Subscribe in a reader

Monday, October 25, 2004

Another Novel Approach

Well, I went and did it. As you may or may not be aware, there is a website site out there which is encouraging people to write a novel in the month of November. It has the unlikely handle of NaNoWriMo. The idea is to try to get 50,000 words of novel written between the first of November and the last. I have signed up to be part of this plague of literature.

In connection with this, is encouraging people who want to participate to do so through a blog devoted to their novel. In honor of this, I have created another blog called Michael Drayton, Detective Guy on which the novel will be written. (In theory.)

One and all are invited to keep tabs on the work-in-progress and to offer comments and encouragement.

In order to do this, I'm going to have to concentrate on finishing the third and final episode of "Plant Your Wagon" in the next seven days. I think that's possible. Then I will take a month off from writing radio scripts, although I do hope to keep up with both this blog and my contributions to Phil Austin's Blog of the Unknown.


Robert G. Margolis said...


This is truly the reckless dedication of someone whose vocation is to be a writer! I might wish you good luck, but I'm not certain that's the correct wish to wish you!

I just checked the "word count" of "Chester Psalms, The Privatized Detective," appearing episodically on Phil's "Blog of the Unknown", and, as of its most recent episode (is that a chapter in a novel), it comprises nearly 30,000 words. I'm already nauseous and appalled!

"Chester Psalms" is a diversionary exercise in, what I call for myself, 'jazz writing', that is, it's entirely improvisational. In advance of writing an episode/chapter, I do not think about or plan what I want to write; nor, from one episode/chapter to the next, do I know what the story is about or where it's going, where it ends. My practice is to write, but not to revise (except spelling and minor grammar tweaks). I write until I stop and if, at any point, I get stuck or don't like what's coming out, I just stop and try again another time.

Is there a month dedicated to unwriting 50,000 words one has already written? I'll sign up for that one, blog and all.

Len said...

I’ve never been one for outlines and index cards and all that stuff. I try to get a feeling for it and try to listen to the characters and see where they want to go. I often find my precious plans are dashed on the rocks while the thought that I hadn’t known was there darts out into open waters.

That being said, I am basing this on a teleplay (unproduced, of course) that I wrote in the early ‘90s, so I will have a structure to work from. And still, the above formula will come into play.

I give myself about a one-in-a-million chance of actually coming up with 50,000 words in one month, but it will be interesting to try. Whatever, I’ll end up with a bigger chunk of novel than what I have now.

Although it is not compulsory, I am planning to write the thing directly on the blog, just like you are doing with “Chester Psalms” and you also did with the “Trouble Town” series last year. I did the same thing with some bits of what would be the sequel to the book I’m about to write. I quite enjoyed it. But you got there first and it did inspire me.

It’s interesting that you mentioned “jazz writing,” because that’s exactly how I think of The Blog of the Unknown. We go there to improvise and when it’s going well, it’s like sitting in with Diz and Bird. Sometimes it’s not. But I’ve been posting there for over two years, so there’s got to be something to it.

Robert G. Margolis said...

'Jazz writing' or 'improvisational writing' is exactly how I, as well, saw the Blog of the Unknown from the first. Phil 'playing a theme', others of us improvising and variating on it.

I don't remember, at the moment, how I came to find Phil's Blog. I do remember though how delighted I was by Phil's kindness and generosity, and his openness in offering others an opportunity to 'write along' with him. And, too, I quickly liked the person in his voice, and that he'd decided to speak in person in public. I'd never before participated in the public conversation of a Blog, and had never intended to, but when I read what Phil wrote about his Blog, that he considered it a kind of "writing experiment", I immediately thought 'jazz conversation', and word-hoard 'n all, I lept in without looking, starting with my first post of Firesign Theatre in my life reminisce. 'A few posts, and that'll be it,' I though, but, so far it hasn't, and look what I've gone and done.

This was, just more than two years ago, when I was immersed full-time in the serious pretense of 'being a writer'. I was alternating between producing different kinds of children's stories (30 completed, another 20 or so in progress; original stories, re-tellings of folk tales, translations) and various translation projects (French, Hebrew, or Arabic into English). The children's stories have gotten as far as the gracious and generous representation by a two woman literary agency in NYC (they've been in the biz for near 35 years), who accepted me as a client, even though, as they said, my storiees are a "difficult sell". Nonetheless, they are determined, so they tell me, to find a publisher for my work. Bless them. The translation projects are all in the "Going Nowhere Fast" file, but may become part of a vocational rehabilitation program and, if so, may eventually reach their intended public of readers. We'll see who is dreaming whom.

