I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”
“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”
“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”
It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”
“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”
Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.
One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.
I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.
Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.
A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.
I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.
Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.
My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.
Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.
Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
As I write this, I’m listening to the new Beach House album. This is not because I like the new Beach House album (although I do), or because it gives me the chance to say so, thus making me sound slightly cooler (although it might, in a desperate sort of way) or because I’m plugging the record (although it is great, if you enjoy the band’s drunk-on-a-beanbag effect).
I’m listening to it because I’m writing — an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion — something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing — I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen. This paragraph might not carry the woozy dreaminess of a Beach House song — but how would it have sounded if, while typing, I’d been listening to Public Enemy? Or Def Leppard? Or nothing at all?
In 1999, Nine Inch Nails’s The Fragile was released to a flood of media attention. This was when a new CD could seem like a cultural event, and, as such, though I didn’t particularly care about Trent Reznor, I read dutifully about the album. And although I’ve largely forgotten The Fragile — I think it gave me a headache — one nugget from its publicity blitz has stayed with me: Chuck Palahniuk was quoted as saying that he listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club.
I remember being sort of shocked by this, not because it didn’t make sense — one can certainly picture Palahniuk in a dim little room, gritting his teeth at the monitor, bashing out his story as Reznor screams at him — but because until then, I’d thought of writing as a monastic pursuit. Writing, to me, was Philip Roth in a cabin somewhere, the only sounds the tapping of his fingers and the wind rushing through the trees. That was the ideal. To write, you needed calm, and for calm, you needed silence.
Perhaps the image of Palahniuk mustering a novel against the shriek of industrial noise helped to change my view. Because not only do I no longer believe it, I’ve gone in the opposing direction: music is now as central to my writing as an idea and a comfortable chair. I now feel almost unhinged if I try to write without something playing to whisk my mind along. Music has become a brace that props up my thoughts, fences them off, prevents them from slipping away. Silence has come to feel like an unfamiliar field, with too much space to roam.
Along with Beach House, Boards of Canada — makers of beat-driven, dystopian electronic music — has lately been my brace of choice. Such sounds somehow hem me in and push my focus outward, into whatever I’m writing. When I need less help, some sort of jazz usually does the trick — with something buoyant like Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores reserved for the easiest days.
Which brings me back to my original question: what is that music — Boards of Canada’s creepy soundscapes, John Coltrane’s hard bop, Snoopy’s dancing tunes — doing to the words?
I went online in search of answers, and was at first encouraged by what I found. A number of sites have devoted space to the topic, with pieces ranging from the listy (“10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse”) to the self-helpful (one Goodreads thread, “Listening to Music While Writing,” sits under the “Struggling Writers” heading). There are endless suggestions for albums that will not only “summon the muse,” but keep her with you: In a Silent Way, Music For Airports, anything by Philip Glass. No mention of Nine Inch Nails.
The cumulative effect of these posts was the feeling that, with the correct music, you can become the next Joyce Carol Oates, effortlessly meeting your daily quota of words. It’s a tempting narrative, and one that fits with the Internet’s culture of simple solutions: If you’re having trouble with that short story, just put on some Brian Eno. Your latent genius will be unleashed.
But mixed in with all this good feeling were numerous studies and papers the results of which were both consistent and surprising. A New Jersey Institute of Technology study found that “background music significantly disrupted writing fluency, even though no response to the music was required.” The explanation: “music may increase cognitive load because the brain has to handle the additional information.” A University of Windsor study found that its subjects’ “time-on-task was longest when music was removed.” Another, from Indiana State University, on the “Mozart Effect” — the idea that classical music can somehow boost intelligence — found that “playing background music in the creative writing class had a significant improvement on the student’s behavior, but not a significant improvement on the student’s writing.” In other words, music can provide the inner calm that I used to imagine in my Philip Roth fantasy. It just won’t help me write the next American Pastoral.
Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, in a synthesis of such studies, provided the most concise blow to my assumption of music’s benefits: “Playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks…when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.”
