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Tin House Live: From First Draft to Plot with Alexander Chee

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The idea for this craft talk comes approximately from the experience I had writing my first novel and the experience of that for me was that I had in a fit of frustration over being unable to sale a more ambitions novel about something else I decided very cynically that I was going to write what I called just another shitty autobiographical novel about my life and try to debut that way instead.  That became my first novel, Edinburgh.  It’s hard to maintain a cynical attitude for a long time.  I did try.  Go ahead… if you must.  But I think I was trying to figure out how to make sense of the materials of my life.  How to use that to make something that would show what I know about life, love, the world, etc.  I think most of us if not all of us are when we begin writing a novel are driven toward the shape of something that we can only barely apprehend.  That certainly was how I started.  I did begin with the most recent events of my life at the time which were that I was helping my mom move from our family house after a bankruptcy which she had just gone through and moving to a rental where she was going to try and put her life back together.  The bankruptcy came after a period where she had lost both of her parents and my father and it was a kind of profound crisis for her and when I arrived I found her in a kind of what seemed to me to be a nervous breakdown.  Everything was where the movers had left it, nothing was unpacked and so I just began helping.  So, I began writing a description of that scene that led to a story about a young man who comes home to help his mother in this way.  I wrote about 120 pages and sent it to my agent at the time and she said the writing is really good, nobody is going to believe this many bad tings happen to one person, and the writing really picks up around page 90.  What I realized that the manuscript I had turned in was a lot like my mom’s house.  Something that had been decorated where things had happened where things were left.  It had no intentional shape and thus no propulsive drive.  The story of a life is not a novel and that is just one of the many things you have to learn along the way.  I looked at page ninety, page ninety was where the writing went into the present tense. It was also where I was thinking the most deeply about my own particular past.  In particular the events of my childhood age 11 to 15 when I had been in professional boys choir and the director was eventually arrested on 15 counts of pedophilia.  And the real story was there.  Now for any number of reasons I did not want to keep using my story so what I kept were the situations but not the events of my life.  I invented a character who was like me but not me.  And I put him into situations that were like the situations I had been in but were not the situations I had been in.  I did research into sexual abuse, into the wildlife and the plants of Maine.  I realized that things that I remembered like that something that I thought of as that red flower in the field.  That was not a very specific description.  I needed specifics, but I also needed a plot, and so I turned to Aristotle’s Poetics, in particular, Rules for Tragedy, and looked at the principles that he laid out there. And used that to create the plot of the novel.  And so, one of my favorite compliments of the novel is when someone asked me if it was based on a Greek myth and I said no but thank you.  That was the point.  I was after a couple of things, one of them was I wanted a story that was able to bring catharsis.  Which I think is something that is undervalued possibly in our current age which is ironic given how much tragedy there is right now.  And I also wanted to make something that was bigger than my life and I was writing something that fit to the shape of what I knew but not the shape of what I had lived, and so the invented story was necessary.  I was also trying to preserve what I think of as the integrity of the experiences of the people around me in my life at the time I was writing of.  I wanted to tell a story that was mine but that was not theirs. And that seemed very important.  A first draft is a lot like a character sketch, in it, especially at the beginning of writers’ careers, it is a series of explorations.  You often have not done any research or not enough research.  You have usually kicked a number of decisions down the road, thinking that I will decide that later.  I don’t need to know how many siblings my character has, I don’t need to know what my character’s mom does for a living, I don’t need to know where my characters family is from.  You may decide that backstory is bullshit, that you are really committed to minimalism.  None of that really matters.  Actually.  It doesn’t matter what you want. Sorry. What matters is what the story wants and what I would recommend for you is something a little along the lines of an exercise I had to do in college with when I studied with Annie Dillard where she had us write forty legal pages of notes on a subject and turn that into seven page, triple space draft.  She insisted we turn things in triple space so she could write around our sentences, which she always had a lot to say. For which I was very lucky.  But that is essentially I think your best way of approaching the construction of your novel and in particular your plot, which is to say know so much more than you are going to tell, if you can bring yourself to do it.  Most often the problems I experience with my students, the problems that they’re having, that I find them having in the twenty years that I’ve been teaching fiction writing.  Most often those problems come from decision that have not been made about the story.  The writer Emile Zola used a method that I recommend highly to write about his characters in what he called character cards and he wrote about them in ways that he would never write about them in the novel itself.  He included information like the character their character.  What kinds of jokes would they make?  Would they lie or tell the truth?  What were their favorite meals? When did they lose their virginity? Who did they lose it to? Who were they having an affair at the time the story starts?  Who were they having an affair before? Who might they have an affair with after?  Did the character come from any of his other novels?  In many cases they did.  How much had he written about them in those novels?  Where were their families from?  Where were their rivals from?  Who were their rivals? In the process he creates a web of the information surrounding the character that helps the writer do something that I call betraying the character, which is to say to provide information that the character might never want anyone to know about them, but requires for the story to be told.

