Finishing a novel under pressure: Am I choking?

I don’t do well under pressure, creatively speaking. External rewards are known to sometimes impede rather than inspire creativity. I need to remember that as I struggle to reach completion on this novel by January 10. I don’t want to do it. It is hard work and requires me to evaluate my own work carefully and make hard choices and think in an organized way and remain somewhat distanced from the heart of it, the voices I love, the textures, the word-pictures, all the delicious stuff that I love. And this is not easy. Imagining it being evaluated by agents, editors and then by the public fills me with dread. It makes me want to hide. I do not comfort myself with fantasies of receiving awards and accolades. In fact, such fantasies do not appeal to me; were they to occur, I do not know that they would make me feel good. What makes me feel good is the idea that I will be able to continue to do this work at my own pace and in my own way. So this current situation, where I am not working at my pace and in my own way, is not really great.

So I have had to take some of the pressure off and admit that it is not the end of the world if I do not finish by January 10. I may not be capable of finishing by January 10. Will that make me a liar, as I have claimed, publicly, that I will be done? No, it will only make me an optimist. An optimist whose claims are occasionally overly optimistic.

The more troubling fear I have is that this temporary experience will become permanent, that this momentary feeling of losing the love of it, losing the life-giving involvement in the production, the juicy part of it, that this will cause me to lose interest in the work itself. Permanently. And that could make me not finish.

If this sounds bleak, it is because over a week has passed without significant progress. I got to a point where I saw how it needs to fit together, and then I blanched at the sheer amount of drudge work my insight requires. Plus I had many distractions. I am, after all, living in Italy, in an apartment, and trying to move into a house, and at the same time doing a lot of other things … like this blog for instance.

This is the stuff we work through in Finishing School. All I really need to do, today, is set aside a couple of hours to make some progress on the novel. All I really need to do, today, is keep moving forward. I may feel panicked, hopeless, fearful, angry, tired, disillusioned, restless, uninterested. But all I really have to do is schedule a couple of hours to work and get to it.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Post this thing, tweet my check-in, spend a couple of hours mucking around in there, trying to move the rock forward a few inches.

Writing is an unnatural act

Staying at it, persevering, finishing, overcoming obstacles, sitting in the chair alone in a room, writing chapter by chapter, problem-solving, concentrating … if you ask me, these are unnatural acts. Especially if you know people are outside having fun, and you’re inside, editing, revising, counting words, solving plot problems, flouting or observing genre conventions as you see fit, you, the lord of all words, this is all deeply unnatural and strange.

So why worry when you don’t want to do it or you find yourself devising strategies of escape from writing? It’s quite natural not to want to do it. Especially if you have to do it alone. Writing in a newsroom is distracting but at least it is not isolating. You don’t feel like you’ve been abandoned. It is pointless to pretend that you’re going to enjoy this process, or that it is going to bring you health and happiness. It isn’t. It is going to annoy you and put you in a bad mood. Not to mention the effect on your personality and sociability of spending hours at a time controlling an imaginary world. This intoxication of omnipotence must be left at the writing table. But no. The intoxication persists; the delusion persists; you leave the table and encounter the world and everything in it defies your will, that will so willingly obeyed by the subjects of your fiction. It’s startling how resistant store clerks and wives are to your imperious will, especially when the phantoms of your prose have been bending in your wind for months and years.

When you emerge from your throne as the ruler of all your kingdoms, you really need to get a grip.

Writing without ego. What a great idea!

Pure devotion to process. No writers block. Letting words come without effort or expectation. The path to illumination, blissful serenity, the writer as contemplative sage perched by a bubbling brook, regarding consciousness like that brook, a gleaming stream inhabited by luminous beings in eternal transformation …

That’s a nice place to be as a writer. But! That’s not where I am right now. What I’m doing is the exact opposite of that. I am commenting on what I am doing as I am doing it and that is totally screwing up my free-flowing, egoless, blissful, serene writing process!

So why I am doing it? I am commenting on what I am doing as I am doing it because I want to make this phenomenon visible. I want to provide a window onto the process. I want to report on my own chaos and conflict.

