novel writing

Without a Compass

Jacques Cartier used an astrolabe to guide him from northwest France to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500's. Odysseus sailed by the stars, though the Gods had a very big influence over where he went and what happened to him at each of the stopping stones that led him back to Ithaca. Athena did all she could to speed Odysseus home, Poseidon equalled her efforts, but to foil the man.

Undoubtedly romantic to use sailing as a metaphor for novel writing, yet it can feel like that. While the seas are not treacherous in a physical way, it's just as risky psychologically to leave port for a journey of unknown length, that may have to be aborted, that will end somewhere, eventually, but where? You've stocked your ship with all you think you may need, cast away with the inner breathlessness that accompanies any new venture. In the beginning you may use charts, perhaps an outline. The weather is calm, you bob up and down on wave after predictable wave that are the days you come and go from your desk. Some are like the doldrums, when you put in the time but get nowhere. Then a sudden brisk wind of inspiration forces you to adjust your sails, to set out on a different tack. At first, happily, excitedly occupied, you soon realize that you have no idea where this tack is leading you.

At an AWP conference one year, it was maybe the American novelist Ron Carlsen who said, when in doubt, trust your fingers. Let your fingers do the writing.  Sounds like an old advertisement for the Yellow Pages, but it is good advice. Thinking too much can lead to confusion, inertia. So you give into the fresh breeze, which cools your face as you think - but not too much - of all the writers who have been in this position before you.  Jack Kerouac, for example, who advised...

"Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better."

Yet even he must have had days when word pairs such as these came in from under, 
                                  failures, sailors
an imperfect rhyme poets use to create an inharmonious feeling, like dissonance in music. "Somethin's happenin here. What it is ain't exactly clear," as Stephen Stills of the Buffalo Springfield wrote, about a different kind of troublesome situation.

An island up ahead, a sheltered cove. With luck the clouds will clear and some Calypso will appear with advice similar to what she gave to Odysseus, to keep the Bear (Ursa Major) on his left hand side and at the same time to observe the position of the Pleiades, and Orion as he sailed eastward, traversing the Ocean. Or perhaps you will discover an astrolabe left behind on the beach.

Difficulty at the Beginning

Now that the edits are finished on the new book (The Reason for Time, forthcoming from Allium Press of Chicago, spring, 2016), I see the 540 page monster from the closet still sitting here. Chuck it, leave it. It's written. Move onto something else. Yet, why did I write it in the first place? And if was so important once, how can I toss it? It's finished, but it isn't really finished until it is read, which means it has to be made public somehow. When I was sending it around eight years ago, no publisher wanted it.  I should just leave it.  At least one draft exists in my archives, which are stored in a library in Toronto. If anyone is interested, it is there for him or her to read, this novel that involved me like a knot in an essential cord that takes hours and patience and much trial and error to untangle.

The internet makes publishing easy. I could attach it to this blog or my web site, or go further and make an ebook out of it. Maybe I will do those things, and yet, maybe there is a reason those publishers turned it down. Too big? Okay, maybe. Too sad? Well, yes, but... Well written? Thanks, but never written well enough. What then?

More finished will be when it exists between actual covers as a conventional book for a reader to hold, to hole up with. Old-fashioned as it may be considered to be, that's still my model. Knowing the difficulties of publishing a novel that will fall into no particular easy-to-shelve, easy-to-promote genre, but only the vast ocean of literary fiction, I must begin again knowing full well that even if it is perfectly wrought (and why aim for anything less?), it may travel longer than Odysseus before it finds home.
It's a voyage. You've decided to go. You must prepare all you will need for an undetermined time. You haven't actually tossed the rope onto the wharf and let the current slip you away, but you're on board now, checking supplies.

Compelled to try again, you begin, to cut, to fold back into research, such a comfortable and interesting refuge, like those coves where sailors shelter in particularly vicious storms when the course is uncharted, when they're feeling their way, tacking in this direction, then that, to find the wind that will sail them forward and finally into the harbour they are destined for, wherever that turns out to be.

