Monday, August 27, 2012

The Difficult Second Novel

First book. Done.
It's sitting there in a neat pile by my desk. My first novel, Shine Shine Shine, in glittering, glowing advance reader copies. The blurbs are in, the cover is designed, the thing has been revised fifty thousand times, and its pages contain everything I wanted to say about humanity, love, death, motherhood, and fear. Every word has been analyzed, moved, changed, tweaked, and every line is purposeful. And I like it.

It's sitting there in a file on my computer. My second novel, as yet untitled. It is a first draft, which means it hulks and skitters across the page. It is unfinished, which means I don't know all its secret agendas and devious little plans yet. It might change. It's full of stupidly repeated words. It's got place-holder dialogue and language, like "Describe the institute lobby here, fool, if you can." And I'm a little afraid of it.

In my imagination, the first book addresses the second:

Second book. Not done.
"What's up, noob? Hey, you got some pie filling on your collar. Or is that self-indulgent interior monologue? Dang, you're going to need to revise that, honey!"

Smartypants first book is not very tolerant of the second book's growing pains. Like an older sibling that pokes a baby and says, "Can it play yet?" Really, I want to love them both. But the first book is just so charming. Second book looks monstrous in comparison.

If I were a potter this would be easy.
I like a nice chili bowl. (Credit)

The first book is like a glazed, finished bowl. It's microwave-safe. Its motif is well defined. It's symmetrical. You can eat chili out of it and not die of lead poisoning. You can put it on your shelf and admire it. You can say to your neighbor: "I made that" and your neighbor will not back away in terror.

This is actual clay mined by me.
The second book is like a lump of clay you just dug up out of the yard. It has rocks in it, and streaks of dirt, and it's as symmetrical as a brain tumor, and if you tried to eat chili out of it... well, you would never try to do that. Because who eats chili out of a hideous lump of clay? Who would EVER want to do THAT?

"No one," whispers the first book. "Because it's just so hideous!"

The difficult second novel (or album). Is this really a thing? Oh yes, it's such a common problem that there are blogs and bands named after it. Stephen Fry explained it like this:

"The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course. The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult."

Is that why it's so difficult? I'm not sure. Maybe there are other reasons. Here's my list:

1. It's always hard to draft. Writing through the drafting stage while the first novel is sitting there winking at you, fully edited and polished, takes a lot of fortitude. It's hard to remember your first book was once this difficult, that it once sat in tatters as you completely rearranged the timeline, that it used to be three main characters instead of one, that there was a really pretentious and unlikable stock trader in it, that it once had a line in it where one woman held the other woman's entire husband in her mouth, like a cat. It's hard to remember that the first novel used to be bad, used to be rough, used to be just like this.

2. The second novel sends you in a definite direction. The first novel is a point on a graph. The second novel is another point on the graph. But in between these points, something very significant is formed -- a vector. And the vector points to your future as a writer, and where your career will go. With one novel under your belt, and a second in the works, it feels like you could put the second point anywhere.

Darker, or lighter. More romantic, less. More literary, more commercial. More about cats, more about dogs. More hope, more despair. But ALL of those choices seem dangerous. If I write another book about artichokes, does that mean that all my future books must be about artichokes? Conversely if I write my second book about pears, will all the artichoke fanatics who bought my first book be disappointed and upset? Or is elliptical produce too limiting entirely -- maybe my second book should be about wristwatches.

3. There's not a lot of time to focus on it. This is why kid #1 gets a baby book elaborately filled in and packed with keepsakes. Kid #2 gets a "firsts" journal maybe, and by the time you get to kid #4, he's lucky to show up as a blur in the background of an aunt's snapshot.

4. You feel like you've already said everything. We writers are not in the business of holding back. We put it all out there, as much as we can, in every single chapter, and we don't save back reserves to get us through next year, when there is a long, wide feasting table to be piled with everything in the pantry, right now. At least I don't. So when I had finally finished the eleventeenth revision of Shine Shine Shine, I felt that not only was I done with it, but that I was done with saying things in general, because everything I wanted to say was in that book. Everything important to me was represented. It felt complete.

Of course, that was dumb. Of course I have more to say. There are huge stones yet to turn over and an entire weird universe of questions to pry open. Now that I'm locked into wrestling with my new book, I'm urgent about its new ideas. As for not having a lot of time, hey, kid #2 might not get the elaborate baby book that #1 is so proud of, but kid #2 is going to get all the benefit of my "first time" experience. I'm a better writer now than I was when I started. That helps! And yes, my second novel will send me in a direction. But the reality is that I was already going in a direction. The second book is as inevitable as one breath follows the next, and the idea that I could set that second point down anywhere on the graph -- that is actually the illusion. I'm going to write the book I have to write, and do the best job I can, and what comes out will set a vector, yes. But that vector was pre-determined by the mess in my brain, not by some decision I think I've made to send myself down this or that career path.