For reasons I won't elaborate on here, all that writing and translation work is in suspended-animation at present (and I don't miss it at all, to be honest).
I refer to that time, when these projects were active, as "the Backward Upside Down Years," "the Should've Taken That Left Turn At Albuqurque Years", or "My Life As A Mulla Nasrudin Joke". I took to making contributions to the Blog of the Unknown, as a way of 'taking a break' from writing and as a means of diverting excess mental energy and excitement that otherwise would gallop off with my concentration. That's why I kept, and still keep, Blog writing strictly improvisational, though I hope expressive of some craft at least.

I like writing in the 'noir detective voice'. That voice is an amazing invention, and, for me, so conducive to improvisational writing. And, too, it can be applied to any and every character and situation; the voice itself seems to open up possiblities of invention and imagination when whatever character of situation is 'heard' through that voice.

One of the children's book projects, still in manuscript and going nowhere even faster, is a re-telling of several stories from "The 100,000 Songs of Milarepa", told in the first person of Milarepa using the 'noir detective voice'. It's amazing, at least to me, how vividly, contemporarily alive that voice makes those stories and their re-telling. "Chester Psalms", the "Trouble Town" episodes are me enjoyably doddling in the margins with that 'noir detective voice', while waiting for someone to come along and kiss the deeply asleep projects awake.

Len said...

I, too, responded to the post in which Phil said that he looked at his blog as being a writing experiment. I read that and I thought, “That sounds like fun, like a good idea.” And I immediately devoted myself to lowering the quality of that experiment.

Phil, throughout the experiment, has shown himself to be a real, honest-to-God mensch. He’s also been advising me, from time-to-time, on the show biz aspects of my radio project, and he has never failed to be helpful, courteous, and thoughtful.

I agree entirely on the attractiveness of the noir detective voice. Hammett and Chandler are two of my favorite writers. (Chandler in particular.) The novel I’m going to be blogging will be told in that sort of voice, in fact. And clearly Phil is fascinated by it as well.

I ought to re-read “The Big Sleep” and “Farewell, My Lovely,” but I’ve got too much reading backing up the drain of my brain at the moment. It’s been a long time, though. Too long.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Quotations, apropos noire detective fiction and our shared fascination with the 'noire detective voice', from fiction writer, essayist, journalist, historian, organizer, reality provocateur, Paco Ignacio Taibo II (who--and I hope he doesn't mind!--I've made a kind of a character in "Chester Psalms"):

"In the mid-1970s, I realized that crime fiction was the most important literature being produced in the world at that time, the most interesting space for ideas, perceptions of society, reflections about relations between crime and structures of power, racial issues. The most interesting things produced at the end of the twentieth century in world literature, from my point of view, were produced in this genre."

"You have to tell a story, and then let the reader take part, have the perception, see the way you see. I've always believed that literature is the most subversive space of cultural creation in the world, but not because you can put ideas in it, use it as a vehicle to transport ideas. Rather, because when you open a book you can see the world through somebody else's eyes. And I think that is the most subversive experience in life. Being for fifteen hours a Jewish Dutch teenager—reading Ann Frank's diary—can be one of the most subversive experiences in your life. Being a black woman from Haiti for sixteen hours, reading a historical novel set in the nineteenth century, can be one of the most subversive experiences. And I think literature is subversive because of that. This ability to put yourself into somebody else's eyes—somebody else's perception of life, war, geography, space. The ability of the book to make you, for a while, be an other. The most subversive experience in creation is make somebody else be an other for a while, to break the jail in which every one of us lives every day."

Also, I have notes for a story titled "The First Noire The Angels Did Sing," but those notes have yet to tell me what the story is about...Is it yet another one of those annoying instances in which I have to write it to find out?

Len said...

That's the strange thing about stories. They have lives of their own and cannot be controlled in the way that people like to control things. That's why I leave the outlines and synopses and the index cards to the hacks and the no-talents (not necessarily the same group). I find that I do better when I listen rather than decide. The characters know. The story knows. Who am I to deny them?

I'm afraid I'm woefully ignorant of Spanish-language literature. I think my relationship with that rich world is like the relationship that Murray in "A Thousand Clowns" describes having with his sister: "We keep in touch mainly through rumor." Or, in my case, by reading the occasional article about Borges or Garcia Lorca. I read a selection from Garcia Marquez's recent memoir and would love to read the whole thing, but I haven't made time yet.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Ya know, I'd very much welcome to hear more, a lot more, of Phil's 'solo' voice (or voices) as a writer, whether as audio theatre or in some other radio vehiculed presentation of his devising. "Beaver Teeth", "The Precipice of Angels", and other stories either unpublished, unrealized in performance, or both.

Phil is an accomplished American humorist, with a singular repetoire of work over more than four decades, how is it, I ask myself, that he's not offered, by NPR or PRI or other public radio venue, an opportunity to present whatever kind of show he wants, performing whatever kind of material he chooses? Maybe you know something else and more about this.

This is something not particularly high or particularly low on the list of things I 'just don't get', but, still, when I think about it, I just dont get it. To quote an unnamed NPR executive: "Incomprehensible".

