Kate Flora here, just back from eight days in London and Amsterdam, and scrambling to catch up, get the laundry done, and sink back into a novel that needs major tweaking before it can go to the agent who has expressed interest. There’s nothing like pressure to keep me in the chair.
But on vacation, I took the time to do some reading that was not work-related, or so I thought. I started with Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, because it had been suggested by Donald Maass in the all-day seminar on “Selling the breakout novel” that Lea Wait, Vicki Doudera and I recently attended. Maass wanted us to focus on how, despite being nothing but an internal narration in the mind of the man waiting on the station platform for the arrival of the wife he’s advertised for, it is, nonetheless, riveting. Riveting, indeed. It’s definitely one of those books that you keep reading to see what will happen. Yet it also ought to come with a small warning: this book is seriously laden with sex, as well as other undercurrents of violence and madness. So much sex, indeed, that I started skipping those long meditations on the sordid prior lives of the central characters to get on and see if they would work things out.
That put me in mind, of course, of the essay I always use to end each class I teach, a wonderful list of advice for writers from Elmore Leonard, from the New York Times WRITERS ON WRITING, called Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. One of Leonard’s ten pieces of advice: Leave out the parts people skip. Of course, other readers may not skip all these parts. But I bring this up because, as I was reading Goolrick’s book, I kept finding myself drifting off to a book I am writing, and wondering: Could I use this idea? This slant on story-telling. Then I wanted to put his book down and go finish my own. There is plenty of sex in my own book, parts that I hope my readers won’t skip. But I was in a London hotel room; my computer, and my work-in-progress were at home on my desk.
I finished A Reliable Wife, and moved on to the “improving” book I’d brought along, improving, like the Donald Maass seminar, from a professional standpoint, James W. Hall’s new book about writing a bestseller, Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. (You will think that I am trying to write a bestseller, but this is not the case. I was merely curious, after listening to Mr. Maass, about what Hall might have to say.) Hall’s twelve examples are: Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Peyton Place, Jaws, Valley of the Dolls, The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Hunt for Red October, The Dead Zone, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County, and The DaVinci Code.
Of course, it happened again. I would read his conclusions about what made these books bestsellers: fast pacing, emotionally charged, filled with familiar character types, written with little backstory or introspection, and I’d wander off into an analysis of what I want to write. Books with introspection, books with characters informed by their backstories. Then I’d put Hall’s book down and began to think about where I want to go in the new book. Then I’d pick it up again, and be reminded that I want to reread To Kill a Mocking Bird, and that I also wanted to read The Dead Zone. I gave up on Stephen King’s books at around his fifth, but I have deep admiration for the man, for his discipline and persistence. I agree with so much in his book about writing, and I’ve always felt a bond with another poor Maine kid who grew up with a passionate desire to write.
Somewhere in Amsterdam, my concentration shot by the terror of going out among the cyclists (they’re mad, insane, follow no rules, ignore one-way streets and all traffic signals, and can come at your from any direction), I put the book down and picked up the one I’d been saving for last, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad. There’s nothing that I love better than a book I can’t put down, so even though I used to hate metafiction, I was happy to stay with this book to see if I could follow the threads, and then to see where they would lead me in the end. I believe it was in the penultimate chapter, the one that isn’t writing so much as lists and drawings, that almost got taken away again. But this time, I stayed to finish, and just held onto the thought.
It was a thought about something I’ve known for a while, but sometimes tend to forget, such is my Luddite nature: That what makes writing special, never boring, endlessly fascinating and so worth doing, is what happens when you take chances on doing something scary and different. She got a Pulitzer prize. I got confirmation that the chances I want to take in my new book may well be the right chances to take.
There’s nothing like a little reading on vacation to send me back to my chair, energized, curious, bolder, inspired, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit competitive. I don’t know about that last. I just know that today was a great day in the writer’s chair, and I owe it all to a wee vacation, and a lot of input from other fine writers.