Monday, May 17, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part Four

Genre novels are the potato chips of the literary world. Readers buy them for the same reason noshers pick up a package of chips: they seek a particular and familiar experience with strong simple flavors and with just enough difference between successive bites (or novels) to maintain interest. This has, of course, nothing to do with literary quality. The writing in some genre novels is as fresh and brilliant as the work of any literary novelist. But structurally, in general, genre novels provide affirmation; literary novels provide challenge, asking and answering the deeper questions of our common life, illuminating society, morality, and relationship. On the other hand, you can take the genre form and use it as a container for anything you like. It's also true that genre tends to sell better, and so if you want to make a decent living writing fiction, genre is the obvious, if somewhat shameful, choice.

I write genre, but I'm also interested in ideas, and also in the possibilities of an expanded idea of genre. The late, wonderfully gifted, mystery writer Nicolas Freeling wrote a book of essays in which he contended that much of literature had to do with some crime or other: much of Shakespeare, for example, as well as Dickens, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky, are tales of betrayal, fraud or murder. Crime gives a writer a ready-made plot, which few can resist. And readers like it.

The risk, of course, is that you will write a book that is not as popular as plain vanilla genre nor visible to the refined literary world because it's genre, hence trash. You just have to learn to live with this.

So there are two sets of ideas that interest me, and which I've tried I've explored in the novels. The first is about the underlying nature of reality. In the West, most people think this is an answered question. Science has nailed this down: it's all particles and the laws governing particles, the Universe is made of dead matter, we are biological machines, and if you don't like it, tough. It's Reality. Even people in our culture who retain some religious belief tend to accept this without really thinking about it. Most American religion seems to me to be social and tribal, or a branch of the self-help movement. It typically does not challenge the prevailing ontological consensus.

Which has a few problems. If you say that nothing is Real unless it can be analyzed, observed, and verified according to the rules of science, then it's hard for you the explain (1) why something like ninety per cent of the mass-energy in the universe is completely unobservable, the so-called dark matter; and (2) why at least two things that almost all normal humans believe are the very foundations of reality resist observation in this way: love and pain. I'm not a professional philosopher and so can't formulate sustainable arguments against the prevailing view, but my sense is that in the present age the wheels are starting to come off the Enlightenment. There's stuff we can't explain and many are starting to suspect are beyond explanation by human means. (Those interested in this line of thought should take a look at John Horgan's The End of Science.)

What these lacunae do is open up some interesting fictional space. Magical realism is an established literary genre, and fantasy (vampires, magicians and the like) is an established subliterary genre, but what I tried to do is suggest that even a realistic novel can throw some light on this ontological question. Maybe the psyche is real in just the way electromagnetism is real, and maybe it has capacities and qualities that we've ignored since the Enlightenment gave us power over a big part of nature? Anyway, it amuses me, and I hope it amuses some readers.

The second idea is deracination. The world now is characterized by vast movements of peoples. This means that the person stranded in a foreign nation and culture is a much more common phenomenon than heretofore. Also more common is the person of mixed inheritance, one of whom, for example, is the President of the U.S. Deracination sets up all kinds of psychic tensions and releases a lot of creativity and causes a lot of pain. These are all interesting to the novelist. If you read my stuff you see that many of the major characters are deracinated in some way, cut off from their natal culture or mixed in some way.

It's not easy to introduce ideas like this in novels, especially genre novels, which tend to be idea-free, like potato chips. You want to avoid the didactic, but you also can't afford to lose the reader. It's something of a struggle.

Next: more about memory

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part Three

Edith Wharton described writing a novel thus: "The beginning—a ride through spring woods. The middle—the Gobi desert. The end—a night with a lover."

Right on, Edith. I've been on the desert a while on this one. I'm writing it without an outline. My advice is that if you're writing a novel, use an outline.