And on and on. If the science is correct, my Eno-loving peers and I may be deluding ourselves as to music’s utility. We’re most likely being too romantic. “Writing can get lonely,” a Quora contributor wrote, “but when Moby is in my ears, it feels like he’s on the journey with me.” It’s a charming sentiment. But maybe we’re being too eager to make an unappealing task seem less so — the ice cream cone after the doctor’s office — without any thought to the consequences. Maybe Boards of Canada is less of a brace and more of an anchor, slowing down a part of my mind that otherwise would be free. There’s no way to prove that the things I’ve written would have been better had they been written in silence — but what if they could have been, even just a tiny bit? Though I’ll never know, it’s unsettling to think about.
It’s equally unsettling, though, for me to picture a future in which I write in a totally quiet room, with no one “on the journey with me.” The idea is as unappetizing to me as Palahniuk’s habits once seemed. So what, then, to do? On the one hand, I have my habits and experience, my comfort with routine. On the other, studies that show that music is, at best, a nonfactor, and at worst, a hindrance. Hovering over both is the thought that I’m being unserious, the kid who can’t get a flu shot without the promise of a mint-chip cone.
I’m not sure what to do. I’m now listening to Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince Will Come. I’ve listened to this album, while writing or reading, close to 200 times. It’s delicate and warm, gentle and easy. I’ve got the volume turned down low.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Most readers nurse particular fantasies of stepping into their favorite books. Whether they dream of enrolling at Hogwarts, or signing up for MI6 with James Bond, they usually have a stable of settings that function as a means of escape. So imagine how strange and conflicting it was to be Jonathan Gottschall, the English professor who got a chance to enter Fight Club.
Chuck Palahniuk dropped big news at San Diego’s Comic Con last week: he’s currently working on a follow-up to Fight Club… in the form of a graphic novel. “It will likely be a series of books that update the story ten years after the seeming end of Tyler Durden,” he told attendees. “It will, of course, be dark and messy.”
The suburban Dick and Jane characters of A.M. Homes’s oeuvre smoke crack, set their homes ablaze, lust for Barbie dolls, and teach teenage girls the art of perversion. In her new novel, the trend continues with a duplicitous protagonist whose actions take us straight to the divided heart of human consciousness.
Spineless college professor and Nixon scholar Harold Silver is wearing his brother’s pants. He’s using his brother’s driver’s license, living in his brother’s home, and taking care of his brother’s kids. Younger taller brother George, a successful TV executive and the more charming, more mercurial half of the pair, has killed wife Jane after finding her in bed with brother Harry. Within the first few pages of the novel, Jane is dead and George has been exiled to The Lodge, an in-patient facility for wealthy murderers with good insurance, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of his brother’s dramatically disaggregating life. A year later, Harry will reminisce on the night he stood pressed against Jane over the greasy carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey and he’ll ask the question that serves as the title of the book: “May We Be Forgiven?”
Wait. Rewind. May who be forgiven?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the plot. The twists and turns in May We Be Forgiven are classic A.M. Homes. At first glance, Harry is a bumbling everyday man who imagines himself, much like his unlikely hero Richard Nixon, an unassuming salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who just happens to find himself in one compromising situation after another. He stumbles onto his brother’s internet porn where people advertise their bare bits like a pride of lions on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then, as if there’s no other option, he drives across town for a real-time tryst with a woman who insists on paying for sex because she wants a man who can feel both the pleasure and the degradation. Later, we find Harry seeking redemption at a church meeting where, under the alias Nit, he divulges his darkest secrets to a group of people who respond by asking if he has a drinking problem (oops, wrong meeting). After several visits to The Lodge, things get even stranger when George is transferred to The Woodsman, a “low-cost survival-of-the-fittest penal colony” where micro-chipped prisoners police themselves under constant satellite surveillance, also Wild Kingdom-style.
Somewhere amidst murder, kinky sex, and Harry’s budding relationships with a collection of random strangers, is a nested story about impeached President Richard Nixon. Homes’s satire on the troubled history of the American Presidency not only adds a layer of complexity to Harry’s character, it also raises questions about our ignorance of American institutions of government. But, as with the rest of the novel, she administers this medicine with a dose of scintillating humor. For instance, in Harry’s theory of Presidential politics, there are two types of Presidents: one type has a lot of sex and the other type starts wars. In short, says Harry, and “don’t quote me because this is an incomplete expression of a more complex premise — I believe blow jobs prevent wars.”
