Hello readers and welcome to the first entry in the Reading List. (This is basically the same as Another Year of Fiction but I’m just not making it a “formal” experiment any longer.)
It was pointed out to me last year that the ratio of male to female authors was a bit out of whack, so I decided to correct that in 2018 with a bevy of women writers. The first selection was Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and prescient 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t delve into the plot much as the recent Hulu series seems to have renewed interest in this story and really, one cannot understand this book without reading it. The themes are so deep and universal (and scary) that each reader will draw his or her own parallels to our society as it’s gone in the decades since this book was published. I did draw some great lessons for writers, however, and will get to that now:
Use of an unreliable narrator - The entire book (with the exception of the “historical notes” section at the end) is from the point of view of Offred, the handmaid assigned to Commander Fred’s home. While she did have some experience with the dystopian overthrow of the US government, much of what she sees of the current regime is necessarily limited to her own perspective. Atwood masterfully spins multiple stories of past and present into a single narrative that shows how this society came to be and describes Offred’s previous life in stunning detail. While at times I would have liked a bit more information about the regime, there is plenty within this book to give the reader a compelling look at this futuristic world that could be around the corner.
Using the novel to speak about society - This is obviously the major strength of this work, and holds it up against other dystopian tales of the 20th century. Just off the top of my head, Atwood levels a blasting critique of: organized religion, totalitarian societies and how they can begin literally anywhere, feminism (the deeper levels of which I am not well versed enough to fully describe here), sterility due to biological factors, patriarchy, and many others. Atwood has described this novel as more in the vein of “speculative fiction” and it is quite apparent she was viewing the disturbing trend lines of the Eighties (the Reagan revolution, the abortion issue, the feminist backlash, televangelism) and how they could take our nation to such a place. Obviously in the age of *ugh* President Trump, all of these issues have taken on greater significance, inspiring the streaming series last year (which I hope to view soon).
Overall I would strongly recommend this novel to any writer who wants to see one of the best examples of an author taking a deep look into her society and seeing where it was headed. There are too many themes to fully explore here, and again I think this is a book that everyone needs to read and understand on their own terms. I know for sure as a man my empathy toward what women have to deal with has been deeply moved, and perhaps I am a bit more dug out of the ignorance of my earlier days.
Up next for the Reading List, a book recommended to me by a coworker: Donna Tartt’s landmark 1992 novel The Secret History. As always, thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to the first part of a new, ongoing series! It is my earnest attempt to document my own process of composing a new novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth in the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into my process and how I come up with this stuff.)
The idea. First of all, you need to have the idea for the book. This can literally be anything. Look around your life. What do you see? Injustice? Hilarity? Torment? Wonder? Characters? Setting? These can all be a starting point. Obviously I can’t tell you how to come up with your own ideas, but I can offer a few guidelines that have worked for me.
The most important point: don’t stress about it, the ideas will come. I wish I could offer a simple timeline of when my ideas hit me, but the truth is I never knew when I would have enough to create a book. True, the first two novels (as I’ve stated elsewhere) I carried with me for years before I committed them to paper. And that’s not a bad way to start - if you have something you think should turn into a proper book, then you are ready for the next step. But for those of you who aren’t there yet, don’t fret; it will come.
The next point: what do you bring to the table? How do you see the world differently from others? What kind of “hot take” (to use an awful current expression in the journo world) do you have on an important issue that you could translate into a fictional universe?
I can only illustrate this with my own work, so here goes. My fourth novel is going to be a dystopian tale set around the year 2050, and features a major struggle concerning humanity and its existence in the age of climate disruption and geoengineering. Obviously I didn’t come up with all of that at the same time (but that would have been awesome). I was very much influenced in a few essays I read over the past four years - this one in The Point about genetic manipulation, this one in the NYRB about geoengineering, and this one (big time) in the LARB about the writer Amitav Ghosh and his request for stories about the largest issue of our time. But of course the list of influences is never ending - the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her radically altered my perspective of where Artificial Intelligence was heading, and the 2015 film Ex Machina made me terrified of a similar notion. Books such as Gibson’s Neuromancer showed me how to craft a compelling, futuristic narrative. That’s the great thing about prompts like these - each writer can take away their own message.
The major lesson to draw from all of this is to overload your circuits with what you follow the most, and eventually, if there is a story there, you’ll find it. I had to percolate this novel idea for years, in random locations, pondering over what it was going to be. Then I created a Google Doc where I kept all my notes and considerations, links to those pieces so I could re-read them, and even some beginning drafts. You can do the same in a simple notebook. The important part is getting it down.
The outline. Once you have the idea, and its solid, you can move on to the outline. Here is where my advice is going to be a little more tailored, and it may not fit your book at all.
Essentially an outline is the plot, characters, and themes all put together in some kind of coherent fashion that you understand enough to refer back to when you need it. Again, all I can do here is explain my own process in the hope that it is helpful. For Our Senior Year, I literally broke the entire story down into its seasonal parts, in different ways. I’m attaching a picture of my notebook from that time to give an idea -
Last Man on Campus was a pretty similar operation, in which I had the basic idea of the story broken down into the two semesters, and then had to work backward as I was writing to fill in some of the mythology of the society running the show (*spoiler*). Both of the outlines were basic - start with a major plot point, how it shows your characters, and their reactions. Et cetera.
