Gears and Ghosts

Gears and Ghosts

A poet friend and I were comparing notes on the writing process recently—sublime fun for nerds. I’m mostly a novelist/essayist, but I secretly write poems sometimes (I guess it’s not a secret now), and I was curious how real poets revise their work. I say “real poets” in contrast to weirdos like me, whose poems sound like Roald Dahl and Twista got high together and collaborated on some seafaring ballads with a sapphic witch in the haunted coastal village of Lustytrousers. I don’t think that’s a genre.

My friend is a poet of the real variety, a very good one indeed, so I was peppering him with questions. Being a kind and curious person, he asked me, in turn, what it’s like writing a novel. As I started to describe the process to him, I realized how absolutely ridiculous it is that anyone manages to write these things.

You are designing and building a haunted house ride all by yourself: the track that snakes through the building, the cart your reader will slide into, the scenery, the lighting, the sounds. The sudden dip or 90-degree turn, the hint of what the end may bring, the payoff when you bring it (or something better). You are building a world to immerse your reader in while engineering a logical but unexpected route through it that will somehow both surprise and satisfy them. Also, the dialogue has to sound as spontaneous and natural as real speech (but in ten different voices, and every line is doing work); and you can ponder big ideas, but don’t be didactic about it; and…

Some fiction writers may be naturally good at all of those things. I suspect most of us start with a knack for a few, and have to figure out the rest.

The part that used to baffle me most was engineering the track—the plot. The early drafts of the novel that became Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair were not so much a story as a… 325-page exploration of a mother/daughter memory trove? That’s if we’re being charitable. It did not have (as a few literary agents would later put it, with frustrating vagueness) “forward motion.”

So—first on my own, later as an MFA student—I began to take novels apart to figure out how their plots worked.

How are these writers making me desire and fear certain things?
How are they managing the push/pull of planting questions,
feeding me enough information so I trust them,
and then planting enough new questions to keep me on the ride?

After many experiments with restructuring, I eventually built Jobs for Girls around a fairly traditional coming-of-age arc. The story beats line up pretty neatly with the three-act structure of many films.

21-year-old me might’ve dismissed that as too conventional, but I suspect it was the right choice for that particular novel; building on those familiar bones, I had room to play with complexity and weirdness in other ways. When all’s said and done, I like that book. It’s been so good to hear that some real live readers like it, too.

I think I can do better, though.

I’m working on a new novel now, and I can already feel how different it is. It’s not a coming-of-age story. It does follow another female protagonist who grows and changes… but it’s also about the question of how we live when the suffering we can witness via our pocket devices so dramatically outstrips our limited human capacity to effect change. It’s about desire; it’s about intimacy with land and faraway loved ones; it’s a story about the uncanny, invisible connections between a broken-down suburban strip mall in the U.S. and a tiny nation 5,000 miles away that cradles an outsize number of humanity’s intangible cultural treasures. When I try to imagine this next novel concluding with one woman having an epiphany and course-correcting her life, I do not feel satisfied.

So I’m returning to questions like: How do novels work? How do writers craft their endings? How are they nudging us, from page 1, to desire or dread a certain outcome?

In my MFA program, we were required to read ~25 books each semester and write “annotations” on them: short essays examining this or that aspect of craft. I loved this: poking around in other writers’ haunted-house rides, examining all the gears and grease, asking questions of the ghosts.

This autumn I’m putting myself through those paces again, but this time I’ll be posting them on this blog, so you can watch if you like. What an exhibitionist.

These will be playful and curious entries rather than formally crafted essays. If this piece you’re currently reading, for example, were to be revised into a formal essay, that opening paragraph would get the axe, because I never did circle this piece back around to the conversation with my poet friend, or poetry at all, or the haunted coastal town of Lustytrousers. Come to think of it, though, I do have some poetry on my reading list. And this series may weave in conversations with other writer friends. And basically my mind is a haunted coastal village. So perhaps that paragraph was foreshadowing. Writers are so tricky like that.

In a few days, I’ll post my first little offering, about a novel I just finished reading: Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein. It’s set in Trinidad in the 1940s. The prose is a dream, the story is brutal and beautiful, and the author crafts a satisfying plot arc using multiple points of view in a way I admired and want to learn from.

And with that—

Thank you for remaining seated for the duration of your ride on
June’s Autumn Autodidactica,
a.k.a. Sublime Fun for Nerds,
a.k.a. Gears and Ghosts: Tinkering in the Guts of Good Books.

Cheers & happy reading,

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