The moon is bloodied tonight by the earth's shadow. An auspicious sign for the public and published debut a new 50,000 word detective?

Len said...

It is a shame that Phil isn’t being heard at the moment. I think that at NPR he’s way too hip for the room, but there ought to be space for him on PRI, perhaps even on one of their existing shows. In fact, there’s a show called “This American Life” which sounds like it would be a good fit for him. I set a reminder to listen this Sunday, but since it’s Halloween and since I have a six-year-old (coincidentally, so does my wife), that may be tricky.

I really don’t know of any reason for this absence. Judging from the things he’s posted on the Blog of the Unknown and the Firesign Blog and the stuff the Four or Five did on “All Things Considered,” the creative urge burns bright. I’ve still getting over the Nick Danger piece he posted on the Blog about a year ago. It was a brilliant piece of audio theatre that should have been on the air, not the Blog.

Which brings us back to the noir voice again.

Robert G. Margolis said...

It is a conspicious absence, at least for those of us who, like me, are paying attention to this sort of absence. But, ah, who knows what is required of him by the mystery of Mystery Island. (Great location for a Hardy Boys story, by the way.) And speaking of vocation, I really liked Phil's comment, made somewhere on the Blog of the Unknown, that he started as a writer, he'll end as a writer, and he is going to concentrate on being "a bad writer".

Have you listened to the selections (shared by links on the offical FST site) from FST's XM radion show? The Nick Danger episodes were going somewhere else I hadn't heard before as a direction for his noire voice. And I especially, maybe even most of all, liked "The Fuse of Doom" episodes. That's such a neat, what do you call it, format or structure of mutating familiarity combined with the disturbing, all grounded in good old-fashioned war-to-end-all wars radio.

Yes, "American Life" or something like it. (Don't know the show itself, but I'm infering from the title) Certainly, Phil's Blog of the Unknown pieces have that feel. And it wouldn't have to be only his pieces; a show could include presentations on Saroyan and others he's mentioned as his writing influences. Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" meets FunFun Town?

Thus endeth the notes to himself by the imaginary program director of the imaginary dinkiest signal radio station on the still contested, insurgent margins of occupied Trouble Town.

Len said...

Phil and the other Firesigns work as poets in prose forms. And, Robert, having just read the most recent chapter of "Chhester Psalms," I have to say that you work in the same mode. (I'm the compliment to that. always prose. Even--perhaps especially--in my verse.)

This is why the execs at NPR found "Pass the Indian, Please" incomprehensible. It is a poem and what they are used to is quaint essays about "My Grandfather's Socks" and David Sedaris passing himself off as an elf. Poetic ways of putting things are beyond their humble abilities to comprehend. In other words, it's not that "Pass the Indian, Please" is incomprehensible; it's not. The execs simply lack the subtlety or poetic imagination to be up to the task of comprehending it. Which is sad, because I'm pretty sure my six-year-old has both the subtlety and poetic imagination to be up to the task.

I don't have the kind of talent that it takes to write that or "Chester Psalms." I think I have what Eugene O'Neill called "A Touch of the Poet," though. Every now and then something poetic slips out and I'm very pleased with myself indeed. Otherwise, I am content with my prosaic approach (and I mean prosaic in the best sense possible) and my one-liners and my actor's ability to get into the characters. I'm happy with my gifts, such as they are.

Now, I'm not saying that either gift is better than the other. They are compliments. Each needs and feeds the other. Which is why we need "Pass the Indian, Please" and "Chester Psalms."

Robert G. Margolis said...


The "subtlety and poetic imagination" of a six year old is exactly what's needed to be "up to the task," in so many situations. (Robert Aitken Roshi somewhere writes that, when he began to realize the meaning of the koans he was formally studying, it occured to him that 'any five year old could understand and answer them'. This comment may be in his book on Haiku and Zen, happily still in print, and which I enthusiastically recommend.) For me, writing wise, there's nothing more interesting or satisfying than writing for that subtlety and playfulness of understanding and imagination. Which is why, in the writing I've done (but not publicly), I have written for children and young readers. An example of 'adult writing' that is quintessentially the subtlety and imagination of a six year old is the poems of Japanese poet Shinkichi Takahashi (translated by Lucien Stryk). See the collection "Triumph of the Sparrow".

Thank you for your kind words about "Chester Psalms". They're too kind, really. Your distinction between 'poetic' and 'prosaic' writing is interesting. I take them as different modes of storytelling, both of which require the play and craft of imagination. Even with the noire fiction format, you're working with an anciently familiar structure or pattern for telling a story, which relies as much on the craft of imagination; and where there's imagination, there's poetry.

"Chester Psalms," now that you mention it, does work narratively more like a poem does. In that respect, each episode is closer to a "prose poem", as they're called these days. In particularly, I'm thinking of those by poet Stephen Berg (see "Shaving").