I won’t even delve into the insane process I followed for my current manuscript (Observe and Detach) as the story has evolved quite a bit in two years and I’m not too keen on showing where some of it comes from just yet.
And unfortunately novel #4 is not following these outline steps at all, which I must stress is perfectly all right. In lieu of creating much of an outline as of yet, I sat down and cranked out what I think are going to be the major themes of the book -
After almost four years of thinking about this, I have just enough story and character to begin the first drafts, and to be honest I have no idea where they are going to take me. There will be a lot more grist on this topic (Drafts) in the next post, so all I will say here is to not worry about how dense (or not) your outline of the novel is - if it contains the major characters/plot/themes that you want to get on the page, you’re getting there. Thankfully the wonderful technology of the notebook allows for you to always add more stuff - mine is crammed with papers and clippings but I still go back to it when I’m preparing a book.
These are the techniques that have worked for me in getting a book through its initial stages. Short stories or essays (or really anything that’s not a novel) are different beasts, and if/when I ever get better at those forms I’ll try my hand at explaining how to come up with them.
Next up will be the initial (as Anne Lamott would say “shitty first”) draft. I hope to get a post about that process up by the end of this month, again following my own process and how I’ve done it in the past. I also plan on sending my current manuscript of Observe to my editor by then, and may write a little something about that as well.
Feel free to send any and all questions and comments my way, through email or in the comments. I want to hear about your own projects, if my advice is helpful, and how you come up with your own ideas and outlines I will also have an essay on the first book of the 2018 Reading List (The Handmaid’s Tale) up by the end of the month. Thanks for reading!
Hello out there readers, and welcome to 2018!
As you are aware, I extended the reading experiment into 2017, and I think overall it was a roaring success. Another Year of Fiction (AYOF) taught me many more lessons about writing. Jane Austen showed how an extraordinary command of language and dialogue can create a masterpiece; Tim O’Brien and his maddening inability to resolve plots showed how we can reconsider the idea of the novel; I read a ton of short stories I’d never encountered (including what I considered was the best ever - Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”); and at the end of the year Conrad and Kafka gave master classes in the use of symbolism and interpretation.
I also need to double down on the major lesson of the first experiment, which is to simply read fiction, and a LOT of it. A lot of different kinds. A lot of different writers. It was pointed out to me this year my list did not contain many (especially contemporary) women writers, so I aim to correct that starting this year (more on that in a bit). I should note this year I did not give up reading non-fiction and got to several I thoroughly enjoyed (Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). All told I read nearly twenty books, which is an improvement for me. I hope to read a similar amount (if not more) this year.
And in an attempt to correct for the first experiment’s other big lesson (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, regarding a book list) I am no longer going to make this an official experiment, with a certain number of titles I hope to get to within a year’s time. Rather it will become another in a series of posts/projects that I hope to tie together in some way over the next twelve months.
Regarding those other projects, here are what I have lined up for the new year:
How to write a book. Seems easy, right? :-) In fact I hope to dive into every facet of such an enterprise as I attempt to do the same in my own life. The goal here is to have some kind of working draft of novel #4 ready by the end of the year. I will break the posts down by process: first the outlining and the idea, then the first drafts, then the revision process, and finally other things to take into consideration like character, plot, dialogue, and vision. I hope to be able to post some of my own work on the book with the posts for this project so readers can see what I’m doing in these areas.
Writing. I plan on doing a series of very basics posts on writers and what we are here for. That’ll be the first, but I hope to delve into the “why, who, and what else” and try to explain what would possess anyone to want to try this career in today’s connected and distracted age.
The Reading List. As stated, this will be an extension of an previous experiment of reading fiction. I’ll be starting this year’s list out with female writers, starting with Margaret Atwood and her brilliant 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Other female authors I plan to get to this year: Donna Tartt, Emily St. John Mandel, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates). I also plan to intersperse a few short story collections as well.
Other sources of inspiration. I also hope to broaden the posts this year to a variety of other artistic influences, including graphic novels, film, music, artwork, and perhaps even a few stand-out TV programs (I’m taking a ten-year-late detour through the Golden Age of Television by concluding The Wire and Deadwood before taking on some Netflix, such as Black Mirror and Orange is the New Black). While a writer should primarily be digging into the litany of books that have existed before you came on the scene, it never hurts to be interested in other ways to tell stories. (And as usual, feel free to toss me your recommends for this type of stuff - I’ll be asking.)
This the plan for year number three of the author blog, and I hope to be able to stick to most of it. The manuscript of my current novel Observe and Detach is done with its third rewrite, and I hope to get it to my editor by the end of this month. That leaves me plenty of time to start working on the next book project and the rest. Stay tuned to this space for all the details.
And of course, thank you all out there for reading my work. Website traffic has increased quite a bit for me this year, and I hope part of the reason is because people like my blogging. I hope to keep your interest as we follow this path of the writer’s life.
Hope everyone has a safe and prosperous 2018!
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.