjugations do actually function, the pluralization rule is interesting and coincides with the add-a-bead structure of the nouns, and basically, I really actually made a language. All this time I'd been building it with little pebbles, as I was writing, a word here and there and a rule made up suddenly and applied backwards, and I looked up at it yesterday and voila, there was a house.

I still have a zillion questions about it - such as whether every word in Luquenora needs to be italicized (as I have it now), and if so, whether this applies to when people are referred to in Luquenora words as if they're proper names. For example, riahmn, which means father; should that be italicized when Eliza's saying, "Let's go into the house, Riahmn"? I think no, but I really have no idea. There's all kinds of stuff like that. It's so hard to know.

It's especially difficult to work through little things like this when I have the pressure of knowing this novel has to be a perfect shiny diamond in order to get any attention from an agent or a publisher when it's finally ready for those eyes. Otherwise, how will I ever end up on the New York Times Top Ten list?

(See, I brought it all full circle. Maybe I'm not so bad at the big picture, after all.)