Notes of a Novelist

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Irrelevant Capture from my old web site, circa 2000 A.D.

The following is a collection of ruminations on the art of the novel, extracted from my Prison Diary, with comments on works in progress at the time (mostly “the Seff or Seth novel”), published novels and stories by others, and so on, for what it’s worth. The writer is unpublished but has lots of amateur experience. Editing for readability has been minimal. The focus most often is on characterization and literary style, as well as HOW THE HELL CAN I SUCCEED IN GETTING MY WRITING DONE?! Subsequent additions will also be published as “blog posts” (this document is a “page”). COMMENTS WELCOMED. Without further ado or apology, here goes:

It seems to me that the better books—fiction, I mean—are full of surprising and original incidents and details the like of which I can’t match. Nor do I know even how to try. I’ve been in the dumps for weeks; I suppose this disappointment with “my work” is just a continuation of that mood. I remember hearing from Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf similar words of discouragement and self-doubt. Certainly I have more reason, having nothing to show for my decades of half-hearted effort.

I have in mind—have had for two days—that I need to stop the self-torture game(s). The crucial question seems to be, does the practice of rubbing my nose in my neglected goals bring me any closer to accomplishing them? I doubt it—I rarely move from that position to increased effort. Virginia Woolf may have the answer: “The secret is I think always so to contrive that work is pleasant.” Writing for self-justification is neurotic; healthy would be something like: “Fuck self-justification. I’ll write to entertain and inform, making good sausage.”

Now I think that “know thyself” might best be understood as “know thy passions.” And I begin to see that the “self-torture game” is probably a set of conflicting passions, or at least desires. This “desire to write” is complex, an amalgam, probably, of more fundamental (i.e., less complex) desires, such as a desire to feel good about myself, a desire to feel accomplished (same thing, perhaps), desire to impress others, yada yada. Desire to feel skillful. Desire for money, presumably.

On the other side we have the desire not to put butt in chair, day after dreary day. Very strong. So that method is virtually useless to me.

When fiction writing works for me, it comes easily, ordinarily because I have an idea (for a scene) that I want to express or try out. If I could find a way to increase my output (or generation or creation) of energizing ideas, I could thereby, painlessly almost, increase my output of pages. All of which is old news. [3/13/21: One writer said that easy writing makes damned hard reading.]

This seductive picture ignores one vital point: I can also meet writing deadlines, as the Taffy novel and school experience show. I need, somehow, to apply butt to chair more often; I can’t wait forever because I don’t know how long my health will hold out.

Whenever in the past I’ve thought about making a commitment to daily writing, I think it has always been in the context of a self-accusation that I’m not producing enough. I have not previously considered that such practice might make me a better writer. Right now I’m thinking, “of course this is a good idea.” Indeed, I feel quite ignorant of the (or a) process of writing—how one does it. I am a most intuitive writer, the opposite of self-conscious and deliberate. I choose everything by whim, almost; and once I have something on paper I am generally very reluctant to change it. I have no mental model of the process, it just seems to happen.

You daydream, you write it down. That’s about it as far as “my method” goes. Maybe that’s all there is, or all I need, until it’s down on paper. Once it’s written, the process becomes more evaluative, more critical, seeing how well it works and flows and so on, looking for weaknesses and trying to make it better.

So it seems, but it’s not really like that, is it? Even in the daydreaming there is something that reins in the imagination, keeps characters within a rather narrow range of potential actions. When Jere calls Seff a f*****, his mother doesn’t stab him or pour glue in his hair, she doesn’t run across to Seff and ask him if he’s a f*****, she doesn’t do anything except react as a reasonable, ordinary person would react.

Which makes me think of the scene in Lonesome Dove, where July asks Clara to marry him, and she offers him a cake batter covered finger to taste, and he is nonplussed. This is utterly wonderful, and it makes me want to spend the rest of the day writing down 300 different things that a woman might do in that situation… but none of them should be extreme, never a reaction for the sake of surprising or shocking the reader, but right and believable for a particular human woman in that situation. This is the heart of imagination.