I used to myself, when I was younger and smarter. When I first started writing novels, I was doing legal thrillers. I wrote fifteen of them, all published under the name of Robert K. Tanenbaum (A long story. Those interested can check out and the thing about legal thrillers is that you sort of have the basic story delivered to you, or at least the bare bones of it. There's a crime, and a bad guy, and the intrepid lawyer or DA makes sure that the bad guy goes to jail. The reality, of course, is that "legal thriller" is an oxymoron. The actual course of processing a criminal from arrest to verdict is typically long and extremely tedious; thrills are few. To make a novel out of such material the writers has therefore to create a real plot. The plot is what makes the story matter. The plot of Crime and Punishment , for example, is not the story of some dumb kid who committed murder and robbery and got caught, but the development of Raskolnikov's character, and how he evolves from frantic nihilism to awareness, remorse and redemption.

The way to make a dull legal story interesting is by adding moral complexity. The guy the cops caught didn't do it, and the hero has to figure this out. The hero has a boss who's corrupt, and the hero has to foil his wicked schemes. The hero has rivals who want to do him in. The hero is tempted to fudge in order to get a conviction—will he succumb? On occasion I threw in some preposterous violence--criminal elements try to get rid of the hero, and so on, or focused on cop stuff, guns and explosions. I watch TV too; such nonsense is expected in popular genres, like a glass of water in a restaurant.

I also introduced a major subplot—the hero's wife works as a private investigator, and the hero has to deal with her quasi-legal schemes—and built that part into a long-running domestic comedy, the various discontents of marriage, the couple have kids, the kids get into trouble, and so on. This is rarely done in crime genre, because the tradition is to have the hero a lone wolf, or she-wolf, so there can be romantic liaisons, always a cheap way to generate thrills.

In any case, the plots I used were complex, and after I had the central criminal justice story laid out, I spent a lot of time thinking through how the various plots and subplots were going to unroll and what was going to happen to the half dozen major characters and the fifteen or twenty minor characters as the novel progressed. I wrote out a five-page single spaced synopsis based on this thinking, and after that I did a chapter by chapter outline, describing what was going to happen in every scene. The good thing about this technique is that if you want something to happen in chapter 14 that needs to be set up in chapters 4 and 8, then you're sure that all the threads are in place. It's remarkably the case, however, that if you create living characters they will "want" to do something other than what you've planned out for them, so, within limits, you have to make your plotting somewhat flexible, and here you often get the liveliest and most thrilling events. If the author didn't know what was going to happen, odds on the reader won't either.

I retained this method of close plotting and outlining for the first four books I wrote under my own name. As a result, they got printed with only light editing. The structure and flow of the published book were exactly as in the first draft. This had also been the case with the legal thrillers, so I happily assumed that I would always breeze through the editing process. On the next book, however, (Forgery of Venus) I didn't do that. I just wrote a scene that was based on something that actually happened to me in my youth, and then another scene and another. The result was a disaster that took six months to repair. I'd actually written two separate novels that didn't mesh together and were each weak and incomplete. And then I did exactly the same thing on The Good Son.

I'd really like to know what's going on. I'd like to know why I changed a process that produced perfectly acceptable novels and started to use one that required heavy editing and lots more work. If I figure it out I'll let you know, probably after the night with a lover part.

Next: ideas in novels

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part Two

I think every writer is interested, fascinated really, with memory. Nearly all literary work is founded on our assumption that we can recall things and describe them or expose them in such a way that the reader's own memory will be triggered, or even that the reader will acquire a kind of "false" memory. We sort of know the real guy in the corner saloon, but we really know Hamlet, David Copperfield, etc.

Obviously, if I read an account of growing up in Cairo in the 1920s, I can distinguish it from my own episodic memory, although it may become part of my semantic memory—now I know this is what it was like to grow up in Cairo etc. But if I read an account of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, which I did, then my episodic memory is also compromised in some way. Not only do I think, yes that was what it was like, but also, that it happened to me. This is one of the charms and dangers of reading fiction. The vividness of the fictional account tends to displace actuality. It is the case, for example (see The Sopranos) that actual Italian gangsters model their behavior and interior life on a fictional account written by a man who never met a real mobster in his life. And the same with other walks of life.

In fact, an indeterminate but probably very large part of what passes for our episodic memory is not memory at all, but acquired narrative, either from reading or viewing fictional representations or from family narratives. Mom shows you a photo of you riding a pony, age five, at Coney Island, and in later years you "remember" the pony ride, when in fact you are recalling the picture and Mom's narrative. Which may or may not be true.

