Archive for the ‘Sleep of Reason’ category

Occam’s editing razor

July 14, 2010

I was discussing the plot of The Sleep of Reason with one of the people who was kind enough to read and critique it. Specifically, we were discussing why things happened in the story as they do. The “reason” behind the plot turns out to be strange and extraordinary but credible. Yet I leave that for the reader to figure out based on implications and ambiguities. I don’t spell it out, but I don’t leave it out either.

Yet as we talked, I realized that the story was open to an alternate interpretation that allowed for a plot driver that was far less fantastic, far less complex, than what I had in mind when I wrote it. That possible, alternate explanation for why things happen the way they do in the story is also available to the reader, and it would work. (Plus I’ve thought of a couple of lines I could add to the story that could foster such a reading.)

They say that once a story is published, it no longer belongs to the writer. The reader can understand the story however he or she wants. And, every understanding is legitimate.

There is a mental exercise among law students that posits that in To Kill a Mockingbird, the accused man, Tom Robinson, is actually guilty and that Atticus Finch got it all wrong. This is not so much an alternate reading of the story as it is a thought experiment designed to torment young law students. I really doubt that Harper Lee had such a notion in mind, but the telling of that story does allow for such an interpretation. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the writer “intended.”

Occam’s razor might call for my story to be read with the simpler, less fantastic explanation for the plot, but that will be the choice of the reader. And the simpler explanation, in this case, is far less savory and fun than the more complex one.

A partnership with the reader

July 8, 2010

Way back here, I wrote a post about the numinous feeling I had when I moved through a cramped, temporary passage, knowing that a greater, far more splendid hall existed beyond it. I likened it to the experience I often have when reading a book that I suspect has a far more profound meaning than my humble mind is appreciating.

In my amateur way, I have tried to instill this kind of thing in my novels. Some of it is simple playfulness. In The Sleep of Reason, a careful reader might make profitable use of examining character names and looking for the cultural, historical, or mythical references they make. Yet another reader might not bother with this and (I hope) enjoy the novel nonetheless. Yet I have also tried to structure the novel, specifically the development of the central character, along the lines of a classical Greek tragedy. I even make a few contemporary political comments in the novel, though I have couched these sufficiently (I hope) to allow even the most partisan reader to avoid seeing them if not attuned.

Beyond my own bumbling efforts at this sort of thing, however, I believe that when a writer takes the effort to put this into a work of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter), he or she is deepening the partnership with the reader. I think that looking at the relationship between the reader and the writer as a partnership is a worthy and fruitful approach.

When a reader identifies a subtext in a piece of writing, I suspect, in general, that reader feels a bit more clever, a bit more in cahoots with the writer. The sharing runs a little deeper, and the reader can feel flattered by it. This, in turn, might allow the reader to think more favorably of the work and/or the writer. The reader may then take up more works by the writer and recommend him or her to others as a worthy read. Or it could be merely that the story was told as well as it was humanly possible to be told. Everyone wins.

But is there a downside to this? Might the thoughtful reader feel manipulated by the carefully placed “deeper” references in a story? Might it seem calculated or contrived? Even pretentious? Or might a reader who has this numinous sense feel resentful or inadequate because he or she cannot get beyond it to see what is there? (For example, I’m reading a collection of short stories by an author who is universally praised for his understanding of human nature and relationships. His prose is highly recommended, and I was eager to start into the book when I found it at the used bookstore recently. Yet I read the stories and the words pass through my eyes and into my brain, and I see events happening, conversations transpiring, images being created. And then the words stop and apparently the given short story is finished. But what has happened? What was I to have taken from the story? Even though some of these stories go on for twenty pages or more, they seem more like vignettes or observations. I can’t really discern much in the way of a plot or even an ending when they are done. Clearly I am missing something, but I don’t feel compelled to re-read the stories or seek commentary about them to get enlightened. Rather, I want to finish the collection and move on to something else.)

I know many writers say they are simply telling a story. They have no truck with deeper meanings or hidden agendas. That’s fine, and for most readers, that is the goal anyway. But these same writers, if they care at all about their craft, will anguish over the use of an adverb because they want to tell their story well. It seems to me that our story telling craft exists on a continuum and a writer can strive to create a tale at any point along that continuum. Further, I suspect that many, many readers look for and appreciate the challenges and rewards of such writing.