Which brings us back to the act of drafting. The act of sticking one's hands into the lump of clay, while the glazed and finished bowl sits gleaming on the shelf (full of chili, I hope). And that, my friends, is just going to be hard. But fortunately, I'm in it up to my elbows, and my characters have grabbed me by the throat, and I'm not washing my hands until this thing looks like a plate. See you in the kiln!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer has written a novel about the solitude of an individual. He shows us the magnitude of our individual planet in the vast chaotic reach of space by way of creating an individual person, stripping him of family, job, connection, and possessions, and stranding him in the vast impersonal landscape of suburbia. Keith Corcoran, astronaut, is this man. Earth is this planet. Both are one of many, many, uncountable replications of themselves, yet both are stunningly, inconceivably alone. We are all alone, and Kiefer warns us there are no emotional epiphanies to save us from this.

What matters, when all you have is your *self*, and that self is so vulnerable, so fragile? In The Infinite Tides, an entire personal history can be wiped out by a lost bit of mail. A man can be laid low by a single blood vessel, a planet by a stray meteor, a great love by a collision with a tree. Nothing is safe, and the dangers intrude without regard or warning: termites, migraines, car accidents, meteors -- you can't control anything, and you can't even react. You just have to take whatever comes, even if it annihilates everything. There is no fate -- there is only math, and math is more ruthless than fate, and more final.

What saves the book from being basically a prose poem for a nihilist, is that redemption does come. Not from a glowing unicorn friend that takes Corcoran to Disneyland on a glitter rainbow (an ending I suggested to Kiefer on Twitter when I was part way through the book) or a wonderful carefree puppy that teaches him how to embrace life, or anything stupid like that. (Corcoran was ripe for the magical effects of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for example. Fortunately one did not appear -- just a cynical housewife on the cul de sac, ready to yank his pecker but not forthcoming with life lessons.) Instead, redemption comes from the only place it can come: math. The same thing that brings the desolation, and the horror, and the isolation, brings the hope.

As we are small, and as iterations of us extend across the universe, there is a beauty and satisfaction, for Corcoran, in the infinity of fractals. The tiny speck at a central chamber of the nauticus' spiral, weak and fragile as it might seem, is actually the same chamber as the biggest one, a massive hypothetical chamber that takes up half the universe, and even a hypothetical chamber beyond that, that takes up double another universe.

The concept of fractal iterations is one that haunts Corcoran from his own youth, to his parenting of his daughter, to the pivotal moment of the book which happens quite early in its pages -- he's at the end of a robotic arm that he's built for the International Space Station, and the arm is used to move things from one end of the station to the other, and he swings wide, away from the vehicle, and extends out into space. But when he's out there, swinging loose, it's not "Oh, I should have spent more time with my family" or "Oh, I miss love" that strikes him -- it's the vastness of it, the visible infinity of it, the real, brutal beauty. That's what matters. Fractals don't stop in either direction, do they? Can something be terrifying and comforting at the same time?

In the tiniest is the most enormous. One leaf on the pythagorean tree is the entire tree, because it is of the same number. Really it's the ONLY way to address the solitude of the space between your ears, or the magnitude of the universe -- to draw a mathematical equation that says they're the same thing.

Kiefer's writing is perfect. His language is tight, but swells in all the right places. He uses words you'll want to look up, but places them so gently that you won't have to. His idea is big, but his character is what the story is all about -- this lost and grounded astronaut. Maybe being where he's been, and having lost what he's lost, Corcoran is the loneliest human on earth. Or maybe only the one who has been outside the earth and has seen it from afar is suited to see how we are all connected. Don't miss this quiet masterpiece.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Great Britain and Shine Shine Shine

Shine Shine Shine has been published in the United Kingdom and Australia by Simon & Schuster! Here is the beautiful cover they designed, and here are some reviews coming in from the UK press:

‘Packed with original ideas and compelling characters … funny, lyrical and fascinating … This is a novel about the strangeness of being human. Lydia Netzer says she wrote it when she was pregnant with her first child and feeling “paralysed with fear …” Hopefully, she feels better now. Or at least, a lot less alone in her imagined weirdness. After meeting Sunny and Maxon, I know I do’ -- Independent on Sunday

‘Think The Corrections meets Geek Love in this captivating modern love story. Sweet. Funny clever’  -- Red Magazine

‘This debut novel is  a sparky study of family life with a slightly surreal twist’  Bella Magazine

‘This is a love story with a difference. Looking at marriage, loss and the choices that make us all human, everyone will be talking about this one’ -- Look Magazine

‘Quirky and inventive’ --Mirror

‘You have to admire Shine Shine Shine’s ambition and originality’ --Stylist

Huge thank you and air kisses to the wonderful team at Simon & Schuster UK, who are really pulling in some amazing reviews here!