Author ~ Text ~ Reader

I’ve always viewed writing as a three-way relationship between author, text, and reader.

The author exists before and beyond the text he creates, bringing to it his personal experience, history, and ideas.

The text exists as a standalone entity, with a myriad of meanings and inferences that can be ascribed to it. Here is the ‘multi-dimensional space’ that Barthes refers to, where multiple meanings and definitions blend and clash.

But for this multi-dimensional space to be realized, we require the reader. The reader who not so much has no history, as Barthes states, but has his/her own individual biography.

Just as a text is a multi-dimensional space, so is the reader; he is an unclassifiable entity, holding within him that specific history which provides for the experience of the text that he has.

Why I DON'T do NaNoWriMo

Today marks the start of NaNoWriMo, a full month wherein participants are challenged to write a draft of a novel.

I get the appeal of it, I do. You have goals and targets to light a fire under you, there's a whole community ready to cheer you on, there's awesome swag. It's all really, really cool. 

but.....

there are a few things about the whole idea of NaNoWriMo that don't sit right with me:

1.

I find myself panicked and under tremendous pressure to produce, to keep those bars climbing a few thousand words E.V.E.R.Y. D.A.Y. 

... Guys, it's really hard to write a few thousand words E.V.E.R.Y. D.A.Y.

Like a lot of other writers, I have a full-time job. I teach English at a private college, and so I spend my days looking at essays, teaching, dealing with students, and planning lessons. The last thing I want to do when I get home is look at the computer screen for a few more hours. 

It won't happen. 

I know that.

But if I participate in NaNoWriMo, I feel like a failure for not hitting those targets (I also get a fair bit of FOMO seeing everyone else's word counts climb.) 

My writing happens on the weekend. It's my second job. I'm writing by 830 and I don't stop until 3 or 4. I can usually get in about 6k-10k words every weekend, which gives me a month total of anywhere between 24k - 30k. 

I'm cool with that. In fact, I think that's pretty damn productive.

2. I don't think the first draft of a novel can or should be written in a month.

It took me 7 months to write the first draft of my first novel, and this second novel looks set to take about the same amount of time. Time is not the enemy of writing, and I don't like the presumption inherent to NaNoWriMo that it is. 

Writing a novel takes time. It should take time. You need time to breathe, to read, to write, to edit, to take detours and find your way back. It's not something that ought to be rushed. 

3. Time, again. 

NaNoWriMo gives the impression that this month is dedicated to writing, when any writer knows that, for us, every month is NaNoWriMo. I don't see how a month assignation is helpful to those of us who live to write. 

4. Focus

Some writers say they use NaNoWriMo to kick out some fun little, nothing project that they don't really care about. A palate cleanser or something, I guess.

... I don't get that. My question is always, well, why don't you care about it? 

Don't get me wrong. I see the value in removing yourself from your WIP and getting out of a rut by working on some poetry or short stories or flash fiction or something, but I don't get the idea of spending A MONTH of writing time on something you don't ultimately care about. I don't get that. 

At the end of the day though, writing is an extremely personal activity, and you gotta do you, so if participating in NaNoWriMo helps, then more power to you.

I'll be NaNoWriYearing! 

Titling is harder than noveling

My debut novel is done. It's been done for years. It's been drafted and re-drafted. Darlings have been killed and darlings have been brought into the light. It's been through the grinder with my awesome agent and is about to be subjected to the discerning eye of an equally-awesome editor.

Through it all, it kept the same, place-holding title it started out with.

It was called BLUE DAHLIA. I called it that because the protagonist is named Dahlia and.. well, she's sort of blue. Not inventive. Not what I liked. But I assumed it would do the job until I found something better. 

 

I never found anything better. 

 

I'm not known for pith or brevity. I need more than 140 characters to make a point and/or amuse you. I can just manage to reign myself into short story length pieces, but I prefer the breathing space of a novel. 

Titling is the height of pith and brevity. You need to hint at what the story holds without giving too much away, but it also needs to be something that grips the reader. It should be something that will make someone stop in a bookstore and say, What the heck is that about??

I get title envy ALL THE TIME! 

Black Swan Green, The Shock of the Fall, Lincoln in the Bardo, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Bring up the Bodies... and so many more.

I wonder if those writers go through the same sort of hell, or if the title just comes to them...

In any case, a few (brilliant) heads are now on the case, so I expect the issue of the title to be resolved very soon. 

Maybe I can just call it THE NOVEL YOU'RE ABOUT TO READ

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Cause a scene...

There’s a pink post-it on the notice board above my desk with the word ‘Obstacles’ scrawled on it three times. All Caps. Underlined. Beside it is a paler pink one with the word ‘Conflict’ on it.

I had a very normal, very boring childhood. There was zero drama in our household. In my thirty years, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my parents raised their voices, whether at me, my brother, or each other. It’s a stable way of growing up, to be sure, but it has created in me a general attitude of conflict/confrontation avoidance which has not served me well in my writing.

