writing life

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.

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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.”

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).

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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.

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William Manchester’s struggle

The next time I am tempted to whimper that my writing life is hard, I will think of William Manchester’s epic struggle, from 1963-1966, to write a definitive account of the JFK assassination, as described in this month’s Vanity Fair.

He was becoming unhinged. Once, while working on a homework assignment, 15-year-old John [Manchester’s son] asked his father what day it was. Manchester replied without thinking, “November 22.” On another occasion, he acted strangely during an interview with a friend of Jacqueline’s. Manchester had gotten up to look out the window, convinced that he saw something moving in the bushes. “I’ve been followed ever since I began this book,” he said. … By the second anniversary of the assassination, Manchester began to crack. “I had no appetite — for food, for beauty, for life. I slept fitfully; when I did drift off, I dreamt of Dallas. I was gripping my Esterbrook [fountain pen] so hard that my thumb began to bleed under the nail. It became infected … marring the manuscript pages with blood.”

Below is a cut-and-paste page from Manchester’s manuscript. (Click image to view full size.) An image of Manchester in 1964 is here.

manchester-death-of-a-president

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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.

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On Moving to a New Publisher in the UK

I have held off announcing this until things were certain, but last week I agreed to move to a new publisher in England, Orion. Orion is a terrific house and a good fit for me. Their crime catalog reads like an all-star team: Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin, Walter Mosley, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder — the list goes on and on. (One of my favorites, Alan Furst, too.) Coincidentally, my new editor at Orion, Bill Massey, used to work at Bantam-Dell in New York alongside my U.S. editor, the great Kate Miciak. So the stars seem to have aligned, and I am tremendously happy to have landed in such good hands.

For a while now, I’ve thought of my next book — as yet untitled, to be published in fall 2010 or spring 2011 — as a fresh start. In the five or six years since my first book came out, I seem to have become that pitiable creature, the critic’s darling. Which is to say, my books have had glowing reviews but anemic sales.

This is in no way the fault of my previous U.K. publisher, Transworld, where I and my books were treated royally. I suppose it is partly an example — one of many, many such examples — of the serendipity of publishing. As anyone in publishing will tell you, there is a lot of luck involved in making a best seller. Jonathan Galassi remarks in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine that the whole business is a “crapshoot”:

One of the hardest things to come to grips with is how important the breaks are. There’s luck in publishing, just like in any human activity. And if you don’t get the right luck — if Mitchi [Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times] writes an uncomprehending review, or if you don’t get the right reviews, or if books aren’t in stores when the reviews come, or whatever the hell it is — it may not happen.

But my indifferent sales numbers have been my own doing, also. A writer simply cannot hope for commercial success — no matter how good his books are — if he does not produce regularly. And I haven’t. Maybe I just did not understand how unforgiving the market is for unreliable producers. Now I do.

The problem has not been that I write too slowly. If my words-per-hour rate is slow, no doubt I make up for it by logging a hell of a lot of hours at the keyboard. No, the real culprit has been poorly chosen projects that were begun and then scrapped, at considerable cost in time and labor. The solution, I think, is to have my next project lined up with certainty — vetted by editors, with the basic development of plot and characters already done — so that, the moment I finish one book, I can begin drafting the next. A writer cannot wait until he finishes one book before thinking about the next. Obvious as that sounds, it’s been a hard lesson for me.

With all that said, I feel like I am on the cusp of a run of good books. A writer is in the unfortunate position of having to learn his craft in full view of the public. His mistakes are there on the bookshelf for all to see. I have at least a few of those early blunders out of the way now, and I am ready to relaunch, a little wiser this time. The switch to a new publisher feels like a part of that transition.

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The Breakthrough, at last

After an excruciating three weeks of trying — and failing — to make a difficult chapter work, yesterday morning I woke up at 5:45 with this sentence in my head: “There is so much to tell.” And that was it. Six words, six syllables, and I knew I had it. I wanted to rush out of bed, up to my office, and write it fast, while I had the thing in my head.

But when I got up, there was Henry, my five-year-old, in the bathroom peeing, and when he was done he came out and hugged me around my leg and said he wanted to come into the big bed to snuggle. So I climbed back into bed and we snuggled awhile, until Henry announced, “I’m done snuggling.”

Then I pulled on a pair of jeans and bolted up to my office to write the first few pages of this chapter in an extended gush. Most of it poured out in long run-on sentences — and … and … and — but the new material is good, and I am elated to have broken through, finally.

There is nothing worse than being stuck. The project loses momentum, and with each passing day it becomes harder and harder to get that boulder moving again. Today, I feel massively relieved. Now the thing is to keep it moving, to maintain that momentum.

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Creating Writers: Do MFA Programs Produce Dull Writers?

Can creative writing be taught? Virtually nobody thinks it can, but there are 822 creative writing programs in the U.S. ostensibly doing just that.

Louis Menand has a (typically) great piece in the current New Yorker that considers the rise of these programs. Here is Menand’s opening. (MFA’s, you are advised to avert your eyes.)

Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.

Read the whole thing. In fact, read everything Louis Menand writes.

Personally, I have never taken a creative writing course and can’t imagine ever doing so. To me, the question is not whether writing can be taught; it’s whether creativity can. These programs seem designed to produce a certain kind of writing: conservative, restrained, discreet, sophisticated — dull.

Imagine you are a young writer thrown into a workshop. You are anxious, surrounded by a dozen equally inexperienced but ambitious student-writers all eager to critique your work. Are you likely to go out on a limb by trying something wildly original? Of course not. In that environment, you don’t take chances. You conform to the expectations of others. Why throw meat to the sharks? It is no wonder that the beau ideal of these programs is Raymond Carver, whose stories are so concise and involuted that they are workshop-proof. (I should point out, I love Raymond Carver.) The simple fact of submitting your pages to others for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down compromises the writer’s independence — and at just the time in a young writer’s development when he is still searching for his own unique style.

Of course there is no way to measure how the increasing professionalization of our writers has affected our literature, but here is an anecdotal test: when was the last time you picked up a book by a young American writer with a truly wild, out-of-left-field new voice, unlike anything you’d ever heard before? To my mind, there is a ton of very good books out there but there is a sameness to the prose, a cautious, sober tone that we take for “good writing,” even “literature.” It is as if we have come to a consensus about what good writing is supposed to sound like. It is a tyranny of good taste. For some time now, the most daring new writing has come from other countries, particularly Latin America. How sad that even our creativity has to be outsourced.

Yes, yes, it is too much to lay all that on the rise of creative writing programs. Plenty of dull writers have nothing to do with these programs, and plenty of iconoclastic writers have come through MFA programs with their creativity intact.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine these programs not tending to homogenize our young writers. There has to be a standard curriculum, after all — they have to teach something. We have created a national professional academy for training young writers just as we train young doctors and lawyers. That may be good for writers, not so good for literature.

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