On Writing

A Writer on Monday Morning

Buzz Bissinger — who has a Pulitzer Prize and a smash book, Friday Night Lights, to his credit — was in a low mood when he sat down to work Monday morning. At 9:29, he tweeted:

My last book with LeBron was shit. I know that. All writers only have a finite amount in the tank. Every day — the fear you have run dry.

This was followed by a series of tweets, each separated by two or three minutes.

I wrote Friday Night Lights when I was 33. I am now 55. Haunts me every day. Best thing that ever happened. Worse thing that ever happened. [9:31]

When people call me over-the-hill I react with profane defensiveness. But maybe it is true. It crawls into my head every minute, every day. [9:33]

I have a beautiful book on my hands about my son. I can barely write a sentence w/o crippling self-doubt. i get encouragement — turn it off. [9:35]

I am angry. I do hate bullshit. But maybe I am the biggest bullshitter of all, passing judgment on those who still do. Am I caricature? [9:38]

It isn’t self-pity writers feel. It is fear that what you did was accidental, luck, no more words left. Only to escape it seems was Updike. [9:43]

At 9:51, pulling out of it, he tweeted,

Writing is a matter of confidence, like any creative act. You gain it, you lose it, you gain it, you lose it. No better high. No worse low.

And five minutes later, after he’d apparently received some encouragement from other Twitterers, he concluded,

Enough. Your support means a tremendous amount to me. And as some have said, pull up your socks and get back to work.

I haven’t accomplished anything like what Bissinger has, but I have felt all these doubts, every single one. Most writers do. Probably most creative artists of all kinds do. In a weird way, it is reassuring to hear someone so accomplished cop to it.

A strange benefit of the real-time web: the ease of broadcasting confessions like these in the false intimacy of a lonely office allows writers to peek over each other’s shoulders.

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: · · ·

Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

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Writing Like It’s 1999

John Dvorak had an interesting piece recently on the transformation of computers “from being a mathematical tool used for calculations, to a communications device.”

Initially, computers were used for calculations. The first intended purpose was for artillery trajectory calculations — hardly a noble purpose, but certainly a practical one. In the early days, computers were described as electronic bins. … As the desktop computer revolution developed, the devices’ uses were inevitably based on some aspect of calculation. Spreadsheets were the perfect example. At the time, the only communication aspect of computers was the fact that they could double as powerful aids to word processing software.

By 1979, however, modems and networks were making inroads. They made it possible for computers to talk to each other in some crude way. That was the beginning of the end. The computation aspect of computers continued to grow, but it was the networking aspect that was the disease vector, so far as social upheaval is concerned. You can figure out the rest of the networking timeline. It began 30 or more years ago — 40 years, if you want to count the invention of Arpanet in 1969.

The iPad and smart phones are just the logical conclusion to this trend: computers whose only real purpose is to communicate, not calculate.

Whatever the grand social implications of “the communications-oriented computer” — Dvorak considers it an asocial, porn-proliferating, newspaper-killing “disease” — it has been a disaster for writers, at least for this highly distractible writer.

I’m no Luddite. I love the web, maybe too much. Most evenings now, after my kids go to bed, I find myself opening up a laptop and reading online when once I would have opened a book or turned on the TV. To a natural reader, it is like heaven — an endless library. (Also an endless TV and jukebox, but personally these aspects interest me less.)

That is just the problem: the web is a massive distraction that is becoming increasingly difficult to tune out. Today you can’t buy a new laptop that is not wifi-enabled, and you can’t walk into a library or Starbucks that does not provide wifi. No doubt computers eventually will follow smart phones into a world where all computers are connected to the web all the time, with or without wifi.

The irony is that today’s computers are actually less useful for writers than were the slower, “dumber,” un-networked boxes of ten years ago. That is because writers need to do the one thing modern computers can’t — disconnect.

I hear the objection already. “Why don’t you just turn off the damn internet for a while? Close your browser. Show some willpower, some discipline!”

Well, that is what most writers do. What choice is there? But over and over I hear writers echo my own experience, which is that the web is very difficult to block out entirely, because the same machine we use for typing is also the one we use for web-surfing. Our work tool has become a play tool. Our typewriter has become a TV. What you scolds may not understand is that our work is different from yours. Writing of any quality requires deep focus; long, quiet, undisturbed stretches of time; and isolation — in Joyce’s famous phrase, “silence, exile, and cunning.” Any work that involves serious thought requires some of these things some of the time, I suppose, but good writing needs them all, every day. And modern computers, alas, are designed to create the opposite environment: distraction, connection, zoning out.

What we writers need is a computer optimized for word processing and nothing else. A “dumb” computer that is little more than a “smart” typewriter. A workspace — a computer screen — with no distractions, that does not tempt us to pop online “just for a minute to check email.”

I have found something close in the AlphaSmart Neo, a simple plain-text word processor with virtually endless battery life, whose praises I have sung before. But once I have completed a draft of a novel and moved to the editing phase, I have to use a word processing program, in my case WordPerfect, to which I am passionately, stubbornly devoted. That means I have to switch to a laptop.

So how do I work on a laptop and completely shut out the web? By eliminating all the “advances” of the last decade.

