Some thoughts on writing novels

Part 1 in what will probably be an infinite series.

I’m taking a novel writing class at NYU this year. It’s not the first time I’ve taken a novel-writing class–I did one at Gotham Writers Workshop, and it’s always interesting to see people’s processes, to see people figure out their processes, and it always shows me how hard it is to do novel-writing in a class. Many published writers say that your first novel teaches you how to write a novel, but also, that each novel demands its own process.

I think if I taught a novel writing class, and could do anything I wanted, I would try to meet each individual writer and project where they were, rather than trying to impose any kind of process on them–not that this class imposes much of a process, but it does have three workshop submissions of 25 pages each, and that is not up for negotiation.

For the first submission, I’d have people bring in the first 20-25 pages, and as much of a synopsis/plan as they can possibly share, as well as their own assessment of where they are with the novel and what they need help with. I do a mix of planning and just writing and seeing what happens–no plan survives contact with the enemy, e.g. the blank page–but it’s still important to have a plan. I would definitely encourage students to figure out where they think their novel is going, what the end will be. I know it’s not true for everyone, but for most people, it’s almost impossible for writing to go anywhere if you don’t have some idea where it’s going. That end point will certainly change as the novel goes on.

Then some people might never submit again during the semester, or they would only submit the pages and information they wanted feedback on. Maybe they’d submit an entire manuscript up to the point where they got stuck. Maybe they would only submit ideas that they wanted to discuss. Maybe they would talk about what they had trouble with and then I, the fantasy professor, would ask them to bring in certain things to share and discuss, character studies, a particular scene, an outline.

Or the writers might just need some hand-holding and encouragement to help them feel like they aren’t alone with the struggles of writing a novel, in order to help them through the process of creating a rough draft.

In the class I’m taking now, the 25 page submissions are not provoking the sort of discussion that might be helpful for me, if there is such a discussion. I wish right now that I could write the whole novel and do a round of edits on it before workshopping more of it.

Some of that is self-protective. I know it will be better later, and I know I can get it there, so I’d rather not expose half-formed things. I want to impress people–don’t we all? Some of that is because I have completed a novel, and am preparing, with help, to try shopping it to traditional publishers, so I’ve traveled this road before, for longer, while most of my fellow students haven’t.

And part if it is also that I don’t even know enough about this novel right now to have questions or things I want addressed by my fellow students. I have some very certain ideas, which I do not want feedback on, because I’m not going to change them based on other people’s suggestions. I will have to write into any change to them. And I have some vast uncertainties, big questions like “How do I do this?” which no one can answer.

I’m looking forward to this semester being over because I want to have time and space to bang out a rough draft of this novel, and have the raw material to shape into something I actually want to show other people.


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A Rather Disorganized Surface Pro 2 Review

I am writing this from my new Surface Pro 2, which was a present from my parents, and a much needed upgrade from my Asus Netbook.

Netbooks have served me well for a while. They are small and portable, which is good when I’m carrying a computer around New York from freelance clients to classes and back home. Netbooks also have huge hard drives, generally, which is good if you like music and movies.

But they are very under-powered, which is bad if you actually like to play music and movies. Or edit the occasional graphic. Even GIMP, which is not as demanding as Photoshop, took minutes to do anything. It couldn’t play iTunes movies even in Standard Definition. Netflix, Youtube, and Hulu was very dependent on the laptop’s mood for the day. The screen was tiny, so if I needed to do a lot of rearranging of text, or compare two web pages, or anything like that, it didn’t work.

So, I wanted to upgrade my computer. I wanted something I could watch movies on. I wanted something I could still do a lot of word processing and typing on. I wanted something that wouldn’t choke when I had a bunch of tabs open. I wanted something very light. I didn’t want a Mac, because I like Windows and I’m used to it.

For me, the Surface Pro 2 is a very good answer to those issues. It functions as a full computer, and can run any Windows program.With the Type Cover 2, I’m finding the Surface Pro 2 a very good computer that can also function as a tablet. It is definitely a better computer than a tablet.

The mouse/touchpad isn’t quite as good as my Asus, but with the touch screen, and the stylus that comes with the computer, it works better than the mouse/touchpad alone on the Asus. If I just want to move around the screen, I can use my finger or the keyboard touchpad. If I want to select and move text, I use the stylus, because it has the most precision.

The Surface Pro 2 runs Windows 8, which has desktop mode and app mode. The apps are definitely one of the weaker

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Meaning and Stories

Last night I finished reading a novel that made me so angry. It was very well-written, and, in fact, that made me more angry than had it contained mediocre prose. It ended up being a novel about a sociopath and the people who populate her world are scarcely less selfish than she is. In many ways, they seem appalled by her actions not because they are morally wrong, but because she is so good at getting what she wants that no one can stand against her. The difference between her and the other characters in the novel is more that she is more skilled and less encumbered by moral strictures, so she can get her way.

I rarely read a book that I actively wish I had not read. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spent the time on a book, but I rarely feel like I am a worse person for having read a book, or that the world is a worse place for the book being in it.

And this morning I am still angry, but I think it is more because this novel threatened my worldview, and that is why my anger is so strong, probably out of proportion to the substance of the novel. (And I like darkness in books I read, because a struggle against darkness, or to find meaning in the face of profound darkness is a very satisfying struggle. I do not like books that show only darkness. I know people do awful things. Awful things in and of themselves are dull.)

Coincidentally, or not, I recently read Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton and am now reading What Should I Believe?: Why Our Beliefs about the Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life Dominate Our Lives by Dorothy Rowe. Rowe is a psychologist who has written several books I value, and a recurring theme in her books is that humans are constantly creating meaning–telling stories–and when the bedrock beliefs that allow us to create that meaning are threatened, anxiety, terror and depression are some of the things our minds create to try to deal with that existential anguish.

One of my deepest beliefs is that almost every person is trying to see him or herself as a good person and do the right thing for themselves. No one is the villain of his or her own story. I am proud of how I did that in the novel I’m working on right now. Everyone who has read the drafts praised (or noticed) that every character has understandable motivations. Everyone is trying to get what they need for themselves and their families and the conflicts occur because they cannot all get what they want. No evil mastermind to supply the conflict.

And I’m proud of that because it expresses my deepest beliefs about how humans and the world works, that we are selfish but we are not evil. We try to be good to ourselves and our families and we want to see ourselves as good people.

I dislike stories about sociopaths because they seem to me more like weather phenomena than expressing something true about humanity. A sociopath story, a serial killer story, can only be interesting to me in how it shows “real” people reacting to those phenomena. A story where almost everyone has some degree of sociopathy not only doesn’t reflect the real world to me, but feels damaging at some essential level, because it proceeds from core beliefs that I think are fundamentally and morally wrong.

Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists is a wonderfully optimistic book. It seems that one of his bedrock beliefs is that being an atheist does not mean that one must lack a meaning structure or be immoral. The book does something I’ve always wanted to see, which is address the positive things that religion can do or has done, things that the atheism movement tends to sweep under the carpet. Religion is about meaning. Religion gives people stories to tell about the world to explain how it is and how we should be. I think fiction does the same thing–there is no such thing as a novel that does not take some kind of moral stance, because it puts a meaning structure around events. Even a novel that comes to the conclusion that life is meaningless has come to that meaning structure.

Rowe’s book addresses the various ways that beliefs and meaning structures can cause problems, for societies and people, while de Botton’s book discusses how the urges to religious organizations and expressions

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