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.

currently reading: new books on the shelf

new books on my bookshelf

Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.

Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.

I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.

While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.

I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.

“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay

And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.

And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.