Few people want to know how the sausage is made. But for those of us who are crazy enough to get into this business of sausage-making, it’s nice to know that there’s others just as crazy as we are.
To you, I write.
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Recipe Step One: Observe and Synthesize; Taste Everything, Spit Nothing Out
As some of you may know, I’ve been slowly chipping away at writing a novel. This past winter, I finally reached a draft that I felt comfortable sharing with others. Since conception to manuscript sharing, exactly 4.5 years have passed, but if you were to ask me how long I’ve really been working at it, I’d say (as so many cliched love stories begin) I’ve been wanting to write this novel for as long as I can remember.
My first attempt of novel writing happened when I was eleven years old. I wanted to write a story about a young girl preparing for a piano competition and reconciling her childhood with her parent’s expectations of her. I wrote the first chapter and then never picked it up again. My second attempt was sometime in college, and all I had were four characters and some vague idea of how those characters’ love lives would intersect with understanding their pasts. It never moved past a few notes scribbled in a notebook. Then, sometime when I was living in New York City as a young professional who hated my job, I wanted to find a way to synthesize and process the information overload that was happening on a daily basis (well explained by this NYTimes article). I came up with this first scene somewhere on 54th Street and 3rd Avenue:
A young man in a large city is waking up on a sunny morning. He lies in bed with his eyes open in his large bedroom apartment surrounded by tall windows, where he’s baked hot from the sun. Then suddenly he pulls open the drawer of his bedside dresser, picks up a loaded gun, and puts it in his mouth. A moment of deliberation passes, and the young man takes the gun from his mouth, puts it back in his dresser, gets dressed and walks out his apartment door.
125,000 words later working off that first image, it’s unclear to me where the idea came from. But, in hindsight I imagine it was looking up at all those tall buildings with big windows and wondering what the people were doing inside. That’s how it began: a simple question which led to a premise, which led to a problem, which led to an entire world that unraveled in my head which I desperately wanted to dump onto paper. All around me, there was so much excitement and life, and I wanted to lose none of it. The conversations I heard snippets of, the love stories, the interaction between human and human, human and surrounding...I stood on the shores of a world of information which crashed onto my eyes and ears, and I could not help but want to describe it all to someone else, to confirm it happened, it’s happening, all around us and everywhere, the world is moving. The world is moving.
And in years later, to look back and when the memory is impossible to draw upon, to look at the hints of little words on paper and say, “Yes, I remember when the world moved that way.”
It was in that way of having the ideas swirling and mixing - without my control - bursting over and prying into other activities that I could not help but begin the story. It’s not clear who the master is: the writer or the story. I’ve heard accounts of both happening to people, but in my case, it was a constant battle of self-control; teasing those images into words; placing the words into a coherent story; and finally, putting the eyes onto the dragon (so they say), to try and bring it to life.
* * * * *Recipe Step Two: Put in a Pot and Boil; Strain; Find New Ingredients if Necessary
A good friend once asked me why I was so determined to finish this story. It was cutting into all my weekends and empty hours late at night before sleep. I was giving up other hobbies and time with friends to work on this thing with no clear outcome, and worst of all, it was borderline narcissistic (“Sorry guys, gotta spend the weekend alone.”; “Can’t make it out this time, have stuff to do.”; “Do you think this works in the story, does that, what are your impressions?”). At the time, I couldn’t find a rational reason to give her, so I used the following analogy which still stands: for me, finishing this novel was kind of like an overdue pregnancy (I imagine). It was getting uncomfortable, and I needed to get it out.
The reason was that simple.
But the process was not.
It’s one thing for observation and the story to take on a life of its own, but it’s another for the process to as well. In hindsight, I had very little control over the process other than making sure I sat at my desk 2 hours a night, working on it regardless of what my state of mind was. There were good days of productive storytelling when I felt elated and satisfied. I felt powerful and in control of my own narrative. There were other days it felt as if the whole thing were a waste, that nothing had a clear purpose and I was recklessly throwing hours down the drain (“I could have done this instead, done that, seen her, talked to him”).
What I learned was that observation and synthesis had been the easier part of the two. To observe, you just have to stay quiet, find the stillness, and allow the experiences to dive into and out of you like pouring water into a sponge and then squeezing it out. On the other hand, writing, making the connection between the senses and the brain and painting it onto paper through a finite number of words that could be arranged in a finite number of ways to describe all of those indescribable things is impossible to do perfectly. So ironically as a writer, you live constantly with the nagging feeling of being inarticulate, of missing just that many words from your vocabulary, of never quite reaching the height of the real experience. If someone hasn’t said it yet, I’ll say it now: writing a novel is a Sisyphean task.
And yet...and yet...