I recently bought an old ThinkPad T23 on eBay. The laptop was made in 2001 or thereabouts. It was a high-end machine at the time, with a retail price well north of $3,000, but I picked mine up for about a hundred bucks. The build quality of these old ThinkPads is unsurpassed, and the T23 is engineered to be light and tough enough for corporate road-warrior types. It has a great keyboard but, honestly, not much else. Best of all, it has no wireless card.

A nine-year-old laptop is not a perfect solution, of course. Battery life is short (I get about 1:45). At 5.5 pounds the T23 weighs a little more than today’s ultraportables. And with such an old machine, who can say how much tread is left on the tires? But so far I am thrilled. To a writer, less is more. I bought this computer precisely for what it can’t do.

I wonder: isn’t there enough of a niche market to support a new laptop like this, which sacrifices processing power, memory, and networking ability for the simpler things that writers and other thinkers value — low price, long battery life, light weight, good keyboard, bright screen? The ideal writer’s computer would have many of the virtues of a netbook, minus the connectivity, plus a little size to accommodate a better keyboard and display. It would be good for students, too. Certainly it would be a machine John Dvorak would love.

How Writers Write: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

From “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan’s Art of Unease,” by Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker, 2.23.09:

… McEwan keeps a plot book — an A4 spiral notebook filled with scenarios. “They’re just two or three sentences,” he said.…

McEwan said that he never rushes from notebook to novel. “You’ve got to feel that it’s not just some conceit,” he said. “It’s got to be inside you. I’m very cautious about starting anything without letting time go, and feeling it’s got to come out. I’m quite good at not writing. Some people are tied to five hundred words a day, six days a week. I’m a hesitater.”

When McEwan does begin writing, he tries to nudge himself into a state of ecstatic concentration. A passage in “Saturday” describing Perowne in the operating theatre could also serve as McEwan’s testament to his love of sculpting prose:

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future.… This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this.… This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

For McEwan, a single “dream of absorption” often yields just a few details worth fondling. Several hundred words is a good day.… He told me, “You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They’ve got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you’re fiddling around with something that’s already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be.”

Photo by Annalena McAfee.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · ·

Writing Is Play

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown in this TED presentation on the importance of play. (The quote seems to originate with Brian Sutton-Smith.) I ran across this epigram yesterday in a blog post by Garr Reynolds called “The Secret to Great Work Is Great Play,” and a light bulb flashed on in my head.

I have been in an unproductive loop lately. About six weeks ago I submitted the manuscript for my third book. My editor loved the pages (the book will be released as a Random House “lead fiction” title, whatever that means) but, as always, she requested changes. I agreed with all her recommendations and was determined to finish the rewrites as quickly as possible. But the process has dragged on.

Why? Maybe I have been staring at the same project too long. I’m bored, ready to move on to a new book. Or maybe it’s the usual completion anxiety — the apprehensiveness that comes with releasing a manuscript out into the world, where its many flaws will surely be exposed.

Whatever the reason, a familiar vicious cycle has set in: the harder it is to write, the more I dread writing; the more I dread it, the harder it is to do. Mule that I am, I have responded to this dilemma the only way I know how — by working harder and harder and harder. But pulling the rope only makes the knot tighter.

So it was useful to be reminded that fiction-writing is a form of play — imaginative play. Which is not to say it is easy. Obviously it is not. But many kinds of play are not easy (weightlifting, crossword puzzles, classical piano). I have been writing for pleasure a lot longer than I have been doing it for money, but somehow the last few weeks I allowed my life’s passion to become drudgework. You cannot create that way. You have to relax. You have to bring a sense of play to your work. You have to enjoy the story you are creating even as you create it, because if it feels like drudgework to the writer, imagine how it will feel to the reader.

Image: My son Henry shows me how it’s done.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Dickens’ Outlines

Robert Olen Butler has said,

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Atlantic Monthly, 6.14.04

It is a cherished fantasy of writers: if only a wise mentor could be with me at the moment of creation, looking over my shoulder, teaching me how to apply the chisel to the stone. The essence of a writer’s work is mysterious even to himself. Ask any writer how he creates his stories, what is happening inside his head as he types away madly, and watch him stammer. The only honest answer is “I have no idea.”

Olen Butler tried to capture the process on tape once. He recorded a series of videos for creative-writing students in which he sat at his computer and composed a short story. He would stop every sentence or so, describing the word choice or plot decision he was mulling, the options available, the reasons he might go one way or the other. The experiment did not really work. The videos are fine as a pedagogical tool and I admire Olen Butler for trying to capture the ineffable, but the constant interruptions seemed to short-circuit the creative process, and the story he wrote frankly was not very good.

If anything, Olen Butler’s experiment demonstrated that writing is intractably internal. It can only happen invisibly in the writer’s unconscious mind. The moment you look at it, it disappears. The moment you say to yourself, “I am writing,” you stop.

That is one reason why creative writing is so hard to teach. A writer can only show the product of his work for an after-the-fact review. He submits his pages to be judged, thumbs up or down, often in a “workshop” (the very name bespeaks writers’ desperation to recreate the studio experience available to other artists). His inadequacies cannot be corrected, only pointed out, because there is no “correct” way to achieve a given literary effect. Technique must be learned by trial and error. No one knows how it is done, even fellow writers; they only know it when they see it. It is as if a tennis coach could only tell a talented young player “you won” or “you lost.”