I think the vast majority, the greatly overwhelming majority of responses would amount to saying yes, no, or wait. Nothing wrong with that—but how to make it interesting and characterizing and real? There’s the challenge.

That word, “characterizing,” is of the essence. You don’t want something extreme and bizarre, nor do you want something totally expected—you want something towards the middle, something perhaps unexpected (at least sometimes) but suggestive or revealing about the character, and definitely not “unbelievable.”

Clara is both playful and thoughtful (i.e., she thinks about things and has very decided opinions). Her response seems both playfully impulsive and a deep test of July—can he respond to the moment, showing something equally playful, with a willingness to defy convention for her sake? He can’t, and so she refuses him. [But surely she knew he would disappoint her, and thus “fail.” So then what?] None of this is made explicit, but the reader can perhaps see what July couldn’t, and congratulate himself that he, at least, would be worthy of such a woman! Other readers won’t understand Clara and will stereotype her as one more exasperating female. I don’t know that it matters. People miss subtleties, while reading and while living.

Back to my “method.” I think about the Seff novel a lot, so when I sit down to write my “daydream” is constrained by my previous thoughts about it, which sometimes have gone through a kind of revising before I write. But I don’t want to talk myself out of trying daily writing. I want to try it.

I got onto this kick by reading the following: “‘[Write] every day for a while,’ my father kept saying. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.’” Anne Lamott: Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Random House, New York, 1995, p. xxii. I’m unimpressed by this book and by the author, but for some reason this quote appealed to me. But I think the idea of playing scales is not a good one. Scales are boring, and boredom is a sign of inefficient learning (if not total absence of learning). Surely boredom is antithetical to learning. But the idea of committing to finishing things seemed new and it has some appeal.

Getting to specifics, I know of some scenes in the Seff novel that need to be written, and I can work on the Hap novel. A bit troubling is my environment (short on solitude, quiet, and useful technology) and my usual sleepiness at certain times. But these are quibbles. Think big, start small, act now, and don’t stop for anything. (But not right now…)

Finished Bird by Bird, more interesting as I read further, but still a bit thin-feeling, a sort of psychotherapy for the frantic writer. Useful quotes:

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.” p. 114.

Quoting an unnamed Lakota Sioux: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.” p. 127.

Quoting Hillel: “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” p. 130. [Choose joy]

Unattributed quote: “A critic is someone who comes onto the battlefield after the battle is over and shoots the wounded.” p. 142.

Quoting Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” p. 193. This inspires me to contemplate writing an honest book about my neurosis.

An easy read, very funny at times, but still there is something lacking.

When I think about trying to write, I get a feeling of dread. I anticipate that the experience will be both unpleasant and unsuccessful. I need to know what I’m going to work on before I try, because it’s the not knowing that makes me anxious. I’m reminded of Hemingway’s practice of, I think it was, always stopping in mid-sentence. I prefer to write whole scenes, but I think if I’m going to commit to daily writing I’ll need to have a fall-back task when I don’t have a scene to write. In addition, I think it would be best to continually aim to produce new material rather than bailing out into rewriting, and if I decide to do exercises, they should be relevant to Seff.

The best time to commit would be in the evening, I think, because I’ve looked at how my mornings and afternoons go and they are problematic. 6:00 or 8:00 pm… probably 6:00 because I may want more than two hours if it’s going well, and I think writing right up to lights out (10:30) may lead to sleep problems.

Another thing on my mind is Andy. As a writing “group” he’s not very useful, so I’m thinking maybe I should teach a fiction writing class to find more potential group members. But I don’t think I want to do that until I’ve committed to, and carried out for at least a month, the daily writing idea. So, I guess I’m committed, starting today. Writing time 6:00 to 8:00 pm, no exceptions, no other pastimes during those hours, fiction writing or writing exercises only.