One can certainly follow the advice of the dust jacket and read the novel as a darkly comic tale about a family reinventing itself after a series of blunders and tragedies. But wouldn’t it be more fun to pay attention to the book’s duplicity, its cornucopia of references to history, culture and authors like John Cheever, who appears in the novel as an apparition, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who shows up indirectly when George tells Harry to mind the black spot on his Gertrude Jekyll roses? Wouldn’t it be more interesting, in other words, to read Harry as a man who doesn’t know he’s gone mad and whose brother George, like the ghost of Cheever, is also an apparition? Scenes where Harry asks George if “we screw[ed]…the neighbor lady” leave the impression that there’s more going on here than pathologically blurred boundaries. Similarly, when Harry looks in the mirror and watches his face divide and fall in half, when he considers himself as much a murderer as George, and asks himself why he’s out of context as if he doesn’t really exist, we feel a sense of vertigo.
This does beg the question, who is the “we” asking to be forgiven in the opening paragraph of the novel? Certainly readers will find in Harry echoes of the adulterer, John the Baptist, praying for us all to be forgiven our sins. Homes repeatedly plays upon religious irony, including one of my favorite scenes at a Yom Kippur service in which Harry joyously proclaims, “I am guilty. I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of…,” while a rabbi recites a litany of familiar sins. Beneath the surface, Harry never really connects his guilt with his actions. He’s a multifaceted character who projects everything dark and desirous onto a brother he can’t distinguish from himself, suggesting that the “we” is a beastly side of Harry, personified in George. But this remains an open question because Homes is a novelist who immerses readers in the world of her characters and keeps them there from beginning to end. May We Be Forgiven is a novel that never breaks that pact.
This, friends, is the crowning achievement of the novel. As unreliable narrators go, Homes’s fraternal doppelgänger outdoes both that of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and the unnamed insomniac putz who fights with his alter-ego in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The difference is that there’s a certain rationality in the two wildly popular precursors, which allows the reader to sit back and watch the character’s insanity unfold. James Wood calls this kind of narration “reliably unreliable.” Referencing seminal examples of unreliable first-person narration like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Nabokov’s Lolita, Wood argues that these novels teach us how to read the character’s instability because their authors alert us to it and show us how to plug the holes.
In May We Be Forgiven, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of distance. From page one, she is inside Harry’s head, inside his body, feeling his dizzying confusion, perhaps even hallucinating up a whole makeshift family, unable to distinguish reality from a dream in one moment and just a regular guy in the next. This places Harry Silver in the far more rare category of “unreliably unreliable” narrators, a category populated by only a handful of novels, most notably the underground man of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
David Foster Wallace said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. This book may not be the first choice for those who want to be comfortable. Its point of view is unsettling, even outright disturbing. At times, I felt like I was sitting on the weighted bob of Foucault’s pendulum (also noted in the book), the background shifting constantly and characters appear and disappear as the pendulum swings from one context to the next. Other times, I felt as though I was inside an Escher piece, from one angle viewing a perfect portrait of a mad man; from another, a world that looked frighteningly familiar, Harry’s madness a symptom of the fragmented, dissociated, techno-happy culture we live in.
While Homes’s tragicomedy may trouble some readers, it meets and far exceeds Wallace’s criteria for good fiction. For readers like me who choose Homes’s work because it reminds us to be courageous and shows us how to do it, May We Be Forgiven does not disappoint: it gives us a rare journey inside the divided heart of human consciousness, not a brief visit from a safe distance.
A.M. Homes remains the most daring voice of her generation and May We Be Forgiven is her magnum opus.
Day three, ten a.m.: no sleep last night. Nothing else seems substantial anymore except for the words on the laptop screen. The backs of my eyeballs feel prickly, suggesting complete and unforgiving fatigue. My brain went AWOL hours earlier and I keep omitting words like ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘or’, and ‘of’ from sentences. Yet I am ecstatic—an intense happiness burgeoning in me from too much caffeine, too little sleep, and having just spent two and a half days in a dream world of my own creation. As of right now, I am a novelist.
Three days from midnight to midnight: write as much as you can, wherever you wish; this is the International 3-Day Novel Contest. The average finished entry is between twenty and thirty thousand words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about 77,000 words. Thus, the finished result is more novella than novel, but all the same, a grand effort considering the timeframe.
