NaNoWriMo Week 6: Now you finish your novel

Even if you made 50,000 words and finished NaNoWriMo, your novel isn't finished yet. You knew this already, right? You know what the haters say: that NaNoWriMo unleashes thousands of terrible novels into the world. It's as if some evil force were holding those poor people captive, forcing them to read every cliched phrase that comes in front of their eyeballs. It's as if they have no taste.

But, of course, the little secret of NaNoWriMo is that it doesn't unleash terrible novels into the world. It releases terrible first drafts into the world. It's an order of magnitude more ridiculous to be scared of first drafts than it is to be scared of novels so the haters round up to make themselves look anything other than silly (to be clear: they are silly. There is no sustainable argument against people doing NaNoWriMo if they choose to).

Ignore those posturing sourpusses. Remember this: not every novelist will be great, but every great novelist started out writing poorly. While the haters complain and don't write their novels, you'll be working on yours to make it better. While the haters yammer on to anybody who will listen about how publishing is failing, you'll be working on your novel. While the haters are apoplectic about that new famous writer who is a terrible prose stylist but selling millions, you'll be working on your novel. And when you publish, they'll turn up at your book release party and tell you how much they admire you, and how they can't can't believe you did it, where did you find the time? And you'll just smile.

If you finished your draft during NaNoWriMo: Nice work! You deserve the good feelings you have. You really did accomplish something notable, and proved to yourself that you could write a novel. Now: put it away in a cupboard for a month or two. Set an alarm, maybe for February, for when to take it out again. Believe it or not, you'll forget more than you can imagine about this book.

If you didn't finish your draft during NaNoWriMo: Heed these words: there is a big difference between not-finishing and failing. You have not failed, you just didn't finish one goal. It's okay to not make a goal, but if you still want to write, let's set some other goals that work better for your life. You already have a start! How many words did you write? Any movement forward is a net positive.

Now here's what you need to do now: write every day, but slow down. Walter Mosley, in his great book This Year You Write Your Novel, talks about staying in the "dream" of your story. He says that you need to write every day to keep that dream alive, and I agree. Set your pace lower — 500 words, 250 words if you must — but make some progress every day. Free yourself from that 50,000 word number, and focus on the smaller daily reach. Then, stop when the book is done, not when you reach a some arbitrary internet month number. Stop when you feel right about closing all the loose ends. Then put the book in a drawer for a few months to clear your head.

Now that you have a first draft done, you need to know how to finish it. The best advice I ever got on this was from Maria Semple, during a class at Hugo House (You should take a class at Hugo House if you are in Seattle. It is an invaluable resource for writers. Perhaps, he humbly offers, this one). She outlined her strategy for drafting, something that always confounded me before she offered this very smart framework. It saved me from myself, and enabled me to finish my novel.

So, what is a draft? It is one pass through your manuscript, from front-to-back. Each draft has a different goal to it. Maybe you will find that you prefer yours to be different than what is offered here, but creating a framework, and sticking to it, offers the kind of constraint that allows you to be productive. Give hers a try, then tweak as needed for your own needs.

FIRST DRAFT

You've already done it, right? That was what NaNoWriMo was for. Your first draft is shitty and stupid. Getting it done was your main task. Semple said "A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel. A bad novel can be improved. Not writing a novel is to lose the war without a battle."

So, good for you, you got it finished! Now put it in a drawer and wait a few months. You need the time to let the story slip from your head. You have to wait until you're just a bit excited to read it again. There will be an itch, a wonder, that inhabits you after a bit of time. You will start thinking about your novel. It will start filling in the cracks of time in your life. This is the time to approach the second draft.

SECOND DRAFT

Print it out. Find an armchair. Perhaps, rent yourself a hotel room. Somewhere you will not be interrupted, and can sit inside the world you've created. Put your computer away. Sit with a pen, and read.