Finished Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, John Pratt, ed., Penguin Books, New York, 1962-1996, pb. I see no reason to alter my previous opinion. Quotes:

“Harding looks around, sees everybody’s watching him, and he does his best to laugh. A sound comes out of his mouth like a nail being crowbarred out of a plank of green pine; Eee-eee-eee. He can’t stop it. He wrings his hands like a fly and clinches his eyes at the awful sound of that squeaking. But he can’t stop it. It gets higher and higher until finally, with a suck of breath, he lets his face fall into his waiting hands.

“‘Oh the bitch, the bitch the bitch,’ [sic] he whispers through his teeth.” p. 60.

Regarding how Nurse Ratched doesn’t accuse, she insinuates, Harding says, “She’ll call a man to the door of the Nurses’ Station and stand there and ask him about a |288B| Kleenex found under his bed. No more, just ask. And he’ll feel like he’s lying to her, whatever answer he gives. If he says he was cleaning a pen with it, she’ll say, ‘I see, a pen,’ or if he says he has a cold in his nose, she’ll say, ‘I see, a cold,’ and she’ll nod her neat little gray coiffure and smile her neat little smile and turn and go back into the Nurses’ Station, leave him standing there wondering just what did he use that Kleenex for.” p. 61.

“The sun was prying up the clouds and lighting the brick front of the hospital rose red. A thin breeze worked at sawing what leaves were left from the oak trees, stacking them neatly against the wire cyclone fence. There were little brown birds occasionally on the fence; when a puff of leaves would hit the fence the birds would fly off with the wind. It looked at first like the leaves were hitting the fence and turning into birds and flying away.” p. 222. I don’t think the image of the leaves “stacked neatly” works, but much of the rest is wonderful.

Finally: “The swells slid by, deep emerald on one side, chrome on the other. The only noise was the engine sputtering and humming, off and on, as the swells dipped the exhaust in and out of the water, and the funny, lost cry of the raggedy little birds swimming around asking one another directions. Everything else was quiet…” p. 234. I should note that the novel is written first person, from the POV of the “Chief.”

These descriptions are noteworthy and should inspire me to try for similar effects. This is description definitely “earning its keep”—a strength of the book where in so many others description is tedious, especially descriptions of something other than character action.

{1/14/10} When I consider what to describe in Seff, the hill behind his lot looms large (pun)—shall I have serried ranks of pines marching down on him like the brooms of the sorcerer’s apprentice? Or a creeping fog of foxtails eager to sink fangs into the stockings unwary hikers? Or a venerable rockface brooding over Ising? Clearly, this is an area in which one should ponder le mot juste. Should I move Seff’s lot into the shadow of the turd? (No.) [2/28/14: “…brooding over the fate of Ising.”] |289|

I think when critiquing fiction, i.e., student writing, the most important is to specify what emotions the story evoked in the reader. It is these emotions that form the entertainment value of a piece. [3/12/21: I got this idea of criticism from Peter Elbow:  Writing Without Teachers.]

Read Damon Knight: Creating Short Fiction, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1985-97, |289B| pb, a fairly good, pretty thorough method book that didn’t do much for me. But here’s a quote I think was worth the time it took to wade through the rest: “Give a strong general impression if you can (‘The vaultlike room was full of echoes’), and then a few salient details (‘¡Venceremos! was spray-painted on the wall; under it someone had written, Like hell’). If they are well chosen, the reader will fill in the rest.” p. 117.

I find the advice excellent, but does he really believe that readers “fill in”? I certainly don’t when I read, and I even tend to ignore or forget description when it’s provided. Instead, I read for story (i.e., plot) and understanding. If a description is artful I may savor it (e.g., see the Kesey quotes above); his” vaultlike room” to me means a vaultlike room, perhaps with cinder block or concrete walls. That’s the extent of the filling in I’m likely to do, if that. The “echoes” will be filled in with “characters footsteps,” not birdsong or running water or conversation.

Here is what to do when I “don’t have a scene to write”: rewrite—without reference to the original—an existing scene, introducing some changes. That is, try it again from scratch. Or as an alternative, extend an existing scene that you thought was finished, perhaps an even better idea, since my scenes are so short and sketchy. When rewriting an existing scene, make a point of trying not to do the same thing with the situation—make it new.