I am often amazed by how little I can remember of my life, although I can tell stories about it for hours, as can most people. But honestly, when I search my head, as if I were searching for books in my library, there is practically nothing there that I can vouch for as fact. Besides that there are vivid memories that I know to be false, clear recollections of being in places that I know I never inhabited. So my belief now is that we make it all up. Even famous memory artists like Colette, Nabokov and, most of all, Proust, construct the past, using art and imagination. I think we all do that, if less brilliantly. It's all narrative, and our shock when a "memoir" turns out to be fiction is misplaced. The gross facts are of forensic interest only. That is, if you weren't really in Auschwitz, it's illicit to write a memoir about being there, but even if you were, it's still fiction.

And we don't understand how it works. This opinion is the result of a thirty years' conversation with a friend I went to graduate school with. Jim and I both got our Ph.D.s from a lab devoted to examining the neurological substrate of learning in rabbit brains. Jim went on to become one of the founders of the interdisciplinary venture called neuroscience and I dropped out entirely, because it was clear to me (after seven years) that I was a writer and not a scientist.

Jim says, and I believe him, that the problem with neuroscience is that even though there is an immense body of research, the field never seems to advance. The narrative of the present decade subverts the narrative of the previous decade without yielding any greater confidence that we understand what the brain is doing. This is a big subject, and I can't get into it now because I said I wanted to talk about Tuxedo man. Just hold the thought that memory and brain function generally remain a complete mystery, even to experts.

On August 12, 2001, I had a dream about a man waking up in a hospital dressed in a tuxedo. He has no memories at all, complete retrograde amnesia. The doctors tell him that he's healthy and has to leave. He does and wanders through New York. He meets people and interacts with them, he's open and not at all panic-stricken. He grows hungry and wanders into a Korean grocery, where the owner gives him a job as a clerk, He puts an apron on over his tuxedo. Later he demonstrates that he has a number of physical skills, martial arts and so on. End of dream.

Well, obviously, I'd read the Bourne books and this surfaced in dreamland, but the fact is I hadn't read them or seen the earlier TV adaptation or seen the Matt Damon film until after I had the dream; same with the movie Eternal Sunshine.... I think that these films and books are evidence that amnesia is a societal trope, even an archetypal symbol. It crops up in soap operas all the time. It seems as if everyone loves the idea of amnesia, the notion that we can somehow forget the miseries of the past and start afresh, with a clean tabula rasa, although we'd like to keep the good parts, our hard-earned skills and so forth. We want to be blank like babies, but not helpless. It may be a version of the American theme of re-invention, lighting out for the territory. On the other hand, actual amnesia is not so much fun, it's the great existential fear of our aging cohort, Alzheimer's, the other dementias, the loss of self, the descent into futility and madness.

Well, I have a lot of dreams and like most people I forget about them, although I often write them down—you never know if stuff will come in useful—but this one seems to have stuck in my mind as wanting to emerge from the oneiric and become fiction, maybe for the reason noted above. There is something about amnesia.

So I created a character who has GRA, full episodic and semantic deficit, but he can talk and read. I suppose this is as plausible as anything else that goes wrong in the brain, and is necessary to advance the plot. It cooked for a long time, and I started writing the novel in September, 2009, and will probably finish the first draft in July of this year.

Next: assembling characters, working up the plot

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part One

I started writing fiction professionally in 1984 and I've had twenty-three novels published. Looking back, it's all a fog. Occasionally (perhaps shamefully) I read one of the books I've written as if I'd just found it on a rack, and remarkably, it's just as if I'd found it on a rack. I have no memory of writing the thing, the plots surprise, the jokes are amusing (or not) the characters are there to be discovered. I'm always a little amazed by this. Who wrote this stuff?