The pen is for quick marks only — you are not editing here, you are reading and making marks when things stand out to you. Limit them to just a few, such as:

  • Checkmark when you really like something.
  • B when something is boring.
  • W for wording, when something is garbled.
  • C means confusing.

This is the only time in writing your novel that you will be able to experience it like a reader will. Do not take notes. Or, rather, only take very short notes in margins. Trust yourself, that if you think of something brilliant, it will stay with you. You will remember.

Something amazing will happen here: the themes will start to emerge. You probably won't even really know what they are until now. That's because you need to read the book to find out what it's really about. If you see a theme pop up, write it in the margin quickly. Just one word — "Flowers", say, or "ink", or "boats" — if you can.

The second draft is the longest draft. You are implementing the questions and issues from the marks you took. Think of it like a knot — one of Maria's favored images — in the first draft you took string and put it on the table in a very loose shape. Now you are correcting the lay of it so that it will work when, in later drafts, you pull it tighter.

Fix those big issues, punch up the themes. Work through the whole book from front-to-back, and when you are done, you have finished the second draft.

THIRD DRAFT

Now you pump up the details. You make it authentic. You know how writers always advise to not do too much research too early? To not fact-check yourself as you're writing, because that can be a black hole of time when you should be writing? Now is when you do it. Now is the time to revel in it.

Answer all the questions. Read that book about foot binding. Look up if that car model was introduced the year your book was set, or the year after. Google the best-seller list from when your protagonist was nine, so you know that she can be reading the book you said she was. Find out if the Lilac Vegetal your villain wears is more floral or more woody. And my favorite: use Wolfram Alpha to research the weather on the days you set your book, if, like mine was, they're in the past. Use Google Ngram viewer to find out if that term you think is anachronistic was actually in use at the time.

Maria never lets anybody read her work before finishing the third draft, and I think that's smart. No agents, no friends, no partners. This is when you share your work. But of course, you are not done yet. You've only pulled the knot tighter.

FOURTH DRAFT

The fourth draft is all about theme. In your second draft you wrote them down, and so you were more aware of them. But how can you draw them out? Without making them on-the-nose, how can you bring them to life? How can they color a scene? What little metaphors can you tuck in corners where close readers will find them, little puzzles to unwrap?

Those are the jobs of the fourth draft. Extend the intellectual life of your book. Pull the knot tighter still.

FIFTH DRAFT, SIX DRAFT, SEVENTH DRAFT (AD INFINITUM)

Now you're into line editing. You loop, and loop, and loop. Infuse it with life. Kill cliches. Replace vagaries with specifics. Read the work out loud to yourself to find the clunky passages. Every time you go through is one draft. Keep going until the things you change start making the work worse, rather than better. Keep going until you can't pull the knot any tighter.

There is no set time for how long this should take. NaNoWriMo, in one way, is a glorious lie. It's a brain trick to get you to make a first draft, and now that you've done that, you see what's ahead. You see what novelists go through to bring a work into the world, and if you want to join their ranks, now you have a fundamental understanding of how to get there.

We can't wait to read your book. Make sure to send us a copy when it's long-last in print, okay?

Against the Bad Sex in Fiction Award

We're generally in favor of awards here at the Seattle Review of Books. We don't put too much truck in them — awards are not the end of a certain type of literary conversation; they're the beginning. But (as long as they don't overly favor straight white men) awards are fun, and it's nice to publicly recognize the hard work that goes into the writing of books.

There's one award we don't much like, though. That's the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which was just given out at the beginning of this month. We're all for criticism and for pointing out bad writing— of course we are — but we don’t believe in shaming authors who dare to write about sexuality. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award would be acceptable if the organizers also gave out an award for the Best (or maybe Hottest?) Sex Scene in Fiction, but they don’t. They only ridicule, they never commend.

The thing is, sex scenes are incredibly hard to write. We’ve talked to some authors who have said they’re the single hardest scene to write. If you’re too vague it can sound abstract and puritanical. Get too explicit and you’re writing erotica, a label which carries with it a whole other set of expectations. Write a bad sex scene and, well, critics will mock you for it and you might just win yourself the most notorious award in the literary field, the closest thing to The Razzies that exists in the book world.

