My most successful novel for young adults is Memory Boy, a draft of which I wrote in three weeks. That should have told me something. However, as a novelist I'm a slow learner; or more precisely, each novel is its own puzzle to solve, and it's usually a mistake to hark back to the previous book when writing a new one. However, I'm trying just that with my new novel: re-visiting the approach I took to writing Memory Boy, to see if it will work again.
There are two very general approaches to writing a novel: work on it daily, stopping and starting to attend to real life, much as one goes about a job. The opposite tack is the Jack Kerouac method: full tilt, full focus, writing fast and hard and continuously, real life be damned. I know visual artists who absolutely require the latter method, but most novelists I know take the workman-like approach.
Memory Boy was written with modified Jack Kerouac approach. I tried to "write" (visualize) a good deal of MB inside my head before anything else. Once it began to seem real in my imagination, I made notes and set chapter headings in place. Soon I pretty much knew the whole arc of the novel (with most of my novels I know only half or even a third of the story before I write the first word.) My notes weren't copious, such as I imagine a mystery writer might need, and of them the chapter headings were the most useful. Knowing all of–and only– what each chapter has to cover greatly speeds up the writing process. Then, with MB fully in my head, I holed up at a writing retreat for three weeks of isolation, and wrote. Just wrote. No distractions other than to surface for food and a breath of fresh air. The result was an organically whole narrative that, as I see now, has a tightness about it–an intensity, an urgency––that most of my YA novels do not have. They are each good in their own ways, but not as tight as MB. In short, I think the Kerouac method has much to say for itself as an artistic process. Can I duplicate it? Will it work again? I'll find out this summer.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Thursday, April 5, 2012
"Oh, The Places We’ll Go"
The famous Dr. Suess book by similar title is most certainly an allegory of authors and books clubs. When I publish a new book I'm certainly “off and away” on an adventure, and the places I’ll go, from book store signings to peoples’ overcrowded living rooms, are wonderful to downright strange. Still, go I must, it’s only just (sorry): people have plopped down good money for my book, and now they want–one could say, deserve– straight answers about it. And not from back-matter author interviews or website Vimeos. Book club people want their author contact up close and personal–and with food involved. To authors, book club invitations are like a church bell’s toll: one might not feel like going at all, but in the end it’s nearly always a good thing.
Though not necessarily an easy thing. For authors, book club events are complicated and many-layered. Let’s start with the food. No matter what menu is promised, it’s best to eat (lightly) beforehand. Book club events are often long on sweets and caffeine but short on protein. The last thing an author needs is a sugar and caffeine high on an empty stomach, which can lead to talking jags about the process of writing –and editors, and revision, and copy editors and one’s Amazon numbers– plus managing a paper plate and your novel and a glass of wine while sitting in the host’s personal Lazy-boy is a dangerous act. Speaking of drinks? One. Two drinks and you’re back to talking about the writing process, about the sentence on page 74 that defeated you.
This gets us, ala Dr. Suess, to the dark side of things. If not eating or drinking much sets the author apart from the assembled club, that’s as it should be. A book club is a homogeneous gathering of nice people who do not write. Their living rooms or summer patios with lawn chairs become a “waiting place” where they listen for a “yes or a no”; that is, they want to believe that the author is a nice person who sees the world just like them. Which the author does not, because, well, he’s an author. Negotiating this psychic territory while cheerfully talking about one’s book is no easy thing, because an author’s book club persona–necessarily agreeable if not charming–is not altogether truthful. The novel might have been a personal agony to write; or might have caused hurt to family or loved ones; or feel, as F. S. Fitzgerald put it, “fake”, and not all that it could have been. But no one really needs to hear that. Though readers’ groups are more literary than others, most are as much social as bookish– this in play against the author, for whom writing is a matter of life death. Truth be told, I often leave a book club event feeling largely false–which is of course my problem, and not that of the nice folks who invited me, and who, I hope, will keep reading and buying books and reaching out to authors.
Musicians say there’s no unimportant gig; ditto, I think, for writers and book clubs. That I hardly ate or drank a thing that night is soon forgotten (as is the weak coffee and the impossible Lazy-boy). What remains is the simple, elemental power of good books to bring people together.
(first published in the Huffington Post "Books" section)