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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7 thoughts on “a novel update

  1. That sounds like an idyllic day. It was fun to read your post to get an insider’s view of the writing process when you already have a book and an agent. Thanks for sharing. I don’t think I’ve commented here before, but I started following you recently and I enjoy reading about your eating life – the wheels are turning in my brain – it’s time for me to change my ways with eating before it gets even harder with the aging process 🙂 – Janine

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