Quite frankly, we want to read more sex in our fiction: more sex scenes, more adventurous descriptions of sex, more vibrant depictions of all kinds of human sexuality. Sex in fiction is not just for titillation — though it is for that too. Sex also tells us about characters, it advances the plot, it develops the theme. And it helps to normalize sex! We don’t need another cultural outlet to inform us that sex is something embarrassing and bad. We’ve got plenty of those already.

Look, of course there are bad sex scenes. And they shouldn’t be celebrated, and bad writers shouldn’t be coddled. But by singling out bad sex scenes for shaming — why not an award for the most ridiculous scene of violence? — the organizers of this award are sending exactly the wrong message to authors.

So here’s the thing: if you’ve read an especially good sex scene this year, tell us about it. Tweet at us. Send us an email. Let us know on Facebook — either post it on our wall or, if you’re the bashful type, send us a message. We promise to keep your identity private, but if you turn us on (heh) to some good examples, we’ll share them with our readers. Let’s celebrate good sex in fiction, not shame the bad sex.

Portrait Gallery: Ellen Swallow Richards

Each week, Christine Larsen creates a portrait of a new author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know

Today is the birthday of Ellen Swallow Richards. She was an American chemist and author, the founder of the Home Economics movement, the first American woman to earn a degree in chemistry, the first woman admitted to MIT, and the first woman to teach at MIT.

She was a feminist (some say the first eco-feminist), and was an environmental scientist who studied air quality, groundwater, soil, and food. She authored books about science for use in the home, particularly about nutrition and sanitation, bringing a scientific rigor to what once was the realm of hand-me-down tales.

You can see all of her books on Archive.org, but, you the one you might find most interesting is The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers.

We're big fans of Seattle poet EJ Koh, and we think you should be big fans of EJ Koh, too. If you need an introduction, you should read this interview with Koh published in Hoctok. I especially like that the interview is broken up with Koh's poetry; it's surprising that more literary interview outlets don't liberally intersperse their interviews with actual examples of the writers' work. Seeing an author's thoughts and words in such close proximity to each other provides a more immersive experience for the reader.

Michel Houellebecq and the limitations of satire

Published December 03, 2015, at 1:06pm

Paul Constant review Michel Houellebecq's Submission.

Michel Houellebecq has long been regarded as France's most brilliant satirist. His latest book imagines a France under Islamic rule, and it violates a very important rule of satire.

Read this review now

Thursday Comics Hangover: A vision of normalcy

Every once in a while, a truly individual voice will emerge out of the morass of conventional superhero comics. These occasions are always a surprise — nobody could have predicted that Swamp Thing would become a convergence point between art and commercial comics until Alan Moore and Steve Bissette landed on the book, and nobody expected much of Daredevil until Frank Miller was allowed to get experimental with the character. It’s too early to draw a comparison Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision to those two examples, but two issues into the series, it’s already clear that the book is something special.

The premise of The Vision is that the Avengers’ resident density-controlling synthezoid has constructed a nuclear family (his wife, Virginia, and his two children, Viv and Vin, look just like him, purple skin and all) and moved to the suburbs. This has been done with this character before — in the 1980s, Marvel produced a couple of limited series centered around the married life of the Vision and Scarlet Witch — and superhero comics often flirt with suburban life as a source of comedy. But King is doing something very different here, and it doesn’t read like any other superhero comic on the stands today.

In the first issue, Virginia made a choice to protect her children, and in the second issue she constructs an elaborate fiction to hide the truth of what happened from Vision. The pair sit awkwardly on a couch, dressed like preppy humans in a clothing catalog, and they begin to understand the complexity of married life. “They could hear the stutter and roll of a skateboard riding through their street,” the captions explain….