Still, we try. I have a voyeuristic interest in how other writers work. So when I run across a passage like the one below, from Michael Salter’s Charles Dickens, I stop to study it. This is the closest we can get to Olen Butler’s fantasy for young writers: a chance to look over the great man’s shoulder as he works. If you are not a writer, you may as well stop reading. The subject of how Dickens outlined his novels will not interest you. But if you are a writer, this sort of detail is gold.

The year is 1846. Dickens is 34 and already firmly established as England’s best and most celebrated writer. He has left London for the peace and quiet of Lausanne, Switzerland, to begin his novel Dombey and Son.

Dombey is the first Dickens novel for which there exists a complete set of preparatory notes for each monthly number (an isolated set, quoted above, exists for Chuzzlewit IV), a working practice Dickens followed for all his subsequent novels in this format, as well as for Hard Times which was published as a weekly serial but planned in five monthly numbers.

For each number he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called “Mems.” These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet” added later) — in short, what has been succinctly described as “brief aids in decision making, planning and remembering.” Among the “General mems for No 3,” for example, we find that wonderful image for little Paul’s desolation at Mrs. Pipchin’s, “— as if he had taken life: [sic] unfurnished, and the upholster were never coming” … and “Be patient with Carker — Get him on very slowly, without incident” (DS XII).

On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter. with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue like little Paul’s “Papa what’s money?” in chapter 8 [of Dombey and Son], or a note of significant events like “Death’s warning to Mrs Skewton” in chapter 36.

— Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, pp. 258-59

Here are Dickens’ “mems” for the first chapter of Little Dorrit, which opens with two men in a dank prison cell on a broiling summer day in Marseilles.

Waiting Room? No
Office? No
French Town? Yes
Man from China? Yes
Prison? Yes
Quarantine? Yes

— Source: Modern Philology, August 1966 (oh, the wonders of the web!)

I look at these scant notes and I see a writer accustomed to improvising in the moment. Only the bare essentials are drawn in beforehand. He may simply have known where he was going well enough that he did not feel the need to create a detailed outline (as I do). But Dickens must have known, too, that no matter how much planning has been done, when you finally sit down to write, it is time to put away your outlines and research, and keep only a few simple notes on the desk before you. The real work of creating will only be distracted by all this external stuff.

Also, I look at that joyous little double-underline when he hit on the idea of setting the scene in a prison cell and I feel his happiness. How many hours went into that breakthrough? How much of the writer’s private triumph is expressed in that little emphasis? Go, Charles!

Image: Detail from Dickens’ portrait by photographer George Herbert Watkins, ca. 1861. (The original, full portrait is here. Look here for more information.)

A Lesson from Dickens

In December 1839, Charles Dickens was 27 years old and already a superstar. He had written the Boz sketches, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Each was a double sensation, scoring first as a serial — the day an installment of Nickleby was released, according to a contemporary account, the Strand “looked almost verdant with the numerous green [magazine] covers waving to and fro in the hands of the passengers along that busy thoroughfare” — then as a bound book. He was inexhaustible, creatively and physically. In addition to the long, serialized stories, he had written plays, musicals, and countless smaller pieces. He was a word fountain. All the while, he essentially maintained a parallel career as a magazine editor, generating much of the content himself.

The autumn of 1839 was particularly triumphant. In September he finished Nickleby, which had given him trouble. (“Thank God that I have lived to get through it happily,” he wrote in his diary.) It was published as a single volume on October 23. Six days later, his second daughter, Katherine, was born. Around this time, too, he was hired to edit a new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, scheduled to launch the following spring essentially as a vehicle for his own writing and to capitalize on his fame. In early December he moved his family into a lavish thirteen-room home with a large garden opposite Regent’s Park. He leased the house for eleven years at a cost of £800 down plus a yearly rent of £160 — in today’s dollars, about $100,000 down, $19,000 a month.

By any measure, Dickens had made it. He was the hot young thing. The boy who had once been stripped of his middle-class expectations — his education abruptly canceled, shunted off at the age of twelve to work in a rat-infested blacking factory — was a star.

But on December 6, 1839, he did a strange thing: he registered as a law student at the Middle Temple. In today’s terms, he applied to law school.

When I first read this fact, in Michael Slater’s new and wonderful biography, Charles Dickens (the source for all the material in this post), I thought Dickens must have “applied to law school” to gather material for his writing. He had a long-standing interest in the law and had been a law clerk as a young man. And he often went on long rambles in and around London to find material, sometimes walking 20 or 25 miles, later spinning stories based on some little scene he witnessed. Surely he meant to do research, not actually become a lawyer.

But Slater writes that Dickens intended precisely that. “[A]ware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of [Sir Walter] Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.” Six years later, Dickens was still concerned enough to keep his name on the books as a law student at the Middle Temple, Slater writes, “so that he might one day be called to the Bar where ‘there are many little pickings to be got.'”

Dickens’s story is not quite Horatio Alger. Dickens was not a poor boy who made good. He was a respectable middle-class boy who lost everything then finally got it back — and then some. But the anxiety of seeing his father abruptly tumble out of the middle class all the way to debtor’s prison never really left him. The following winter of 1839-40, Dickens created the character of Jack Redburn for the new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He described Redburn as a boy “reared in the expectation of a fortune he has never inherited.” He was describing his own younger self.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s childhood and subsequent success followed a similar arc. The parallel seems too close to be a coincidence: the two giants of English letters, neither especially well schooled but both forced to learn as young boys how quickly it can all be taken away.