I don’t suggest you do this. It isn’t all that pleasant. In fact, I might have to quit this experiment in order to actually just finish the novel.

This is not what we do in Finishing School. I have to make that clear. In Finishing School we listen attentively to each other; we discuss the gap between what we intend to do and what we end up doing; we describe the emotions that attend our struggles, the obstacles that spring up in our daily lives, how we get sidetracked by the bottomless, swirling vortex of social media. As we share our common struggles, we form a picture of what is normal in the struggle to create and live whole, authentic lives. That helps. That is healthy. When we come together in a Finishing School group, we take a break from the actual work. We aren’t simultaneously trying to do our work and talk about it. That would be madness.  What I am doing right now is sheer madness! I am trying to write about writing my novel as I am writing it.

So what happens when I do that? What you might expect: I leave the powerful, flowing inner world and go external, where I see myself from the outside, as others might see me, and I cringe. I become aware of myself as others might judge me; like a child becoming aware of his sinful self, I encounter shame. I think, How will they regard me? Will I be seen as an unenlightened, opportunistic, immature man, an old baby-boom-age holdover from a less-enlightened, pre-postmodern world? I encounter the assumptions and hopes behind this fear. I realize that I have secretly harbored a dream of being seen as brilliant, groundbreaking, a virtuoso, and I must confront this and not laugh at myself or deride myself but accept it, as the illusions of a human, a flawed man, a worker among workers. I must comfort myself, as I am such a fool, but a goodhearted fool, an innocent fool, for thinking myself in league with Conrad, Dickens, W.C. Fields, whoever. Chekhov, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, all hectoring avatars of brilliance beat their wings about my head in the dark. I am suddenly sunk in the muck of shame and fear and ego.

Then an idea surfaces: What if I were to persist in this observational exercise, but excise the ego component: Observe and report but from the inside; resist thoughts of how I will be regarded. For what is this “I” but the very ego construct that’s causing the problem? (When writing, when deep in the voices and the pictures, laying it out, making words, the “I” is hardly there at all.)

Oh, plus the practical, realistic concern about the sheer amount of work ahead, how much there still is to do, with less than a month remaining to do it.

A few days ago I thought I saw the whole novel fitting together perfectly! Then something snapped, and I hated myself and thought it was all hopeless! Then fell ill with a cough and cold.

I don’t know what to say. I am trying to find my way back to just doing the work. And then: Revelation: I know the one thing that’s different: I stopped emailing my creative buddy! I haven’t been doing the method! I’ve just been pretending. It doesn’t work unless you do it. It’s not transformational. It doesn’t heal you. It’s just a thing you have to do to get where you want to go. Like walking to the store. If you’ve walked to the store a thousand times, you still have to walk to the store if you want what’s in the store. Like the brook, it is never finished.

And so why do I keep quitting, if I know it works when I do it? That’s just how I am. It’s my nature. That’s what the method is for: As a corrective to my nature. As long as I do it. Hello, Creative Buddy, I’m working again! In a slight variation on classic Finishing School method, I used Twitter. Say Hi! Let’s all use Twitter to stay in touch!


Pretend it’s set in stone

One of the agonies of editing a long novel under tight deadline pressure is the fact that everything in the novel right now is malleable. Would that most of it were set in stone! Then I would not be tempted!

I could do without the mental torture of knowing that everything can be changed. I go in with the intent of writing one small scene and then find myself tinkering with a chapter title. Leave it alone! I tell myself. But it could be better. I’m not sure it’s right.

It takes real discipline. Had most of it already been typeset, I wouldn’t think about it. If even most of it were in clean paper manuscript form, like in the old days, if I had already paid a typist to produce clean copies, I would not think of touching it, for I have a practical side, I have worked in publishing and I know when to leave something alone. But this process, where everything is malleable, this is torture. I must train myself not to notice anything but the thing I came to fix, or the narrow area where I must insert something. I must not look right or left. I must not see the things that still seem undone. I have to move on. I cannot dawdle. I have a deadline. My mantra must be: “good enough.”