…the lazy caw of birds yelling in the wind. The bland, passive roar of a 757 cutting into a cloud. These are the noises of their every day, the banal background to their new home. They used to sound so pleasant.

The Vision drops a godlike, aloof figure into the American suburbs of John Cheever, but it’s not interested in easy satire. Instead, it deals with the discomfort of what happens when you finally get everything you ever wanted, and the vertiginous moment when you realize that life just keeps going after you achieve your dreams.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s art perfectly resonates with the hollow echo accentuated in King’s script. He’s not interested in making the Vision and his family look human, but they’re not superhero-idealized, either. Instead, they look like they’re trying to behave like humans. They move with a kind of uncomfortable emulation, except for the moments when they take to the skies. When they fly, they’re graceful and lean. It’s one of the few times they’re not trying to pass for normal.

We’re only on the second issue of The Vision, which means things could yet go totally wrong. But the first issue ended with one of the darkest twists I’ve read in a Marvel comic, and the second issue is cloaked in an appealing sense of impending doom. You get the sense as a reader that if King and Walta are allowed to make future issues of The Vision as uncomfortable and full of yearning and quiet moments as these first two issues, you could be watching the start of something truly memorable.

Teju Cole published a poem at the New Inquiry in response to today's terrible news out of San Bernardino. It's a moving reminder that poetry can respond to current events, can be as timely as a thinkpiece, can be so much more meaningful than a hot take on Twitter.

The fabulous Short Run Comix & Arts Festival is throwing a holiday fundraising art auction, and it's packed with all sorts of one-of-a-kind gift ideas. Highlights include:

If you hate eBay auctions, every single one of these offers comes with a "buy now" option that will save you from the drama of waiting to see if you've been auction-sniped. They're all unique gifts, and they benefit a great cause. The auction closes on December 4th, so get in there right now.

At 2 pm, Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison, author of novels like This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! and the excellent The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving will be doing an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Follow this link and, well, ask Evison anything. In my experience, he's always been remarkably open in interviews, from the business side of things to what he thinks of other writers. I can pretty much guarantee he'll be painfully honest, which makes this an interesting opportunity for those burning questions you've always wanted to drop on a novelist.

A big feud over A Little Life

In the December issue of the New York Review of Books, Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard takes on reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn for his review of the Doubleday novel A Little Life. Howard's letter concludes: "At bottom Mendelsohn seems to have decided that A Little Life just appeals to the wrong kind of reader. That’s an invidious distinction unworthy of a critic of his usually fine discernment."

This is not the only charge levied against this particular reviewer and this particular review. As Bookforum noted, Mendelsohn was recently accused by the author Jennifer Wiener of "Goldfinching," or diminishing popular books written by and for women.

I have yet to read A Little Life — I know! I know! But sometimes life gets in the way — so I can't comment extensively on the matter. But I'm disappointed by Mendelsohn's response to Howard, which concludes with an admission that the word "duped" in his review of A Little Life might have been a poor choice, but that "One only wishes that [Howard] had imposed as stringent an editorial oversight on his author as he would do on her reviewers." It feels way too flip and combative a response to a serious charge.

Ideally, a reviewer should always be able to parse a book from its fans. But sometimes that's impossible; sometimes a book's success becomes part of the story of the book, as inextricable as its plot and main characters. And sometimes a reviewer has to address an author's persona in the course of a review. (Here's a great example of that.) But when a review takes on the supposed audience of the book as part of a broader argument against the supposed self-victimization of college students, as Mendelsohn's review does, that's perhaps a step too far. It's one thing to extrapolate from a book's themes into a larger conversation about society. It's another thing to imagine an audience for the book and then use that imagined audience as an example of what's wrong with society.

I also find it distasteful that Mendelsohn's review overtly refers to the gendered perspective of A Little Life as "bear[ing] a superficial resemblance to a certain kind of 'woman’s novel' of an earlier age" and then immediately accuses the book of having the structure "of a striptease." The sexist condescension there — the diminishment of the book, first as a new version of a "woman's novel," and then as a stripper — feels very purposeful to me.

