Friday, December 20, 2013

Writing a Novel: An Ineluctable Modality - Part 1

The Theory behind One Very Small Bang: the Beginnings of a Novel

(This is the first in a series of posts about writing a novel. You can read the entire novel, An Ineluctable Modality, starting here.)

Several years ago, a friend of mine said he was “taking the NaNoWriMo Challenge.” I'd never heard of it before but once he explained it, I thought it sounded interesting. Unfortunately, with my work schedule (and also being at the time in the middle of working on a new composition), I knew I wouldn't have the time to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Then, after I was laid off six years ago and suddenly had all the time in the world, I decided to try it. I have now spent each November since then working on a novel.

This year, I thought I would “live-blog” my novel – it was designed as a novel-told-in-blog-posts, 30 posts or a chapter-a-day. Considering all I needed to make the goal was an average of 1,667 words a day and my typical posts can reach 4-5,000 words easily, it seemed perfectly doable.

It didn't take many days till I realized how much artistic hubris was involved in this plan. While there were days I could write over 2,500 words, there were days where, as much as I tried, I couldn't finish a day's post with only 400 words, considering the novel I was planning on writing.

The idea was not to just post whatever I wrote that day: each day (each chapter) was a self-contained element of the story (as much as this novel tells one) and in that sense it needed to be complete. I quickly found myself a day, then two days behind schedule.

Plus I also hadn't counted on the need to edit, revise and re-edit each day's work and that, frankly, is another project in itself, taking up time I would rather spend writing the first draft. The whole point behind NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words toward the rough draft of a novel, not write a complete and fully edited novel...

Since I saw no point in publishing the first draft, I decided to delete the chapters already posted, then eventually finish the novel and finally work on the editing process. I have now posted the third draft and feel the novel is done and ready to share. That doesn't mean it's “complete.” I can imagine going through and tweaking a word here or a rhythm there, but basically, yes, it's done.

You can read its first chapter, here. Each post ends with a link to the following chapter.

Ultimately, I passed the 50,000-word goal on Thanksgiving morning in what was Chapter 25. When the end of the last day of the month rolled around, I had just started the opening segment of Chapter 27 at some 53,107 words, so for the sixth year in a row I became a “winner.”

The rest of the novel, about 3.75 chapters and an additional 9,000 words, however, took a week to finish – I decided, after writing every morning for anywhere from 4 to 9 hours a day, I would take a couple days off – and I didn't finish work on the rough draft of the entire novel until December 9th, clocking in at 62,138 words.

I still wanted to post the complete novel but since it was meant to reflect daily posts written during the month of November (complete with references to specific dates), it seemed odd posting them in December with titles for each chapter being a day in November... so I back-posted them as they were initially intended to be.

Now that I've made two more passes through the editing process, the posting is complete. Now, it looks like I'm going to write a few thousand words about writing the novel in the first place.

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First of all, a few days before November 1st, I was still wondering what to write about: I wasn't interested in writing a journal though I wanted it to read like my narrator's journal which meant it was going to be more than me waking up and writing about whatever came to my mind.

Which also meant I had to have a character who would be narrating this novel and I needed to know more about him and those who would inhabit his world. What should be happening in his life, if anything? And how do I plan the arc of a narrative if I haven't thought this out?

Another thing I didn't want was it to be an “improvisation,” thirty etudes about nothing in particular. The fact that some novels seem to start out that way doesn't mean I couldn't tie things together as I went, see where things lead, discover the connections that present themselves. Even Finnegans Wake (this always surprises me) has a plot.

Keep in mind that I've been working on a different novel for most of the past year, having finished the second of three “classical music-appreciation thrillers” beginning with The Doomsday Symphony and continuing with The Lost Chord (not the one posted on the blog which is actually an earlier parody of a Dan Brown novel) which I finished earlier this year.

Even before I'd finished that one, a third one, tying so many things (plot details and characters) together, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben was inevitable. On October 30th, I finished Part One of its four parts and decided, for the month of November, to take a break and write – what else – another novel.

So I left Dr. T. Richard Kerr and his sidekick Cameron Pierce at Phlaumix House (having just made some surprising discoveries, only one of which is the appearance of a character who will later be revealed to be Klavdia Klangfarben, one of the central villains of the series) in order to write some completely different – a lyrical novel that is not, at least on the surface, as intricately plotted as a mystery-thriller needs to be.

But I still needed some place to start: I didn't even have a setting. I had agreed that my narrator would not have a name – you can read most of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time and not be aware his narrator has a name: it's only rarely mentioned, referred to, on occasion, as Marcel: therefore, the entire novel of seven volumes becomes suddenly autobiographical. The narrator's identity in Joyce's Finnegans Wake is just one of countless things you might never figure out. Even in Ulysses, there are so many twists and turns on this journey, one can never be sure where the narrator is speaking and where the author is telling his own story.

I love May Sarton's journals and I've read many of the observations Henry David Thoreau wrote in his various journals, but a journal (or diary) does not have a “story arc” which is something I feel a novel ought to have. The idea of writing a novel unfolding in a series of letters (or its updated version, e-mails) is one thing, but I thought a journal-entry-a-day as part of a blog might be an interesting variation on this (whether it's been done before is immaterial) as long as I could give it some kind of narrative arc – giving insights into the character and allowing his observations to unfold as any story might.