No need to go into the roots of this, either, although it looks like I’m going to anyway: I am a perfectionist, a meddler, an aesthete, I have strong opinions about everything. At times, this trait has been the death of me–that everything has to be just so. In collaborating, in a musical group, in performance, or with other writers, this aspect of myself is a hindrance. But at least, when working with others, I can consciously let go. I can say, OK, I go with you on this. But in writing the novel I am alone, with only myself to rebel against, with only myself as the tyrant, the ogre, the masterful overlord,  and so raw, unprotected, unarmed, with no illusions, I confront myself, my touchy, insular, controlling, meddling, indecisive, power-hungry, perfectionistic self. And I say good morning, touchy, perfectionistic self: Keep your hands to yourself. Wander in the museum of your own creation and do not touch the artifacts.


In our Finishing School book we talk about how to structure time, and we talk about the distorted relationships some of us have with time–believing there’s none of it, believing it’s infinite, fighting with it as if it were our enemy, but we don’t really talk about exhaustion. In the Finishing School workshops, though, it crops up all the time, and I must say, I miss the workshops right now. I miss having the opportunity to sit in a circle with other people and say, Yeah, I hit the wall. So:

Last night about 8:30 p.m. here in Italy I hit the wall. I’m doing a lot of things besides finishing the novel. There are things related to the upcoming publication of the Finishing School book, and there are things related to just living in Italy. Living in Italy is complicated! And I definitely tend to push myself.

So I thought I’d talk a little this morning, in this ongoing blog about finishing my novel by January 10, 2017, about the need for rest and solitude. My friend Pat Schneider, who wrote the book Writing Alone and With Others, says that when she goes on a retreat to write, which she has done often in her life, the first 24 hours she sleeps. That sounds pretty good to me right now. I slept late today. I didn’t get up and go swimming in Cortona. I didn’t get up before the sun and meditate and turn to my manuscript. I slept. I dreamed I was still in the band, the Repeat Offenders, in the early 1980s, rehearsing in that ratty Tenderloin basement on Turk Street across from the Sound of Music punk club in San Francisco. When I awoke, I found myself having a moment of regret for how I left the band. As I see it now, it was exhaustion. I push myself and push myself and then I hit the wall and want to quit. I lose perspective. I say Fuck it!

I can’t afford to lose perspective now. I can’t afford to say Fuck it! So I just need to sit quietly. In pursuit of big, long goals, there’s going to be exhaustion and the need for rest and solitude, even with a hard deadline looming. So I sit here on the floor in my little room. I know I have to write this scene where Lydia, the protagonist, goes to the little library in her home town and finds a book and puts it in her bag. That’s all it is, really. That’s all she needs to do. It’s not a big scene. I suppose it carries a lot of weight for me because I had neglected to write it. She just had the book. I had to deal with the plot problem of how did she get the book. It’s not a big deal. But these things bedevil me because they touch on the problem of genre: Am I writing a realistic novel? No. Well, sort of. Am I writing a fantasy novel? No.  Am I writing a mystery, or a detective novel? No. Am I writing a surrealist novel, or an Anais Nin-type thing, or a James Joyce-type thing? No.

I am writing a comic novel about a punk runaway who becomes America’s biggest sitcom star. It appears on the surface to be a satire about America’s entertainment business. Yet for me the novel is really about the intersection of the imagination and “real life.” For me, personally, she does not have to get that book at the library. So the conflict is not really so much about the difficulty of writing the scene. The conflict is me going, “Why do I have to write this scene?! Is that what the novel is about? No! It’s about the interconnection between imagination, or the spirit world, and the visible surface of life!”

To wit: I just realized: Yesterday, after our meeting with the commercialista, which went well, I was walking up Corso Italia and I realized, I have tried many times to visit the library in Castiglion Fiorentino and many times have either got lost or chickened out because my Italian is so meager or  not been able to find the right door or found that it was closed. So I summoned up my courage yesterday and marched right into the library. My ostensible reason for visiting the library is to research this next book I am planning to write, about this medieval convent that was bombed in World War II by accident and then was rebuilt by the man who lived next door to it. But I think also there was an unconscious motive.

