Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Story So Far

I find myself in a really odd place right now: I am alone in my own head. I finished my edits and the novel is now in the hands of an agent, so there's nothing really to do with it until she comes back with a response (okay, except for a couple of things. I spoke with one of my readers last night who pointed out places where he just couldn't suspend disbelief that the story was being told by a 14-year old. As he said, "No fourteen year old boy would say 'little old lady flats.' I'm gay, and even I wouldn't have noticed that at fourteen." Point taken). I've kind of been sitting here thinking, well, now what do I do with my time?

Answer: Get to work on the next novel.

So it's back to the generative phase of writing for me, which is exciting. I love the peaks and valleys of this stage of writing. In some ways, it's a heck of a lot easier to get things done (like grocery shopping on a regular basis) because a lot of my thinking, processing, letting things fall into place can happen during the day while the actually putting words down in a logical order portion of it can happen late at night or even very early in the morning. I found the editing worked best during the daytime. Whenever I tried to edit or rewrite after nine at night, I fell asleep or my brain was sluggish. It took a lot of will power to work within the analytical portion of my brain after the sun went down.

I'm excited, though. The next novel is the project which made me apply for grad school. I had written another novel about fifteen years ago that fell apart just at the point where an agent was interested in seeing it. I'd worked on it for several years and, in a workshop, the workshop leader asked me what was the most essential question about the novel and I couldn't answer it. At that point, I realized I was at a dead end. That experience started me on a journey to learn craft so that I would not end up at the same point with the next thing I wrote. I spent many years doing workshops, going to conferences, reading and reading and reading, and, ultimately, going to grad school and getting my MFA in a program that was exceptional for teaching craft and process. (as an aside, it was during an assignment in grad school that I figured out what went wrong with that other novel and will probably go back to it at some point because I still love those characters - as briefly as I can, what happened to that novel was not knowing how to listen to critique group feedback and forgetting what my original vision for the novel was while I tried to revise to answer all the group's concerns. The assignment that made me realize this was to write a synopsis of a novel. I dusted off my old synopsis for this novel, rewrote it and was so pleased with it, I sent it to a friend who had been part of that critique group. She responded that she hadn't understood a key element of the novel's conceit (and neither did the workshop leader, and, for that matter, neither did I by that point in trying to revise it). It made me realize what had happened to that novel and radically changed how I listen to feedback)

At the time I started grad school, I had an idea for a new novel. An idea that was so good, so exciting, that I just didn't want to screw it up. I spent my first year in grad school working on it, had a pretty complete outline, and about a hundred pages written. Then, stuck for a second story to submit to the class in Alice La Plante's fiction workshop, I asked her if I could bring the original draft of a short story I'd written - I got a couple of grants with the story, had gotten some really good rejection letters (most notably, a personal note on a form rejection from The New Yorker), and, in the process of trying to revise it, it had started to unpack itself and was now a novella. I wanted to get some feedback and see if I was on the right track with my revisions. Alice said yes, so I brought the story in, got some really good feedback, and then went back to work on the novel. A couple of months later, I took a half-day workshop with another really gifted SFSU professor, Matthew Davidson. Matthew gave us an exercise and I literally walked across the room thinking about a scene from the novel that I wanted to work on, sat down at a desk to write it, and what came out was a scene from the story. I had been struggling with this scene because I didn't understand what it needed to do. The scene fell into place as I wrote through this exercise and, at the end of it, the story "came out" and declared itself to be a novel and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to be working on it until it was done.

110,000 words later, that novel is The Altar of Dead Pets.

So, now it's time to let Matt grow up and go out into the world (which, in a funny way, is the movement of that novel), and get reacquainted with Nikki and Owen and their 17-year old son Marcus and the twins, Amanda and Leo. Time to let bitchy Catherine and her sister Helen out of their kennels. Time to shift from living in Reno in March to living on the Sonoma Coast in summer. Time for research and exploring and stumbling through scenes and reminding myself over and over again that it doesn't matter how mundane the words in the first draft are, they will become vivid and wonderful by the time I'm done and I will fall in love these characters as I did with Matt and Denny and everyone else in their screwed up family. In short, it's time to write.

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