But what story?

The entire premise was based on having my nameless narrator turn down an invitation from a friend to join him on the NaNoWriMo Challenge and having him decline because he couldn't imagine himself writing 50,000 words in 30 days – and yet he writes daily posts for his blog and ends up writing some 62,000 words instead without even realizing it.

Hardly enough to write 50,000 words about, though.

Who was my narrator? Who offered him the challenge? Did they become adversaries and did the fact one was writing a novel become the tension of a traditional plot? The tension came in the fact that his friend, a painter who wanted to try writing a book, had taken on the challenge but then said nothing about it until it was over, while my narrator, a composer who has been dealing with a lengthy creative block, was unable to get a new composition started and is dwelling on it almost constantly.

But the would-be novelist would not be the story's antagonist, at least not directly. In watching the very enjoyable British series The Last Tango in Halifax on our local BBC affiliate, it was fascinating to watch the story unfold as it did: the elderly couple at the center are blissfully happy while their families around them are dealing with one dramatic dysfunctionality after another. The drama, in the theatrical sense, happens to people around the main characters (until they, too, have a crisis though one more of faith than events), and so I decided my narrator would have his inner conflicts but be involved in or sucked into those of the other people around him: in this case, I chose two – a friend who is constantly in chaos, and his son who has trouble reacting to significant life-changes.

In the end, nothing is wrapped up neatly though some possibilities are presented. And how does this affect the narrator?

Where is my narrator? In order for him to react to the world around him, he must be in some place, after all, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with this. My mysteries all have their settings, mostly comically far-fetched – full of parallel universes and underground mazes. Another would-be novel is set in an entirely fictional city which, for some reason, I placed in Massachusetts where I've never lived (four years in Connecticut is as close as I got though for Sarah Palin, it would be enough).

Rather than placing my narrator in my house in the community where I live, I wanted him to be someplace else – partly because I didn't want it to be so autobiographical people who might read this would think I am this person, that I know these people (and if they know me, are they these people) and that they could recognize parts of town just as James Joyce gave us a capsule tour of Dublin on a June day in 1904.

I don't know why I chose to place him in Maine. I don't think I've ever even driven into Maine as I once drove through New Hampshire to attend some friends' wedding one exit from the Canadian border (making me almost as much an expert on life in Canada, then).

Reading May Sarton's journal from The House by the Sea, located in York, Maine, for the first time back in the late-80s made me think how wonderful it might be to live there except I kept forgetting I hate winter.

But never having been there, I couldn't write “realistically” about the town without someone ultimately pointing out the library is in the wrong place or there is no diner at that end of town or this road doesn't go anywhere near the coast. But I looked at a lot of on-line maps and started coming up with some ideas. I decided to fictionalize specific places: if they're not accurate, they're not real, either. And I gave them fictitious names that may protect their identity but might also be only a few degrees removed.

James Joyce, 1915
Another important factor was having read the “Proteus” chapter from Joyce's Ulysses a few weeks earlier, some of the densest writing in the whole of a novel that is often considered unintelligible. And of course, the whole of Joyce's novel is famously built upon references to Homer's epic, The Odyssey, that Leopold Bloom is Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus (generally a stand-in for the author) is Ulysses' son TelĂ©machus (though he is not Bloom's son): both are involved in journeys of discovery – Ulysses to get home to his wife and TelĂ©machus to find his father. These weave in and out of numerous other references, many of which are so obscure, the average reader would never comprehend the wealth of detail.

The name Dedalus itself refers to the man in Greek mythology associated with man's first attempt at flight – it was his son Icarus who failed – but he was also the man who designed the great labyrinth to house the Minotaur in Crete. This would be a much more potent reference considering a novel as a form of labyrinth hiding the author's inner secrets, and Stephen's quest in three of Joyce's novels – the early, unfinished and unpublished Stephen Hero, in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in Ulysses – is to find his creative voice so he can, ultimately, write the Great Irish Novel which is Ulysses itself.

(The Irish writer Frank Delaney is doing a weekly 10-minute podcast about Joyce's novel - called, suitably, Re:Joyce - which offers far more detail than the average reader would need to be aware of to enjoy it, but many of the things he reveals are so fascinating, I find it worth the ride even though he's spent some 15 months on the Proteus Chapter alone and it's only 14 pages long! Here is the first podcast, #90, Feb. 29, 2012. He concludes the chapter with podcast #157, June 12, 2013! Admittedly, I discovered Delaney's website well into November and have not listened to all of the pertinent episodes.)

So I decided my own slim narrative, such as it is, would not be based on Homer as Joyce's novel is, but on one small chapter of Joyce's novel-based-on-Homer. Originally, I was calling it a “rhapsody on Joyce's Proteus.”

Eventually, I decided to call my novel An Ineluctable Modality, after the famous opening line:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read...

And so it began.

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To be continued: read “Names and Places,” here.

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