But what was the lesson, exactly? What did the experience teach them? Empathy? Both were suddenly transformed from one sort of person to another, in society’s eyes. Or was it a lesson in the importance of hard work, never taking anything for granted? Maybe. Both men became ferociously hard workers and sharp businessmen. Or was it a lesson in how superficial social status really is, in the vanity of social pretensions? Both men did become expert critics of the worlds they lived in. Both saw their own times and the people around them with unusual clarity. Probably the tumble from respectability taught them all of these things.

Maybe for a writer it is not enough to want, to yearn. Maybe what you need is to have something — money, love, security — and lose it, then yearn to get it back. Maybe every great writer has his blacking factory.

Illustration: Detail from a portrait of Dickens at 27, made by his friend Daniel Maclise in 1839. The portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Categories: Creativity · Writers    Tags: ·

Last Words

Yesterday I finished the last scene of the new book, a scene I had been wrestling with for days. Endings are a tricky business. Obviously the last page of a novel should move the reader somehow, which is why writers tend to swing for the fences. This is where the prose often puffs itself up — “So we beat on, boats against the current,” that sort of thing.

There is an old joke that no man should wear a Greek fisherman’s cap unless he is both (a) Greek and (b) a fisherman. Well, stirring finales like “So we beat on…” ought to come with a similar warning to writers: Don’t try this unless (a) you are F. Scott Fitzgerald and (b) you have just written The Great Gatsby. By the end of an effective novel, the drama of the story should be moving enough, anyway, without the need for grandiose writing. Less is more.

But there is danger at this end of the spectrum, too. I find a lot of novels end too abruptly to be satisfying. They show too much restraint. They simply stop. To me, as a reader, I want all my time and emotional investment in the characters to be paid off somehow. Less is more — but only to a point. Then less becomes too little.

So it is a difficult balance, and I finally managed to get something down that I could live with. Now I go back to fill in a few holes. There are a couple of short scenes to write from scratch plus one to rewrite, then I will have a few weeks to edit and polish before I send it all to my editor, Kate Miciak, at Random House. Several more rounds of edits will follow, until we all run out of time or patience, whichever comes first. But the heaviest lifting is done, and that is a huge relief.

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags: · ·

The Anxiety of Finishing

It may be difficult for non-writers to understand why, as my last post suggested, writers become anxious as the end of a project approaches. You would think, after staring at a manuscript for months, even years, any sane writer would be relieved finally to be done with it.

David Remnick described the anxiety of finishing in a 1997 review of Big Trouble (link requires subscription), the last book by J. Anthony Lukas. In June 1997, Lukas killed himself while the manuscript was in final edits.

There are few writers of value who do not approach the end of a long project with at least some sense of dread, a self-lacerating concession that the book is not so much finished as abandoned and that positively everyone will see all the holes that are surely there, all the illogic, the shortcuts, the tape, the glue. Finishing is more about terror than about exhilaration. In a way, it is like beginning.

Lukas’s tragedy involved more than the angst of a perfectionist writer, of course. He had been fighting a long battle with depression, and there had been several suicides in his family, including his own mother.

But Remnick is right: every writer of quality knows the anxious feeling of publishing a manuscript that he knows is flawed. Artworks are imperfect by nature. Creative decisions do not have correct answers. A long manuscript is the sum of a thousand subjective choices, compromises, trade-offs, improvisations. You close one hole, another opens. No one is more aware of this than the writer himself.

The solution, in Seth Godin’s word, is to ship. Yes, you will fail. You will fall short of perfection, even of your own expectations. “No matter,” Samuel Beckett said. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The Importance of Shipping

Seth Godin advises writers and other artists (at around 7:45 of this video), “What you do for a living is not be creative. Everyone is creative. What you do for a living is ship. … That is the discipline of what a creative artist does.” Even allowing for a little hyperbole (obviously artists have to be creative and ship), it is a useful reminder.

I ran across this clip the other day, just as I have been laboring to finish my third novel. And “laboring” is just the word for it: after a December that was by far my most productive month ever, I have been useless in January. I have not been writing well enough. Much, much worse, I haven’t been writing enough, period. I have rationalized my January slump as exhaustion and “part of the creative process” and all the usual horseshit, but listening to Godin I wonder if it isn’t the lizard brain after all — fear of finishing, of showing your work, being judged. Yes, even now, with two books under my belt.

I have sometimes been jealous of my writer-friends who were trained to write on deadline. Advertising copywriters do not learn to write truthfully, and journalists do not learn to write beautifully. But they do learn to finish. Or call the damn thing finished, whatever imperfections remain, and move on to the next assignment. In the long run, that may be the most valuable skill of all.

Finish. Ship. Next project. That is the unpoetic reality of being a writer. All writers know this, yet all writers need to hear it again and again. Myself included.

Source: Seth Godin: “Quieting the Lizard Brain” on Vimeo. Read Godin’s blog on the same subject here.

