A Post About Plot

Here is how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands.

I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way. I tend to hear the words I write. I don’t think it all out ahead of time.

So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?

This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting?  So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands?  When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.

Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.

It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.

That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.

I wish all I had to do was write.

Taking it down to the sentence level

I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.

Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.

It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across

the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.

Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.

Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.

Trying not to have any new ideas

One of the counter-intuitive aspects of finishing a novel turns out to be the desperate struggle not to have any new ideas. Or only new ideas in the service of problem-solving.

Finishing is a closing-down, a limiting effort, bent on discarding, not on expanding.

Yet sometimes, to finish a scene or section, one can be helped by a new idea.

So here is an example of how the problem-solving aspect of finishing the novel interacts with the need for research and the presence of a fertile imagination. I have to write this scene where the eccentric actress who has disappeared for two weeks after a bizarre solo performance makes her reappearance in her home town. Telling it from inside the car she is riding in felt boring and claustrophobic. It seemed better to tell it from the viewpoint of all the reality TV crews and news crews perched in trees and apartment buildings watching the few roads by which her car could re-enter the town. But then what happened? I started thinking about what kind of symbol this town would come up with, what experience-brand object or theme would arise from the fertile collective consciousness of AmeriBrain, the marketing amygdala of the American OverPsyche, and I thought perhaps a burning Valentine, as her performance happened on Valentines Day and involved lighting a fire on stage, burning her clothes and many items from her past on stage, and then disappearing. I pictured suburban lawns with Flaming Valentines; I imagined young women imitating Lydia’s behavior, which had been reported in the press though no journalists had been allowed into the theater where her performance took place. Then I imagined young women imitating her act of defiance, having their own fashion bonfires. I saw a thousand points of light–piles of cheap, boring, overpriced women’s fashion burning on suburban lawns all across America. So I thought I ought to do a little Internet research on current fashion brands, just to get ideas and a little grounding. I read a BusinessInsider article about the top 10 fashion brands and was amazed to find that Zara was number 1! This novel is all about NumBer One (numb-er) … so I happened on an article about Zara written by … none other than our former colleague at Salon.com, Suzy Hansen. So that was interesting, that Zara does no advertising, that its strategy is to change its offerings so frequently, and price them so low, that if you see something there you have to buy it or it will be gone next week. So then I become interested in Suzy Hansen and what she has been up to and notice that she lives in Istanbul, which is interesting … and find she’s writing a book for FSG about observing America in decline from abroad. And so I thought I would send Suzy an email just to get in touch and ask how the election of Donald Trump might be affecting the publisher’s interest in a book about America’s decline … How Fascinating! How absorbing! How utterly Distracting!

So back to the novel. Now I have an idea. I didn’t really want an idea. I am trying to finish up, limit. But: I did need something vivid with which to make an emblem of Lydia’s return. Now I have this image of all these copy-cat clothes bonfires all across America. And then I think, OK, how to do that? I like news-item pieces and this seemed ideal: AP: A rash of house fires as young women imitate Lydia Favors by making bonfires of unwanted clothes and other items.

The finishing process is necessarily both subtractive and creative. But I have to limit my creative notions to those that actually solve problems. It might be tempting to follow this thread into a whole other subplot. That would be disastrous and might take me off schedule. That will be for another novel. For now, just something quick I can cook up to make her return to town more vivid. And funny. And maybe get Wolf Blitzer in there somehow. Because, to me, Wolf Blitzer is always funny, and seeing him ponder the phenomenon of women creating bonfires of their clothes and burning their houses down just seems amusing.

But fast, see. That’s the thing. I’m trying to get this done. It’s tricky, having new ideas. They must be contained; they must be harnessed to purpose; they can’t drag me off into whole new subplots. That’s my weakness. That’s why this novel has grown like a giant tumor on my laptop. Too many subplots.

OK, everybody, back to work!

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.

Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater.  It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.

I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.

It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.

The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.

So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.

Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.

I have to finish my novel by Jan. 10, 2017 or something really bad will happen

I’m not going to go into why. I’m just going to share the day-by-day problem-solving of a guy who’s been working on the same novel since 1995 and is going to finish it, absolutely, using the techniques in the book Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done. Danelle Morton and I wrote the book on finishing. Now we have to prove that it works.
ranter-rand-cary-headsalon_cary-tennis-col-artSo I am a literary artist at heart. Ahem. No, really. And I am a punk. That’s where I live, emotionally, aesthetically: A hippie jazz-loving punk music loving literary artist who has done a lot of journalism but always in his heart is and was a literary artist.
With problems. Like fears, addictions, neurotic behaviors, self-defeating behaviors, all that. Not your classic “winner.” More like a talented loser who doesn’t know how the world works but watches really carefully to try to understand it and pass as normal.
Anyway, since we’re down to the wire here, I am going to be very much about the mechanical aspects. As of yesterday, I had exactly 7 weeks, 49 days, to accomplish this.
Starting in tomorrow, I will tell my tale, day by day, missing a day here and there but basically I will share with you my story of finishing  a novel as it happens.–Cary T.
p.s. Tell your friends. It’s going to be interesting. It might get dirty. It might get weird. But it will surely be interesting.

Writing and the restless mind

As I sit here (“As I sit here”? “As I sit here”! “As I sit here” is one of the worst, most clichéd and overused beginnings in the history of first-person narrative … and yet … it is germane, as I am indeed sitting here!  So …) as I was saying, as I sit here on the floor in my little room in this little medieval hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino looking out the window over the narrow curving street below with the bakery and the faggots to be burned in the oven (more about that here), I am  noticing my irritability, my bad mood in the morning, and how the urge to write these thoughts down comes as a palliative gesture. It feels better to write these things down. Writing is a refuge for the restless, unquiet mind.

The connection between writing as a useful mental and spiritual exercise, a palliative or even a self-help routine, and writing as a quest for excellence and influence and aesthetic perfection interests me because of the role I play as an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop leader. For as I was sitting here (again: that dead phrase which is yet so useful, for I do sit here a lot; in fact there is more to it than just sitting here; in fact I do not come to be sitting here by chance; I have come to sit here because I know that sitting here will bring some degree of psychological re-grounding, a quieting of the restless and irritable mind that is beating its wings about my head) I was thinking that writing as a way of quieting the mind by focusing on language, and writing as a way of creating something beautiful, are intertwined and mutually supportive. For what writing requires–clarity of mind, care, choice of words, focus, continuity–are also the qualities we seek in quieting the restless mind.

I am all over the place when I am irritated. My wife asks me a simple question — When did you come to bed last night? — and I snap at her: What do you mean when did I come to bed last night? Right after you did! In truth, right after watching a program on the Italian RAI network about Michelangelo, and then a bit about all the notable things that have happened on July 21. When I am irritated, I cannot see clearly. Nor can I sit in the same place long enough for the irritation to dissipate. I am captured by bad feelings into pointless activity. So the two work together. The writing requires a certain state of mind. The state of mind it requires is actually the state of mind in which I wish to be: receptive, long-wave, interested, reflective, alert but not anxious, contented but not heedless.

So that is how I see these two things working together when, for instance, the question arises: Is this workshop  just a kind of group therapy, or does it actually help the writing? I think it helps one get into the state in which writing can occur, and, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, that state is also a salutary mental condition in itself. The quieted mind that is writing is also the mind that is alert, inquisitive, receptive, contemplative, capable of humor and surprise, free to make connections, balanced and serene.

So the workshops don’t so much teach writing per se, i.e. what a particular culture values as good writing and how to emulate that culture’s models for good writing. Rather, they provide a method, a practice, a way to get going with the writing. Improvement and refinement comes naturally once we acquire the practice.

And, along the way, as in the course of writing this short piece, we end up feeling a bit less irritable, able to face the day.