It’s a common problem for writers, I imagine. I mean, society creates in people an instinct to avoid conflict. Most people don’t like to ruffle feathers, they don’t seek to rock the boat. And yet, that is exactly the sort of behavior that’s required in fiction. Conflict and tension are what move the plot along; it’s where character is revealed and secrets are unleashed. It’s where whatever is at stake is revealed.

And so now, whether I’m drafting a scene or editing, I scrutinize and pick apart the conversations, looking for tension I might be glossing over, looking for a moment where one or more of the characters can have a flare-up, looking for conflict and the potential for obstacles.

The search goes on….

Hiding in Fiction..

Originally posted MAY 25, 2015 on BookNotes and FootMarks

People have a habit of identifying the author with the narrator, and you can’t, obviously, be all of the narrators in all of your books, or else you’d be a very strange person indeed. – Margaret Atwood

We live in a world where poets and novelists are jailed, lashed, or killed for the words they write, where the slightest whiff of the subversive is swiftly and brutally snuffed out. In a world where the pen, though it may not be mightier, has become more cause for alarm than the sword, are writers then forced to swaddle their beliefs in fiction?

Poetry speaks to truth, and poets have long been persecuted for the realities they present within the mirror of the world they construct. There’s something about the form and function of poetry that throws its writers, and their convictions, into sharp relief. It is with a certain confidence that we can point at poets and say, ‘You think this. Your poems say so.’ Novelists, on the other hand, manage to draw moderately less attention, provided they aren’t also political activists of some sort or another. There are persecutions though, of course; the most famous arise from cases where blasphemy is in question, such as the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the wake of The Satanic Verses. In late 1991, Egyptian courts sentenced novelist Alaa Hamed to eight years in prison for his book which has its character go through dream sequences in which he converses with prophets of various religions. In 1996, Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab writer to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, was stabbed in the neck by Islamic extremists outside his Cairo home. The 82-year-old writer survived, but was left with permanent damage to his right arm, leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes at a time.

Does the nature of fiction allow for some wiggle room, some deniability as to what the writer feels? How much of the writer can readers assume is hidden there, in the thoughts and words of his characters?

It takes us to the idea of the very nature of fiction. Stephen King calls it, ‘the truth within the lie,’ but where does the writer end and the character begin? If—instead of penning politically or religiously charged columns in newspapers—the writer places the ideas in the mouth and head of a character, does that make him less accountable for it? Is he a coward if the only way he can say anything is to put it in the dialogue and/or navel-gazing reflections of a protagonist? The writer can remove himself from his characters. He can say, ‘My character is a separate entity. He doesn’t think what I think. It’s make-believe.’ In this way he can distance himself from the potentially inflammatory things he may say.

Nevertheless, readers and even critics are quick to search for traces of the author within his narrator. Any panel at any book festival invariably has someone asking the writer whether any of the work is autobiographical. I suppose it gives readers a sense of comfort in cases where the writer replies in the affirmative; perhaps they feel it lends the narrator more credibility, more in the way of authorial control. Of course, even when the answer is ‘no’, it still holds within it plenty of ‘yes’.

While I would agree with Atwood that you can’t be all of your narrators, I think there is a bit of you in each of them. Even if, maybe especially if, it’s a bit you don’t want to own up to publicly.

There are pieces of the writer in everything he writes, little truths embedded in the fiction. Sometimes I find myself writing entire short stories around one line that’s absolutely, gut-wrenchingly true, and which I absolutely have to get out. I pluck kernels of myself, little drops of truth, and spin lies around them. Cotton-candy fluff of fabrication until it’s so coated that even I have trouble finding them.

That’s a lie. I can always tell. And when I come across those lines, the truth—what I think and feel—pricks my skin like static electricity, and I can only hope that no one sees the sparks.

 

From the archives....

First posted October 30, 2015. It's hard to believe where two more years of work got me.

I’ve spent the last few months reading and writing and getting rejected.

I’ve read lots of David Mitchell and other British writers like Mark Watson and Ross Raisin. I’ve read “It” books like The Girl on the Train and Station Eleven. And I’ve read modern classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Remains of the Day.

I’ve been working on expanding my dissertation to a full-length novel while avoiding the temptation to dabble with other novel ideas. I’ve been fiddling with Blue Dahlia, my finished novel which is floating around slush piles all over the UK and US. Every few months I send out a batch of five or six queries to agents. The process of distilling a 250+ page story into a page-length synopsis is well…. there are no words for how painful it is. I’ve done several drafts and consulted fellow writers, and I’m still not happy with it.

Which makes it unsurprising when the rejections come in. I’ve gotten 15 of those so far. Some are informal and encouraging, others are boilerplate and polite. But they all say the same thing, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

And then you hear about Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which just won the Man Booker Prize despite being rejected by publishers over 70 times! or you hear about Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction even though it took ten years to get published. And you wonder how in the hell anybody manages to get their book out.

I knew getting a novel published was hard. I had no illusions on that front and I’m willing to do my waiting. But at times the whole enterprise seems to be some cosmic crap-shoot where nobody knows the rules and the ones who manage to crawl, bloody and bruised, across the finish line win.

How can over 70 industry professionals not have seen that James’ novel was Booker-level work? How could it have taken ten years for someone to see the value of McBride’s debut?

How does this thing work?