July 31, 2009


I've been working steadily away at my novel with a daily word count I record scrupulously (okay, obsessively) in a spreadsheet that I find endlessly encouraging as I watch the totals creep up. When I passed the 280-page mark a few days ago I was positively triumphant. After all, 280 is so very close to 300, and 300 is the number I've been carrying around in my head as the one to aim for. 300 pages is a novel, no doubt about it.

Of course, 300 pages or 100,000 words does not automatically give you a novel. I know that. But I had the idea that once I had a sizeable draft and had more or less wrapped up the story, I could go back and tweak things and put things in the right order and edit to my liking and I would have a draft that could at least be worked on and possibly even read by other people.

And so, over the past week, seeing how close I was getting to this magical number, I started readying the manuscript by putting sections in order, so that I could more easily see what was missing and what still needed to be put in. And --- long story short (I know, too late!) --- I realized I have to cut 52 pages.

These 52 pages belong to a secondary narration I'd added in at a late stage, hoping to prevent reader exhaustion with my protagonist, who narrates in present tense. But I see now all his narration was doing was staving off my own exhaustion at the time, as I tried to keep up my word quota in spite of feeling, at that time, a bit directionless. Reading over these 52 pages, I think I only really nail his voice in a few sections, perhaps 5 or 6 pages total. And the whole sideline I got caught up in with his character is both highly improbable and impossible to resolve. So.

It's time to cut.

Given how many problems this will solve, I should be happy. But it's impossible to not feel a little gloomy about all those wasted pages.

July 30, 2009

Do you write in your books? Or, Against Underlining.

Reading this Guardian blog post on marginalia, I was wondering how many people out there write in their books. I don't, as a rule. I'm careful about my books: no dog-earing, no reading in the bath unless the book is secondhand and already decrepit or very occasionally (shhhh) a library book. (Librarians, this is not as callous as it seems. I have not dropped a book into the bath since I was nine years old. And yes, I am still haunted by it. It was a Scholastic book club order, forever after marred by its wrinkly pages.)

I do see the utility of marking a book for study, and I've used Post-Its for this purpose. But in a novel? I have never once encountered anything interesting written inside a novel apart from an inscription. More often than not, the things I've found underlined have seemed completely random. I find it baffling at best and vandalism at worst. Then again, perhaps I simply haven't been fortunate enough to inherit a marked-up novel from a top scholar.

I have been known to underline poetry, mostly Blake, and only in a rather unspecial Wordsworth classics edition. And only then with an unsharpened pencil, the barest of fair lines. And for an upcoming short-story collection I'm reviewing, I haven't at all minded writing notes in the bound galleys. Especially since I know there's a lovely fresh hardcover on its way. Mmmm.

The fact is that I like to come to a page unmolested, without something giving an undue weight to a particular phrase. Though it might be interesting to re-read something and try and discover if you still value whatever it was you thought important enough to highlight the first time around...

What do you think?

July 19, 2009

Judging stories

I recently finished a stint as one of several first-readers for a literary journal's fiction contest. I had a stack of 50 stories to read, which I had to whittle down to a top five that were sent on to the final judge(s). This was my first time on the other side of a literary journal, reading submissions instead of writing them, and though I was initially alarmed at what I foresaw as an agonizing slog of painful decision-making, it turned out to be easier than I thought.

There were a number of stories I set aside right at the beginning:

Genre stories: types of stories not published by the magazine in question, e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction ---- I was surprised by how many of these there were. Probably at least a fifth of the pile I had, maybe more. Many of these were well-written, but didn't establish any kind of specialness outside of the traditions they were working in.

Stories with almost nothing at stake, e.g. twenty pages of how to get a kid to eat his vegetables. Ones that were boring from the first page. Again, many were technically well-written.

I was also surprised by the number of stories about someone on his/her deathbed, looking back on a life (a potential variation of nothing at stake, in a way, if there's no present conflict or narrative line through the reminiscences) or set in 50s-style small towns (nothing wrong with this -- I was just taken aback by how many there were).

At the end of this process of removal, my pile of still-viable stories was significantly smaller, and finally there were a few hard decisions, after all. But not as hard as I expected.

I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to try this experiment, but I think I could have sorted the stories into three piles (Yes, Maybe, and No) based on the titles and first sentences alone ---- and the piles would not have looked very different from the ones I ended up with after reading all of the stories. Well, perhaps the Maybe pile would be bigger if my selections were based on just the first sentence. But the No pile would be the same, I'm sure of it.

All in all, it reminded me that the short story is a difficult animal. It is not enough to be a good writer to win a story contest. You need to read a lot of short stories and try to understand how they work. And it REALLY helps if you read previous issues of whatever magazine you're trying to publish in. (Until this experience, I could never understand why so many writing resources harped on this point.)

In the course of reading the submissions, I happened upon this blog post on How Not To Write a Story (written by a writer judging a story contest) and it was an eerie echo of many of the things I saw. Good advice.

The most exciting part of the process, though, was finding the gems and being surprised by where they took me. All the best stories were surprising.

July 18, 2009

Reading American

One of my personal goals lately has been to read more American and British novels, and to that end I decided to read Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, partly because I liked the original cover (pictured) and partly because of all the excellent reviews. And partly because it has laid claim to a spot in the elusive Obama book club.

It has a dreamy kind of pace as it's mostly flashback and meditations, and I found it a bit melancholy, but I liked it very much. Even the cricket parts. The highlights of the novel for me were the lovely sentences and observations, like the following:

On the state of generalized panic in NYC following 9/11:

"Very little about anything seemed intelligible or certain, and New York itself---that ideal source of the metropolitan diversion that serves as a response to the largest futilities---took on a fearsome, monstrous nature whose reality might have befuddled Plato himself" (24).

On a woman visiting the narrator's apartment, realizing he must be separated from his wife:

"Like an old door, every man past a certain age comes with historical warps and creaks of one kind or another, and a woman who wishes to put him to serious further use must expect to do a certain amount of sanding and planing" (109).*

By a fortunate accident, just as I was finishing the novel, the excellent literary blog The Elegant Variation posted a four-part interview with Joseph O'Neill here, here, here, and here. (They're also having a giveaway contest for the novel until tomorrow, Sunday, July 19th, if you want to win a copy for yourself.)

* page references from the Vintage trade paperback.

July 10, 2009

my new favourite book

I've already ranted to anybody who would listen about the awesomeness that is Jessica Grant's novel Come, Thou Tortoise. I've tweeted about how every page just makes me want to hug it (ouch, pointy corners!) and I still haven't come close to describing how much I love this book.

I don't want to summarize the book or try and write a review (you can find some here and here), but I do think it is simply wonderful and you should go read it. It's funny and clever and touching. I cried on and off through the last twenty pages, not so much because it was sad but because it was so perfect and I was sad it was ending. It reminds me of how I felt after reading A Complicated Kindness, and I hope this book becomes as successful as that one because it really deserves it. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't like it, to tell you the truth, and I'm not sure I'd want to be friends with someone who didn't.

I've also since finished reading Making Light of Tragedy, Grant's short-story collection which I've actually had for a while now. I picked it up at the McGill Book Fair after remembering a few writer friends of mine had strongly recommended it to me. It's also terrific: twenty-three short short stories every bit as surprising and hilarious as the novel.

Jessica Grant is also a member of the ever-more-astounding Burning Rock Collective (think Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Libby Creelman). Does Canada have any other writing groups that have seen this kind of success? I'm curious. All I can think of right now is the Montreal Group (more a movement than a group, yes?) and that was a long time ago now.

The only bad thing about this book is its cover.