Speaking of marathon running (as a metaphor for writing), my training regimen for the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon kicked off last Tuesday evening. I’m following this Runner’s World plan, which served me well last time. It’s still the “beginner’s” plan, but my intention is to replace the uphill runs (usually 4-milers that include a certain portion to be run uphill) with tempo runs (runs where you go at a faster-than-comfortable pace for a certain amount of time). My main concern is increasing my speed, not contending with hills (of which there are surprisingly few in the Pittsburgh course).
As I set out, only 12 miles into what will add up to around 300-400 miles of training runs (Oh God.), I’m optimistic about dropping my time by another 10+ minutes. I plan to cross-train more aggressively this time around. For a start, I expect to swim more consistently than during my Philadelphia marathon training, when I took it up more than halfway through my regimen. Perhaps more promisingly, I’ve enrolled in a cross-training program, offered by (apparently famous?) orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vonda Wright and sanctioned by the Pittsburgh Marathon. It begins next month, but I attended an orientation session that I found grueling even in its abbreviated form. The emphasis is on building the core muscles, strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles, and paying some attention to the arms as well. It should be a great addition to my training, not least of all because it’ll be an indoor workout during the worst of the Pittsburgh winter (which, so far, has been nasty).
As mentioned previously, Cathy Day had some interesting and useful thoughts on novel writing versus short story writing in an essay at The Millions. Over at her blog, Cathy posts an “outtake” from that essay that concerns making the jump from writing stories to writing a novel. I don’t have anything considered to say about it, other than 1) to be excited to see someone linking to Nidus, the University of Pittsburgh’s defunct-and-all-but-forgotten online literary magazine (for which I was once a lowly fiction reader, and which is a kind of predecessor to Hot Metal Bridge); and 2) to be slightly amused at all the metaphors building up around the process of writing a novel: to the marathon running one, Cathy adds Dan Chaon’s architecture/dark field simile, plus E. L. Doctorow’s night driving comparison. I feel like a person can get lost within the walls of all these competing metaphors. Not that you’d ever lose sight of the fact, but as someone thinking a lot about the process of writing a novel, it’s good to remember that what writing a novel is like, exactly, is crafting a well-paced, dramatically satisfying long-form story that includes fully fleshed-out characters who change over the novel’s course, theme, conflict, and emotional resonance, all rendered in aesthetically pleasing prose.
If you’re inside a particular literary circle already, this is old news to you. If not, writer and teacher (formerly in Pitt’s MFA program) Cathy Day has an insightful article over at The Millions entitled “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” (Her original title was the less-provocative “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book.'”) Basically, it makes the point that most creative-writing programs are centered around the short story, rather than the novel, and goes from there.
It’s fascinating reading for anyone who’s concerned with this stuff. I suspect it’s even more crucial if you’re teaching a creative writing class, or enrolled in one; it looks like there’s been tons of commentary below the article itself.
For myself, I found the “problem” Cathy Day points to weirdly inspiring. (Quotes around “problem” because, as per her original title, it’s not so much a problem as it is the state of things, for better or for worse; she suggests “think[ing] outside the workshop” but isn’t more specific than that, which is fine since the piece is more a conversation-starter than a prescription for change.)
And by that I mean that I’m pleased to know that the novel remains outside the reach of academia. I don’t believe in the “MFA effect” or that there really exists an “MFA story.” In fact, I kind of hate that kind of argument. And yet, I do think that MFA programs have had a leveling effect on the craft side of things, allowing lots of decent writers to craft good-enough stories that eventually find homes in journals but which are not often worth reading. I guess that’s harsh, but my experience with most lit mags is more akin to a buffet than a feast: I try a little of this story, then move on to the next. Most are well-written, but fail to convince me to care about what happens in them.
I like, by contrast, that writing a novel remains a major feat, a challenge that workshops can prepare one for, but only so much. Cathy Day cites John Barth’s distinction of “sprinters” and “marathon runners” among writers, and I like that. Plenty of people run a marathon each year: I’ve seen estimates of about 500,000 Americans. But that’s something like five percent of all the people who ran at least one road race in a year, and less than two percent of Americans. It’s a strikingly uncommon phenomenon, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to do.
Both novel writing and running a marathon are difficult because of the sheer volume of work that goes into both. A personal trainer can give you tips on marathon training, and might even accompany you on a few runs. But unless he or she is really well-paid and/or really dedicated, you’ll be doing some of those runs alone, and you’ll have to get yourself up at 6 a.m. at least some of the time. The same idea seems to hold when it comes to novel writing, and it’s this problem that Cathy Day illuminates: a workshop can do a really good job evaluating the first chapter of your novel, but after that the volume of work it would take to properly critique the thing becomes prohibitive.