I don't keep a journal and I have no literary correspondents, so there's no extant record (with one exception) of whatever passes for my creative process. So I thought that I might try to put down, for whoever is interested what it's like to work on novels. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that the book I'm currently writing is about memory. Tuxedo Man is the story of a young man who has global retrograde amnesia. Despite what one sees on the soap operas, GRA is one of the rarest of neurological disorders, with no more than a few dozen cases recorded in the medical literature. This is because human memory seems to be composed of several independent systems. We have, for example, episodic memory, which is what purports to be the record of our daily lives, the first day of school, the first kiss, Grandma's apple pie, and also the events that mark our lives—Pearl Harbor, VE Day, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 and so on. This is the kind that is typically destroyed by Alzheimer's disease

Semantic memory is about recognizing the nature of the world, all the facts and associations we pick up and retain from the time, at about age three, when our brains are mature enough to store this material. Paris is the capital of France, money can be exchanged for goods, a book is something you read, and the whole nine yards of information that enables us to function in society. Perceptual memory, in contrast, is what lets us recognize the familiar, or identify the strange. It gets us across the bedroom in the dark and distinguishes people we know from strangers. Brain lesions in particular areas of the brain can knock this out, and then you get the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Finally there is implicit memory, which lies below consciousness, and resides in the body and its reflexes. How do you ride a bike, climb a ladder, use a knife and fork, tie a bow? Hard to explain in words when you think about it, but you can do it.

Different scientists break down the parts of memory in different ways, but all agree that it's amazingly complex and still, after a century of probing, recalcitrant to simple explanations. It's not at all like a hard disk. It's the most fascinating thing in the world.

Next: Tuxedo Man—where he came from, how he grew.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing Life: A Short Guide

(The following advice was attached to my sole YA book, The Witch's Boy. It's meant for that age group.)

Someone once said, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down in front of a typewriter and open a vein." Of course, nowadays we use computers so it has become even easier! Would you like to be a writer? Here are some tips drawn from my own experience.

  • Withdraw completely from participation in real life. This is essential. You have to choose between living and writing, because while you're merely having experiences you are not thinking about what the experience is like so you can write it down one day. Were you ever at a party where everyone is having fun and there's one person over in the corner watching, with a blank, sad face? That's the writer.

  • Everything is writing material. Remember that your friends and family are subjects, as is everything you do—every walk, every day of school, every conversation, hike, work of art or music. If you get published, the people whose personal characteristics you used will treat you very differently, assuming they talk to you at all. When people come to you with a secret they will often say, "now you absolutely can't write about this." Agree, hear them out, and then write it all down. This is often the best stuff to use.

  • Always have writing material and a working writing implement on your person or within arm's reach during every waking moment. You'll want something small enough to put in your pocket or handbag. Or you can use the backs of store receipts. Or money. When you think of something, write it down then, no matter what else is going on, even if you are driving down the highway, even if your best friend is telling you the worst thing that ever happened to her. And be sure to write that down.

  • Record dreams. You have to do this within minutes of awakening and of course you will have writing materials within arm's reach to do this. The moments just after waking and just before falling asleep are usually very fruitful for thinking up things to write about, especially if you are writing about weird stuff.

  • Read. No one ever became a real writer without reading a lot. Read both stuff you like and difficult stuff that people you respect have told you is great. When you come to a phrase or idea that strikes you, write it down in your little book.

  • Steal. This doesn't mean copying the words someone else wrote. That is plagiarism. But a big part of being a writer is developing a style of one's own, and a good way to do this is to copy the styles you like. It's harder than it looks. Eventually you'll develop your own style. If you don't, at least you'll have work that's like work that has already been published, and this may be enough to get you published, although probably for lower fees than the original earned.

  • Write. This one may sound strange, but in order to be a writer you have to get pages out. After you have some product you have to show it to other people, and not just your relatives. If everyone you show it to thinks it's not too good, there is a possibility that you are a transcendent genius whose work is far, far beyond the ability of ordinary people to comprehend, but it's much more probable that it's no good. Toss it and try again.

  • Rewrite. It is necessary to read what you wrote. Pretend you bought the stuff you wrote with real money. Is it worth it? If you find something you wrote that is just too brilliant for words, delete it. Rewriting is what separates the pros from the duffers.

If you do all these things you will be a writer. Whether you can then earn a living as a writer is a completely different thing, depending on talent, luck, the times, and other factors, some entirely mysterious. If you do get published, you will be deliriously happy for about three weeks all told, and if you don't you will be really sad a lot of the time. On the other hand, it's indoor work with no commute and no boss and you never have to sit in meetings or move heavy objects around. Up to you.