Library. It just occurs to me now: The library scene in the novel, and the library scene in my “real” life: I was drawn to the library. It was time to go to the library. Maybe it’s time to write that scene. Maybe I’ll use this Italian library as a setting for Lydia’s library. This is the kind of thing I mean. Real life, imagination, back and forth, the two worlds.

And here’s another thing. Just sitting here, drinking tea, talking about exhaustion, talking about the novel, I’m back in it. I’m coming around. I think I can write that scene. But not right this second. Not quite yet.


OK, here is a quick post about how to make a magic book appear in someone’s hands. As I may have mentioned, I write in a sometimes unstructured and intuitive way, and I tend to hear the words I write; I don’t think it all out ahead of time. So I end up with events that happen in the novel but without explaining how and why they happened. For instance, I imagined a book, a fake book, a book not actually written by Mesopotamians five-thousand years ago but purporting to be such a book and believed to be such a book by certain gullible, vulnerable people. This was a funny joke for me. But what about what they call in some circles the “chain of custody”? How did this fake book get into the hands of this gullible person such that she actually believed it was written by Mesopotamians five thousand years ago and explained how her little town in the Sacramento River delta came to be? Ridiculous, I know. But that’s the conceit, in a satirical novel. She appears with the book at a certain time. How did she end up with the book?

This is where plot thinking is necessary. I got much out of reading Patricia Highsmith’s book about writing suspense fiction. Thinking about such things is not my strong suit. As I said, I tend to hear voices, write down what they say, and figure out later where they are coming from: Are these two people talking in a bar, or on a long car ride, or in bed, side by side? Is this one person talking to herself? Where is she while she’s talking to herself? What is the visible setting?  So, as regards this fake book, I had to come up with an elaborate and initially innocent situation in which the protagonist’s business partners created it as a practical joke. But then the situation changed. They create it and plant it in the local library, and this alone requires considerable resources and skill, which they do have, as powerful and wealthy practitioners of the arts of illusion, i.e. television sitcoms and movies. So the book is planted in the library where the protagonist will find it and believe that it is real. But then the situation drastically changes–as will happen in novels. The situation changes in such a way that the book is no longer just an innocent prank but sets off a series of events with big consequences. Still, how does she end up with the book in her hands?  When does she have the opportunity to go to the library and why? Why does she go to the library? She’s not a library-going person. All these are storytelling things. Plus: How to tell it? Show the scene or summarize it, or tell it in a jaunty, ironic, faintly superior third-person authorial voice? Decisions, decisions.

Plus: It turns out in my intuitive, don’t know why I’m writing this scene sort of way, I had already written a scene where the protagonist goes to the library and checks out this book. But where is that scene? I can’t find it. I’m searching text files with the world “library” and can’t find it. Oh, well. I can write it again.

It is annoying to me that stuff has to happen for a reason, but readers, myself included, do seem to require at least a modicum of cause-and-effect. So I neatly arrange things so that when all the magic happens, one can look back and see how the situation developed. That is one of the chief pleasures of reading a novel, appreciating how it unfolds, appreciating the little bits of handiwork.

That’s it for today. Except for the fact that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I don’t really get to write that part yet. I have to drive somewhere with someone do to something with someone plus six dogs.

I wish all I had to do was write.

Taking it down to the sentence level

I have rewritten a certain scene several times. As a result, I now have several overlapping texts, texts that repeat other texts or portray the same events in different colors.

Luckily, using Scrivener, I can go through this 3,000-word morass of visionary … OK, that’s the other problem: This scene combined the visible world, i.e. a woman who is sleepwalking, with the interior world, the things she is dreaming while she is sleepwalking, and then the things she is saying out loud, audibly, as a result of what she is dreaming as she is sleepwalking. It would be easier if she were on stage. We would see her and she would act out the sleepwalking part. But this is a character in a novel and I must indicate what is going on. So I had all these texts, which were basically, to be honest, failed attempts to get it right. Each text had some interesting language and some useful information. But they didn’t work as a scene. Luckily, with Scrivener, I can use the Split at Selection and the Split With Selection as Title tools. Most people probably only split longer things but sometimes, like today, if I am in a hurricane of compelling but confusing text and I am trying to make several things work at the same time, i.e. tone, scene, interior monologue, external description, alternating poetic interior with forward movement toward a sudden moment of awareness, i.e. she is awakened by someone’s voice, then I might use these tools to take it down to the sentence level, summarizing each sentence to really understand what’s going on.

