Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Writing of Any Book Poses Some Insoluble Problem All Its Own

I'm back to loving my verse-novel-in-progress, hugging myself with joy at every new poem added to the growing stack of pages. It isn't that I found a way to solve the chief problem with the book that was giving me those intense pangs of doubt. I just found a way to resign myself to it.

For I've come to believe that every book - at least every book I write - but maybe any book anybody writes - poses some dire problem for its author that simply can't be solved.

Take my book How Oliver Olson Changed the World. On a school visit I saw a bulletin-board display of student work for the following assignment: Give an idea for how YOU would change the world. Ooh, this could be a book! I knew right away that my main character would have to be the kid in the class least likely to change the world, right? I decided to make him an unlikely world changer because of his over-protective "helicopter" parents, from whom he'd have to break free somehow in the process of engaging with this particular assignment.

But here's the insoluble problem: given that the whole story is about a passive, inert, non-world changing kid who FINALLY comes into his own, my main character has to be a passive, inert, non-world changing kid. But a classic weakness in manuscripts is that the main character is passive, not active. We want to read about someone who drives the action of his own story. So from minute one my book had a fatal, unfixable flaw.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

My book Zero Tolerance is about a goody-good girl who has never been in trouble until the day she grabs her mother's lunch bag by mistake, a bag that happens to contain a knife to cut her mother's apple. Dutiful, docile girl that she is, she instantly turns the knife in to the lunchroom lady, only to find herself facing mandatory expulsion under her school's zero tolerance for drugs and weapons. The fatal, unfixable flaw in this one: Sierra is initially self-righteous enough that she doesn't engage the reader's sympathy, but she has to be this way so that she can come to question her previous unthinking acceptance of adult authority.

All I could do was write the book anyway.

In my current work-in-progress, about two sixth graders trying to save one of the world's hundreds of endangered languages, my main character faces two extremely serious crises, both in her family and in her deepest friendship, and now has to find a new language for talking about things she has long avoided talking about. What made me turn against the book was that I dreaded writing a bunch of poems with people talking, talking, talking, especially since the book is first person, so the main character was already doing all this talking, talking, talking. Talking heads - ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking - double ick! Talking heads that won't stop talking about how important it is to talk - triple ick!

But. . . this IS a book about language, after all - about losing languages - about trying to get them back -  about groping toward finding your own language to say what has to be said. It's HAS to have a lot of talking about talking.

So all I can do is write the book anyway.

EVERY book has an insoluble problem. So what?

All we can do as authors is try to add enough compensating wonderfulness that readers will read it - and maybe even love it - anyway.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Defeating the Demons of Doubt

For several weeks now, I have been working on a book I love.

I've been working on it for an hour a day, dubbing this my "Hour of Bliss." To amp up the bliss, I have my beloved hourglass at the ready - and my fail-proof Swiss Miss hot chocolate - and a velvety soft blanket to spread over me as I lie on the couch - and even beautiful flowers to inspire me to greater beauty in my prose.

I posted this picture a few weeks ago, as I was starting to gather my ideas for this book, but I'll post it again here as the "Before" picture of writing bliss.
The book I'm working on is a verse novel, a form I've been yearning to try: a novel told entirely in poetry (though admittedly much of the poetry is on the prosy side).

Its central idea is one I've been drawn to for years: two sixth-grade friends discover that hundreds of languages worldwide are going extinct, and they decide to try to save one: to learn what they can of it, so that, because of them, there will be at least two more speakers of this endangered language on the planet. It's a doomed dream, of course, because having two sixth-grade kids in Colorado learn a few words of a dying language on the other side of the globe is hardly going to bring it back to life again. But I LOVE doomed dreams - who doesn't? And their friendship is also dying - and much of what the protagonist believes about her family turns out not to be true.... The book will be a beautiful metaphor on loss... and on finding the right language to make sense of that loss.

In short, this book, tentatively titled The Lost Language, will be a PROFOUND AND IMPORTANT BOOK FOR THE AGES!! WRITTEN BY ME!!!

For the first two weeks, I was besotted with the book and everything about it. I love writing poems, and when I read my poems, I think they are wonderful. (In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says all poets are like this: "they dearly love their own poems, and are fond of them as though they were their children." Oh, that Aristotle was right about so many things!)

But now, almost a month into the writing, I don't think the book is profound or important.

I cringe at the poems, if you can even call them "poems" at all.

Would two kids really think they could save a language in this way? Would other kids want to read about them trying to do it? Does the deep, dark stuff in the book come out of nowhere? Does it emerge too late in the story and get resolved too easily?

Oh, why couldn't that first burst of bliss go on forever?

Now that the demons of doubt have emerged, I have to find some way to defeat them - or at least to silence them enough to keep on writing.

Here is what I am working hard at telling myself:

1. All writers feel this way at this stage of a project. I have always felt this way at this stage of a project. Why should this time be any different?

2. It's exceedingly unlikely that this book is either as fabulously wonderful as I thought it was last week or as totally worthless as I fear it is now.

2. If this book is like all of my other books, there are probably some lovely things in it and some things that need to be slightly revised, and some things that need to be massively revised, and some things that will have to be jettisoned completely. (But as the reliably gloomy Annie Dillard points out in The Writing Life, sometimes, "The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part that was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin." Sigh....

3. This is why I found myself a wonderful critique group and wonderful critique partners. After they read my pages, they will be able to tell me when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. When I'm done revising in light of their comments, I'm lucky to have an amazing editor who will do the same.

4. However flawed this book is, its flaws can be identified and remedied only if I keep on writing, that is to say, doggedly, hopelessly, patiently, ploddingly write a few more poems tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that.

While I'm tired (at least right now) of the old chestnut that it's the journey, not the arrival, that matters, it's kind of true. For the fact remains that I had two weeks of writing bliss - BLISS!

Poet Sara Teasdale wrote as the last lines of her poem "Barter": "For a breath of ecstasy, give all you have been or could be." She could have written the same about a breath of bliss - and I had two whole weeks of it.

Let the demons of doubt howl all they want: I had those two weeks of bliss, and that is something even they can never take away.