A non-teaching day for me today, so I spent some time this morning looking at the draft of what I hope will be my next novel. I finished the draft back in October, and I’ve been letting it rest all this time. I hadn’t looked at it until recently. Now I’m going through it chapter by chapter to see how it holds together and what I may still need to do to it. I’m trying to go very slowly, and I’m trying to think the way a reader would who had no idea what lay ahead in the book. I’m trying to see how the parts either do or don’t fit together. I’m also looking for missed opportunities (particularly involving ironic turns), and I’m taking note of turning points that aren’t sharply enough drawn. Finally, I’m taking a hard look at the characters and whether their motivations are clear and believable, and whether their actions are sometimes a little surprising in an inevitable way.
I took a break today to watch the Yankees/Tigers game on ESPN. Hooray for Opening Day! Between innings, I channel-surfed, and for some reason I was fascinated by the show, American Chopper. A reality show (what isn’t these days?), the program follows, far as I can tell, a father and his two sons who design and make choppers. I have little interest in motorcycles, and I’m not mechanically inclined, but for some reason I loved looking at this chopper being made. I loved the sight of the bike before the gas tank, the fenders, etc., had been completely cut. I loved the stark look of all that steel before it was shaped and painted. I guess I loved that so much because writing a novel gives me a pleasure that I assume is similar to the reward that those chopper guys get when they envision a design and then set out to make it work. A little cut there, a little cut here, some custom touches, and before too long the bike starts to take its final shape.
A good editor (and eventually we all have to be the best editors we can be for ourselves) can make you feel stupid in a wonderful way. I remember when I got the edits for my first book, I looked through them and time after time I thought to myself, Of course. Why didn’t I see that? A novelist’s relationship with an editor is so important. I always like to feel that the editor and I are collaborators. The give and take between a writer and an editor should feel like a creative process and not solely a corrective one. My best experiences with editors have been those where she (my editors have always been women) and I threw things back and forth at each other (no, not literal objects, though wouldn’t that be interesting?), playing that game of what if? What if this happened? What if Character X said this? Etc. A true creative process much like what goes on in a good writing workshop where like-minded spirits are in sync with the material before them.
When I was in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, I took a workshop with visiting writer, James Leo Herlihy, best known for his novel, Midnight Cowboy. I remember being in Jamie’s office one afternoon talking about a draft of one of my stories. I’ve forgotten a good deal about the story (this was 1983), but I recall that it was set in Evansville, Indiana, and at one point the main character got in a car and made a drive to a local motel.
Jamie and I were doing some version of the what if game, and he said, “So this guy drives up Highway 41, and. . . .”
I stopped him. “So you know Evansville.”
“Never been there,” he said. “Don’t know anything about it.”
I was amazed. Highway 41 is the main route through Evansville. Nowhere in the story was it mentioned.
“That’s exactly the highway the character would be on,” I said.
Jamie looked at me very earnestly. “That number just came into my head. It shows you how in touch I am with the world you’ve created.”
That’s what I’m trying to do when I look at the draft of this new novel. I’m trying to make sure I’ve stitched together a world and its people that will invite my readers in and make them feel that at least for a time, they live there, too. To do that, I have to make the details of that world vivid and convincing. I have to add layers to my characters and their situations, being on the lookout for those aspects of personality that might seem contradictory to the baseline I establish for each main character as the novel gets underway. I’m looking for those variations that make the characters interesting, that get them into trouble, perhaps, and then allow them to try to get out of it. I particularly love it when characters get into trouble in a way that’s almost accidental because they have a chance to avoid it but also willful because their choice of action or speech comes from a submerged emotion they didn’t even know they had. It’s my job to bring that layer of the character up to the top and to let it drive the forward momentum of the book. At least, that’s my aim in this particular novel. Naturally, each book finds its own shape. I’m reading now to see if this draft has found its shape, and, if so, what I can do to further define it.
I’ve been lucky to have wonderful editors who are skilled at entering the worlds of my novels and seeing the same shapes that I do. Then we set about the business of making sure we’ve cut away anything that doesn’t stick to that shape and adding things that do stick in dramatically interesting ways.
I heard the novelist, Thomas Keneally, say once that he couldn’t begin a novel until he knew what his cookie cutter was. In other words, the central dramatic event to which everything in the book would stick. The list that Oskar Schindler made of the people he wanted to save from the concentration camps in Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark (did you know that it was first published with this title and then later reappeared as Schindler’s List to tie in with the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name?), for example.
I’ve always remembered what Keneally said about the cookie cutter that impresses its shape onto the shapeless. My first novel, Quakertown, was a historical novel about the forced relocation of a thriving African-American community in 1920s Texas. My novel, The Bright Forever, was about a young girl who never came home from the library one summer evening. My new book, Break the Skin, that’s coming out this June, is about a revenge plot that goes wrong. At some point, perhaps I’ll tell you the cookie cutter for this novel in draft that I’m going through now. But not quite yet. I want to make sure everything sticks.