Tuesdays are nice, too

July 7, 2010

Yesterday, Tuesday afternoon, I received a pleasant email from yet another agent asking for a partial of The Sleep of Reason. That makes five now who are considering my novel. I won’t tell you the ratio of submissions to acceptance or even acceptance to rejections, but the fact that I’m getting some interest at all reaffirms my belief that I have a worthy document.

Patience, Paul. Patience.

(Also, on the same day I received a decline from a different agent I had queried.)

Fresh eyes and fresh blushes

July 6, 2010

I have a new reader working her way through the manuscript of The Sleep of Reason, and in the first twenty-seven pages, she’d already found two usage errors and a missing verb! I must have read through this section twenty-seven times myself and missed them.

Yikes!

By the halfway point of the novel she’d spotted an even dozen: missing and repeated words. Spelling errors typical of me: “work” when it should have been “wore.” A couple of verb forms that were wrong, probably from improperly completed revisions. Different readers bring different strengths to their reading, and my new reader has brought hers full bore.

Sure, I can be too close to the text to be able to spot such things, and the fresh eyes of a new reader can, which makes me blush. But the chapters involved are now with four agents, and if they spot the errors . . .

So I’ll fix and go, and fix and go.

Humbling.

At this stage, these kinds of errors are troubling but not insurmountable. Yet my new reader also told me that she’s figured out the ending — the startling ending that reveals the story behind the story. It seems I have telegraphed it with one too many references to a key word. Do I remove that fatal reference? Leave it in and see what an editor will think? This is the kind of thing readers are for!

(Also, if you spot any kind of errors in my posts on this blog, please be sure to tell me. I need to keep grounded in reality, however humbling that will be for me.)

Visiting an old friend

July 5, 2010

The Sleep of Reason, as I’ve said here before, has been put to bed. This is to say that I’ve considered it fully written, revised, refined, and ready. It’s now circulating among agents, and my creative energies are devoted in other areas.

Except that a few thoughts kept pressing on my humble and cluttered mind. I seemed to recall one inconsistency in the story, an observation the protagonist made that could not make sense given the facts of the story that came a chapter or two before. And I thought that maybe I could enhance a small, dreamlike sequence to make it even more dreamlike. And then I considered that I was missing an opportunity to forge a subtle but direct link between an incident in the very first chapter with the eventual fate of the protagonist.

And so in the wee hours of the past weekend, I cracked open several chapters of the novel and began to hunt for these areas. I found the latter two without difficulty, but the former proved more of a challenge since it related to a conversation in a different chapter. But I persevered, and I was rewarded. I found the conversation and the later observation that didn’t make sense. The fix was easy; I simply deleted the one sentence in which the observation was made. The text flowed fine without it and the inconsistency was dealt with.

The other two fixes were even easier. I enhanced the dream-like scene with a few well-chosen modifiers, and I made the link between the first chapter and the end with a quick sentence. The novel is better for it, and the work took me all of twenty minutes.

I don’t tell you this to show what a hero I am. Writing is rewriting, after all. It was the nagging to get these done that I marvel at. Even though I’d considered the manuscript complete, and even though I had “moved on” to Larger than Life, these thoughts pressed in my brain and wouldn’t let me ignore them. They really were subtle points. They might have been left unaddressed — even the inconsistency was missed by my readers — but they stayed with me. I take this as a sign that I have a strong grasp of my story, despite having “finished” it, and that such minor fixes are as welcome as they are inevitable.

Now I just hope that’s the last of them.

The end of the story

June 22, 2010

I think I’ve mentioned here that the last sentence of The Sleep of Reason brings the novel to a startling conclusion and reveals a bigger story that was behind the story from the very first page. I’ve certainly said that in all of the query letters I’ve sent, and I hope that has intrigued a few agents.

I’ve been corresponding with my reader, the art history one, about the ending. Among other things she said she was “blown away” by it. This made me worry that it seemed too sudden and incongruous given the story that comes before it, so I asked her. No, she said, the ending was not a bad fit, and she said as she considered the set up for it, she could see how it belonged.

I’ve long been interested in stories that hinge on the very last sentence. Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example. I wrote an early post about the writer Margaret Millar, whose mysteries have a signature twist ending. I’ve wanted to write one for a long time, but I never would have guessed in advance that The Sleep of Reason would lend itself to this ambition.

