Friday, April 22, 2011

What's Your Book About?

"What's it about?"

That's the first question when I tell someone I'm writing my first novel. To me, it's harder to answer than "What's Beethoven's Fifth Symphony about?" and almost as crass as "What do you do for a living?"

In the first novel writing class I took, the teacher asked each of the students to say a few words about the novel they wanted to write. Some students didn't answer. I suppose they were afraid someone might copy their idea, or they weren't sure, or they were embarrassed. The only thing I knew about my novel then was that a priest came out, left the church and started an art gallery in Los Angeles. I didn't know his name or what denomination he was.

Worrying that someone would steal my idea never occurred to me, and it seems less and less important as I continue to write. The way I consider plot problems and character inconsistencies and word choices is completely idiosyncratic. For example, sometimes when I'm waking up in the morning, in that doze between sleep and coffee, a word snaps into my brain that makes an entire chapter work. If someone took my idea for Delux and wrote novel, the result would be as different as giving the same melody to Haydn and Brahms and asking them to write a piece of music.

At some point, a writer needs a short answer to "What's it about?" For one thing, it saves time when someone inevitably asks. For another, as completion nears and marketing starts, a writer (or publisher) has to put a description on the cover (or on the web page) that engages readers enough to at least open the book and read a few sentences if not buy it. The short answer that ends up on the book cover has more to do with selling the book than its contents.

At first I'd answer that Delux was about belief and beauty, how religion and art relate to each other. Now I'm not sure. I realized as I was preparing for the fifth draft, that the book is about how the main character looks for insights and how he misses them, especially how he misses the second coming at the turn of the millennium. That answer probably won't sell too many copies, though. What short description will tease people to open the book? I'll let you know when I figure out what it's about.

Friday, April 15, 2011


When I started writing Delux, I wrote a dreadful first chapter. My friend Heidi Stern's response was a kind inquiry: does San Francisco have any writing programs?

I found The Writing Salon, a program that offers classes taught by writers. I'd studied English in college, but not creative writing. Good at criticism, decent writing skills, no idea how to create a scene or a character. Or suspense. The Writing Salon helped me with that.

Karen Bjorneby taught the course that helped me complete the first draft. The class was like Weight Watchers for writers: you commit to writing 10-15 pages a week and after a year, voila!, you have a first draft. The class format was to trade pages with a writing partner every week and meet with all the students once a month. My writing partners and I exchanged encouragement and feedback each week, as well as new pages. At the monthly meetings, the class reviewed a section of 20-25 pages from a few of the students.

If you're a first time writer, I highly recommend finding a partner, either through a class or through your own networks, who will hold you accountable for new pages.

Karen told a story about first drafts that has always stuck in my head. The first draft is different from all the other drafts. You start with nothing other than an idea. Finishing the first draft, Karen said, is like coming home from the quarry with a hunk of marble. You have a vague shape and a knowledge of the material, but you have major addition and subtraction ahead to sculpt your hunk of marble into the finished piece.

In under a year, I came home with my quarry, the first draft of Delux. I'd started with nothing more than an idea that I wanted to write about the dynamics of art, religion, and business, and an inspiration that an acquaintance who'd left a commune in Vermont to start an art gallery in Los Angeles might be the kernel of a main character.

Working through the first draft, I found out I write linearly, one chapter after the next. Not everyone does. I also found out by the third chapter that I was lost, couldn't keep track of characters or plot points. I stopped. I looked at some classic story structures. Then, for each of the planned chapters, I wrote a few sentences describing what had to happen, but not how. For a couple chapters, all I wrote was, "And then things get even worse." That was enough to keep my bearings. On I wrote to the end.

The first draft had problems, lots of problems, but I printed out a copy to redline anyway. I knew much more about the main character and his journey. I'd also met characters I'd never expected. A lunatic Dutch designer, a hunky Hollywood screenwriter, a lovely Afro-American artist. Some gods. More about them another time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Writing a Book Called Delux

I started writing Delux in May 2008. This morning, I worked on the fifth draft of chapter eleven.

On my walk around the neighborhood this afternoon, I decided to blog about my writing. I get lots of questions about writing. What's Delux about? When do you write? How did you come up with the idea? How many drafts will you write?

I'll answer the typical questions when I can, but I also want to dive deeper. Partly for the selfish journaling (writing is so selfish). Partly to help me work through ideas. Partly for readers, although the finished work is the finished work.

It seems a little late in the writing process to start blogging about it. When I started, I couldn't imagine this project taking more than a year. My goal-oriented side was sure it would be complete by 2009. I knew there was work after completing the first draft because there were characters who magically changed 20 years in age and plot points that didn't connect. I hoped by the second draft I would be close. Then friends brave enough to read it, and even braver to give me feedback, made it clear there was work to do. At the end of the fourth draft, I knew I'd taken a wrong turn.

Maybe I want to blog now because I feel so much better about the fifth draft. It doesn't feel quite like the final draft, but it's 23,000 words lighter so far and the words are working much harder.

This blog will focus on the process of writing and publishing Delux. For those who have story ideas in their head, maybe you'll read this and take the leap. For those voyeurs out there, here's your chance to get up close and personal. Take what you want, take what you need, but come along for the write.