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.)

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