Title Trouble

I remember the moment I came up with the title “Mission Flats” for my first novel. It was late, long past midnight. The house was quiet. I lay in bed unable to sleep, which is common for me. (I am a chronic insomniac.) I had been playing around with the word “mission” for the title. The book is about Ben Truman’s mission, his adventure far from home, an odyssey that roughly follows the arc of traditional adventure myths described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The novel also drew on the Boston neighborhood of Mission Hill as part of its inspiration. In fact, I considered both “The Mission” and “Mission Hill” as titles. But a lofty, aspirational, resolute word like “mission” needed a downbeat flat note to balance it. So I swapped in “flats” for “hill,” thinking perhaps of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. The words fell into place — click — and there it was.

I knew I had it. Right from the start, from that first click, the words “Mission Flats” seemed inevitable, perfect, unimprovable. The proof of its rightness was that the title, rather than just being a sign hung on the front of the book, began to shape the story. The high-low sound of it — Mission (up), Flats (down) — catalyzed the writing. Intentionally or not, I began to write a story to fit it.

There was no such parting of the clouds for “The Strangler.” My own working title for that book was “The Year of the Strangler,” which I still think is a truer reflection of the story. The novel is not just about the Boston Strangler case. It is — at least it is intended to be — a panoramic view of the Boston underworld in the early 1960’s, taking in the formation of the Mob order that would rule the city for the next forty years and also the reconstruction of the city both physically and economically. Alas, my editors, both here and in the U.K., loathed “The Year of….” It sounds like a history book, they said. And because I was inexperienced and too eager to please, I accepted the suggestion of “The Strangler” as more focused, more evocative, and more marketable. Let me be clear: the fault was entirely mine. If I did not like the title, I could and should have said no. I understand that. But I did not, and the title still rankles. It simply does not fit the book.

So this whole business of choosing a title is deadly important. And for my novel in progress, I still don’t have one. No click. No itchy inkling of a Really Big Idea trembling just out of reach, about to reveal itself. Nothing. I don’t even have a working title. On my computer, the manuscript resides in a folder called “Book Three.” This has been going on for over a year.

The problem occupies more brain-space than I can afford to give it. In the sprint to the finish line, my thoughts should be 100% on the story. Instead I churn one title after another.

The candidates fall into some of the usual categories.

  • Wordy, colloquial, faux-conversational titles — oh so trendy at the moment (Then We Came to the End, We Need to Talk About Kevin, It’s Beginning to Hurt, This Is Where I Leave You, all descended presumably from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).
  • Solemn one-word titles (Atonement, Possession, Damage).
  • Place names (Cold Mountain, Mansfield Park, Gorky Park).
  • Character names (Jane Eyre, Billy Bathgate).
  • Allusions (Tender Is the Night).

Of course, there are as many categories, as many ways to name a book as you care to dream up. These are just the ones I have been turning over in my head.

The title candidates, for the moment:

  • Line of Descent: because the story involves a teenage boy who is descended from several generations of murderous men and is himself accused of murder.
  • Cold Spring Park: the public park where the murder takes place.
  • Jacob: the name of the boy who is accused (probably used in some construction like “About Jacob” or “Regarding Jacob”).
  • The Murder Gene: which the boy and his parents fear he has inherited.
  • Guilt, violence, inheritance, blood, nature: all words rolling around in my head like loose marbles.

Some of this confusion is self-inflicted, no doubt — paralysis by analysis. At this point, having thought about it too hard for too long, I may not recognize the click when I hear it. Or, more accurately, since in art the eureka! experience is a subjective one — there is no such thing as a perfect title, there is no “right” answer — I may not be allowing myself to think that any title is right, or right enough.

Anyway, the struggle to name Book Three goes on. Cast your vote, if you like. I need all the help I can get.

Book 3 Update: The Final Push

Bates Reading Room - BPL

Toward the end, writing a novel is a race against the clock. Deadlines that once seemed absurdly far off suddenly loom into view. The story itself demands that you write faster, too, with more urgency, so that the reader will feel the acceleration and she will be pulled along with you to the finish. That is the stage of writing I am entering now, and I am dreading it.

I am behind schedule, as usual. It seems unlikely I will make my internal deadline of January 1 for a completed manuscript, but I am going to kill myself trying. The real deadline, when the manuscript is actually due on my editor’s desk (well, in her email inbox), is April 1, and the cost of missing it — the loss of my publishers’ trust, the loss of future prospects — is simply too high for a midlist, erratically productive writer like me to survive at this point in my career. So the internal deadline remains January 1. That should leave me enough time for rewriting and polishing. Alas, November and December will not be much fun for me.

The good news is that the book itself is working. I have never been one of those writers who feel, as many claim to, that the characters come alive and act on their own while the writer merely watches, furiously writing down the action like a medium at a séance. It is always work for me, always an uphill push. Still, when it is right, something happens: the material feels rich, it generates ideas organically, the direction of the story becomes more obvious. With this book, thankfully, that something has happened.

In terms of pages, I am probably only halfway through the manuscript, maybe a bit further. In terms of story, I have reached act three, the final build-up to the climax. The story concerns a Boston prosecutor named Andy Barber whose teenage son is accused of murder. (A film producer who read the existing manuscript described it in perfect Hollywood-speak as Presumed Innocent meets Ordinary People, which, I am embarrassed to say, is pretty close.) As act three opens, the case goes to trial. I have never written a courtroom sequence before, but I am confident I can. I have been in court many, many times in my prior life as a prosecutor. More important, the courtroom is such an inherently dramatic arena and trials are so scripted and rules-bound that there is a ready structure for the storytelling. So again, this is all to the good.

