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.

on playing small

Photo Credit: Pexels
Photo Credit: Pexels

What we are is a set of walking contradictions. Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly, our souls are shadowed places; we live at the border where dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places…We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins. –From Lewis Smedes’ Shame and Grace

We always want more–even if we don’t want it, even if we never needed it. When we are children our eyes rove over the things we see–the pink light that filters in through trees (dusk), machines that race down streets (cars), furry things that lick their paws (cats, dogs–this could get complicated). Everything’s a puzzle, mostly; images and words play Lego for the whole of our lives. We are forever in reconstruction, and we lean on others for definition, interpretation, and perspective. Over time we consider everything in the diminutive as an unfinished state, not yet realized and far from its potential. That cute wobbly puppy grows into a dog that can run. That infant who once smelled of clean cotton sheets grows into someone who builds houses, flies planes, cures diseases. Our memory of the miniature plays out in sepia, it’s hazy and often romanticized–we only fixate on what we become, leaving our previous states aside.

I’ve been thinking about children lately. Not having them, but observing them. I’ve also been thinking about death (although this article would try to convince me that thinking of these things will help alleviate my fear of them. Nice try), and I’m making connections between the two. In death, we return from that which we’ve come–our mode of transportation varies depending upon what you believe–but I wonder if the place to which we’ll go vaguely resembles the one from which we’ve come, and the space we’ve been occupying between the two, our holding pen, has been spent trying to make sense of our journey from one to the other.

Or maybe that’s my life.

We cry coming out and we weep slouching our way home. Because isn’t that what death is, really? Our final stop, a story, a home that cannot be torched or torn down? Our tears come from fear of the unknown, of what’s to come. I assume babies scream-cry because they consider everything an assault. What are these shapes, colors, and lights? Who are you? What is this, what am I, and so on. Over time, the answers are revealed in degrees, and for a brief while we are comforted by these certainties. Life becomes a slow conquering of sorts, a means to ferret out truth from the unknown, and our death is a surrender. We lay down our armaments because we’ve no idea which tools we’ll need for the next battle. In our twilight years I suppose we weep because we’ve left a life where most riddles have been resolved, loves have been felt, truths have been revealed–to what? To nothing? To a fugue state that morphs into the eternal black? To azure skies and golden gates or fiery bowels–as some books would have it? Or do feel sorrow because we spent our lives trying to know when there is so much we’ll never know. Have we wasted time in this single, temporary waking life?

I greatly fear my hidden parts–From Augustine’s Confessions

It occurs to me that these moments, life and death, are monumental, yet we’re small when confronting them. We’re small in the beginning (literally), and in the end we become small in ways that are more complicated. In both states we don’t consider the notion of wanting more; we can’t even comprehend acquisition, and isn’t it funny that we face our two greatest moments being valiant and great in our smallness, in our need for nothing?

Lately I’ve been feeling, for lack of a better term, colonized. Colonized in terms of defining a home, colonized in reference to how I live my life. We all have a reference point. I came from a home that had nothing and spent the great deal of my 20s and early 30s in the business of hyper-accumulation in hopes that it would satiate a need that could never be truly filled by the things bought in tender. I hailed from a generation that believed in the beauty of size. We measured our self worth in width, height, and weight, and our homes made us feel like dwarves, our Italian leather handbags threatened to swallow us whole. We became bound to this title, to those letters after our name, as if ascension equated to human greatness.

Me & My Pop at My Book Party

I think about my dad. For a time I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t want more from life–why he didn’t demand the world and everything in it just I had. His home and closets are spare — he has only what he needs. He cleaves to his rituals: coffee in the morning, coffee as a means to connect, and long drives to clear his head. He holds few photographs. Luckily, I’m in one of them. He doesn’t speak about the past often, but what he remembers are the moments I sometimes struggle to recall: they’re small, but we explode into laughter when he recounts them. The day he drove down a one-way street. The day we made a point to eat one meal from every fast food joint in a five-mile radius (I don’t recommend this). He has the ability to say one string of words and we’re immediately transported back and I can feel everything. He has a way of making the world simple, clean and neat–even when he’s engulfed in sadness, loss, heartbreak.

I admire him this, his quiet nobility. I admire a man who’s lived a great, small life–who loves every minute of it. You feel everything so hard, he once joked.

Recently I ask, are you afraid of death? To which he responds swiftly, fearless, no. I ask him how that’s possible. I ask all the questions. And he shrugs and says that it’s silly to waste your life thinking about something you’ll never understand or could explain. He has an acceptance, a calm reserve that at this moment I find unimaginable, although I hope that will change as time passes.

Yet when I look at him, when I think of children, I’m reminded of the beauty in playing small. Of not needing to puff up your chest, resume, byline or biography. Life is still worth loving even if I don’t win prizes, or reach financial, professional heights. Yesterday I finished reading David Brooks’ magnificent book, The Road to Character, and the final chapter closed on the dangers of a society solely focused on meritocracy, on the accumulation of desires and the constant cult of me. He writes,

The meritocratic system wants you to be big about yourself–to puff yourself, to be completely sure of yourself, to believe that you deserve a lot and to get what you think you deserve (so long as it’s good). The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements. The achievement machine rewards you if you can demonstrate superiority–if with a thousand gestures, conversational types, and styles of dress you can demonstrate that you are a bit smarter, hipper, more accomplished, sophisticated, famous, plugged-in, and fashion-forward that the people around you. It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.

By coveting the largess of life, we end up being silly and small. But what if we revered the reverse? What if we came from a place of curiosity, humility, self-acceptance, honesty. What if we formed our character based on how we loved, what we built as an extension of that love versus what we boast, promote and share. I think about this tension a lot, especially when I read that I have to make a ruckus in order to break ranks. What if I ceased wanting all the things (I’m close, not completely there, to be honest)? What if I burned the measuring tape and scales, and stopped equating large and more with joy and greatness? Fewer, better. Quality reigns over quantity. I’ve done this in nearly all aspects of my life, but not my life in its entirety. But then I wonder if that’s even possible. I’m not sure that it is, so perhaps that’s part of the journey, too.

What if I spent my life playing small? Because I’ll need that nobility, that calm and reserve, for the next home, the final place to which I’ll be traveling.

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Currently listening to this.
Currently reading this, because, you know, smart, dead people.