So, one of the exercises that I found most useful for finding plots is adapting the questions or the positions rather for a tarot card reading.  How many of you have ever had your tarot cards read?  So, the Celtic cross reading is probably the most popular.  I don’t think it’s actually Celtic, I just think it’s call that.  The important thing about it is that it contains questions like, what does this person look like to the rest of the world?  What has just happened that is leading their life? What is about to happen that is entering their life?  What is on their minds?  What is in their unconscious? Who are the friends that they are not aware of?  What are their hopes and fears?  These are very basic questions and usually not in any character building exercises that I see, but these are precisely the kinds things that you need to know to understand how to build a plot organically for your character.  You have to be willing to know the things that they aren’t even willing to tell themselves. Usually where we start with these things is that we have a scene, two scenes, three scenes, often just a scene.  The principal that I use in those situations comes out of Guy Davenport’s theory about the still life painting – the way to think of a still life.  It’s very basic, he says the still life implies the life lived around the objects and so does that first scene, whether you’re aware of it or not.  The other big problem I find with student drafts besides unmade decisions is that implications in the initial scenes have not been dealt with and sometimes the draft, as a result will be a pile of inventions with implications that are still unmet and because the implications are unmet the writer keeps inventing things thinking the writer has nothing to write about when in fact the writer is ignoring what the writer has already written.  So then, what am I talking about?  The example I will give you is from the writing of my second novel the The Queen of the Night.  The first scenes I had for that novel are now the end of the novel.  I did not know that at the time. I thought it was the beginning.  That is one of the big lessons in particular with writing novels is that often times the first pages that you write are not the beginning of the novel they are only where you started writing the novel.  So, in particular, what I had was an opera singer on a circus train, walking along the trains at night.  She is just retired from her career on the stages of Europe.  She’s traveling with the circus performing in it in a singing roll, she has regrets and she’s not talking to anyone about them.  She is however writing something.  And so, the questions I had to ask myself was how did she get on that train? how did she end up in the circus? how did she become an opera singer? where was she from? who would she have studied with?  And so on and I built the story and the plot both in this process of interrogating that scene again and again with questions and each time that I got answers asking more questions and pushing back into the story as far as it seemed I needed to go.  One of the things I was interested in writing about at the time was opera plots.  You know opera plots are intensely improbable creatures, usually they are full of coincidences, which is considered very poor taste in literary fiction. They are usually the stories of people who have been chosen to be made examples of by the gods.  The idea behind those Greek tragedies that Aristotle was writing about was exactly that these people were there for us to understand something about how terribly they had acted.  Now, I had also come across two similar statements from two very different writers, Joan Didion and Oscar Wilde, maybe they are more alike than I think, where they said what you write comes true, and it’s this idea that somehow the fiction that you wrote would turn into a kind of prophesy about your life.  I would love to know what they thought came true out of what they wrote, but I didn’t have that information.  I just had this what seemed to me like an intriguing superstition of a kind, so I essentially wedded the ridiculousness of opera plots to this idea and created an opera singer who is afraid that the characters she portrays cause her to take on their fates in her real life and so as a result her life has started to look like an opera.  This is interesting to me because I had also experienced an improbable number of coincidences in my life, not just terrible things, and I was very interested in this idea that a coincidence meant something, that it was a message for you, which is exactly what it feels like when it happens.  That feeling of, “Oh, this is meant to be was the thing I was trying to interrogate.”  Was it?  Did you really believe that the universe had organized itself for you?  If you did, what else did that mean you believed?  I was looking after the way of talking about the bad decisions I had made because I had believed that.  I was also, in the process, looking for unity between character, plot, and story.  I think this is something you don’t exactly set out with.  You end up with it after a great deal of struggle.  There are times when a novel or a story or a poem or an essay will come as easy as you can imagine.  You will write it in a day, three weeks, maybe a year.  The rest of the time not so much.  Joy Graham has the belief that the struggles that you engage in with other material clear the channel for those that come down like gifts and I think there is something to that.  The thing I want to stress is this way in which what your after is not just a plot, not just a character, not just a backstory.  Don’t let yourself be confused by the disparate elements that often get tossed around in discussions of craft.  There is a way in which I think a lot of these terms that begin as descriptors have turned into orthodoxies and that strikes me as a mistake.  The thing that you want is that sense of the world, the character in it, and the relationship between the character and the world.  And you’re also looking after that thing that can only happen to your character and only because of that particular mix of what they are, what they want, what they can and can’t be.  