if anyone tells you that writing novels gets easier over time, they’re crazy

new novel

The final draft of my second book, and yes, I still print things out. 

 

When you write a book, your first thought is: Can I do this? Can I be obsessed with something to a degree that it’ll sustain me through hundreds of pages of revisions, years of deleting and rewriting drafts? Will I allow characters to inhabit my life for a period that doesn’t have a defined end? Can I write this without considering the business of publishing? Can I write knowing this may not be sold or read?

You ask yourself whether you can see the story and the fate of your characters all the way through. And after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, now that the book is written and you’ve exorcised your obsession by committing your characters to a page, you then ask yourself: How do I get better? You keep asking yourself that question every time you come to the page.

I’ve written and sold two books and I assure you the process does not get easier, but I often think about the line from the film Heat, when Michael Cheritto’s character says, For me, the action is the juice. For me, the reward is worth the stretch. I could probably offer more of an astute philosophy, quotes from great writers on the process of writing books, but it all boils down to this: the reward is the composition of the work itself, rather than external validation, which may or may not happen (in fact, I’m expecting criticism of my second book due to the nature of the violence), praise or criticism that is fleeting and soon forgettable. You write what consumes you. You write to make sense of the world. You write to explain it. You write to make your voice heard when it feels you’re the smallest person in the room.

Last year when I moved to California, I wrote my third book in a month. The velocity shocked me, honestly, because it took me eight years to start a second book, two years to write and revise it, and nearly a year to sell it. A new book for me is akin to bloodletting–it’s never easy, it’s often confusing and painful, but then there’s that MOMENT. The switch. When the story falls into place and your characters surprise you in the smallest (and arguably most powerful) of ways. My book always starts one way and ends up becoming what I hadn’t planned or intended. I lost count of how many times I gut-renovated my second book–the structure was problematic, the payoff non-existent, and a few of the characters felt one-note.

After three years, I found a structure that actually worked. And this happened AFTER I sold the book.

This is all to say that writing a book doesn’t come easily to me. So when I sent my first crude draft to my agent, he wrote back that it was way too dark–even for me. And more importantly, the story wasn’t as powerful as it could be. So I revised again, and two more times. Cut 100 pages. Added 70, and the like. And even when I sent the latest draft to my agent the book didn’t feel like it was working. The only section I felt drawn to are what I call the “Alice stories” — a series of connected stories documenting the strange relationship between an adult woman in New York and a depressed teenager in Los Angeles. It deals with the voyeuristic nature of social media, what we edit and reveal, and how strangers are sometimes profoundly connected than the people in your “real” life.

My agent came back and confirmed what I already knew. After an hour of brainstorming, we both agreed that I needed to cut nearly the entire book except for 40 pages. He then timidly suggested I do the one thing I loathe doing — a plot outline.

I’m not knocking the plot outline or outlines in general. They’re often necessary. In what felt like the thirtieth revision of my second novel, I had to map out the timeline and character actions so I wasn’t confused. But here’s the thing–I write from the point-of-view of the character. I’m not a plot writer. I obsess over fictitious people to the extent that I know their whole world down to whether they can stomach mushrooms, mittens, or clowns (three things I hate).  I create character maps and sketches. I pin images of people so I can see my character. Then, and only then, do I let them go out into the world (or in the actual case, the page) and see what they do. I write stories scene by scene and the characters advance the plot.

I’ve rarely engineered the reverse. So plot outlines, for me, are the equivalent of taking spin classes when I’ve always done yoga. I’ll invariably fall off the bike, parts of my body will be sore, and I’ll likely make a mess of things. This may sound crazy but drawing out a plot is harder than writing the actual book (at least for me). But I did it because it was necessary and I need to exercise different muscles to get this book where it needs to go.

In four pages over two exhausting days, I mapped out my third book. I only “know” one of the characters, Alice, but I don’t even know her completely. I know these characters in parts, so directing them forward felt Herculean. But I did it, and my agent was kind and gave incredible feedback.