Ferrante, Knausgaard

Not far into My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante's four Neopolitan novels, it was clear that I was setting out on a journey similar to what I had started with the novels that make up My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard's hexology. The similarities astonish. Both writers address their childhood in detailed, autobiographical fashion. Both create page-turning narratives. Both address contemporary issues, especially those of gender, though Ferrante does it analytically, while Knausgaard takes the opposite tack, largely shows instead of tells. He provides a modern male perspective, while Ferrante presents the view of a woman who changed as society changed. Their approaches challenge the trope that women write about the domestic and men about the larger world. That's just one of the differences that make comparing the two novelists irresistible, and many journalists, writers, and book lovers have been compelled to do so. When I first read Knausgaard, earlier in the year, his humanity stood out as much as his wizardry at scene creation. Ferrante is direct, political. I loved it that she kept returning to the neighbourhood where she grew up, both literally and figuratively, and how she inspired me to read "neighbourhood" as Italy in general. Actually, the entire western world, as she declares in the final volume of the series, Story of a Lost Child.
Lake (MB)

Ferrante's work is dominated by Mount Vesuvius, by sun and traffic, people who yell at each other and threaten to kill each other, on one hand, and discuss splits in left-wing politics on the other. The narrator is haunted by her insecurities, childishly pleased with, but also defensive about her successes as an author. Temperatures low enough to keep beer cold, even freeze it, ice, snow, and sylvan summers on the farm weave through Knausgaard's work and feel more essential to it than the beach towns and cities of Ferrante's Italy, until near the end of the last volume, when Naples gains historical weight.

Ferrante is the author's pen name. She prefers to remain anonymous and eschews public appearances, explaining in a Vanity Fair interview that was conducted via email,
"I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful." Yet her fictional self, the narrator Elena Greco, seeks just that kind of engagement with the literary establishment and feels unsuccessful when readers, editors, journalists stop paying attention to her.

Knausgaard is famously shy. The journalist Heather Mallick suspects he agrees to the appearances he makes out of courtesy. But he isn't a complete loner. The eurozine article Mallick refers to in her piece reveals him to be dependent on his editor and a small group of friends for feedback as his novels take shape. Almost anything one reads by him reveals him to be verbose, in print if not in person.

Italy feels violent, although, despite the many threats Ferrante's characters aim at each other, the murder rate there is actually less per capita than in Canada. The violence in Norway seems sinister because, perhaps, hidden, as in the case of Karl Ove's father. I imagine glowering faces, clenched jaws, narrowed eyes.

There's a clear arc in Ferrante's novels. Although they are about much more, they focus on Elena Greco's relationship with her friend Lina. This leads to some neglected threads of other storylines and a fair bit of repetition. Since the last two novels in Knausgaard's series are not yet translated, I don't see as clear an arc and doubt there is a single one. His prose depends for its forward movement on a series of arcs. Each scene, each chapter rises and falls, and cunningly draws the reader to the next.

With eleven novels between them, Ferrante and Knausgaard provide a literary feast. Pasta? Pickled herring? It's impossible to choose one over the other. I'll take both.


Presto! Just like that, my historical novel formerly known as Presto! has become The Reason for Time. And the reason for that is because my publisher thought Presto! misleading. It's a word usually associated with magic, and while there is magic in the book -- in the content, I mean -- it isn't the primary subject.

Yet there is always a kind of alchemy involved in the transformation of an idea to a story that morphs into a novel that will become a book, forthcoming from Allium Press of Chicago, Spring, 2016. While not a formal process, like the fourteen steps described by Samuel Norton in The Key to Alchemy, I can relate to the fourteen steps as they apply to transforming the thin air of an idea to the solid form of a book, starting from well before publication stage.

1. Solution, the act of passing from a gaseous or solid condition, into one of liquidity, for example, is the beginning, when the thought... this would make a great novel... strikes, and notes begin to accumulate in my notebooks.

2. Filtration, the mechanical separation of a liquid from the undissolved particles suspended in it. The discoveries I made in old newspaper files in Chicago's Newberry and Harold Washington libraries. What to photocopy, what to leave behind?

3. Evaporation, the changing or converting from a liquid or solid state into a vaporous state with the aid of heat.
Out of all that material has to come an idea for a story.

4. Distillation, an operation by which a volatile liquid may be separated from substances which it holds in solution.
Early drafts, and the trial and error of deciding what works and what doesn't.  If I leave a particular part in, the whole idea could blow up on me.