I continue to labor over the title. The working title remains Blood Guilty but I detest it. This is a bigger problem than you might imagine. The title crystallizes the story in my mind. Not having a title makes the whole project feel foggy and uncertain to me. I have churned up alternatives — Seed, The Good Father, In Our Blood, many others — but each seems worse than the last. It is some comfort to remember that Fitzgerald never liked the title The Great Gatsby for his masterpiece and he tried to change it right up to the time the book went to press. The Great Gatsby, it must be admitted, is not a great title, so maybe this is less of an issue than it seems at the moment.

That is where it stands. I am turning for home. It is a difficult stage in the process, but then they’re all difficult. I am back to writing every morning at the Boston Public Library reading room (pictured above), though my old quota of a thousand words a day is not going to get it done anymore. I am now just writing as much as I can every day until I run out of gas.

I am not complaining. It is a privilege to do what I do. There are only a handful of full-time novelists on the planet, meaning novelists who make a decent living at it without the need for a day job. So I am blessed and I understand that. Still, these next eight weeks are going to suck.

Photo: “Study” (main reading room of the Boston Public Library) by Haydnseek (link).

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags: · ·

A Thousand Words a Day

I have a new work routine. Mornings, I go into the city to write in the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, where I churn out a thousand words a day on my new novel. The BPL has wireless internet access, so I don’t bring a laptop. Too much distraction. Instead I type on a little portable keyboard, a gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo, which I’ve written about here before. In the afternoons, my thousand words complete, I work on other things: research, editing, email, this blog, etc.

Ordinarily I do not like routinized, quota-based writing schedules like this. It does not fit my personality very well. I prefer to work in intense bursts of three or four or even five hours at a time in which I start and complete an entire scene in a single heroic effort. These marathon sessions leave me exhausted, so one exhilirating hyper-productive day is usually followed by two desolate fallow ones. I would prefer to smooth this out, of course, and maintain a more professional, clockwork writing schedule. But my brain does not seem to work that way. My natural method is sprint-and-recover, sprint-and-recover.

I don’t recommend this method to other writers. Novel-writing is harrowing enough without putting yourself through the wringer this way. More important, the net result is fewer words produced. The hare may write better than the tortoise, but he will write less. And publishers value “more” over “better” — regular producers, however mediocre, are in demand; erratic producers, however brilliant, less so. Particularly at this point in my career, I simply can’t afford another missed deadline or long silence between books.

So, after an unproductive week last week, I’ve resolved to become a thousand-word-a-day tortoise for as long as I can stand it. Why 1,000? As you can tell from this (still new) blog, I am obsessed with other writers’ work habits, their daily routines, their work spaces. It is a natural curiosity for anyone in a solitary profession, I suppose. You want to ask, “Am I doing this right?,” but there is no one to put the question to. So you study other writers to see what works for them, and you experiment to see what works for you. Unfortunately there are as many writing routines as there are writers. On the low end, there is Graham Greene and his famous 500 words a day. Many writers talk about 1,000 words a day, including one recently quoted here, J.G. Ballard. The most common writer’s routine I’ve heard is “five pages a day.” (A thousand words comes out to only three or four manuscript pages. You’ve read about 450 words so far.) So I’ve chosen the middle way, neither especially ambitious or lax.

And it seems to be working. Why it is working I have no idea. Maybe it helps to get on the train and commute into town every morning like a banker. Maybe it is because the soaring, barrel-vaulted reading room at the BPL is a beautiful, inspiring space. Maybe it is just refreshing to dump a work routine that has ceased to be productive. Who knows? These writing routines tend to work for awhile, then, for mysterious reasons, they don’t. That is just the way it is in a creative endeavor.

So I’ll stick with it while it’s working. I’m not naturally a thousand-words-a-day kind of writer. I want to be great, and I worry that you cannot be great if you aspire merely to be consistent. But for now this is what I have to do. My book is due January 1.

Categories: Creativity · Productivity · Writing    Tags: · · ·

Writer’s Room: W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham in his office at Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat, 1939

W. Somerset Maugham at his desk at the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat, 1939.

The magnificent view was ignored, the writer turning his back to it and facing instead a row of his own leather bound books, so that, in a moment of weakness he could look up and say to himself: “I’ve done it before and I can do it again.” [Link]

Maugham was wildly successful in commercial terms. His home, Villa Mauresque, was “a nine-acre estate on Cap Ferrat, with a staff of 13 to look after him. His art collection alone, in today’s market, would probably fetch more than $100m.” (More photos of the estate are here.) By all accounts Maugham was a contemptible human being, but I loved his books when I was young, particularly The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence, and this image pretty well captures how I always imagined Maugham from the voice in his books: the urbane literary man of the world.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · ·

Edmund Wilson Regrets

This note card from Edmund Wilson seems quaint today. The card was sent to a student group that invited Wilson to give a reading. Wilson’s handwritten answer reads, “I don’t give readings either unless I’m offered a very large fee. E.W.” (Click the image to view larger.)

