I bet you didn’t know you should pack up your suitcase when you sit down to write. Well, maybe not a suitcase. In fact, maybe it’s your state of mind that needs unpacking. My post for My Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog for February 25 is from a recorded interview. Here goes:
Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog
I’ve promised my writing students that every Sunday morning I would talk about an aspect of the writing craft. So here’s my offering for February 19: the God of Story lies in the details. That means kicking the slothful habit of using vague, general language. For instance, something, somewhere, somehow are vague and general. So is the adjective little, which Graham Greene considered sentimental.
Here’s another example: a novice might think that “big” is the best word to describe the insides of the whale that swallowed Jonah for three days. But big is vague and general. In fact, big is one of the most general words in the English language. Relatively speaking, mostly everything is big compared to everything else that’s smaller. So if a writer uses the word big to describe the whale in the Biblical story of a man being swallowed by a fish, that writer isn’t doing their job. But if the writer describes how the whale’s intestines smelled to Jonah, there’s no need to use the adjective big. The concrete, specific detail about the intestines powerfully conjures up Jonah’s predicament. Namely, the whale is so big the stink of its intestines make it hard for Jonah to breathe.
In his novel, A Widow for One Year, John Irving calls this kind of detail, “the chosen detail, not a remembered one.” Irving argues through the voice of one of his characters, that the best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. “Novels were not arguments; a story worked, or it didn’t on its own merits,” Irving writes in his book. “What does it matter if a detail was real or imagined? What mattered was that the detail seemed real, and that it was absolutely the best detail for the circumstances.”
Flaubert called it using “le mot juste.” In the writing workshops I give, students sometimes respond to the need for details by providing a laundry list of adjectives that describe a person or situation in their story. Laundry lists of descriptive adjectives are better than pages of vague, general language. But they’re still not what is needed. Choosing the most characteristic detail is always better, and that can take more time, but it’s worth it, for both you and your reader.
Sometimes novels grow out of an unexpected situation or in the case of my last book, from a comment that turns your head around and makes you see something in a different light. My conversation about Casanova with Jack Crean (an uncle-in-law) was one of those times. I went from an ardent Casanova dis-misser to an ardent fan and I wrote a novel in which Casanova is featured as a character. This visual blog tells how it happened.
For your information, What Casanova Told Me tells the story of Casanova’s last love, Asked For Adams, an American Yankee and a descendant of Puritans, who first met Casanova in a barge coming into Venice in 1798 when Casanova was in his early seventies. Casanova was disguised as old woman in a court wig during their first encounter and their affair progressed from there. Asked For’s 20th century descendant followed the lovers’ travel route using Asked For’s old diary.
Making Things Up
Some years ago, an American novelist gave me a piece of advice: Always pick a narrator that is like you and not like you so you have room to invent. Her advice was invaluable. And now that I am revising a novel set in my hometown, Midland, Ontario, I am even more struck by the wisdom in her words. Why? Looking back over my revisions for The Western Light, I see that I was more intent on reproducing certain things that happened to me. Not because those things were what the story needed (always the first rule of thumb in fiction) but because they happened to me and I wanted them to be literally true on the page.
Mouse Bradford, my narrator in The Western Light has a neglectful country doctor father. And I too, was a child of a country doctor in the fifties. So my first drafts for this book had “a poor me” quality because I felt neglected by my father as a girl. After all, how does a doctor spend time with his family if there is no medicare and doctors had to work around the clock? And how does a child find a space for their feelings about their father, who, like many doctors in small towns, was a revered figure? It was a problem. A problem that got me writing a novel. And that’s good because writing novels is my business.
As I’ve written my way through these drafts, something has shifted. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, for one. For another, I’ve remembered that my character Mouse is not me. She has some experiences in common with me, and certain patterns of thinking, but she is a different person than the author, me, who created her on the page. That’s really no surprise because novels distill and dramatize.
Memoirs distill and dramatize too, but the basic facts in a memoir need to be true. The author of a memoir is held accountable in a way that novelists aren’t. Lucky us. Lucky me for having so much creative freedom. I really didn’t need to work so hard at reproducing my childhood. Yes, I want the atmosphere and setting in the novel to have an authentic 1950’s feel. So I got in touch with my hometown’s facebook page and our group has been talking over all sorts of things about Midland, Ontario in the fifties. Things like where the old Georgian Hotel used to be on main street. And how did taxi drivers run a bootlegging business on the side. I’ve also heard wonderful new stories about my father that I am grateful for knowing. My novel will be richer as a result of these fb conversations and I am grateful there too.
Geographical and biographical facts help create the setting in a more or less realistic novel. But fictional characters are an invention even if you write in the first person. Henry Miller who wrote in the first person was not quite the same person as his brazen, bohemian narrator. And Mouse Bradford is not me either.
This is what really happened, we tell ourselves. So this is how it must be on the page. Not so. Truth is not autobiography. And staying true to what happened is the best way to take a story down the wrong road.
