Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Laborious Art of Novel Writing

I am a horrifically impatient person.  I'm sure I always have been although I didn't acutely become aware of it until fairly recently.  And it's not just impatience about when the next disc of 30 Rock is going to show up in my mailbox or when the Huffington Post is going to update, (although those are trials in themselves) it's an impatience with myself when I realize I can't just magically jump from point A to point D without going past B and C first.  This is why I failed at karate, ballet, piano, French and most relationships.  I don't want to waste time with the baby steps. I just want to get to the part where I play Carnegie Hall in pointe shoes while smashing planks with my bare hands.

I realized this about myself last week, when I heard Lauren Groff speak about her new book Arcadia at The Green Toad.  It, as readings occasionally do, made me panic.  One, because Lauren is awesome and sweet and kind and a NYT Bestseller therefor, I am terrified she will find out that I am, by contrast, a blithering idiot. I feel the same way about Megan Abbott, to the point where I avoided her at a conference for three days even though she was asking other people about whether or not I was there.   God forbid I ever come within two states of Walton Goggins or Geena Davis; I would have no choice but to change my name and flee the country until they were safely gone.

Good thing I had Clive Owen and
Benicio Del Toro to Keep Me Company

When I interviewed her for the paper, Lauren said that the "natural life" of a novel is "about five years."  Five years.  I can't imagine writing something for five years.  I think about the person I was five years ago, the kind of work I was writing then and how much I've changed.  I was just starting what would be the series of stories known as Crimson City Blues, I was obsessed with Sin City, just starting to think about grad school and had never even heard of Walton Goggins.  Five years from now, I will be yet another different person, and if that's the case, I would never get the book finished possibly ever.

Lauren does a cool thing, because she is cool.  She writes a first draft by hand and throws it out.  Then she writes another draft and throws that one out.  Then she writes a third draft on the computer and the story begins to take it's current form.  How I wish I had that kind of patience!  I'm still in pop fiction grad school mode, where I write a novel in six months, spend another three polishing it and then spend another six months getting rejected by every agent and unsolicited manuscript accepting publishing house in NYC.  This has happened twice, each time with some astoundingly nasty rejection letters.

I've got a novel now that I'm working on.  It's a longer version of a short story I wrote that has yet to be picked up, about an ex-con who promises his brother that he'll look after his wife and her two kids when he's released on parole, but after he arrives, it's clear she doesn't want him there and the two of them have to find a way to work into each other's lives.  It's a sad, beautiful story about family and love and grace that Matthew admits just about made him weep.  When I'm done with a story, the characters sort of vanish, their stories told but I couldn't get these characters off my mind, so I started turning it into a novel.

And it keeps coming.  I wrote half a draft and realized that it was just a series of scenes and that would never work.  So I started again, and characters came and went, locations changed, POVs shifted.

Clearly, this was going to take more than six months.

And this terrifies me.

The failed dance/karate/piano lessons can be chalked up to youthful exuberance, but my 20's have been fraught with poverty.  If I hit my snooze button, I missed my bus to work.  If I didn't get to the reception early, the food was all gone when I got there.  I had deadlines to meet, multiple jobs to juggle.  Patience was for people whose lives didn't depend on bus schedules and free spinach triangles.  My life was carefully organized and stacked, and in the world I knew, taking time to write a book was a luxury afforded to beautiful people with grant money and tenure.  I wrote partially because I loved it and partially because I saw it as the only way I knew how to bust myself out of low-wage jobs and crippling poverty.  If I could sell a story to Glimmer Train, that would pay my rent and phone for a month.  A book deal would pay off my student loans.  Heck, even a $25 sale to an internet magazine could pay for two weeks of halfway-decent groceries.

So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.  No one can ever say all I did was daydream.  I wrote "The Weather Girl" in 3 days, "The PI's Wife" in a hour,  "Purgatory Blues" and "Pussy" in 30 minutes each.  And not first drafts either--finished, final drafts ready for submission.  I put my impatience to work.

Then Crimson City Blues didn't land me an agent.  Neither did Six Bullets, which I worked on for a year and a half, part of that time with a high profile agent who, after six months of rewrites, suddenly rejected it and told me I didn't know how to write a novel.  I got rejection after rejection from Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Electric Literature.

But what I did get was a good job that I love, and now I have the arduous task of retraining my brain to enjoy the process and the labor of the story.  From "The Carpoool" to "Goodnight Lily" Crimson City Blues took about four years.  But I loved every minute of it, from the first scribbling of "Hero Cop" on a scrap of paper at the Brooklyn Library to drawing city maps on the placemats at the Spot with Dwight to adding the "take the rape"* sequence in "Until Proven Guilty" to getting that first acceptance letter from Hardboiled for "Big Night Out."

I don't think I'll ever spend eight years on a book, as Mike keeps reminding me his mentor did.  But what I will do is pace myself to enjoy the process, as laborious and difficult as it can be.  Because I look back on Crimson City Blues and think "That was the happiest I ever was when I was writing."  I want to be a happy writer.  If I'm going to spend hours at my desk, I want them to be happy ones.

*A romance writer I went to grad school with actually said this phrase to me in workshop.  She looked me in the eye--someone she didn't know, quite possibly one of the 213,000 women who are sexually assaulted each year--and said, "I really feel like Lily should just take the rape."  I was so appalled that I reacted the only way I knew how--working it into the story as a line of advice from another prisoner.  

1 comment:

  1. Yeah this is a tough subject for me too. My struggle is completing projects. Usually I bite off way more than I can chew. Also poverty is a problem like you mentioned. Be proud that you have completed your works. Also when people give you dumb advice, turn it against them like you did with the "rape" incident. Insanity can work for you. It's ok to be a fascist about your work. It should come out the way you want it. That's why I'm a fascist.