Archive for July 11th, 2011
Today is a moment that comes only once in every novel’s curious lifespan: the first reading of the complete manuscript. Yesterday I printed out all 130,000 words of the rough draft of House of Passages, and I’m hoping to work through the entire book today, if not in one sitting, then at least in a couple of marathon sessions, fueled by plenty of green tea. For a writer, this is something like one of those moments on a mountain trail, like the Appalachians, when what had formerly been a view of nothing but the nearby trees opens out into a much wider vista, giving the traveler a sense of the journey he has just completed—or, perhaps, of the journey that still remains.
So what exactly am I looking for? At this point in the process, I’m not worried about the writing: as I’ve said before, if I can imagine a good version of the scene or chapter before me, I’m inclined to leave it alone. Right now, I’m more concerned with overall flow and pacing, which means that I’ll be keeping a greedy eye out for places where I can cross out entire pages or paragraphs. I’ll be watching for inconsistencies, like shifting names of characters, or having a character dead in Part II show up alive in Part III. (Don’t laugh: it’s happened in this novel already, and it happened to Proust, too.) Perhaps most importantly, I’m looking for gaps, missing pieces, and unfulfilled promises, which can only be seen when the novel is read as a whole.
Reading an entire story in one day, especially one that took many months to write, is a reminder of the peculiar nature of the writing enterprise itself, in which the author needs to be both obsessed by granular detail and aware of a complex whole. When you’re writing the first draft and only hoping to get to the end of the current sentence, the big picture is the last thing on your mind, but hopefully it’s still there somewhere, lurking in the background. A writer is like one of the Laputans from Gulliver’s Travels, with one eye turned inward and the other turned to the sky, or, to borrow an even more elaborate image, like a dim reflection of Borges’s definition of a divine mind:
The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.
In my experience, there comes a time in the writing of every novel when the author can see it almost as a physical shape, like a painting or sculpture, as Mozart claimed to see his compositions. It’s unclear how useful this is from the perspective of the reader, who can only experience the novel, at least on a conscious level, as sequentially unfolding (except for the occasional book that we read dozens of times, until we know its shape even better than the author does). But it’s still a necessary part of the process, a global view that guides the novelist in making even the smallest of choices. Today I’ll be taking the first step in that direction.