I solved the problem of killing off an old boyfriend in my revision of my next novel, The Western Light. He is only half-dead. By that I mean I haven’t changed Little Louie’s ex-lover as dramatically as I was thinking about doing. He just has some new traits, an interest in socialism and a job running a trade union in Windsor, and these characteristics will be a good foil for Little Louie’s mother, Big Louie, a matriarch who runs an oil patch in Petrolia, Ontario. So you see, instead of a full-fledged revolutionary, my minor but still important character ends up being a Canadian new democrat, of all things.
Enriching characters instead of killing them often happens when I’m revising a novel. At first, I think I must do something drastic to the character so they are unrecognizable and then I realize that I’m dealing with shades, not black and white brush strokes. After all, I’m a Gemini and I tend to swing to two extremes before I settle on the right solution. But this morning I’m thinking of another problem that goes with rewriting a novel: going on automatic pilot. Or, let me put it this way, getting lulled into the uselessness of drone writing.
To go back to a piece of writing it’s imperative that you, the writer, see it in a fresh way. If you’re lucky, like me and you have a good editor (or mentor) they will say things that open up the scene you are writing instead of closing you down. They will ask you questions like … can you tell me more about character X, or what does the mother’s boyfriend think about the mother’s daughter? But if you’re not lucky, you may tend to do what I do when I’m feeling insecure–polish the first twenty (substitute any number here) pages relentlessly and feel like I’ve been working hard. Polishing, or putting on the gloss, as Jonathon Franzen puts it, is a good thing to do at the very end of a book but not before.
In fact, drone writing, or ceaseless re-writing of the same passages is usually about the writer trying to control the creative process that can feel open-ended and scary. One of Albert Camus’ characters, the man who continuously rewrote the first sentence of a novel, probably rewrote the sentence out of fear. He was nervous, in other words, of plunging in without trying to control the anxiety involved in creating a book.
Surrendering to the process of writing a novel and letting it take you somewhere new is unnerving, especially if you have a Presbyterian background like I do, and you’re determined to more or less write what you set out to write. So before I know it I can gallop off and revise something I’ve revised twenty times before without really looking closely at the emotional sub-text of my scene. At this stage I can no longer see hear or feel what I’m writing about and I don’t know that I’ve lost my emotional connection to the material either. And maybe I don’t want to know it because I’m more interested in satisfying my anxiety than writing at a deeper emotional level. But the truth is I’m wasting my time. I should sit back and re-examine thoughtfully what is happening with my characters in the passage I’m revising.
If I’m smart, I might ask Joyce Carol Oates’ important question, is this passage as good as it can be? If not, why? If I sit and listen long enough, the answer will come, and then I will put aside my drone writing, and get to work.
I promised myself and some readers and writing students that I would write honestly about revising a novel. This is the background stuff most writers don’t share, like the agony of submissions when your work is submitted to publishers and you and your agent wait to see who will buy your book. (Or if there is even a buyer for your book. Certain agents have recently confided that many good Canadian writers can’t find a publisher these days. But that’s another blog.)
So much of the writing life is a behind the scenes act where a body and a brain put themselves in a chair for x number of hours every day and write. Originally, I made a deal with myself that I needed to be at a desk for four hours every day. I couldn’t re-arrange the book shelves over my desk or phone friends. I had to be at my desk writing, researching what I was writing or thinking about what I was writing. I was strict: I used to sign in and out to make sure I didn’t cheat.
After a while, those four hours, which often stretched into more hours, became part of my day, and I didn’t have to bargain with myself to get that seat on the chair. Just as a guitarist’s fingers will tingle if he or she doesn’t practice when he or she usually practices, a writer like myself starts to feel weirdly out of tune if I spend a day without writing. And of course, I do spend days without writing. But my favourite days are those that start with a writing morning.
This month I am revising my new novel, The Western Light. It’s a prequel to The Wives of Bath, which was about a murder in a girls’ boarding school, and my new book has the same narrator, Mouse Bradford. I’ve been working on The Western Light since 2007 although it was called other names when I started, Black Ships (too vague) and The Hockey Killer (sounds too much like a thriller). Only yesterday, I killed off one of the characters, a boyfriend of Mouse’s aunt, Little Louie, and replaced the old boyfriend with a new boyfriend, a trade union activist named Max Kalkwoski, and now I need to revise about four scenes so that Max emerges in a compelling way.
Will I be able to do this easily? That is, can I simply adapt the old scenes or do I have to come up with new writing? (New writing always requires more thought and time.) And here’s the problem–I’m getting a cold and my mind feels woolly and unfocused. Since ten a.m. I have taken 14 Cold FXs and in another few hours, I will take a dozen more. I have drunk two coffees, three juices and four glasses of water while I read the New York Times and thought long and hard about Max.
That is, I have tried to think about them. But the cold is interfering. It is very much like a character too. It tells me I will never solve the problem, and further more that all efforts are hopeless, and why do I want to write anyway? At first, I argued with the cold and pushed on irritably. But now that I’m writing the blog, I can see the cold is right. FOR THE MOMENT. How to write with a cold is easy: don’t. Go for a nap, or a short walk. Throw out some questions for your unconscious to answer tomorrow, and leave it at that.