Finally it got hot in Italy

Finally after the rains of May and June the sky went a brutal blue day after day and the ancient stones warmed and the air grew hot  and everyone slowed down, even the animals. The dogs that barked all winter and spring now lie on the concrete and let me pass. Even the motorcycles sound lazy. Now the weather is barefoot, short-haired, slow and workless, without ambition, a weather of waiting, of warm skin and patience, of early mornings and late nights, of swallows and cicadas and midnight tennis and boys playing calcio in the basketball courts.

Looking down at the Loggiato from way up by the Library and the old Etruscan grounds

Looking down at the Loggiato from way up by the Library and the old Etruscan grounds

How it came to be that our apartment door opens onto the Loggiato Vasariano, where in summer people eat pizza at outdoor tables and sometimes watch soccer projected on the wall above our door is that I fell in love with this apartment because it had the best views and the most mystery. It has three views. To the south is the castle Montecchio:

Montecchio in the morning with arrow

To the east is the bell tower of the Chiesa di Collegiata, backlit in the morning sun.

Bell tower in morning mistAnd to the north the window of our bedroom looks over the Piazza del Municipio itself. This is what we saw the other evening out our bedroom window:

Norma looking out the window

 

View from our window (flags flying)
I have just come in from sitting on the wall of the Loggiato Vasariano talking about the heat and Hemingway with my Italian friend Walter who is discontented. Walter is discontented because he loved Florence but he moved to Castiglion Fiorentino to be with his daughter and then his daughter moved to London. Now the Brexit may bring his daughter back to Italy which would make Walter happy.

I do not know too much else. I know we have a writing workshop in France at the end of August and there are still spots available. I know I left the United States and do not want to go back any time soon but maybe eventually to take care of some business in San Francisco and see friends. I know there is a paradox at work in that the same rapacious capitalism that was making life unpleasant in San Francisco also offered us a convenient exit so I am here in exile looking on with horror as America gets weirder and more violent every day.

Drop me a line: Piazza del Municipio, 7, Castiglion Fiorentino (AR) 52043, ITALY

p.s. That red arrow in the picture at the top, that points to our apartment. The castle in the background is Montecchio, and the bell tower is the Chiesa di Collegiata

Letter from Italy

I have this image in my mind of saying goodbye to someone on a river, maybe on the Arno in Florence, on a bridge, maybe the Santa Trinita Bridge, that would do, that would be a good bridge, and I can see the sky, a bluish color, you’ve seen a sky at dusk when it’s bluish,  you know how good it looks.

I’m not sure why the image of saying goodbye to someone comes up. Maybe because I feel I have said goodbye to so many people. There is a big goodbye hanging over me. Like a constant goodbye. Like I should walk around with a big Goodbye sign on me because so many people are now missing from my life, and so much is unfamiliar.

But I love what is unfamiliar. Today for the second time we drove up to Monte San Savino to this little joint that serves lunch but were late for lunch so he made Norma a sandwich and I had a pastry and espresso and aqua frizzante and she had a glass of wine. And then I was antsy. So we walked into that building with a courtyard and then out back is this garden. Sheesh. I’m not Mary McCarthy, you realize. I’m reading The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed and man she is some writer that Mary McCarthy.

So if I were in a conversation with someone and I said, I have this image in my head of saying goodbye to someone on a bridge, and the bridge is over the Arno in Florence and the bridge is the Santa Trinita Bridge that got blown up in WWII and then put back together, and on one side is the Spini Feroni Palace where Salvatore Farragamo has his shoe store and museum, and on the other side is the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute, and somehow that bridge has a hold on me. I stopped there last week and watched a Japanese couple have their wedding photos taken; the bride’s train was 15 feet long and the photo assistant was holding it out and letting it fly in the wind. I photographed it just like everybody else.