Over at Crooked Timber, the card triggered an interesting discussion of the decline of the “public intellectual”: Wilson could afford to bat away requests like these because his income from writing was secure, a luxury few intellectuals enjoy now. But even a lowly non-intellectual midlist novelist like me has to smile at Wilson’s imperiousness, for no novelist today would dare declare, “It is impossible for me to blog, tweet, Facebook, appear at conferences, give ego-crushing readings in empty bookstores,” etc.

Today even reclusive novelists play the publicity game. As Nathan Bransford recently pointed out, Thomas Pynchon has put together a playlist of songs for Amazon and Cormac McCarthy dutifully appeared on “Oprah.” I don’t know where this ends — J.D. Salinger’s blog? Philip Roth on “Dancing With the Stars”? — but one wonders what will become of the brilliant but publicity-shy young authors out there. Is talent enough? Has it ever been? All I know is: there are no Edmund Wilsons in my shop, either.

Categories: Productivity · Writers    Tags: · ·

Remembering Updike the Father

John Updike’s son David, also a writer, has a lovely piece in the Times’ Paper Cuts blog. It is a eulogy for his father which he delivered at a tribute in March at the New York Public Library. I found this passage particularly touching:

But for someone who was getting famous, my father didn’t seem to work overly hard: he was still asleep when we went to school, and was often home already when we got back. When we appeared unannounced, in his office — on the second floor of a building he shared with a dentist, accountants and the Dolphin Restaurant — he always seemed happy and amused to see us, stopped typing to talk and dole out some money for movies. But as soon as we were out the door, we could hear the typing resume, clattering with us down the stairs.

My own sons, now five and eight, perceive me the same way, I think. To kids (and others), a writer at work does not seem to be doing much. They can’t understand that I am hard at it whether I am typing like mad or staring blankly out the window. Maybe this is true of all desk-work. Well, at least I have this one thing in common with Updike.

I admit, I feel a strange, vaguely filial attachment to writers of my father’s generation, especially Roth, Updike and Doctorow, whose books I grew up reading. Anyway, read the whole Updike eulogy. You won’t be sorry.

In the meantime, for all my fellow unmentored writers out there, here is Updike in 2004 with some fatherly advice for young writers.

The rest of the interview is here.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · · · · ·

Crime novels and entertainments

I was interested to read on Sarah’s blog about the fuss John Banville raised recently. Banville said, undiplomatically, that he writes more quickly and easily as crime writer “Benjamin Black” than he does writing literary novels under his own name. There were hurt feelings, suggestions that Banville was “slumming,” and the author felt compelled to issue a foot-shuffling clarification. “The distinction between good writing and bad,” he said, “is the only one worth making.”

That is so obviously untrue — lots of distinctions beyond good/bad are worth making — that Banville must have held his nose while typing it. The whole thing reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s definition of a Washington gaffe: when a politician inadvertently tells the truth in public.

Does anyone really doubt that an author would find it easier to write freely when he is working in a genre with established conventions? There are plenty of challenges to genre writing, of course. The writer can stick to the conventions, subvert them in various ways, update them, etc. But the rules do exist. The relative difficulty in writing “literary” novels is not that there aren’t models to follow; non-genre writers mimic older stories all the time. The difficulty — at least the one Banville meant — is that storytelling conventions are less clear and less important. The writer is at sea. That is why literary writers like Banville, Richard Price, and E.L. Doctorow (Billy Bathgate) feel relieved when they come to crime writing. Finally, there is a roadmap, a method to plotting the story. As a crime writer, I am thankful for that roadmap every day.

It is also obvious that genre novels place a higher priority on entertaining the reader. This is the umpteenth rehash of Graham Greene’s old distinction between novels and entertainments, and the only remaining mystery is why on earth we continue to worry about it. Listen to Greene (see below) as he briefly discusses the subject. It turns out, the novels/entertainments distinction didn’t hold up very well even for the man who invented it. “Most of my novels have an element of melodrama,” Greene concedes, even the literary ones. All novels need drama, even the melo- kind.

So let’s not be so touchy, crime fans. Entertainments — yes, crime novels included — are indeed easier to write, just as Banville says. They are also generally easier to read, precisely because they take seriously the writer’s duty to entertain. Why apologize for it?

By the way, I always find it a little disconcerting to hear or see an author whose books I love. The authorial voice is one the reader creates in her own head. Greene’s actual, reedy voice is not the one I’d imagined for him. (Click below to hear him.) Yet another example of the internet revealing too much.

Categories: Books · Writers    Tags: · · ·

Makers vs. Managers

I’ve written before about the need for writers and other artists to have long stretches of quiet, uninterrupted time to submerge completely in their work. A post is making the rounds today by the programmer and entrepreneur Paul Graham that places the artist’s workstyle in a wider context.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it. …

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

I quote the piece at length here because Graham gets it exactly right, but you really have to read the whole thing. I read it with a little shiver of recognition.

Of course all writers are both makers and managers at different times. The trick is to keep the two roles separate, to wall off your “maker” times, those long periods during the day when you are trying to create. It does not matter if you retreat to a dedicated workspace like Philip Roth or just a crowded coffee shop, so long as you segregate your creative-work time from ordinary, “managerial” work time. A writer’s workplace is to some extent a state of mind, a “maker” state of mind: isolated, entranced, submerged.