I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in 2012 in about 5 months. It was the first real window of time I had, and I sat down painstakingly and did it without shame or a care of who might read it. I just wrote everything that came to mind; wrote it without reading it the next day, plunging the plot forward without looking back, jumped recklessly into the pages about Henry’s Smith’s life like I had nothing else to lose and I was being chased at the same time. 120,000 words later, it was all out there, and I wanted nothing else but to keep it hidden. I was even too embarrassed to read it through when I was done. I remember that moment exactly, sitting in my parent’s house in Connecticut, putting the final sentence on the page, and then running up to my old childhood bedroom and sitting there for a long time on the carpet whispering: “It’s finished.” I said, “It’s finished.” Then I walked back downstairs, told my parents of my new career plans (“I’d like to go back to London and then to California”), and it was like that, anticlimactic, forgotten, moved on.
But it came back. I tried opening it in 2013 but was discouraged at how poorly I felt it was written and could not face myself. Oh, the cliches! The poor characterization! The over-dramatization...and something was missing. Something was missing, and the smell that permeated from the pages was fear.
The past is sometimes an ugly thing, even if the past happened before you were born. I had always known that the past lives on through generations for we inherit time that’s not reconciled. “Of course,” I realized, “I was meant to make this about something that I had not wanted to write about directly.” Where is this land that you come from, try to understand, connect the pieces of the distant stories?
China. China was the missing piece.
I had convinced myself that I could write a story that captured my present observations by ignoring the past which clung to me in the same way the empty fear clung to the pages of the first manuscript draft. And so, it was time to revisit it again. Made stronger by the knowledge the first draft could be done, I began writing again.
The second draft is really a beginning, and if you asked me, the second draft is the most painful: you see the mistakes you made, come to terms with the shortcomings of your own writing, and own those problems with the dreadful understanding you must improve. I went in with a meat cleaver, and having had the distance from it, I was happy to carve out the little bit that was still useful and begin all over again, slowly, painstakingly, patiently. What kept me going was that I knew I was getting better, and the writing was one small step closer to representing what I had wanted it to be - that ethereal moment when the idea comes (wordlessly) as the representation of experience.
It took 8 months of painful self-criticism and honesty. But like anything else, we can’t improve without accepting our weaknesses. We’ve all got to start from some place, and starting from a place that needs improvement isn’t a bad idea.
In hindsight, for me, the only good part of second draft is that it led to the third draft where the fun begins. I won’t give too much away for those who haven’t had this experience yet, but I’ll just say this: if there’s no place to have a little fun, to read back on your words and smile at the gymnastics and artistry, no one would ever finish this damn journey. The third draft is where the people stop being ideas and become real people, where the characters direct themselves (she would never say that; scratch that out...he’d act this way, of course), and where the lines for cutting are more clearly marked (nix that, erase it, get rid of the extra). Enjoy it. Once you’ve gotten this far, you deserve to be proud.
Then, of course, what next?
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In my time meeting other ambitious novelist to-be’s, I’ve found a few different, non-exclusive types that care about publication:
- The Narcissistic Writer: Believes one’s words are the high words from above and so the masses must read it.
- The Wayward Writer: Really doesn’t want to have a normal job and thinks writing novels is a sweet gig because the writer can write whatever he/she wants. To be honest, since moving to the Bay Area, the Wayward Writer has been replaced by The Wayward Start-up.
- The Economically Deluded Writer: There’s a lot of money to be made in this vocation made clear by the likes of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey and that silly novel about a lady traveling to different countries to deal with her failed marriage.
- The Sharer: Really wants to talk about one’s own experience to everyone for no other reason than getting self-gratification (kind of like therapy but in front of crowds).
- The Idealistic Artist: There’s something to be experienced in the writing that enriches not only the writer but those who read it. Categorized by one of my favorite quotes, “Art should disturb the undisturbed and comfort the disturbed”. It may be the truth; it may not be the truth. Who cares, as long as it reaches out to people.
It leads to the following tricky questions as publication is really a big market-matching problem: who reads novels anymore when we’ve got social media, click bait, instagram, flickr, 5 minute news? What do people want to read? How do readers find the the right writer for them if they have to navigate through a diluted self-publishing market or eat what the opaque publishing industry force feeds them? How have readers changed? And how will writing have to change to address this (or should it)?
As I have completed the first two parts of my journey - observation followed by writing - I’m beginning the third part of the journey, publication. I hope to take you, those who are interested, along with me (for perhaps you’re also a writer wanting to connect to another on this whole crazy business).
So here’s where I am. In the past two weeks, I have applied to roughly 15 literary agencies and have received disappointing but interesting feedback: “Your writing is sophisticated, the story sounds interesting, but it’s dense.” Or, “This is just not mainstream enough for us to represent.” In many ways, this feedback has opened up more questions than it’s answered and ultimately leads to the quandary many writers face today: To beg at the doors of publishing houses and literary agents (to find what they think is marketable/profitable) or to face the challenges of self-publication through ebooks? I call this the “new problem”. The next quandary is: To change one’s writing so that it can be read by a wider audience, or to keep it with the original form and accept that it’ll be a highly truthful, but personal experience? I call this the “age-old problem” as every artist will have to answer for herself at some point, and even harder, will have to distinguish between being artistically truthful and plain-old confusing.
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