5. Separation, the operation of disuniting or decomposing substances. 
Okay, so restructure.

6. Rectification, the process of refining or purifying any substance by repeated distillation. 
Write another draft. Read through again, and again. Cut out anything that doesn't pertain.

7. Calcination, the conversion into a powder or calx by the action of heat; expulsion of the volatile substance from a matter.
Print out.

8. Commixtion, the blending of different ingredients into new compounds or mass.
Possibly add verbatim bits from actual sources, such as newspaper headlines, to help reveal events.

9. Purification, (through putrefaction), disintegration by spontaneous decomposition; decay by artificial means.

10. Inhibition, the process of holding back or restraining.
That scene that is hard to be true to, given the point of view... just go for it. Imagine it.

11. Fermentation, the conversion of organic substances into new compounds in the presence of a ferment. 
With all the ingredients in place, write another draft.

12. Fixation, the act or process of ceasing to be a fluid and becoming firm; state of being fixed. 
First completed draft sent to potential publishers.

13. Multiplication, the act or process of multiplying or increasing in number, the state of being multiplied. 
This would be the period when I added many thousands of words to replace the section my publisher felt would distract from the whole. When I completed yet another draft, that -- thanks to an editor's eye -- was satisfyingly filled out in places I had neglected before.

14. Projection, the process of turning base Metals into gold.
Let's hope.

After glom, gloom, gloaming?

It definitely isn't afterglow. Aftergloom might be overstating it. The few mornings since I submitted the revisions to my new novel have fallen instead like the twilight state known lyrically as gloaming. Or maybe the most appropriate gl word is glom, meaning to hang onto. Glom onto.

I can't say I wasn't ready to let it go. In my experience there comes a time when you have to stop. Despite having addressed some issues pointed out by a potential publisher--and done so with the exhilaration of having opened up the novel, learned or at least exposed things that had been waiting for me to discover them-- I was finding something every time my eyes scanned a page. Oh no, two consecutive sentences beginning with but? Are they justified? All the homilies sprang to mind: "If it's not broken, don't fix it. " On the other hand, there's this: "You just fix the brakes and find that the oil pan is leaking." Really, though, at some point you just have to stop.

The ripply blue space, like the image that shows up on monitors when there's something wrong with the feed? That's aftergloaming. I'm pretty sure it's that.

Snowballing toward the moon

Around and around. Trying to think of a way of integrating some of the themes that have hummed through my thoughts this week--the dusky sphere of the eclipsed moon, the circles Allan Ludwig photographs, the process of revising my novel. I mean integrate the way Alice Munro often does in her short stories, by developing relationships from fragment to fragment.
Photo by Richard Culbert

If there is any potential for integration it might start with an image from the weekend, when the snow-bright gleam of the crescent at the top lingered minutes before the earth's shadow totally covered the full moon. What was revealed, what hidden.

Allan Ludwig's circle photographs, found through his Flickr id of Elisha Cook, Jr, feature objects he discovered while roaming the streets of lower Manhattan. The page displaying the street art that is his subject includes circles of all kinds. Interesting to see what has attracted his eye. A tire that appears to have been vertically sliced in half, making a perfect black lifesaver; a gleaming frame that may have been moulded from some shiny material and into which someone has layered a bright pink blob that looks vaguely marine. Covers over the round mouths of pipes, where oil enters the labyrinth beneath Manhattan. There are a couple of flattened silver cans whose present outlines recall and also defy the original cylinder. The top of a fire hydrant; a round poster advertising a dj's turntable services. All images that provoke curiosity. What's the story, of the objects themselves and also what the photographer sees in them?

In midwest winters, if the snow was just the right texture, we used to pack it into a lumpy little sphere and roll it across what had freshly fallen until the ball gathered enough snow to become the base or the fat middle or head of a snowman. A matter of accretion. As I go through my novel with the idea of adding to it, I find that it is a matter of accretion there too. An image clarified with more detail, a relationship complicated, a plot point more consciously foreshadowed. On a given page there may be a single word I have added to this draft, or a paragraph. I have taken some words away too. Seldom as much as a page added or deleted as the novel gradually rolls towards the mass I envision, an end result I hope will reveal and suggest what is not explicitly revealed at the same time.

Out of the Closet

Fall, a new decade of life, and a novel, not new but on my mind and sitting in a closet, jammed into a big brown paper bag as a 550 page manuscript to reconsider.

