Sunday, April 20, 2008

Shop Talk#6: The Passion of the Bureaucracy


Novels are big clerical morasses.
--Richard Ford, author of Independence Day

Once upon a time, before becoming an editor, I was a legal clerk, then a government bureaucrat. Most of you probably know what that entails, unless I have readers in some remote Himalayan valley who have managed to achieve Internet access (good God, are you that bored? And do you have a spare room for a weary urban refugee and his wife?)

Whatever your ice-creamy ideas about the writer’s life and the sweeping glories of novel-writing, know this: I’m reliving my days as a bureaucrat now.

The reason can be distilled down to one simple word: detail. And lots of it.

Maybe more than most other art forms—and I’d like to hear from those who can cite where I might be wrong—writing novels is about capturing details. And listing them and keeping track of them. And staying painfully aware of them as I go through the last draft of my book, Dragon’s Ark, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and chapter by chapter.

Any of you who write novels may know about this. But except for Richard Ford’s quote above (from The 2006 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market; Writer’s Digest Books), I’ve never read any accounts of this in interviews conducted by writers, nor in any of their autobiographical accounts. Even the late Norman Mailer, in one of my favorite books on the subject, The Spooky Art, seems never to have suffered from paper cuts or jabbed himself with a paper clip. (It was Mailer who kindly pointed out that it was perfectly OK to bungle three or four novels before writing one suitable for publishing. Too bad it took me thirty years to find that out.)

Office work . . . now I get it! That’s why I avoided writing a novel for so many years!

When I was professional paper-pusher, I never discussed the details of my labors to anyone. It was more than those promises of confidentiality, more than a pseudo-Bohemian’s shame that he wasn’t romantically starving to death in some nihilistic garret. Even in those circumstances where I played an essential role—say in medicine or law enforcement—the hundreds of dry little steps I took each day to make sure that the details were available in a comprehensive and comprehensible fashion for immediate access for my superiors, I spoke not a word about them. In fact, I could hardly conceive of a language to talk about it. “This bit of paper with that subset of that information over there, goes in this folder with this color tab, not that color tab”--

--no no don’t go to the Brittany Spears site just yet, stay with me, please.

I keep the dozens of details that make up the narrative of Dragon’s Ark in lists and the lists are kept in files—oh-oh your eyelids are fluttering. WAKE UP! You’re learning something, dammit!—on my computer. I have a large folder, called “Ancillary Files.” This folder contains exactly 30 documents listed by type of information. There are notes transcribed from four beat-up inked-up notebooks; a file of deleted passages that may find their way back to the final draft (but not likely—in fact, I haven’t dumped much in there since the second draft). There are drafts of verbal pitches to agents and query letters; lists of readers and people I want to mention in the acknowledgments (yeah yeah, Hilary, don’t worry, you’re in there . . . sheesh, politicians . . . .); lists of contacts, and research questions.

Then there are the two most important files of all—what, you want more sweet dopey cat pictures? No, please, don’t go! It really gets exciting!

The two most important docs are “Character List” and “Event Calendar.” The first list also contains a list and description of important locations. The main purpose of these are to help me maintain consistency of characters and settings and make sure all the events in the book time out and dovetail correctly. I refer mostly to the events calendar (I used a 2006 calendar as my base, though the actual year of the novel’s events are left vague). As time goes on, I update each file with deletions and additions of details.

They’re sloppy lists now, but after I type “The End” I’m going to have to go back and finalize both of them so they match up with what’s in the finished novel. Why? Because somewhere down the line, either I or (hopefully) the publisher will have to hire a copy editor—a bean counter of words like me—to make a final pass to catch whatever I or my editor will have missed. And believe me, details will be missed, hopefully minor ones. Even the masters miss details. The Lighthouse an excellent mystery by P.D. James that I’m now reading, muffs a geographical detail. It’s small and perfectly forgivable, but still, we always strive for perfection, even as we know we can never reach it. Care must be taken.

In order to draw near to that perfection, the copy editor will need those two lists and they will have to cross reference the details of character, plot and setting; for example, to make sure that all the changes I made from draft one—say of a place name—have been completely worked into the final draft.

Oh my! Have I really completely murdered your desire to ever tackle writing a novel?

Swell! That’s less competition for me!

Now for that link to a video of hair falling out.


EXTRA FUN NOTE:

All Things Considered” on NPR broadcast an amusing piece on Friday on what kind of Hollywood movie could be produced based on the 2008 Presidential election and who would play whom (Meryl Streep as Hilary Clinton; Richard Dreyfuss as John McCain and Denzel Washington as Barack Obama, etc.).

Your correspondent’s evil nimble mind immediately leapt to one of his (and, allegedly, Nobel Prize-winner Jimmy Carter’s) favorite movies: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly with the following cast:

Clint Eastwood as Barack Obama . . . Lee Van Cleef as John McCain . . . and (drum roll) Eli Wallach in the role of Hilary!

Now, if we can just CG the candidates into clips from the movie . . . if you know anyone with those skills, send ‘em to me! We may have a YouTube hit on our hands! Let's get this meme rolling!

(The object on the left of the photo above is a walking stick I bought in the Lake Tahoe area; the one on the right is a Basque carving I picked up in Monterey; the photo in the middle was taken in Bill Arney's apartment in San Francisco; it was there that Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon.)

4 comments:

Hugh Lafferty said...

Thank you for taking your shoes off your desk. It look much nicer now, though the man in the stick can use some dental work and I don't like the way the man in wood is looking at me.

I like this post very much. So much, in fact, that I'll never visit the Brittany Spears site again. However, I must object to your description of Hilary Clinton as ugly. I have seen both Eli Wallach and Mrs. Clinton and they look nothing like each other.

Bill Stankus said...

I'm curious:

How long have you been working on your novel?

Do you have an agent?

Will you be doing self-publishing? Or do you have a publisher? If so, have they assigned an editor?

Tom Burchfield said...

Hi Bill:

I've been working on my novel for 2.5 years now--feels like a long time, though I've enjoyed the work. No agents yet, but I have several reputable agents who have expressed interest in seeing it when it's done.
Self-publishing? Very doubtful. By and large, according to my research, it's not a good idea for fiction. I do believe my book has enough "commercial potential" to find a home at some house--though how big that house will be, remains to be seen.

Thanks!

Bill Stankus said...

I looked into self-publishing ... I think the worry spot is that you have to do your own marketing, sales and distribution.

The company I visited shocked me with their version of printing costs. They seem to make print runs in the thousands ,as is 2000. I was thinking more in the line of 20-40,000. Their price quote was the same for either 2000 or 20,000. That made no sense to me.

The flip side is, unless you have a blockbuster of a book, the standard publishing house editors will be driving new Mercedes and Jags and you won't.