Yet the ending there is not intended to be a twist. Nor is it supposed to be much of a surprise. The ending — the character’s choice/fate — is supposed to be inevitable within the framework of the story I’ve told to that point. I’ve created parallel structures throughout the story and dropped hints here and there. I’ve given the character all of the tools and rationalizations he needs to make his choice — even several character names feed into the game. I began the set up for the ending on the very first page of the novel. And yet I don’t seem to have over-prepared. My reader did not see the ending coming even though it made sense to her once it arrived.

So I hope that the general reader does not feel manipulated or cheated by the ending or feel it is a shaggy dog story. I hope the reader sees that the story built to the only logical ending it could, even if it is one that most people would not expect.

Another nice Friday

June 11, 2010

Mondays and Fridays have certainly taken on a different tone in recent weeks. I opened my email this morning to find that another agent has asked to see a partial of The Sleep of Reason. That makes four, now, who are considering it (but check my math).

As I noted in a recent post, I continue to send queries, though not at the same pace as I had originally. This most recent bit of good news came only five days after I had sent that query out. (It is tempered a bit by a rejection I received yesterday. Still, I think the ratio is pretty good.) The fact that I’m getting any positive response at all tells me I have a worthy story, so I’ll keep on.

The agent has said that she needs at least three months to consider the submission, and my mood should easily stay buoyed for that long! In the meantime, back to work on Larger than Life, and I’m happy to report that all kinds of “revelations” are popping into my head about how the characters ought to be developed, how this or that plot detail can feed into the theme, and so forth. It’s like the early days of The Sleep of Reason when the story seemed to be revealing itself to me from some other place.

Status report

June 7, 2010

I have no great news to report. I am just staying at the work before me.

I have a solid first draft of the second chapter of Larger than Life. There’s still plenty of room in it for later additions and refinements as the whole novel progresses. Since it’s an early chapter, it is likely that I’ll need to do some stage setting there as later story developments reveal themselves. It also is a key place for the presentation of my protagonist’s character, so as I come to understand him better, I may want to go back and leave some other hints.

Chapter three is well started. I have more than 1700 words already in place for it. Some of the other characters get a little development here, and the key plot of the story finally gets introduced. Yes, chapter three is a little late to be introducing the plot, so let me amend that. A key subplot of the story gets introduced in chapter three. The novel is mostly a character study, with events happening to my protagonist, as they would to anyone, that show how he changes over time. Plus, as I noted in an earlier post, chapter one is going to be radically different from the rest of the novel, so it doesn’t really count (and the subplot gets introduced there in a different way anyway).

So Larger than Life has “swollen” to more than 7,000 words. That feels pretty good for a fellow just getting started. I think the necessary momentum is there.

As for The Sleep of Reason, I have no news to report. The three agents who asked for completes or partials have not gotten back to me yet — it hasn’t even been a month for the oldest — and no new rejections have come in. I continue to send out queries, though not at the pace I had before. Based on my poking around in AgentQuery, there are still hundreds of potential agents for the novel, so I can stay with it for a long, long time.

A few short stories have suggested themselves to me in recent days. Urgently suggested themselves. I think they’re good ideas, but they need to gestate for a while, so I’ve added them to the score of other short story ideas I’m keeping notes on. Sooner or later one of them is going to force itself upon me and make me write it. I also have a half dozen short stories out as queries here and there. One is so long past the site’s reported response date — and I have sent the requisite follow-up email — that I’ve given up on that submission and sent it to a couple of other places. Maybe I’ll get some happy surprises soon.

Fridays – not so bad either

May 21, 2010

I have always liked Fridays, but today is immeasurably better than the usual.

Update: By way of clarification, I like this Friday in the same way I’m coming to like Mondays. A third agent responded to my query about The Sleep of Reason and asked for the complete manuscript.

As a counterpoint, a different agent also declined my query today.

I could come to like Mondays

May 18, 2010

My loathing for Mondays is ingrained and longstanding. It begins on Sunday afternoons and looms through all of Monday. Its source is mundane and likely obvious: on Mondays I must return to working for the man, not having contrived a way during the weekend to achieve financial independence.

Yet if the pattern of the last two Mondays keeps up, I may grow to like them.

Last Monday a literary agent asked for the full novel of The Sleep of Reason. And yesterday, a different agent asked for a partial: the first three chapters. What will next Monday bring?

Coincidentally, both agents responded the very next day after I had sent in a query on Sunday. Two instances do not a pattern make, but I’ll take whatever encouragement I can from it.

Of course it’s much too early to get hopeful. Still . . .