What to do, what to do? Over 130,000 words, a big sad book; a serious subject -- death on the job -- hours and hours, days, weeks, months of research. What to do? Individual readers - not many; I've never been in the habit of widely circulating unpublished work - responded with enthusiasm, but publisher after publisher turned it down, until I decided to put it away.

And yet, it is one of the stories I want to have finished before I finish myself. Completion includes presenting it to readers, i.e. publishing, when it is ready.

All the changes in a writer's life. The move from handwriting to typewriting to using a computer. From fusty stacks in the library to easier on-line research with instant results.
Remembering my determination to become a good writer, making myself sit at my desk for at least three hours or 1000 words. The beginning of a discipline that came to be a daily necessity. Trying, trying again, amassing 100 typed pages I then pared down to a ten page story. Studying the words of writer/mentors like John Gardner. Reading Alice Munro, John Sayle's early short stories, all the writers... Sean O'Casey, Sean O'Faolain, Dostoyevsky - the humanity, the passion; so many great writers, too many to list, but those names jump up because I analyzed their work to learn from them: how did he make an unsympathetic character sympathetic? how did she achieve that structure and how did it serve the story, more than serve it, really create it? Thinking of language, aware of a tendency to repeat words (Avoid careless repetition, said John Gardner) Never thinking of potential readers, certainly not of book promotion unless someone else initiated it. Never selling enough books to become a hot property. Beginning to realize, and only rather recently (Yikes!), that that could/would be a problem for potential publishers.

Behind the curtain, at the place where I feel most at home, wondering if I should pull it back and peek out. Consider readers who like a little lift. Make it funny? Change my main p.o.v. character from a librarian to a stand-up comic or a marine biologist? A marine biologist could be funny. One publisher responded to the original manuscript by saying he was looking for something snappier. Would he like a sardonic marine biologist better than my slightly overweight Scots bibliophile? Perhaps now, after several years, I will find the manuscript itself overweight.

It used to seem that a novel, or story, once begun, was self-determining. That is, it became actual, an entity, with its own requirements to which the writer responded. Could be I have to listen more carefully to what this novel wants to tell me.

First step, open the closet.

We are not alone

 Much has been said about the noble solitude of the artist, the writer. But it is not always painful solitude; some solitudinous personalities find writing a perfect match. I used to wonder whether I became a writer because I like to be alone, or if I have come to like or need to be alone because I am a writer. Well, a recent web article in The Millions, and a holiday party with neighbours and old friends, at which a quarter of the guests were writers, have convinced me that we writers only think we are alone.

Besides myself and my house partner, both lifetime writers, the festivities included three twenty-somethings and one middle-aged woman who had published her first novel this fall. The twenty-eight year old young woman, an MFA student in Creative Writing, had just had her first story collection accepted for publication; the 25 year old young man is applying to MFA programs in CW, and the other young man, late twenties, is stubbornly, sometimes tortuously, according to his partner, writing a novel from which he has already jettisoned 120,000 words.

According to Dominic Smith's Millions piece, there was a 39 percent increase in the number of writers and authors between 1990 and 2005. In the nearly ten years since, with self-publishing having exploded, one can only imagine.

"After studying the data," writes Smith, "I’m inclined to think there’s a million people writing novels, a quarter of a million actively publishing them in some form, and about 50,000 publishing them with mainstream and small, traditional presses. Then again, I have a novelist’s penchant for rounding numbers for the sake of narrative convenience. Putting the numbers aside, what we do know is that there’s an army of folks writing novels — some bad, some glorious — against staggering odds. Writing a novel is like starting a small business and investing thousands of hours without knowing exactly what it is you’re going to end up selling. It’s a leap of faith every time, even for someone who is five novels into a career."

As I used to tell my writing students, just walk into a library and you will see that there are plenty of books for people to read. The only reason to write another one is that it comes from you, it is an individual... what? Effort, expression, exploration... It certainly should be an individual work - at its best a work of art - unique as a person's fingerprints.

The freedom to essay, to examine, to execute ... maybe this continues to compel me, so that, like perhaps as many as a million others, I am sitting in my study by myself, in the first week of a new year,  about to make that leap again.

Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe...the man could write!