Rostand trusted his sense of poetry, his ability; every writer does, must; we don’t want to end up like Kafka, asking his editor to burn everything after he was dead, or like Brahms, who burned it himself. You do the best you can, then you stop, you submit for publication, you move on—and you don’t indulge in the luxury of doubt. Doubt religion, doubt society, doubt your parents and friends and especially your critics, but not your own judgment and ability.

{1/15/10} What happens in the story is inseparable from why it happens, and why it happens is determined by the actions or traits of the characters, or by “nature.”

The more I can separate, by function, the phases of the writing process, the better I can understand and control the process. So far I see it thus:

First draft: action, characters, setting, i.e., get the story written

Revision: refine and clarify the story; add “effects” (literary values, i.e., piquant descriptions, humorous touches, details)

Not much of a model, is it. My goal here is to facilitate the first draft process, which essentially means imagination. Now much of what we call imagination in fiction is really only memory—we write bits of our lives or stories/facts we’ve heard of. That’s easy, in a way; but selecting and thinking of the possibilities seems hard. Yesterday I wanted to write a scene in which Jere tells Scott about his problem and they discuss what to do, but I got hung up on trying to decide what they would be doing while they talked.

I’ve spent about two weeks ignoring my fiction writing, using the excuse of needing to get through the six outside library books that I had. In fact, I was glad to escape the pressure and anxiety that the “daily writing” rule has made me feel. I want to get back to making the daily effort, but I really |249B| dislike pressure and anxiety. What to do? Keep plugging away. Tomorrow. I should have started today.

I did actually think about creating a backstory for Lisette, Miri’s friend, and felt like I ran into a blank wall, or should I say, a brick wall. It was, anyway, a wall of blankness: how does one create a character?

Seff and Jere are easy: they are “me.” Jessica is little more than some body language (“puppy-like”) and a few facts. Miri started as a smart mouthpiece and a profession, and tends to change as I contemplate the needs of the story. Rod and Vlad are just minor scene-placeholders or something, too indistinct to talk about; likewise Grace/Madge.

Perhaps the important point of a character is his/her role in the story. But—role in what sense? Driving force? [I think: role vis-a-vis plot.]

Ma Joad’s role in The Grapes of Wrath is to hold the family together; to be wife and, especially, mother; drudge to get meals cooked, etc.; role model to influence other characters; moral authority.

These aspects of Ma Joad might be characterized as thematic force, relationship to other characters, actions she routinely performs, influence on other characters, and, let’s say, mouthpiece for author’s moral lessons or opinions. She is in the story because of all these things (“actions routinely performed” seems pretty unimportant); all these things are important and even necessary.

This is interesting, but I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much closer to an answer: how does one create a character? I think the answer is, you start with a small piece and you add to it. The “seed” can be trivial; but there must be some guiding principle to say yea or nay to each bit of new material. I think the “rule” is something like this: will this “fact” derail what I have in mind for the novel as a whole? If not, it can stay, for now.

And I see that this general principle is the rule for each bit—scene, description, character, event, word—you consider it in light of the developing conception of the novel as a whole, and see whether it “clashes.” Because it’s a lot easier, |295| I think, to be definite about a “clash” than about whether it “works” or it “adds to” the overall effect. But in fact, the “rule” is quite weak, and will rarely decide anything, I think. Probably a truer answer is, it’s all intuitive… which more or less means, who knows? You just do it, or you don’t, and there is no real method.

But I think there is some good news, too: if there is no method, then any method can be used. Dictionary games, tarot cards, psychological theories, observation notes—a Darwinian machine of “random” variation and natural (intuitive) selection.

Lisette could be a svelte, chain-smoking, obsessive-compulsive latent lesbian; or an overweight, cynical libertarian; or a vapid American Idol fan who collects new shoes and stray cats; or a pot-smoking, tree-hugging tax cheat; or a bipolar romance novel addict; or an alcoholic, fearful, suicidal neurotic obsessed with erotic thoughts of her deceased father; or a video game playing, computer programming geek; or have a house full of neglected plants and starving goldfish and M.C. Escher prints; or a Gully Jimson con artist who lives for and in her soap operas, who periodically runs away from her own home.

