For the past few weeks I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the shape of the first part of my novel, The Open City. It’s kind of amazing how productive this has been in revision, but worrying more about aesthetics, even how a table of contents would look, has helped quite a bit. I’ve gone to shorter chapters, cutting things up so that they might read faster. That has worked, but more than anything this has helped with plot. In the process of going to a more frequently divided narrative it somehow freed me to see what scenes belonged here in Part I, what scenes should be saved for later, and what parts should be cut outright. About thirty pages were cut in this way, which has transformed Part I into something much tighter and entertaining than before. What I did was make a few charts that illustrate different elements of how I was using the actual “on the page” space of the novel, allowing me to do a crude statistical analysis—things such as the length of each chapter, how many pages were devoted to each main character, how much space I was using for flashback, etc. Knowing these things then allowed me to see where I was over-compensating for a character, or where I was deficient, or where I was using up valuable space to introduce characters who really wouldn’t drive the narrative forward until later in the book. With this kind of knowledge, the necessary cuts were much easier to identify and execute. There’s really no end to how far an author could apply objective statistical analysis to their writing, but I wouldn’t really want to be the first to apply Sabermetrics to literature. Perhaps I’ve said too much already… Has anyone heard of other ways to use objective measures to analyze their writing? I’d be interested in reading about such things. Benjamin Percy’s article in the last Poets & Writers on “The Geometry of Dialogue” was along these lines, but not quite the same thing, as it was more of a way of thinking about writing than actually analyzing what was on the page.
Dispatch from The Open City
“As she raced the freeway loop towards downtown, Esther tried to push these negative thoughts out of her mind because, on a personal level, she hadn’t truly wanted to be out in the middle-of-nowhere investigating swine malfeasance in the first place. The mere act of returning to the city was energizing her. The rattling freeway speed, the natural selection of inner city traffic, the barking vibrations of city noise—these always agitated a lustful, urban dynamism inside of Esther that she was eager to indulge. So, nearing her exit, nervous energy swelled within her chest at the thought of being with Michael, her fiancé. She would soon be back in the city indulging in the quasi-glamorous social life of a successful young professional in her mid-twenties and couldn’t be happier about it. It was Friday and she planned to take the weekend off for a change.”
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. I don’t think my previous reservations about the collection (that it is a little too consistent in pacing and tone) were really alleviated in the final few stories, but I still think that this is a damn fine book. A few of the later stories are really quite dynamic and seem to play a little more fast and loose with structure than the earlier stories do. The title story and “Shadow on a Weary Land” are especially good. Overall, the collection has what I would call an ethos that really holds the stories together. It’s not so much an overriding theme, but a way of living that the stories all seem to endorse. To quote from “Shadow,” this is the truest example what I’m talking about: “I remind myself that, though I’ve almost paid off the mortgage, this house doesn’t really belong to me. I am no more than a squatter, only passing through.” There is a great sadness in these stories, not only over man’s insignificance or cruelty, but perhaps at the point where these two facets converge with the characters’ hard earned sense of self-awareness. The stories work best when this awareness is come to gradually and, more often than not, painfully.
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. This is Franzen’s first novel, published in the late-80s. As with his immaculate novel The Corrections, he has such a great touch with the domestic scene and, in a slightly frightening way, in describing how older men go about seducing teenage girls. I’m enjoying it so far, about a quarter of the way in. Franzen has a strong sense of contemporary culture and society, but it does seem to date his work quite a bit. This phenomena seems to be the longest-lasting legacy of the eighties, however, so maybe it isn’t all the author’s fault in this case.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. For real this time.