Thomas Wolfe was one of the writers who inspired, humbled and stretched me when I was a constant reader in my teens and early twenties.  Now, on the eve of my train trip through the South, his Look Homeward Angel is the third book, and the first re-read, I have chosen in preparation, for novels evoke the spirit of a region far better than any tourist guide. Except I have to keep reminding myself that this is why I am reading this enormous book, TW's first novel, for the second time, decades later. Once again I am being swept away by his passion, his language, his deft ways with character. For example, he has Stevie, the character modelled on his oldest brother in this autobiographical work, speak of himself in the third person, which immediately shows Stevie to be an egotistical, sentimental, self-justifying failure.

Then we have Eliza, the mother, who talks and talks, the kind of tangential narratives that drive big W.O. Gant, the father, mostly referred to just as Gant, to  howl. In addition to describing Eliza's ways, Wolfe mimics Eliza's talk in rambling passages of dialogue that would make anyone howl. There is a lot of howling that goes on in this novel. Gant howls and builds huge spitting blazes in the stove and eats and eats, great steaming platters of everything. And he keeps an angel carved from Cararra marble on the front porch of his stone cutting/monument shop in Altamont, which is Wolfe's pseudonym for his home town of Asheville, North Carolina. The Angel is present in/as the minds of the characters, too, especially Ben Gant, Eugene's (aka TW's) favourite brother.

The way he presents his fictional father, it seems clear that Wolfe inherited much from the man he calls W.O. Gant; his bigness of language, his stature, his occasional broodiness. His self-centredness too, because knowing Thomas Wolfe only through what he wrote, and I am just beginning to refresh my acquaintance, I see few examples of modesty. He begins with the wonder of origins, how chance determined that his English Grandfather ended up reciting Hamlet to Dutch farmers in Pennsylvania, married, begot five children, but bequeathed only to his son W.O. a yen for travel and a tendency to hold forth in a booming voice. Obviously those gifts filtered down to Eugene/Thomas, who held forth to the extent that he published four gargantuan books during his lifetime and left many more that were published after his death at 38.

As a young reader I loved it that Wolfe placed his characters more or less in the cosmos, beginning with "a stone, a leaf, an unfound door". He seems to have felt acutely wrenched from whence we all spring. Forever alone, but in a romantic way that appealed to me, and perhaps him. At one point he writes about the "full delight of loneliness."  I remember kneeling by a window in our upstairs hall, my chin on the windowsill, looking out to the throbbing summer night, throbbing myself with an aimless passion that my age and his words had kindled.

Though his sometimes florid writing style is not to my taste any more, he continues to stretch me, making me want to observe every detail, be aware of the nuances of every thought, think of every character in terms of absolute specifics. come up with lines like this one, about his father... "a fanatical zealot in the religion of chance..." And this about his stand-in Eugene, reacting to an experience at the World's Fair in St. Louis:

..."His mind, just emerging from the unreal wilderness of childish fancy, gave way completely in this Fair, and he was paralyzed by the conviction, which often returned to him in later years, that his life was a fabulous nightmare and that, by cunning and conspirate artifice, he had surrendered all his hope, belief and confidence to the lewd torture of demons masked in human flesh, Half-sensible, and purple with gasping terror, he came out finally into the warm and practical sunlight."

Shinny's Girls (the novella), re-revisited

I missed many things on the first edit (including whole pages) of the scanned in novella. Now, on my desktop computer I am seeing errors more easily and feeling that I might not write that book today, not in the same way. Yet, I am attached to the character. To be true to my original idea of re-publishing originals, I have to look at it as a historical novel to some extent. Writing style, content. The history of me as a writer and the history of my characters in the late 80's. Cannot resist making improvements, however. As my friend and e-mentor Steve has reminded me, an ebook remains a live document. The writer can make changes any time. Whew! The eternal writing process?

Presto rests

Another plateau. What fascinates me about the process of writing a novel - one of the things - is how an idea seems to come when I acknowledge the need for one, as if it has been waiting for an invitation. I felt something was missing, that the first person voice focussed the story but perhaps in too narrow a fashion. Now I have an idea that not only widens the focus but also helps me firm allusions to Dos Passos. By letting the new melange rest for about a month, until I am back in B.C. and working on my usual computer and have access to research materials I collected, I should be prepared to complete a final, so-called, draft, because the process of revision never ends, only stops from time to time.