100 Things About A Novel, Pt. 1

  1. Sometimes music is needed.
  2. Sometimes silence.
  3. This is probably because a novel is a piece of music, like all written things, the language demanding you make a sound as you read it.
  4. Sometimes I have written them on subways, missing stops, like people do when reading.
  5. It begins for me usually with the implications of a situation. A person who is like this in a place that is like this, an integer set into the heart of an equation and new values, everywhere.
  6. The person and situation arrive together, typically. I am standing somewhere and watch as both appear, move towards each other and transform.
  7. If you still don’t understand me, think of how you think differently of Clark Kent once you see him run into the phone booth and change into Superman.
  8. It is like having imaginary friends that are the length of city blocks. The pages you write are like fingerprinting them, done to prove to strangers they exist.
  9. Reading a novel successfully is then the miracle of being shown such a fingerprint and being able to guess the face, the way she walks, the times she fell in love incorrectly or to bad result, etc.
  10. The written novel in the hand tries to be the most precise analogy the writer can make as to what was seen in the rooms and trains and skies and summer nights and parties where the novel was written, as the writer walked in moments with the enormous imaginary friend, before returning to the others.
  11. Writing a novel is sometimes like going to a party and hearing someone call your name outside the window and when you get there, a dragon floats in the night wind, grinning. How did you know my name, you ask it. But you already know it’s yours.
  12. Writing novels can make you a bad employee.
  13. You do write because you have to write, in the end. You do it because it is easier to do than to not do. After all, a dragon has come all this way and it knows your name. And so families should try not to punish their writers.
  14. Coming across a character with your characteristics is like walking into a store and finding a paper doll of yourself.
  15. The more so if you wrote the character.
  16. For the novelists in your life it is better if you pretend they do something else and that it is always attended to, and doesn’t need your attention in the slightest. And then when asked, muster an enormous enthusiasm.
  17. Attempts to find out what the novel is about on other uninvited occasions may meet with an enormous resistance.
  18. This is because their sense of that meaning changes. My sense of a novel changes in the same way my knowledge of someone changes. And I know you are looking for the sort of answer you can rely on later, when you see the book. But that by then, my answer will have evolved, into the entire book, and so whatever I told you will have almost no relationship to what is there. If I seem cagey it is because I am not a liar and hate being considered one by an accident of craft.
  19. Novels are voracious. They move around my rooms stripping half-finished poems of their lines. stealing ideas from unfinished essays, diaries, letters, and, sometimes each other. Sometimes by the time I get to them one has taken an enormous bite from the other.
  20. There is usually no saving the poem in these circumstances, or at least, not yet.
  21. There is no punishing a novel in these circumstances either, because hunger has its own intelligence, and should be trusted. It is dangerous to be a new novel around another new novel in the years they are each being written, but, they know this.
  22. Revision, meanwhile, turns something like laundry into something like Christmas.
  23. This is because a first draft is like scaffolding; often it must be torn down to uncover the thing being built underneath. Which is to say, some second drafts, when they emerge, have very little visible relationship to the first.
  24. And so another way to think of a first draft is as a chrysalis of guesses.

I began this a long time ago, and decided to finish it this year as a series here. Next week, Part 2.



21 thoughts on “100 Things About A Novel, Pt. 1

  1. theothergardener says:

    Somewhere in the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut describes the beginning of a novel, which has yet to be written, where a man is sitting in a cafe and overhears another man on a payphone fighting with his lover. Furious, he slams down the phone and runs out. The man who has overheard the conversation, seeing that the fleeing man has dropped something, picks it up and finds that it is the torn picture of a woman, presumedly the irate man’s lover. Later the main character reads in the newspaper about an unsolved murder: the accompanying photo resembles the woman in the snapshot from the cafe. He’s sure that it is the same woman. The story also shows a picture of the murdered woman’s husband: it is not the man from the cafe. Did our protagonist witness the fight that precipitated the murder? Was it over their relationship, did the woman want to break it off due to feelings of fidelity for her husband? Unable to resist, the man returns to the cafe where the young man who had made the telephone call returns. Our protagonist confronts him but he denies everything, at first saying that he’d never even been there before. When he’s shown the photo, he denies it was ever his. When he’s shown the article in the paper, he points out that the two don’t even look alike. Perhaps he’s just trying to be rid of the protagonist. Or perhaps the woman in the photo really looks nothing like the woman in the paper, and the protagonist is obsessed. We have only their exchange to go on. Here Truffaut (in character, as himself) breaks off.

    I think that is a wonderful way to start a novel. In the middle of a labyrinth, always already lost, ready to work one’s way out by any means.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Thank you for putting into words a lot of things I sometimes have a hard time articulating. I eagerly await part 2. Forgive me if I start coming up with my own answers on the same (or similar) subject. This has gotten me thinking….

  3. Karissa says:

    This is really lovely, and I can identify with so much (all?) of it. Looking forward to the rest….

    I especially like the dragon analogy. Although I have to admit that what came to my mind were those weird winged (AWESOME) beasts in Avatar. Perhaps that’s an apt comparison. You know a novel has chosen you because it attempts to kill you. While you lasso it and try to tame it, it tries to eat you, throw you off its back, claw your eyes out, and screech horribly in your ear. But you persist, in hopes that “the bond” will be made and that you will soar above the landscape with full control and wonder at the power of the world below you………. Now if only I could somehow bond with some magical tree tentacle and take dictation on how to WRITE this beast of a novel…

    Okay, maybe I’m having too much fun seeing how far I can stretch this metaphor. This is what happens when you (inadvertently) watch Avatar twice in a week.

    In any case, kudos. 100 eh? This should be a good read.

  4. Rafael says:

    Sometimes music is needed – I couldn’t agree more. I often rewrite sentences not only for grammatical errors, but for their music as well. No matter how long they are, they have to slide off the tongue well. 🙂

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