It’s slow, painstaking work but that’s why writing, for me, takes a long time. I worked on it yesterday, I worked on it last night after dinner, and I am working on it again this morning. Norma and I went to Bar Maro for pastries and coffee and then strolled through the little Sunday market on the streets of Castiglion Fiorentino and I came across the most achingly beautiful mandolino from the 1800s and I had to leave it in its case and return to the apartment and start in on this again because time it the medium in which one works. Plus I was out of sorts because of the following: I was working on it last night in my study and then I thought, gee, I’m kinda tired now, and I lay down and next thing you know it’s 5am and I’ve slept in my clothes on top of the daybed. Then crawl into actual bed with actual wife to try and attain a few more hours sleep only to find that … I haven’t paid the TIM bill and our Internet is cut off! Not pretty scene with wife. Then off to COOP store where we pay the TIM bill and, miraculously, we did not expect this at all, but the Internet went back on in about an hour.

Anyway, if you’re lost, if it isn’t working, take it down to the sentence level. Slow, painstaking work.

Or throw it out! You could, you know. If it isn’t essential. But this thing, I really want it in there. I want it to work. That is my wish. And what is a novel but a collection of cherished wishes, worked over and worked over until they are shining, luminous prayers, good enough to fool the gods.

Trying not to have any new ideas

One of the contrarian aspects of finishing a novel turns out to be the desperate struggle not to have any new ideas. Or only new ideas in the service of problem-solving. Finishing is a closing-down, a limiting effort, bent on discarding, not on expanding. Yet sometimes, to finish a scene or section, one can be helped by a new idea.

So here is an example of how the problem-solving aspect of finishing the novel interacts with the need for research and the presence of a fertile imagination. I have to write this scene where the eccentric actress who has disappeared for two weeks after a bizarre solo performance makes her reappearance in her home town. Telling it from inside the car she is riding in felt boring and claustrophobic. It seemed better to tell it from the viewpoint of all the reality TV crews and news crews perched in trees and apartment buildings watching the few roads by which her car could re-enter the town. But then what happened? I started thinking about what kind of symbol this town would come up with, what experience-brand object or theme would arise from the fertile collective consciousness of AmeriBrain, the marketing amygdala of the American OverPsyche, and I thought perhaps a burning Valentine, as her performance happened on Valentines Day and involved lighting a fire on stage, burning her clothes and many items from her past on stage, and then disappearing. I pictured suburban lawns with Flaming Valentines; I imagined young women imitating Lydia’s behavior, which had been reported in the press though no journalists had been allowed into the theater where her performance took place. Then I imagined young women imitating her act of defiance, having their own fashion bonfires. I saw a thousand points of light–piles of cheap, boring, overpriced women’s fashion burning on suburban lawns all across America. So I thought I ought to do a little Internet research on current fashion brands, just to get ideas and a little grounding. I read a BusinessInsider article about the top 10 fashion brands and was amazed to find that Zara was number 1! This novel is all about NumBer One (numb-er) … so I happened on an article about Zara written by … none other than our former colleague at, Suzy Hansen. So that was interesting, that Zara does no advertising, that its strategy is to change its offerings so frequently, and price them so low, that if you see something there you have to buy it or it will be gone next week. So then I become interested in Suzy Hansen and what she has been up to and notice that she lives in Istanbul, which is interesting … and find she’s writing a book for FSG about observing America in decline from abroad. And so I thought I would send Suzy an email just to get in touch and ask how the election of Donald Trump might be affecting the publisher’s interest in a book about America’s decline … How Fascinating! How absorbing! How utterly Distracting!

So back to the novel. Now I have an idea. I didn’t really want an idea. I am trying to finish up, limit. But: I did need something vivid with which to make an emblem of Lydia’s return. Now I have this image of all these copy-cat clothes bonfires all across America. And then I think, OK, how to do that? I like news-item pieces and this seemed ideal: AP: A rash of house fires as young women imitate Lydia Favors by making bonfires of unwanted clothes and other items.

