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.

writing the quiet: a taste of my weekly dispatches

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“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.

Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.

This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.

I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.

I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.

I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.

Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:

Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.

In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,

I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.

And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.

I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.

For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.

Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.

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chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)

Yesterday I had lunch with my marvelous agent, Matthew Carnicelli, and I left inspired, invigorated and ready to start another novel. We spoke at lengths about my first book (he’s still making the rounds) and the tremendous feedback it’s received balanced with the fear of publishing my book because it wouldn’t break through, it wouldn’t be big because it’s largely so dark. My book is this beautiful, risky thing, was the constant refrain from book editors, and Matthew and I brainstormed possibilities while he tries to sell this dark little thing I’ve created.

We spent two hours talking about what I write on this space and we decided that what I write here (personal stories connected to food, career advice, issues of race and identity, how I’m redefining success for myself on my own terms) should be kept here. The writing on this space is honest, good, and brings me joy in writing it and sharing it with you. So it’ll stay here and I’m privileged that you’ll bear witness to its inevitable bloom.

I talk about a new project that’s been stirring. The problem with how I write is that I never, ever think of plot, a story fully realized. I start with characters and a few scenes. I figure that if I know the people they’ll do some interesting things and the plot will follow. So I’ve a rather ambitious idea, one that will yank me out of my comfort zone, and it centers around a neighborhood in Brooklyn and a prominent (and potent) Puerto Rican crime family. Naturally, me being me, I have a few fully-realized scenes toward the end of the book, when I laugh and tell my agent this, he rolls his eyes because he’s been down this road with the last book. I always start in the middle of things and give him a 100 pages and inquire whether what I’ve written is any good. It’s always good, he assures me, and I can tell he’s relieved that this story is manageably dark, rather than relentlessly so.

I pause in the middle of our lunch, stir food around on my plate, and ask, timidly, the novel isn’t that dark, is it? He laughs because what I’ve asked states the obvious, because the title of my book is Follow Me Into the Dark, and he says, Felicia, it’s dark. But it’s also beautiful and good and we’ll find it a home.

I left reminded of the singular rule I was always taught in graduate school. Don’t just lean your hopes on this one great thing. Write new books, tell new stories, scatter them like confetti all over the place. So this is me, investing more time here, more time away from here. Writing. Creating something new. Every day.

INGREDIENTS
2 medium ripe bananas
½ ripe avocado (3/4 cup)
¼ cup cacao powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp maple syrup (or honey)
½ tbsp water

DIRECTIONS
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend for 30 seconds or until smooth and well combined. I added cacao nibs and pistachios to my mousse, however, I can imagine this would be AMAZING with some whipped coconut cream. I let this chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.

chocolate banana mousse (vegan)