Back to day one: The Setup. The contest allows prior planning of plots and characters. Oops. I snatch at ideas, desperate for anything. How about an alien abductees’ support group? Brilliant—very Fight Club. (Didn’t Graham Greene once say, “Writing is a form of therapy”?) Having a vague idea for a plot, I engage in the writing process. Many authors talk of losing themselves in the “zone”. They make it sound as if the words write themselves. I wish. Midnight arrives and the word count is a contemptible 4,500 words. The zone has eluded me. The 3-Day Novel Contest is held annually in early September on the Canadian Labor Day long weekend. In 1977, a writer’s group in Vancouver accepted the challenge for the first time.
The contest has been running ever since. According to the organizers, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been called a “fad,” an “idle threat,” a “great way to overcome writers block,” and “a trial by deadline.” It opposes the notion that novels take eight years of angst to produce. Most entrants recognize that winning is secondary to finishing with a complete novella and no nervous breakdown.
Day two: The Complication. Fatigue and patchy concentration lead to self-doubt. The successful 3-day novelist, like an athlete, must tailor his diet for maximal alertness. Red Bull, orange juice, pancakes, dark chocolate, Indian takeaway, Pepsi, bananas, Canadian Club and Cola: nothing helps. (I thought only my characters were delusional alcoholics.) Back in the fictional world, my imaginary small town is rocked by a grim discovery at the local fishing hole: a young woman’s body. Worse, the deputy sheriff believes my protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is the killer. Did she do it?
Have you ever read a novel and wondered if even the author knew where it was going? Trust me, they don’t. In this masterpiece, characters change their motivations more frequently than their underwear. Fortunately, by midnight on the second day, I have managed to reach 10,000 words. My eyes close and my head hangs as I nearly drift off, still sitting upright on the sofa, laptop in front. Here is where the true writers are sorted from the wannabes.
To do nothing but write for seventy-two hours requires dedication and a lack of distractions. Some contestants book hotel rooms for the isolation. Budget writers have been known to lock themselves in the bathroom for the entire three days. Eccentric tactics are not unheard of amongst even the elites; Stephen King wrote his breakout novel, Carrie, on a typewriter in the cramped space of his laundry room. There are reports from contestants of exhaustion overcoming rationality. As one contestant’s testimonial states, “On the second day I was hanging out the window, shouting at the neighbor’s dog to be quiet. My neighbor doesn’t have a dog.”
Day three: The Resolution. I force my eyes open and resolve not to sleep for the final twenty-four hours. After two days spent hunched over, my ribs now feel bruised and tender. However, a transformation has taken place within me. Time skips by without realization as a state of manic hyperactivity consumes me. Two hours are lost when I think only ten minutes has passed. (Agatha Christie purportedly entered trance states while writing.) Here lies the true value in entering this masochistic contest. First, the enjoyment derived from losing oneself in the writing process is exaggerated in such an environment. Second, your most common mistakes and over-used sentence structures become woefully apparent by midway through this event.
My partner awakens in the morning, concerned to find I have not moved in eight hours. She feeds and tends to me with great sympathy. Feeling the fatigue, my problems now are clarity and plot progression. 3-Day Novels are famous for logic holes; this is when the murder victim from page three magically returns for the Vegas wedding at the end. The author must battle against sleep deprivation, sugar highs and lows, mood swings and headaches, successfully tying up every thread of their story. No easy task by day three. However, the word count is rising and I ponder how the career novelists do this for a living.
Stephen King typically writes first drafts in under three months. Enid Blyton produced nearly 800 books in forty years as a novelist. Reputedly, she consistently achieved 10,000 words a day at one point in her career. The first draft of Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring was written in little over a week. Better yet, Samuel Johnson reportedly wrote Rasselas in under a week to earn the money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Evidently, speed does not necessarily impair quality. That is why the first prize of the 3-Day Novel Contest is publication.
Sunset: The Epilogue. The end approaches for both the deadline and the novel. Many competitors get to this point, throw in a surprise ending two chapters earlier than expected, and find a warm bed to clamber into. I struggle on, realizing it is time to forgo any semblance of editing or proofreading. The climax arrives with a twist that I had not planned or foresaw until the words appeared on my screen. Bang! Gunshots sound out in abundance. The deputy sheriff is found holding the clichéd smoking gun. (Wait… it was him? Really?) The death of the hero’s ex-girlfriend has ruined all hope of a happy ending. Or has it? In an all too convenient twist, it turns out that there are aliens with advanced medical technologies who can resurrect my love interest. No time to change the cheesy ending, midnight is fifteen minutes away. I type my hasty ending paragraph of explanatory exposition and save the document. 97 pages. 20,000 words. As I put my book and myself to bed, I smile. The contest may not have been judged yet, but one decision has already been made: next year, I will do it all again.