Being in Florence feels like a political act but I doubt that it looks like a political act because it is a small, personal act, an act of personal and political necessity, a quiet statement, an act of removal. It is also  the joy of knowing this:  We wanted to, and we did! Driving into the mountains this afternoon, looking across the Valdichiana as the sun came down, we look at each other and we share this knowledge that: We wanted to, and we did. We just took off, like in the middle of the night, and now all the things that were abrading our souls, that were slowly killing us, those things are left behind.

But what of this image of saying goodbye to someone? It is as if a constant goodbye is going on, all the people we used to see that we do not see: We are lonely, there is no doubt about that. Well, I am, anyway. Norma has been swept up by the Castiglionese. Me I think frankly they can take or leave but she has been swept up by the town. Me, I’m the guy who just came here to slow down and stay home and write.

Anyway, I think about this image of the bridge. If I were in therapy maybe the therapist would persuade me to talk about the feelings behind it. And I would do so and probably find something out that you’d think would be totally obvious.

Buried in it is my deep, awful, dispirited feeling about what has happened to America, and what has happened to San Francisco.

Breaking up with San Francisco: How we decided

The way this whole thing started was my wife and I were sitting at the dining room table and I had my head in my hands and at this point I can’t remember but I think it was she who first said, Well, we could sell the house and move to Italy and yes, now that I think about it I’m sure it was she who said that first, not me, because if it had been me saying it then it would have been just another of those frequent outbursts I’m known for, when I want to throw everything over and move to the woods or New York or go camping or start a band or become a lawyer, or move into a tiny apartment or raise llamas except for that last bit I would never want to raise llamas especially in a tiny apartment.

Whereas because it was she who was saying We could sell the house and move to Italy all of a sudden it was a real and serious proposition and I sensed its possibilities immediately as I am the kind who becomes keenly interested all of a sudden if there’s any change or escape in the offing as I am in my heart a desperate soul always looking for a way out of whatever I have gotten myself into, and so I said with I think guardedly less enthusiasm than I was actually feeling, lest she be testing me, Yes, I think we probably could do that. If you are serious.

Ha ha me saying “If you are serious” was a ridiculous role reversal, which I rather enjoyed, getting to play the responsible one for once. Bravo.

And so the dialog continued not much longer in fact along the lines of, Yes, we actually could. Yes. It would make sense. It would be a little crazy but not all that crazy because this house we bought for nothing is worth crazy gazillions now and you have your European passport and we have people in Italy who will guide us and welcome us and make us part of their family and we have business there to support us and rents are reasonable in Castiglion Fiorentino and so is the excellent incredible food and plus we love it there and I think I said it already but you have your European passport and I am married to you. Along those lines.

So you know how things start happening when they seem like “right”? Right? Like it’s almost superstition? So we found by chance the same real estate agent who sold Joan Walsh her house and David Talbot his house and we said OK, we’re on.

Then she, Carren, our agent, whom we love, told us to get rid of everything we own.

Now that bit right there alone could be a whole chapter in a book called How To Turn Your Life Upside Down And Shake It So Everything Falls Out Into a Dumpster. Or how to find a guy named Javier to pick up huge things and carry them out on his head by himself, or how to give your big old Fischer bar piano to Linda Kelly who will put it in her bedroom and sell three of her Grateful Dead books to the movers two of whom were huge mountain men and one regular sized one. It could be.

But here is one interesting thing  along the lines of personal transformation etc. that happened then.

Because we had approximately 1,350 books, I could not decide which ones to keep and which ones to give away until I completely redefined myself as someone who does not keep books. I just did it right on the spot. I said, henceforth, be it known: I am no longer a person who keeps books!

Done! Amazing! So easy!

I do however like books. So the floor refinishers came with their giant sanders and hammers and the real estate agent said here, go up to our place on the Russian River and stay there until it’s over. Which we did, which is why we are there now. And what did I bring with me but the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry edited by Paul Hoover and I am reading Alice Notley.

So things work out. I mean, I’m reading Alice Notley.

Enough for now. More to come. (I think.)