Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finishing a novel

    Finished Flotsam a few minutes ago.  Nice way to end the year!

    What began with a kernel of an idea, while swinging my computer case into the baggage rack on a plane going from Moscow to London in 2009, is finally a novel – shaped and done. 

    The task of writing a novel is so much more than just writing.  Obviously, it begins before writing: in the imagination.  The construction of characters, relations, places, happenings.  Such an effort in imagining: so much and yet so far from a whole slice of the world.  It is rather an imagined reduction of a possible world.  What one leaves out is far more important than what one puts in.

    In any case, the creating of these elements begins the trip.  Then one writes it down.  But the characters talk back and take over.  They can’t be wrested passively from the mind to the page.  And as they take shape, these characters morph the plot, the stopping points, and perhaps even try to change the endpoint.  They are continually moving from those imagined things to points not previously conceived.

    But eventually one feels that the real creative work is done: the book’s spine and cadence is fixed.  The ‘story’ and characters seem to be quite complete.  One reads the pages.  But immediately shortcomings become seriously obvious.  And so reconstruction and manipulation began.

    Then the act of editing forces the writer to get out of the ‘big picture’ and into the nitty gritty.  I had to concentrate on particular sentences, words, tenses, descriptive elements.  For me, these were often such minor details as not to be previously imagined.  But of course at this point, the moment of initial creativity has passed.  I must make some choices.  But in making each of these choices one must get back ‘into’ each of the characters.  Is the word correct?  Have I changed the character for the better with this edited phrase?  If so, what does this imply for all of the character’s other appearances, relations, and utterances?  How do the implications of this word choice change the structure? 

    Soon it is apparent that there is always an undiscovered butterfly flapping her wings in a new manner chaotically creating an unforeseen storm half way around one’s imagined world.  Chaos is always happening; it can never be fully controlled.  Every reading reveals new shortcomings that were seriously obvious but not seen before.  And so reconstruction and manipulation begin, restarting the chaotic nature of editing.

    Some 10 months into the project and it was mid 2011.  About then my son Joshua and his husband, Shu, wondered if I would enjoy editing the drafts.  Fortunately I did: for I found that editing has taken much more time than the original writing.  Knowing the story and the characters doesn’t stop with the writing.  Proper editing required that I followed an idea espoused by Amin Ahmad: sit down with the character.  Interview her.  Discover the details that I did not know previously – details that now lead to this change.  How many sittings must your poor subject endure? Luckily the characters are fictitious and in this I could be their cruel master.  This back and forth could be endless, perhaps.  But it has a natural ending as the characters tire and reveal less and less, reflecting my own limited imagination.

    Indeed, it is this very limitation of self that allows the manuscript to be done - to satisfy me. 

   And then all that is left is to thank the many who helped me arrive at this point.  I begin with my main editor, wife and supporter, Bonnie.  She sat through so many readings, and questions that I begin to wonder why she didn’t run out of patience.  Others in my family also helped greatly.  Upon reading some early pages, Rob blessed me with two books on writing.  This was much better than just telling me that I needed to improve or call it quits.  My son-in-law Shusaku Harada’s ideas regarding structure, plot development, and relationship with my readers greatly improved early drafts of the manuscript.  His husband (who is also my son) Joshua’s comments determined a number of twists in the final structure of the novel.  My daughter, Sarah, made a few telling comments that I have certainly not properly addressed. 

   But then again, that must be true for the criticisms that others have given as well.  I can’t leave out thanking my excellent writing teacher, Amin Ahmad.  His many – always constructive, but not always subtle – criticisms included such telling phrases as “You mean I’ve been reading for all this time and all that happened is that your guy parked the car?”  Hopefully, he will continue to judge my work destructively.  Two other friends who have been particularly generously supportive and unsparing in their criticism must be named: Robert Bein and Barbara Cristy.  Numerous others including all the knowledgeable members of our neighborhood book group, have read and criticized one or another of the many previous drafts of this novel.  I thank them for their input. 

    Finally, I must mention the support I have received from the Washington Creative Writers Club – perhaps better known as A Table in the Back – the writers’ group that meets at Bread and Chocolate.  David Hutto, Tina Manousakis, Jerry Karn, Kat Tennermann, each, a member of the group, has been exceptionally helpful.  But all the members have been very supportive and collectively they formed a community that has given me confidence. 

    I could not have written it without this village of support.  I wish, however, that I could blame these wonderful companions for the shortcomings that are still contained in the manuscript.  


  1. Joe: Congratulations on reaching "the end." I so know how much help one gets along the way - as you helped me! Friends help friends be more creative! - Bill Browning

  2. Joe: i am just now getting to read this blog entry. i found your description of your writing both interesting and generous in the way you shared your personal process. I'm also delighted to learn that you found my support so helpful. i think you are a talented writer so continue continuing in this new career. best, Barbara