Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing, Part Whatever

For the past several years, I've been working on a novel set in Paris in 1919. I'am now on the fourth rewrite and I've trimmed more than 100 pages. I've tried very hard to heed the advice of Jane Feather,  a friend whose works regularly appear on the New York Times' best-seller list, and that of her husband, Jim, a noted editor. "Do not," they told me, "assume that what interests you, interests others."

This is the sort of advice most writers don't hear enough, or, if they do hear it, fail to heed; it is counter-intuitive and runs against the grain. After all didn't we get into this wretched and thankless trade precisely because we were captivated by the oddities of history,  emotions, or a combination thereof? Me, I am and have always been an avid fan collector of facts no one knows. I'm trying to become a member of the UK's highly reclusive Useless Information Society and I have every volume put out by Don Voorhees, master of the esoteric. (Example: The Rhode Island School of Design hockey team is called the Nads. Their team cheer is "Go Nads!") I am the quintessential garbage head, and I say this with a measure of pride.

The book with which  I've been struggling encompasses the lives of several artists whom I assumed are household names--Picasso, Modigliani, Satie, Renoir, Cocteau among them--and whose lives and works changed the course of art in the Western world.  Who wouldn't be fascinated by the fact that Cocteau was an opium addict? That Modigliani regularly smoked hashish and lived for weeks on sardines and bread? That his pregnant fiancée Jeanne Hébuterne committed suicide shortly after his death? Hmmm. Pretty much no one, it turns out. What I imagined would pique the readers' interests brought an oh hum reaction from agents who read the book, and I'm pretty certain some of them were so young they might not even have heard of Modigliani or Cocteau.

Well then, what about my fascinating serial killer character, Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1915 and 1919 murdered 10 women and a boy? He was one of the last people whose execution was with the guillotine, and he never owned up to his crimes.  In popular literature, Landru was know as the French Bluebeard and to this day there are some who believe he confessed all in a written declaration just recently discovered . Remarkable, right?

Not so much. "I don't do serial killers," wrote one agent whose specialty includes novels set in Europe between the wars.  ("Well, you should" was my imagined and unspoken response.)

Bearing the Feathers' advice in mind, I took to my book with a vengeance, wielding a pen sharpened not to edit but to slice.

The staggering statistics of World War I (the deadliest conflict in history. Total number of  deaths: 16 million.  Of casualties: 30 million. Cost? $186 billion.)?  Gone. I took them out. The secret life of Pablo Picasso? Trashed and on the cutting room floor.  The internal dialogue of most of my characters?  Deemed unnecessary and made to vanish. The number of ancillary cast I wrote about simply because they interested me? Reduced by half.

The more I edited, the more it struck me that I'd been writing by the pound, adding pages simply because it made the book heavier and more self-important. Also, I wanted readers to know how smart I was, how deeply I'd researched my subject. This book was no longer entertainment, it was a cry of,  "By-God-I'm-going-to-educate-you-Philistines. By the time you finish reading this opus, you'll realize you wasted your college years on a liberal arts education!"

In other words, I lost track of what I was writing--a story meant to entertain readers, if I'm lucky engross them, and, perhaps, provide an ah ha moment or two.

The agreement between writer and reader is a simple one. I'll give you the years it took me to research, write, edit and market the book. You give me a brief span of your attention, perhaps a bunch of minutes strung together while riding the subway. Allow me an afternoon or two at the beach, an hour at bedtime.

I know you're not asking for an education;  you're giving me the opportunity to entertain you. If I fail to do that, well, that's my fault, not yours. 

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