First, a word of explanation: This post is primarily for myself–see it as a chef ‘s annotation of a recipe, capturing the meta-stuff that transcends ingredients and linear flow. I’ve just finished revising a scene in the novel, and the solution–downstream from all the hair-pulling–ended up being emblematic of the larger work. And so, while I’m still thinking clearly about it, it’s certainly worth making some notes.
But at the same time, I’m not opposed to interested parties looking over my shoulder from a kind of operating-theater gallery. (The deeper truth is that I simply can’t write for myself; I’m hard-wired to address ranks of readers–at least conceptually. Thus, in order to get these thoughts down, they’ll need to be published in some fashion, and–well–that’s where youcome in.) And that, as they say, is that: This piece will be of interest–or not. Proceed at your own risk (and for my part, I’ll pretend that all of you have stayed, hypnotized by every word).
It’s not lost on me that writing a book with a recording-studio as a leitmotiv has itself been very much like multitrack recording. Unlike anything else I’ve done, this writing can be said to be layered. Just as one might separately record individual instruments and vocals, the book’s been very much built–accreted, if you will, over time. And, to extend the recording metaphor, the attendant revisions increasingly feel like I’m at a mixing desk.
But here’s the thing–by reaching for multitrack recording, I’m not thinking wall-of-sound; this isn’t about “Mountain High, River Deep,” and it has nothing to do with “Born To Run.” Rather, the process I’ve settled into is more akin to old-school Jamaican dub music–it’s a reductive approach. By design, I’ve allowed myself to over-write in the context of the minimal style I envision for the novel. And then comes the mixdown-cum-revision, which reduces each sequence to its essence. This process isn’t about cutting per se–it’s about a kind of distillation; reduction in its literal sense. Shortening does occur, but only as a consequence. In most instances, it’s not about jettisoning material as much as a more efficient “repacking” of the meaning.
I usually try not to think about this process while I’m writing; I’m fearful of a killing self-consciousness. But sometimes a revision is successful enough to remind me of how I’m proceeding–like today, for instance.
The scene involves the protagonist arriving at a Boston hotel for a liaison with his lover. The meeting is simply the most recent in a long history of their rendezvous. The hotel is boutique property, a post-modern riff on mid-20th century Europe, undercut with sly, contemporary winks. It’s an always-fresh-flowers kind of place. The protagonist hasn’t seen his lover recently and, as desire builds, he’s the proverbial horse seeing the barn door. The original draft set all of this out in well-chosen but lengthy detail: The cut of the staff uniforms (minimal gray tunics) and their sedate-to-point-of-sinister collective demeanor; the single round table in the center of the small-means-exclusive lobby, on which sit over-the-top vases of Jan Brueghel-ish flowers; a remembered itinerary of past hotels where they’ve met; the usual checking-in dialogue and related stage business; and then the sudden sanctuary of a ride in empty elevator up to her floor.
Nice, even good–hell, well-written, if I do say so. But not well-suited to (or of a piece with) the lean, impressionistic novel that’s taking form. Thus the best way to understand this rough-draft scene is as 12, 24 or even 36 filled tracks in a Jamaican studio–ready to be used as raw material for something radically streamlined–because there’s way too much percussion, more guitar than will ever be used and at least one too many bass lines. But the interesting thing about the best dub music is that few tracks are completely eliminated–the art lays in the use of brief licks that also suggest the density of the source material.
Put another way, and moved to another musical genre, Miles Davis once said of a zen-simple solo, “You have to know 400 notes that you can play, then pick the right four.” It’s about distilled, resonant quality over self-indulgent, less-thought-out quantity.
This morning was mixdown time for the previously described hotel scene: lots of work, lots of coffee, lots of reading aloud, lots of frustration and definitely lots of not-minimal profanity. The result is a distilled 40 words:
Sometimes San Francisco and often New York, but never before in Boston. Confirmation she’s arrived, a key at the desk, and then elevator doors wiping the lobby: gray, Kubrick bellmen and baroque floral arrangements replaced by brushed steel and Vivaldi.
And if I’d been able to get it down to 35 words, I’d have gone there, too–but, after all, there are some limits. Miles, as always, was right: Know all 250-plus words of the scene, and then pick the right 40 . . .
Something else struck me in mid-revision this morning: I suspect that so-called world-building, so beloved by science fiction and fantasy authors, is also in play. Though I’ve never seen it discussed, there seems to be a tacit assumption that nominally naturalistic fiction doesn’t world-build–that it merely slit-scans Real Life. But does it? What if world-building isalways an intermediate step? What if Real Life needs the artistic equivalent of digitalizing analogue audio tape? What if nominally naturalistic fiction slit-scans a larger fictionalized world instead of Real Life itself?
My rough-draft of the hotel scene was a narrower, more manageable version of life. But what was needed–what is always needed, at least in this book–is a further-narrowed impression of the larger fiction. I’ve no idea if other authors work in this fashion; all I know is that I do: That fact that my story isn’t set five centuries from now in a a distant galaxy doesn’t mean world-building isn’t needed.
And with a scotch or two and a little cockiness, I like to think that the 40-word distillation of the hotel scene has more energy and resonance because there’s a genuine sense of a larger world lurking beyond its edges. Since I’ve referred to Kubrick in the revision, maybe this will help explain what I mean: When Kubrick was filming Paths of Glory, he asked for something like 250 degrees of art direction in a scene. Afterwards, when the art director saw the camera set-up, he complained to the director that the audience wouldn’t see most of his set–to which Kubrick replied, “Yes, but the actors will.” Maybe on an emotional level, it’s necessary for my irritatingly second-person protagonist to see more of the hotel than the reader . . .
Make no mistake, I’m not holding this revised passage up as an example of fine writing. Rather, I’m presenting the revision of the hotel sequence as a fractal of entire book’s creation. Scholars have said that The Great Gatsby was only realized in revision and, without suggesting I’ve delusions of grandeur about my book, I’m beginning to understand, after all these years, what that observation really means.