October 30, 2009

Subject: Doubts, despair and stubborn persistence

Short story: A vacation + homework deadline for Hamline + life = too much time away from novel revision

Longer version: I feel like I lost the thread of my story sometime during the month of October. What is this novel about? Is it about anything? Should I keep going? Trust that something will emerge?

I hate the way doubt creeps up and takes over. Sometimes doubt sends me into a spiral, stealing precious time away from writing and paralyzing me. When that happens, I tell myself I have to keep plugging along. What else can I do? I knew that writing required persistence, skill, and discipline. I had no idea that writing required so much faith. Faith that a story will emerge. Faith that time and effort will yield results someday.

Did anyone see the Junot Diaz article in November’s Oprah Magazine? Diaz is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He describes the process of writing his novel. He wrote every day, eight hours a day, and never got past page 75.

“Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I’m a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me.”

Every day failing for five years—that kills me. Sometimes I wonder if I can keep going. Can I keep trusting that if I show up every day that eventually, I will finish a book, produce a work that matches the vision in my head? Do I have faith?

Diaz says that his struggle taught him what a writer really is.

“In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
I hope he’s right.

October 3, 2009

Subject: Story Structure in The Boyfriend List

How does structure affect story, and vice versa? The basic structure of a story is simple--beginning, middle and end--but is that always the most effective way to tell a story?

E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List uses an unusual narrative structure, a list, to weave together a story that jumps between the recent past, the current time and childhood. Rather than revealing the story in chronological "real time," Lockhart mimics her protagonist's soul-searching thought process through the list.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, here’s a synopsis:

A series of social debacles have taken 15-year-old Ruby from “reasonably popular” to leper in a matter of weeks. Her boyfriend dumped her. Her friends won’t speak to her. Everyone at her private Seattle prep school gossips about her. Even her carpool pal refuses to drive her to school. But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that, so her new therapist, hired when Ruby suffers panic attacks, asks her to make a list of boyfriends, past and present. The list gives Ruby the opportunity to reflect on her past, her friendships, her parents and herself, all the while coming to terms with her current situation. The first-person narrative, which includes footnotes, reveals Ruby’s insights on romance, boys, growing up and high school life.

(So awesome, by the way, to read a book set in Seattle.)

Each boyfriend on Ruby's list becomes the subject and title of a chapter in the book. For example, in an early therapy session, Ruby jumps back ten years, remembering her preschool friend Adam. She thinks he's irrelevant, but then she recalls meeting Adam again as an eighth grader when at a dance with her friend Kim. And then she realizes, "the story about Adam at the mixer was a story about Kim. And how we used to be." The chapters are structured to integrate the backstory elements that are critical to Ruby’s self-understanding, while building suspense by pushing off the answers to readers’ questions about what went wrong with the boyfriend and why Ruby’s friends won’t speak to her.

It’s interesting to note the similarities between The Boyfriend List and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. Like Ruby, Colin, the protagonist of An Abundance of Katherines, was recently dumped. Rather than go to therapy, he takes a road trip, during which he too reflects on his past girlfriend experiences. I think Lockhart came up with a more elegant solution for integrating the backstory with the list structure. (Both books also feature footnotes, another similarity…).

The narrative structure makes The Boyfriend List an interesting read by increasing suspense and incorporating relevant backstory in an organic way. By revealing information in non-chronological order, Lockhart creates suspense, builds character and hooks readers.

Now the question for me is how can I play with narrative structure to improve my own writing?