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Reading my novel

August 9, 2010

I’ve been convinced by what I’ve read in interviews with Dan Chaon and David Mitchell and by conversations with writer friends to stop writing forward on my novel and read everything I’ve written up to this point–about 150 single-spaced pages–and rethink and even rewrite those pages before I continue.

This decision scares me. It wasn’t the approach I used for China Between Us, where I barreled through a first draft in less than six months, telling myself at each sitting: just write the story. Write what happens next. I was reading Stephen King and Anne Lamott and their voices urged me on. It didn’t matter (I didn’t know) that I would spend another two and a half years rewriting.

It worries me to let go of forward momentum (what if I don’t get it back?) and that glorious feeling of writing new every day, imagining a scene, feeling my way through a character to something I hadn’t expected. In this type of first draft writing, because you’re writing mostly from intuition, or with the unconscious mind, you can retain the feeling that what you’re putting down on the page is really good for much longer. The critical, analytical, editing mind is, to a large extent, on vacation. What if I can’t keep going once I’ve really looked at the pages and been discouraged by how much work there is to do?

But I made a pros and cons list, and the pros, to my surprise, clearly outnumber the cons.

Dan Chaon, in an interview with Edan Lepucki in The Millions, says that he “learned a lot about novel-writing from [his first novel] You Remind Me of Me… and [he] deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative,  round-robin style of storytelling, and see if [he] could build on what [he] had figured out [to write his second novel Await Your Reply].”

What Chaon describes encouraged me to think that I, too, could derive confidence from what I’d learned in writing my first novel; I don’t need to follow the same process. Even though I’m working with several third person narrators instead of a single first person, I do have experience building scenes, working with a long narrative arc, incorporating subplots, and just sticking with it for the long haul.

Chaon goes into more detail about the process of getting his novel down on the page:

“When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected.   I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write.  I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters,  and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly….The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months,  but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out.  The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does.  Bing!  Suddenly it seems so obvious!”

Chaon’s explanation helped me believe that even though I don’t know the ending of my book in detail, there’s a lot I do know about the story and characters, and perhaps if I make some of the changes I’ve been thinking about, incorporate some of the “big picture” feedback I’ve gotten, rewrite, to whatever extent I feel comfortable, this could lead to a clearer path, a richer, better developed story, when I do move forward.

Zadie Smith, in her essay, “That Crafty Feeling,”  writes that there are “two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Planner” (99). Basically, Macro Planners figure everything out before writing a single word, which gives them the freedom to change things as they write. “Macros Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal–they’re forever moving the furniture” (100). Micro Planners (of which Smith considers herself one), “start at the first sentence of the novel and …finish at the last” (100). Micro Planners cannot move forward until the previous sentence is perfect. Smith admits that she spent two years working on the first twenty pages of On Beauty. But, she adds, “worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters” (101). It took her only five months, after spending those first two years, to finish the rest of the novel. (Smith, Changing My Mind, 2009)

I’m clearly not a Micro Planner. The idea of working on the first twenty pages for so long horrifies me. In fact, I made a deal with myself that if I use this new approach and read what I’ve got so far with the intention to revise before continuing, I will still not tinker much with the first twenty or thirty pages since they need to set up the whole novel, the specific ending, the themes, and I’m not clear enough yet on what these are. I would be wasting my time.  But I’m not a Macro Planner either; I certainly don’t have the whole thing planned in my head. I can’t think of a name for my style (sloppy recursive?) but I know that what I am interested in now is taking a somewhat longer view, stepping out of the process to see a bit more than the road lit by headlights in the night, while believing that I can go back to that darkened view when I need to.

David Mitchell, in an interview with Michael Krasny on KQED radio (7.21.10) says that when he was writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he went wrong twice. He calls it a “misconceived book.” He thought it would have six parts and be twice as long as the five-part book (with the last two parts being more like epilogues) he ended up with. He says that he “blundered his way to the right form,” though he does use a deceptively simple guiding question, “What can I do to make the book work?” to make decisions as he works.

Emily Pullen reports for The Millions (August 5, 2010) that Mitchell, at his final appearance in the U.S. to promote the new novel, discusses the five elements of novel construction in a metaphorical way. “[Mitchell] said that writing a novel is like an amusement arcade horse race game with five horses – character, plot, theme/ideas, structure, style – and the goal is for them all to finish at once.”

Though he doesn’t say so directly, it’s my sense that Mitchell did not complete an entire draft of the “misconceived book,” that he, instead, figured out he was on the wrong path and adjusted as he was writing, perhaps by looking back. At least that is what I imagine when I gather the courage I need to print out my pages and start reading them, asking myself the question, What do I need to do to make this novel work?

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