So here I go. I’m starting a new novel next week, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The book follows the strange obsessive relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a fifteen-year-old suicidal teenager, who happens to be the daughter of a film star on the decline. The book combines the voices and locations I know (New York, an adult woman) with those I’m slowly discovering (Los Angeles, teenagers). And with everything I write, there’s always something nefarious at work. Characters are flawed. Bad things happen. But unlike anything I’ve written previously, this story will end on a note of hope.

Because sometimes light doesn’t exist, even if it’s not within your reach.

book buff

a novel update

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Amidst all the gluten, there was light. I spent the past two days with my book agent, Matthew Carnicelli, editing my novel in his idyllic Rhinebeck home. I’d been sending him bits and pieces of my new book, which has been occupying space in my head for four years and took nearly a year and a half to write, and when I emailed him the completed manuscript, he suggested I take the train up and spend time editing the book page by page. He loved it, madly. Thought it remarkable, tricky and satisfying on a line level, but he wanted to work through some issues he saw with structure (surprise, surprise) and point-of-view–technical issues that made a complicated book confusing.

You should know that this isn’t how I work. I tend to write and edit in seclusion, and the idea of a page-by-page vivisection gave me anxiety. However, as we settled into the work and talked through the characters, elements of story and narrative development, I was surprised by how many breakthroughs happened in a span of eight hours. Matthew is a brilliant editor and story developer, and often he challenges me to go to places I never consider going. Nothing escapes him, and sometimes in the midst of a discussion about a character’s POV, he’d ask me, offhand, so what does this line mean? It’s pretty, but what does it do for the story And after careful thought, I’d shake my head and say, nothing. And there goes the pen, striking lines.

After, he told me that he liked watching me talk about these characters as if they were real, flesh and bone, and he marveled on how quickly I was able to re-imagine and re-structure chapters. He asked me about my process–whether I have a whole story in mind or do I just start with an image, and I told him that everything I write starts with an image, a scene. Nothing ever starts in its completion, because a story always becomes, at least for me, something else than I’d intended it to be. I started my new novel with an image of a woman setting another woman’s hair on fire and built the book, image by image, scene by scene, from there. Last year I had no idea where the plot was going to go, and I felt smothered by having to take a step back and architect this grandiose plot. Instead, I stayed with the characters, all of whom I knew well, and knew they’d take me where I needed to go. I know it sounds strange, but my characters took me to the plot rather than the other way around.

The result? A book I never dreamed I could write. I wince when my agent called it experimental literary fiction because it already makes me think it’ll be impossible to sell, and we spoke at length about this, the business of publishing, and I settled on this: I no longer have the ego and ambition I had when I sold my first book. Rather, I want to write the best novel I’m able to write and if it has a traditional home, awesome, if not, we’ll figure it out. I don’t need the validation of Knopf and blurbs; I know I wrote something great. The need and want, now, is sharing this book with others.

When asked for an elevator, I struggle. At its core, the book is about two broken children (both of whom have different elements of mental illness, although both are artistic and brilliant) who endure generations of illness and abuse, and who they are and what the become as a result, juxtaposed for their base need for normalcy. Themes? Oy. Feminism and our notions that women are “safe” (intentionally vague), women as property, society’s very binary view on serial killers and those who have mental illness, love–familial and other–and the relentless desire and pursuit of it, what it means to be a mother, and the desire to revise our own story. There’s a huge plot twist that kind of reminds me of Fight Club, and I weave in poetry, speeches, and literature repurposed as dialogue.

As you can imagine, I’ve got a lot going on, and I’ve a few chapters to gut renovate and edit. After, it was wonderful to spend yesterday eating farm fresh eggs, picking vegetables out of Matthew’s garden, kayaking along the Hudson, and getting to know my agent of 6+ years beyond the business of what we do.

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book buff