As Howard notes at the beginning of his letter to the editor, authors should almost always leave negative reviews alone. Rarely will you encounter a good reason to argue with a critic over a negative review; you're not going to change the critic's mind, and the argument is going to make the author look petty and small. But in this case, I'm glad that Howard stepped forward. Mendelsohn crossed a couple of very important lines in his review, and Howard was right to carry this conversation over into the public sphere.

Holiday gift book recommendation #1: Thing Explainer

(Every Wednesday in December before Christmas, we’ll talk to a Seattle bookseller about the gift book they’re most excited about this season.)

Alex Gholz, bookseller at Third Place Books Ravenna, has eclectic tastes. His recent reading of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes put him on a brief space opera kick — he’s right now reading Alatair Reynold’s Revelation Space, and after that he’s planning to dive into Seth Dickinson’s political fantasy novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant. But just when you think you’ve got Gholz’s reading tastes figured out, he casually mentions that he just finished his first Oliver Sacks book, Seeing Voices, and then he can’t say enough good things about Lev Golinkin’s memoir A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, which he encountered as part of “an Eastern European history binge.”

So what kind of a gift book does a sci-fi lover who adored both Oliver Sacks’s history of ASL and a hilarious account of early-90s eastern European immigration recommend to shoppers looking for the perfect gift book? Gholz is a passionate advocate for XKCD cartoonist Randall Munroe’s new book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

Thing Explainer, Gholz explains, is about “making complex science accessible through images" and “the thousand most common words in English." Munroe explains "everything from how a car engine works to how the ISS international space station flies around Earth in orbit — or I should say falls around Earth in orbit.” He loves how Munroe makes complex ideas accessible through “very clear images and even clearer words.”

Gholz says he “grew up on David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. I spent days and weeks and months looking at that book, well into adulthood.” Thing Explainer, he says, is like “a new edition of Macauley’s book, in some ways.”

So who is Thing Explainer for? “It’s a book that both parents and children can enjoy together and individually. You’ll spend hours going over” the illustrations, Gholz promises, which are “drawn almost like blueprints.” He continues, “I think this book would be perfect for basically any parent who has a child between maybe ages 7 to twelve and wants to share an experience of iguring out what’s going on with science today.” He can say from experience it's a book that even an intellectually voracious reader will return to again and again.

Two housekeeping issues we'd like to share with our readers:

  • If you're a Hugo House member, you can now sign up for "The You Review of Books," a book reviewing class taught by myself and Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan. We hope to teach you how to communicate with art, how to be a better reader, and how to appreciate book reviewing as an art form. If you're not a Hugo House member, you'll be able to sign up for the class starting next week. But you really ought to be a member of the Hugo House.

  • Next week, Martin and I will be reading at Phinney Books to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Dock Street Salon, a very fun reading series that combines readings and informal chats in a laid-back setting. If you have any questions about this here website or our upcoming class, please drop on by. We hope to see you there.

Sitting in the middle of a clock

Published December 01, 2015, at 11:51am

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore review Mairead Case's See You in the Morning.

Mairead Case's debut novel "is a love story if a love story means trying to become someone who doesn’t always feel shut off."

Read this review now

The fifth issue of Seattle-based literary magazine the James Franco Review, in which every submission is treated "as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention," is rolling out now. The first piece of issue five to see publication is a collection of poems from Aricka Foreman, including "Monologues in Bars By White People With Good Intentions" and the especially haunting "Consent Is A Labyrinth of Yes." Go take a look, and keep an eye out for the rest of issue five, which will be rolling out in the days to come.

This month, we celebrate the life of Madeline DeFrees

Last month, the Seattle poetry world lost one of its giants when Madeline DeFrees passed away. DeFrees was one of the most vibrant, evocative poets the Pacific Northwest has ever produced, and the Seattle Review of Books wanted to find some way to honor her life, and to bring her work to new audiences. Here’s one way to do that: every Tuesday for the month of December, we’ll present a DeFrees poem. We’re going to move chronologically through her body of work with every passing week of the month.

