Planet of Unwritten Novels

A new idea for a novel is forming in my brain.

I have to be very, very careful with it.  I’ve still got a draft and a half of the current novel to finish, so I can’t do anything with this new idea yet.  And, one thing I’ve learned is that I can’t even pay too much attention to it.

That might sound odd, but I’ve overplanned novels and ruined them before.  Gotten enthusiastic about an idea, and been afraid I would forget it if I didn’t write it down.  Then I start planning, and writing down ideas for scenes and characeters and I get all enthusiastic and then when the time comes to actually write it, the air has gone out of it.

Which is why I have numerous stories that now reside on the Planet of Unwritten Novels.  It is a planet without enough oxygen to sustain life, all the air having been sucked away by premature enthusiasm. (Not to be confused with premature ejaculation, there’s another planet for that.)

I’ve long  since learned not to talk about ideas or stories for novels–that’s a sure way to dissipate the energy.  But I’m also learning that I need to be judicious about how involved I get in the note-taking and planning. 

Best to just tease it along–give it enough attention to keep it happy, without overdoing it, sort of like the way men sometimes treat women. 

Alice Sebold, Writing, and the Unconscious

Writing is living; living is writing.

I am one of those people who is so identified with my calling that I can’t seperate myself from it.  I see analogies to writing and the writing process in everything.  Apparently the same is true with Alice Sebold.

Catching up on my magazine reading at lunchtime today (magazines are far superior to read with a meal than books, but that’s a topic for another day) I was finishing up the latest issue of O today.

There’s a nice collection of articles on faith and The Leap, as in The Leap of Faith. Alice Sebold equates taking leaps of faith to getting up very, very early and writing.   

She talks about how once the rest of the world wakes up she can feel its pull on her and away she goes from her writing.  Yet,

"The work I leave behind in my study is unfinished and unknowable almost every day.  Characters come alive and die in an instant, metaphors wobble, and sentences shift meaning without my fully understanding how.  After all, conscious thought is the death of creativity and to have faith in one’s unconscious is the ultimate need of a writer–at least this one.  Dreams go unfinished while we sleep but can be completed upon waking if we both have faith and are willing to do the grueling work of follow-through."

I really needed to be reminded of this, which is no doubt why it struck me so.  I’ve been getting up every morning at 5:30 to work on my novel, but every morning this week my computer has had issues waking up (I’m pretty sure computers age like dogs, and mine, at two years old, is now entering recalcitrant teenhood.) 

Then, of course, if I don’t get my AM writing session in, the world comes along and clobbers me with a million other to-dos. 

Tomorrow.  For sure.

Writing Quote of the Week (A Few Days Late)

The mega-article on global warming ruined me for any other writing (or any other thing, like thinking) during the time I was completing it, but here’s my quote offering, by My Favorite Writer In The World, Ellen Gilchrist :

"I am doing the best I can to teach them but there is really very little to teach about writing.  All I can do is edit their work to make the writing more beautiful and seductive, and tell them over and over again the few, simple strategies I know.  I learned most of them from a book by Ernest Hemingwaythat I assign to students every semester.  It is called On Writing…..It was in that book that I learned to quit each day while I still knew what to write next.  I learned to be satisfied by four pages of good, well-written prose and then go out and live my real life and be fresh when I come back to the piece the next morning…"

Ellen Gilchrist, The Writing Life.  (And, for the record, I’ve been off living my real life for a few days.  Though in truth, I don’t think there is a real life apart from writing.)

Only Tangentially Related to Writing Post

I’m working on an assignment about global warming. 

As my sister would say, Geezus. 

This is scary stuff.  I’ve already been reduced to running around the house turning off lights and asking my son to show me how to change the air filter in the car (changing it monthly can save 800 pounds of carbon dioxide from spewing into the air a year.  And it that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will:  it will also save you $130 a year in cold, hard cash.)

I said this post was only tangentially related to writing, but in a way that’s not true.

Global warming is related to everything.  Because if we don’t deal with it now, everything is going to get pretty miserable in the next 50 years.

Now excuse me while I go turn out some more lights.

PS.  Tomorrow I’m going to start a list of links to some great organizations with tons of information on global warming.  It’ll be worth your while to check them out.

Review: Between, Georgia

Just finished reading Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.  I liked it.  Don’t throw fried green tomatoes at me, but sometimes the whole quirky southern fiction thing wears a wee bit thin. (Stop it! Stop pelting me!  I went to school in the south!  I teach down there!) This book had quirkiness galore but the main character, Nonny, had a satisfying character arc with a lot of emotional change over the course of the book.