I guess that that’s what I like, that for some things the only answer is to work through it. Sure, there are running groups organized around a specific race, and you can form a group of friends who’re all writing their novel. But you’ve got to press every key yourself, just like you’ve got to take every stride. The act of keeping it up, of getting down to work and keeping your seat, isn’t something anyone else can teach. And I like that.
. . . on books you don’t enjoy reading, that is.
For most of the new year, I’d been working on Adam Levin’s mammoth (i.e., 1,030-page) tome The Instructions. And for most of that time, I was waiting for it to go somewhere. Finally, on page 272, I put it aside for a little while. I picked up Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics), have found it to be awesome, and am now reconciling myself to the fact that I probably won’t be going back to The Instructions. It will join Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospitalon my bookshelf as over-long, over-hyped novels, published by McSweeney’s, that I found to be all sizzle and little steak (though in both cases I didn’t/won’t finish, so I should really be less confident about dismissing them; all I can fairly say is that both novels completely lost forward momentum, making their enormous length (700+ pages in the case of The Children’s Hospital) unjustified and thus all the more tedious).
It got me thinking about the ethics of giving up on any book, no matter how little I’m enjoying reading it. I’m sure lots of people are like me in that the thought of giving anything up carries a certain stigma. Even considering giving up on a dull book is a new phenomenon for me. I suspect the stigma of quitting comes from years and years of schooling, when I literally couldn’t have stopped reading something for fear of failing class. But bundled up with that fear is the idea that with any book, no matter how dense and seemingly terrible, if you can just push to the end, there will be something revelatory in the experience of having finished it; that’s very much the implicit promise an English teacher makes when he/she assigns you to read 1984 or Julius Caesar.
But once you recognize a stigma as coming from your years of schooling, it’s fun to celebrate the fact that you’re no longer in school by defying said stigma. I’m going over my list of books read in 2010 (yes, for the first year I kept a list) and realizing that it was a banner year for flaunting my ingrained prejudice against quitting books. I thought I’d share my list of abandoned books (which I also penciled in, mainly so that, if I’d ended up reading like 17 books, I could comfort myself by looking at all the books I also spent time on without finishing), for whatever such information is worth. Read the rest of this entry »
I wanted to share a novel-writing resource I’ve found useful over the last few weeks, as I’ve changed course while working on my novel. As usual, I’ve gone on at length in the run-up to sharing this valuable resource, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for outlining a novel, so I’ll link to it here in case you’d rather not wade through the waist-high verbiage below.
In a nutshell, I became frustrated with the increasing aimlessness of my novel. I had what I thought was a good idea of where it was going, what the various threads were, and so forth. But each scene seemed inessential, even dull. I felt like I was writing only for the purpose of getting that day’s word count in. I could all too easily see to the end of this process, when I’d have a first draft I didn’t care to revise, and would be faced with re-writing the entire thing.
I thought, “What will I do before the second draft to make this less of a mess?” The best answer was that I’d look through, see what I had, and rigorously plot out the second draft based on the storylines and characters I’d worked out. This satisfied me for about thirty seconds before the obvious occurred to me: why not plot it out beforehand?
I’ve never worked that way before. I’m not ideological about it, though; I just think it’s fun to free write, catch a hint of where this thing is going, and then follow it there. I think Stephen King, in his surprisingly great On Writing, describes this method as something like finding dinosaur bones in the ground and then just following the process of excavating them. I’ve found that solid . . . but it’s never worked for me for the novel. Part of what gave me pause as my novel went along in its bumbling fashion was that I’ve been here before. I’ve written two novels, and each one I wrote more than once. That thing I said about getting to the end of a first draft and not caring to revise it? Yeah, I was very much speaking from experience on that one. (I would argue that my first novel is more like three novels, since each one shifted focus quite a bit.)
So I was left with the alternative: to plot. (I should stop and confess this is hardly a new dilemma for a writer to face; so much so, the website for National Novel Writing Month has at least one forum thread dedicated to the “Plotters versus Panters” (i.e., by the seat of your pants) schools of thought, and there are over 70,000 Google results for that search phrase. (Interestingly, “Plotters versus Panthers” turns up about eight times more results. Go figure.))
I looked around the internet for resources or advice on outlining a novel. Read the rest of this entry »