The first poem we chose to highlight, “Matinal,” is from DeFrees's 1964 collection From the Darkroom, and it’s a great early exploration of the themes you’ll find in all her work: that friction between the duty of religion and the siren call of poetry, the single lines that themselves could be their own poems (“usual as air” is just about as near to a perfect line of poetry as I can recall reading,) the clarity of the imagery (the sound of the clock, the early morning “tryst,” the “soggy May” before the sun rises.)

I want to personally thank Copper Canyon Press co-publisher Joseph Bednarik for generously giving us permission to run these poems of DeFrees’s this month. Copper Canyon is that rarest of publishers: they understand the sacredness of their charge, the fact that they are not the owners of the words they publish so much as their temporary stewards. Quite simply, DeFrees could not have chosen better guardians for her legacy; Copper Canyon will keep her poems alive for generations to come.

Come January and the new year, we will continue our charge to run new poems by Seattle-area poets. We’ve been publishing an excellent chain of poets since July, and this temporary detour into DeFrees’s work is not so much a distraction from that mission as a chance to renew our focus and remind us why it’s necessary to publish the works of Seattle poets. The Seattle tradition of poetry may not be as long as, say, the New England tradition, but it is a proud story, built on the works of immortal geniuses like DeFrees. There are hundreds of poets out there right now, continuing her work. And we’ll continue to bring their work to you in the months and years to come.

Matinal

Four-thirty, morning. Unearthly time
by nuns' or any standard;
almost, this soggy May, monastic.
I close my door on sleep
for other sanctuary,
preceded by the birds
who long ago devised
their daylight saving.
Now, saving the daylight,
no other shape abroad
but the swinging step of rain
on rain-soaked turf.

Unbreakable as doom
five streetlamps watch me come
to keep my tryst.
Nailed each to a man-made cross,
usual as air,
we watch, mechanical,
dawn light dispelling glare;
hooding our early brightness in a cloud
tempers the shock
and orders lonely emanations
by a clock.

Be sure to read these Nicole Sarracco poems

Our thanks to sponsor Chatwin Books, who wanted to make sure you were familiar with Nicole Sarracco. They're publishing her debut novel Lit by Lightning, and to celebrate that, we're running three poems from her 2004 debut book of poems Karate Bride.

Chatwin Books is a local affair, tackling ambitious publishing projects of high quality. Sarracoo is a unique voice, and Karate Bride is a great way to get to know her work before reading Lit by Lightning.

They're our partner is bringing you new content everyday, and making sure that internet advertising isn't all bottom feeders. We want nothing less than to make internet advertising 100 percent less terrible, and we thank Chatwin Books for being our partner in this.

The road to Donald Trump is paved with decency

Published November 30, 2015, at 1:25pm

Paul Constant review Jon Meacham's Destiny and Power.

Jon Meacham has delivered the unthinkable: he's written a compelling biography of George H.W. Bush. But is Meacham too close to his subject? What does the life of the elder Bush have to teach us about the current abysmal state of the Republican Party?

Read this review now

Dianna Dilworth at GalleyCat writes:

A Wisconsin elementary school has cancelled the reading of a children’s book about a transgender girl after parents threatened to sue claiming that the reading would be a violation of parents rights.

The book in question is I Am Jazz, written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. These bigoted parents need to understand that banning a book never works; it only results in more copies sold and increased interest. A few more of these moronic attempts to ban the book from the public conversation will likely result in I Am Jazz landing on the bestseller list, where it belongs.

The publishers' dilemma

Published November 30, 2015, at 12:01pm

Willie Fitzgerald review Roberto Calasso's The Art of the Publisher, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen.

We live in an age where anyone can publish a book in a matter of minutes. Why, then, do we need publishers?

Read this review now