There were some problems with structure up front.  A lot, lota backstory told in exposition to get out of the way.  And one scene that had the potential to be highly dramatic was told entirely in exposition.  This puzzled me because Joshilyn Jackson is a master at writing scenes. 

A couple of her scenes are like set pieces–amazing gems.  The opening scene, in which Nonny’s birth is retold, and the second scene, in which a grown-up Nonny has sex with her soon-to-be-ex husband are both brilliant.

Bottom line is that its a good story.  Nobody but me and other writers are as picky about craft issues.  Sometimes I long for the days when I could just read–instead of read reading, the way I do now.

Writing Translation

Happy May Day.

My student, Ben Norwood, sent me a wonderful end-of-the-semester gift today–a copy of the The Republic of Letters, the journal begun by Saul Bellow.  Ben translated one of the stories in it, a piece called, “Xavier the Leper,” by Alberto Rangel, from Spanish.

I’m just in awe of this.

The story is dense and gorgeous and Ben says that some of the plant and animal names are Amazonian with no English equivalent yet.  This translation thing boggles my mind.  First of all, you have to get the meaning of the story right.  And then you have to worry about what it sounds like, the style, the voice, the tone.

Of course, now that I think about it, that’s what you have to do when writing fiction in general.  But translating adds a whole other layer to it.

Its pretty cool.  I’m so pleased Ben sent it to me.

Bad Writing Habits Follow Me Wherever I Go

I’ve been working on removing an excess of interiority from my novel.  Scenes which otherwise might clip along are bogged down by my protagonist, the beloved Emma Jean, thinking too damn much. 

We’ve been talking about this bad habit of mine in my weekly writing group, but I hadn’t internalized it until I started reading Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.

Today, on the treadmill again (though why I bothered since I ate pizza for dinner, I’m not sure), as I was reading and pondering Emma Jean, it hit me. 

What I need to do is to get Emma Jean out of her own head and into observing others.  Clearly, she does this already–part of the fun of the novel is her irreverent opinions of people, and life, and events.  But she also needs to get away from her damn navel gazing, especially when we’re in the middle of a scene.

Then, double whammy, another thought hit me (I guess this is why I go to the gym): In my late, lamented unfinished last novel, Language of Trees, I wrote in first person.  And the reason I decided to write in third person this time, was that writing my Trees protagonist in first person made her too much of a whiny baby navel gazer. 

And I’m still battling the same damn problem. 

The good news is that at least I’m figuring it out.

No Readers But Lots of Writers?

The other day I dragged myself to the gym.  (Yes, I do manage to accomplish that once in awhile.)  The man on the treadmill next to me, who later introduced himself as Richard, was reading a Michael Connelly novel and I was reading Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.

We were discussing the vagaries of putting books on hold at our local library.  The owner of the gym, George, stopped by and joined our conversation.  George has 4000 books at his house (I thought I had a lot) and related a story about a recent shopping trip to Powell’s.

Anyway, George contends that people don’t read books any longer.  Richard and I nodded our heads and commiserated with this statement, even though I’m not sure its true.  Is it true?  One does hear an awful lot about declining bookstore revenues and publishers consolidating.

But a week or so ago I was reading a book about blogging, and I’ve read so many lately I can’t remember which one.  The author made an interesting point–that all of a sudden, writing is important again.  He interviewed a blogger (I’ve got to go through my books and figure out where I got this) who talked about how when he was growing up it wasn’t hip to be a writer.  But now, suddenly, it is.

The number of blogs in existence doubles every six months or so.  Blogs are based on writing, duh.  Websites proliferate–and lord knows, those of us who write SEO copy are VERY aware of how much writing they require. 

So suddenly words are multiplying like crazy and yet there are no readers.  What gives?

In some ways it pains me to say this, but what gives is that we’re reading differently  Reading on the web on a coffee break instead of cracking open the novel or a magazine for a few minutes.  Reading the news on our yahoo home page because we’re at the computer anyway. 

What’s missing in all this is the good old fashioned book.  We even read those on the internet these days–witness the boom in e-books.

I maintain that computers will never replace the book.  There’s something so tactile and sensual about holding a book in your hands, feeling its heft, smelling the paper, seeing the words.  Like George, I love books and buy way too many of them.

And yet I spend untold hours a day at my computer, digesting words.  If I’m lucky, I spend half an hour reading a book. 

Go figure.