To non-writers, no doubt this all seems a little fussy and precious. That is because most people, not just powerful people, live in the managerial mode, shifting constantly from task to task. I am lucky my family understands that Daddy needs to go off and be alone for long periods to do his work, and they indulge me. My kids don’t know any different. To them, this is all just part of Daddy’s job and his personality. They understand, too, that I am often “distracted and cranky” when I am writing, as Stephen Dubner describes his own maker times. All part of the writing life, I suppose. Still, as a writer it helps to have myself explained to myself, as Paul Graham has done today.

Update: Daniel Drezner, a professor at Fletcher, adds an important thought about the particularly high cost of interruptions in the early stages of a creative project:

I think the problem might even be worse than Graham suggests. Speaking personally, the hardest part of any research project is at the beginning stages. I’m trying to figure out my precise argument, and the ways in which I can prove/falsify it empirically. While I’m sure there are people who can do that part of the job with a snap of their fingers, it takes me friggin’ forever.  And any interruption — not actual meetings, but even responding to e-mail about setting up a meeting — usually derails my train of thought.

The early stages of a novel — or any creative project, I imagine — are equally tentative and fragile.

Categories: Creativity · Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·

How Writers Write: Graham Greene

In The End of the Affair, Graham Greene described what was in fact his own method of working.

Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript. No printer need make a careful cast-off of my work, for there on the front page is marked the figure — 83,764. When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed — as long as I slept in my own bed — I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it. … So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.

Coincidentally, in the summer of 1950 Michael Korda happened to witness Greene at work on The End of the Affair. That summer Korda vacationed with Greene and others aboard a yacht called Elsewhere off the coast of Antibes. Korda was sixteen at the time, Greene forty-five. Korda later described watching the famous writer at work during this cruise.

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?” I did not, of course, know that he was completing The End of the Affair, the controversial novel based on his own tormenting love affair, nor did I know that the manuscript would end, typically, with an exact word count (63,162) and the time he finished it (August 19th, 7:55 A.M., aboard Elsewhere).

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute.

As he got older, Greene found it harder to maintain his clockwork discipline. Twenty years after that summer aboard the Elsewhere, Greene gave an interview to a reporter from the New York Times. Greene was then 66.

I hate sitting down to work. I’m plugging at a novel now which is not going easily. I’ve done about 65,000 words — there’s still another 20,000 to go. I don’t work for very long at a time — about an hour and a half. That’s all I can manage. One may come back in the evening after a good dinner, one’s had a good drink, one may add a few little bits and pieces. It gives one a sense of achievement. One’s done more than one’s thought.

There are certain writers who seem to write like one has diarrhea — men like Durrell for instance. Perhaps their bowels get looser and looser with age. I’m astonished at someone like Conrad who was able to write 12 hours on end — it’s superhuman, almost.

It’s like a strain on the eyesight. I find that I have to know — even if I’m not writing it — where my character’s sitting, what his movements are. It’s this focusing, even though it’s not focusing on the page, that strains my eyes, as though I were watching something too close.

In the old days, at the beginning of a book, I’d set myself 500 words a day, but now I’d put the mark to about 300 words.

The reporter added, a little dubiously, “Did he mean that literally — a mark after every 300 words? Precisely. With an x he marks the first 300 words, 600x comes next, 900x after 900 words.”

Personally, I have never counted words. I have no idea how many words my novels contain. When I am writing and a scene is flowing, the feeling is precisely the opposite of Greene’s methodical word-counting — “the precision of a watchmaker.” For me, writing is like a trance, and holding onto that dream-state is a precarious thing. I would be afraid to stop to count my words for fear of interrupting the dream and losing the rest of the scene. Remember, too, that Greene had to stop and laboriously count his words by hand, with no computers to do the busywork for him. I count scenes and chapters, sometimes pages. That’s it. I don’t prefer my method or recommend it. My method is more erratic and less productive. It is hardly a method at all. But I seem to have no choice. Word-counting has never worked for me.

That is probably why I marvel at Greene’s discipline, his steadiness and regularity. He had such a sure hold on his stories even as he wrote them, in their first iteration. Look at the manuscript page below. It is the original handwritten draft of The Heart of the Matter, which now resides at Georgetown’s Lauinger Library. There are virtually no corrections. He has already imagined the entire scene. When he uncaps his pen and bends over the page to begin composing sentences, he “remembers” the details of his story rather than inventing them. It is as if Greene is taking dictation.


Update: A short audio clip of Graham Greene discussing his work method is available here.

Capote and Ellison: Blocked or just procrastinating?

“Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block — or were they just chronic procrastinators?” This interesting article from Slate, by Jessica Winter, considers whether there is a difference between writer’s block and procrastination to begin with.

Famously, both Capote and Ellison went silent after producing great books. Capote’s silence lasted nineteen years, from the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965 until his death in 1984. Ellison struggled for nearly forty years to produce a followup to his 1952 debut, Invisible Man. He never did.

Their struggles were not alike, though. Capote seems to have produced very little in all that time. Ellison, when he died in 1994, left behind thousands of pages. One was paralyzed, the other flailed. But both seem to have had the same inner problems: perfectionism, crippling anxiety about meeting heightened expectations after an early success, low self-esteem, excuse-making.

As a writer and lifelong procrastinator, the stories of Capote and Ellison scare the hell out of me. The lesson: the ultimate failure for a writer is not producing a bad book; it is producing no book at all.

(And yes, I realize I am procrastinating by writing this!)

chronic procrastinators?Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?