The finishing process is necessarily both subtractive and creative. But I have to limit my creative notions to those that actually solve problems. It might be tempting to follow this thread into a whole other subplot. That would be disastrous and might take me off schedule. That will be for another novel. For now, just something quick I can cook up to make her return to town more vivid. And funny. And maybe get Wolf Blitzer in there somehow. Because, to me, Wolf Blitzer is always funny, and seeing him ponder the phenomenon of women creating bonfires of their clothes and burning their houses down just seems amusing.

But fast, see. That’s the thing. I’m trying to get this done. It’s tricky, having new ideas. They must be contained; they must be harnessed to purpose; they can’t drag me off into whole new subplots. That’s my weakness. That’s why this novel has grown like a giant tumor on my laptop. Too many subplots.

OK, everybody, back to work!

Ha ha I make myself laugh

I was having so much fun reading over my fictional interview with Wolf Blitzer about how we don’t really know for certain that Phoenicians and Mesopotamians didn’t settle the Sacramento Delta, do we, Wolf?

I dunno, it might sound stupid, but my character uses all those specious arguments you see idiots use on other idiots on political talk shows and for me it was really funny. So that tempered my concern when, thinking I was at the halfway point in the editing job,  I did a word count on the “second half” and found there are  127,000 words in the supposed second half, but I can fix that. The final product will be much shorter. I think there are some notes and archival material in there, as well as long tangential things that will have to find their way into a different novel.  It’ll be fine. Just a lot of editing work.

It has been good, actually, to read the material I have written over the last few years and find that I actually quite a lot of it. And the rest, hey, good days, bad days. It goes. I’m too busy cutting and reshaping and making decisions to worry about my own talent or lack thereof, my intentions, my ambition, my moral fitness for novelhood, etc. Besides, it’s a social and political satire about the entertainment business, so … nothing is sacred.

That’s it for day 4 or day 5 or whatever it is. I keep working. Will keep you informed.

cary t.

Working on the novel in Italy on Thanksgiving Day

Hi. So here it is Day 3 of my 49-day project to finish this novel using the Finishing School method and talk about it as I do so. Today, what I am editing is a long solo performance by the main character in which she gives a rambling monologue that makes her sound faintly deranged, and then dumps the contents of two bags on stage, one an expensive Gucci bag and the other a cheap Safeway bag, and uses the objects to fuel her monologue, as she disrobes and throws her clothes on the pile, and then squirts her father’s Ronson lighter fluid on the pile and lights it on fire and disappears, as in the title of the novel, Famous Actress Disappears.

Then there is a big fire onstage and all the audience members are locked into the theater.  It is challenging and complicated to write and I have been working on it a long time but I am now pretty close to having it done. The entire scene is about 10,000 words.

I am trying to give the narration of the performance the same intensity as the performance itself yet also must draw back to describe situations outside the scene to maintain narrative sense for the reader.

It’s hella tricky, dude! But another day and I think I will have this scene good enough, so that it does not break down or fall apart or lose readers.

The plan here is to finish the novel and have it be good enough to send to agents. For a while I thought of hiring a professional editor but I really don’t want to do that. I want to do it myself. I’m in that old tradition of the writer as lone hero, figuring it all out for himself. Though I advise against that in my work with others, I seem to be stuck with it for myself, at least for this novel. I want all the glory.

So I put in a good day of work, on this Thanksgiving Day, in Italy, and we ate pasta with cinghiale, or wild boar, and apple cake from the alimentari, and assam tea from Henry’s on Noriega in San Francisco (Thank you, Margaret McCue, for bringing it!), and I have 47 more days to get this thing done.

Also, which is the whole point here, I am using the Finishing School method, i.e. figuring out how much time it’s going to take, finding the time, enumerating the tasks, psyching myself up (that’s not actually in the method, I just do it), and checking in with my creative buddy before and after each work session. So I’m on track. It’s really pretty simple. One of those things that’s really simple but really effective if you do it.