Fortunately, Sean Di Lizio’s memories are hazier than his diary and he will be competing again in this year’s event. The 2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest will be held on September 4-6. To enter, download a registration form from the official website.
[Image credit: Joelk75]
Book reviews are not the easiest things to write in the world. No, this is not an “oh, me, book blogging is so hard” piece. Though, judging from the New York Times Magazine’s cover story of Emily Gould last week, that may be appropriate, too. I digress.The books I read motivate me. If I am moved by one, I am compelled to write and talk about it, making sure I entice as many people as possible to check it out and share the experience. And, vice versa for books I dislike. It is tricky, however, to keep your audience interested without giving away the whole book.I became very self conscious about my book reviews during journalism school. (Hence, the lack of my verbose dispatches of old.) Picking the right words to describe a style, characters, the story flow and experience proved harder and harder. Escaping cliches, in other words, became more difficult. And that brings me to today’s theme. (This is called burying the lede in journalism.)Reading about some new releases last week, I noticed recurring themes and started to Google them. The results were entertaining – or, from a creativity point of view, dismal. My methodology is to pick a phrase and put it in quotes (e.g., “lively cast of characters”) and add the word “novel” next to it (as in: “lively cast of characters” novel).Here are some phrases and searches I found to be especially intriguing and entertaining:“captures the very essence of” novel: But of course, which novel doesn’t capture the essence of something or another? From James Bond to Jane Eyre and Fight Club, your quintessential book reviewer phrase.“an irresistible story” novel: Apply to any novel or biography. Preferably, use the phrase before the preposition “of” followed by a noun or description. Examples: an irresistible story of love, an irresistible story of two worlds, an irresistible story of justice.“lively cast of characters” novel: From the NYT to Amazon, blogs and publishers, this seems to be a phrase that all reviewers fall for at one point or another.“inner circle” memoir: Mostly for policy wonks, but applies to rock bands too.“washington insider” novel (or memoir): Same as above; applies to John Grisham novels too.”not your typical diet book”: Or is it? It appears that all your diet books are not your typical diet book.“master of suspense” novel: Too many chiefs, not enough warriors? Anyone?“emotionally charged novel”: Watch out, the next book might just “push you over the edge.” (And this is where I fall in the fold.)“timeless classic” novel: Classic or not, there is plenty of timelessness.“the quintessential novel”: Precedes descriptions like “the Lost Generation” (Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), post-World War II New Orleans (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces) and of the Jazz Age/about the American Dream (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), among others.Another test you can run is breaking up and joining phrases:“most gifted storytellers” novel: Care to guess how many gifted storytellers there are?“most innovative storytellers” novel: And innovative ones?“most innovative and gifted storytellers” novel: But combine the two, and you get Dean Koontz, the only innovative and gifted storyteller.Yet, there is hope, dear Millions readers:“combustive movements”: Seems to apply only to Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution – which, by the way, is a great discourse on “turbulent politics.” (I succumb, once again.)“masterpiece in the art of fiction”: Or should we say art of magical realism? Presenting: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.Google away and enjoy the folly. And, by all means, please speak loudly when we “fall into the same trap” here at the Millions.
“Scriptland,” as it turns out, is not the area formed by the borders of the 10, 101, and 405 freeways, it is the LA Times’ new weekly feature on the world’s highest-paying thankless job, screenwriting. While the first installment of the series was a fawning valentine to the King of Scribes, Charlie Kaufman, this week’s edition offers something a little more intriguing.Jim Uhls (IMDb), who earned is bona fides adapting Fight Club (IMDb) (and doing a fabulous commentary track discussion with Chuck Palahniuk, I might add), has signed on to turn the graphic novel Rex Mundi into a movie starring Johnny Depp. This continues a trend of Hollywood snatching up graphic novels as if they were tacky TV shows from the 70s. I shudder to think of the day I wake up and find that they’re making Jimmy Corrigan, starring Jack Black and Carl Reiner.