All characters are a mix of that which they can change about themselves and that which they cannot.  Just like the rest of us.  And understanding what those limits are is where you begin finding the plot that can only belong to your character.  Now if you wanted to use a particular formula, if you were after, say the reinvention of a cliché, I think a lot of these same principles apply.  You would be looking for the cliché that fits your character.  Like if you wanted to write an adventure novel, or a picturesque, if you decided you wanted to write a thriller, speculative fiction, space opera.  I really want to write a space opera.  It comes back in some ways to that one cliché, character is destiny, character is also plot and the particular ways in which something happens to someone in both the fair way they have chosen and the unfair way they could never choose, but happens to them because of who they are.  The right plot is born out of all of those things.  There are a few ways that I have come to think about plot that come to me from the things that I’ve read and I’ll offer them to you here in case they are of interest.  In Anne Carson’s Eros is the Bittersweet she talks about early Greek modern novels being experiences of paradox.  The idea that the character is driven to do something that they must do that they cannot do but that they must do.  And as they do it, they feel simultaneously that they have never been as sane as they are and also that they have never been so crazy.  E.M. Forester in his Aspects of the Novel talks about the moral crisis for a character who has to make decision and he has to do so in the face of circumstances that defy the way he has made decisions previously.  And so, this character must keep making these decisions without the guides that have helped him previously and at the end reaches for a new morality, a new way to live.  I think that other aspects of plot that are normally described, rising action, climax, etc., I’ve always hated the word climax.  I think it comes from growing up in the 90s, 80s and the 70s.  maybe we don’t all hate it, but it seems to overfocus on one particular moment when in fact what you should be paying attention to is what I call the chain of circumstance, how one thing leads to another thing, leads to another thing, leads to another thing.  I think of plot as a description of a series of displacements.  The way in which something new enters into a place and transforms it and you follow the power of the transformation.  That place can be a person’s head, a country, a city, a house, etc.  I would encourage you if you have not already to begin reading as widely as possible.  Away from American literature.  The reason for this is that there are many more structures for the telling of stories than the way stories are told here in there most popular forms.  And what you want to attack is your unconscious idea of the novel, or the story, or the movie.  Whatever you unconsciously believe these things to be is what your will write.  And so, transforming your sense of those then reading your way towards new ideas for story, for plot, I think becomes very important.  For example, during the writing of my second novel I was also reading a lot of Japanese comics, in particular, Lone Wolf and Cub.  What I realized at a certain point when structuring my book was that I needed something that resembled these comics, a big story that was composed out of a series of episodes and each episode told a story inside of it and also moved the big story forward.  There was not A climax as much as a series of them spread out in different stories throughout the novel.  This was a huge relief because I had been trying to do the rising action thing for a very long time and I had not been successful.  Borrowing from other forms like this is a I think a sort of necessary act that it would be easy to inhibit out of a sense of what is good and bad taste.  And so, in addition to reading as widely as possible from these other literatures I also encourage that you try and attack your idea of what is good and bad taste.  In the process, someone was talking to me earlier about was the sex in her novel pornographic.  It had been accused of being so in class by someone.  Not here.  What I didn’t mention to her precisely because it wasn’t entirely germane to the topic was pornography has plots.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it.  And those plots lead you to specific expectations about what will and will not happen.  And those expectations are then a part of the story’s momentum in that particular pornography.  Angela Carter wrote a spectacular book about it called The Sadeian Woman in which she examines the structure of pornographic plots and puts forward the idea that the Marquis de Sade was the first moral pornographer, which is interesting, but more to the point I became interested in the idea during this conversation of a novel that was structured like pornography or using a pornographic plot.  I think the idea that you have to stay away from something because its disgusting or lewd is precisely why you should approach it.  There is a way in which we should all be writing towards the real taboos of a culture, not just the known ones, the ones we can name, but the ones we are still too freaked out to actually talk about.  In a sense, I think of plots as a way to approach the making of the invisible into the visible.  I think of plot as a net that reaches toward a topic more than some kind of invasion of something unwelcome, which is, I think, how it is thought of now.   Fiction is a way of thinking about something, a very serious way of thinking about it and its often not included in the ways we think about writing. And its not just a meditation, it’s a violent dream, it’s a sex dream, it’s a fantasy, it’s a ghost, it’s any and all these things, it’s more than that.  And if you are stuck right now, if you feel like you don’t have a plot, start asking these kinds of questions of the story, the character, yourself.  Are you writing about what you want to be writing about?  That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, but it is so easy to labor uselessly in a co-dependent way based on what you think people want to hear from you.