All that’s necessary is to put together a bag with a few nuggets in it, and start writing, or keep adding, or both. Right?

The pressure and anxiety are a phobia due to insecurity and insufficient work. I’m fond of telling myself that I get my best ideas while writing; if there is any truth to this, then the best thing to do is to write, and to not stop for some trumped-up excuse, because that’s giving in to the phobia and making it stronger. The more you throw away, the better is what’s left.

Given that Lisette can be just about anything/anyone, is there a way to have her more useful than “Miri’s friend and roommate”? She could be the nexus of a sub-plot, an influence on Miri (pushing her toward or away from Seff, perhaps), a role model or anti-role model (negative example), a symbol… probably this will be easier to decide once I’ve “seen her in the flesh” of a scene or six.

|295B| {1/29/10} When selecting “arbitrary” character traits, it would be better to do this thoughtfully. That a character collects hippopotamus figurines might not even be worth mentioning, while speaking in dialect will affect every word a character speaks, and being mentally retarded will affect and imply a host of other things about a character. Let’s call such trait clusters as mental retardation “primary traits”; or, perhaps not, for when would I use such terminology? I feel a conflict over this question—an impulse to begin building a system, and several reasons to hesitate to do so. Nor do I want to start writing for an audience in this, by saying things I don’t otherwise need to for my own purposes.

But perhaps I should mention that it would behoove me to try to select character traits that will guide my writing choices, such as mental characteristics, rather than unimportant physical facts that will hardly rate a mention in the story. Knight’s formula for describing a room might be applied here and in many areas—a general characterization and noteworthy (or pungent or amusing or…?) specific facts or quirks. Either might be important. For instance, that a character has red hair might become very important if it’s important to the character or to another character or to a turn of events. The arbitrary and trivial can be made important, but I’m inclined to say that if it’s going to be important it shouldn’t be introduced arbitrarily… which looks like another useless general rule as well as being obvious and fatuous. I want to crank out important insights about characterization, but it’s proving difficult.

It might be useful to consider Jessica. Jere needs a caregiver, being only fourteen; beyond that role, the rest seems arbitrary. Miri is in the story because Seff needs an excuse to expound his opinions; the rest seems arbitrary. Vlad and Rod are in because I had houses to fill and wanted to get started on community building; otherwise arbitrary.

Admirable villains and troubled heroes?

|296| Something from Knight: “Motives must be proportional in seriousness and intensity to the risks that people take and the trouble they cause for themselves and others. If your characters’ motives are trivial, their actions will be either trivial or incredible.” p. 113. Not really helpful. Of his 6½ pages on character, I thought this was the best. Nothing really wrong in what he says, just nothing I found useful or even worth passing on to others.

I think making Lisette or Jessica be repulsed by Seff’s “primitive, dirty” lifestyle might spice things up a bit.

If the Seff novel is to work, I think maybe it needs to be Miri’s story in addition to Seff’s and Jere’s. I like the idea of ending the novel, not with Seff’s death, but with Miri’s “redemption.” Seff will be the key for her, somehow. If this is going to be a main theme, scenes with Miri away from Seff can be justified. I was having trouble thinking of a way to make a scene between Lisette and Miri “earn its keep”; the way to do that is to have Miri discuss her problem, or at least lead toward that revelation—though right now the problem looks like “rich girl is bored with life and men.” Not terribly compelling, but she offers a lot of possibilities with self-image problems. I think this might make a stronger novel with a larger potential audience. If it ever gets written, that is. I once again choked at the prospect of trying to write. Well, Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day, whatever.

“Its neatness rebuked the street.” Thus Sinclair Lewis compares a house with a street, or more to the point, describes the house. (See [92B] for more). I was reading over my notes for the Seff novel and was struck by this metaphor.

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