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Abrupt Edge Diary - 15

This is the fifteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

14.  The risk

I have indeed been cobbling the bits together and tonight, starting on the sixteenth chapter of the third version, I am reminded of Martin Buber’s paean, in I and Thou, to the creative act.  In it he slips in a little warning: “. . . if I do not serve it [i.e., the creative work] properly, it breaks or it breaks me.”

Here is the thing:  I have no idea if my idea for this novel is going to work.  The story changes as the characters unfold.  It was going to be my Sanctuary (see Abrupt Edge Diary-4, the post of 11/15/08) and I have succeeded in getting some of the elements of Faulkner’s work into Abrupt Edge, like a virgin being raped, and her being installed in a brothel, but Asenath’s not standing still for being a degenerate—or is she?  She’s turning out to be a madam with a mission.  It’s not about making dough from the bodies of young women, it’s conquering men, the males of the species, by teaching them . . . sensitivity.

But what is the nature of what she’s doing?  Asenath is only incidentally making money off the bodies of young women, but she’s still defying a lot of the world’s moral imperatives by being the factotum who manages the main industry of this exotic world:  assuaging the sexual needs of fat cats in the most grandiose way imaginable.

And more and more I am heading in the direction of writing a novel about moral relativism and moral objectivity.  Not about, in the sense of preaching a sermon.  I’m not, in the name of art, advocating any particular set of moral standards.  I personally find the notion of hiring a prostitute, renting the orifices of a woman’s (or a man’s, if that’s your persuasion) body, to be repugnant, but I know there have been prostitutes since long before Judah met Tamar.

So, is this a dodge, telling a titillating story in the guise of treating a philosophical question?  It better not be, or I will find myself to be broken.

Next post I plan to delve into what I consider to be a fiction writer’s biggest bugaboo, namely VerisimilitudeOhh, eeeh, ahh.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 14

This is the fourteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

13.  Cobbling together the pieces

I wrote five chapters-thirty-eight pages-of setting up the demise of Abrupt Edge, using the Mulee County Sheriff as the main witness for the reader.  It was shorter than the original Part I by about half, but it seems a complete piece and I’m leaving it that way.

Next I’ve taken the Version 2 Part I and made it the Version 3 Part II, the difference being this:  I’m concentrating on getting naïve, untested Jacob Gleason to Abrupt Edge with a foreshadowing of the moral dilemma his being there will cause.  Without planning it that way, I’ve dipped into Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, giving young Jacob portents of struggle, temptations and obstacles and he makes his way from comfortable, secure Ashland, Oregon, to isolated, dangerous Abrupt Edge.

This is mainly a matter of picking out the chapters in Version 2 Part 1 that deal only with Jacob and rewriting them with the knowledge of what’s gone on in the chapters about the Glory War coming to light through the eyes of the sheriff.

I’ve run into one difficulty, and that’s the chapter where Gloria, who is becoming Jacob’s muse, gives him a thumbnail sketch of Isaac Wayman’s journey to Abrupt Edge.  If I leave that out, I really have to change to narrative; if I leave it in, shall I further foreshorten the thumbnail sketch, leave it with the same amount of detail, or actually expand it?

Probably leaving it out is the wiser course.  A really short thumbnail is going to sound like a synopsis.  Both leaving the thumbnail as is and expanding the amount of detail in effect gets into the next part of the novel, which is to be the origins of the rift between Isaac and Abraham Wayman and the immediate consequences of it.

I need to think about this.  I may need to experiment.  We shall see.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 13

This is the thirteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

12.  A new start to the novel

I’m now up to Version 3.  Don’t be alarmed - I’m not.  I figured out that what I would want, were I the reader, is a foretaste of things to come, plus a little mystery, some questions to be answered as I read.  I want my curiosity piqued.

So I started with the world - in the persons of some military technicians with eyes in the sky and an FBI agent on the ground - getting an inkling of Abrupt Edge’s existence - as it’s burning down.  As they start inquiries into the smoke plumes they’re suddenly seeing in the images of wilderness Nevada sent down from spy satellites, they ask the local sheriff what gives, and he feigns ignorance - even though he’s been taking hush money for years to ignore Abrupt Edge.  So have some state and federal officials.

As the sheriff and the FBI agent move through the ruins of Abrupt Edge they discover no living persons, only corpses - until a shot fired from the nearby mountain barely misses one of them.  Someone’s alive, and he doesn’t cotton to lawmen.

Well, actually, the sheriff’s already interviewed another survivor, a teenaged boy who’s in the hospital with two bullet wounds, who gives him a clue to why Abrupt Edge and, across the mountain spur, the equally secret fundamentalist LDS enclave, Glory, are ablaze.  It has to do with the daughter of Glory’s Prophet, a girl by the name of Marian, who ran away from home to join other ex-Gloryites who work in Abrupt Edge’s brothel, Carne Viva.

At this point the sheriff’s worried about two things:  his pension, and the penal code.

Meanwhile, two other persons have escaped from the fighting, Jacob Gleason and Gloria Bennett, lovers on their way to a new and enlightened life, driving away to a place where Jacob can write his history of the Glory War.

So now, in five chapters, I trust I’ve got the reader’s appetite whetted, I’ve introduced the main characters, I’ve made it believable that Abrupt Edge and Glory could stay hidden for so long, and the reader is going to know more than any of the characters, which Shakespeare proved is key to satisfying drama.

I remember when I was a kid seeing this movie where the bad guy has wired the phone so that when the good guy picks it up, he throws the switch and electrocutes him.  All the kids in the audience-this is a Saturday matinee and it’s all kids-who know about the bad guy’s scheme, are saying to the good guy, “Don’t pick up that phone!”

Maybe the readers of Abrupt Edge, at this point in the narrative, will be saying something similar to  Jacob Gleason.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 12

This is the twelfth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

11.  Notes to myself

When I was a kid I wrote a novel called “Two Times Tables.”  I have no idea where the manuscript is, a former spouse has it if anyone does.  I flogged this book for maybe a year (in those days you sent manuscripts to publishers, not agents) and finally a compassionate editor at Little, Brown and Company wrote me a letter as she returned my MS, the gist of which was, “You write beautifully” (I did in those days, every word a pearl) “but you can’t tell a story worth a damn.”  And it should have been a story easy to tell:  a young man in a love triangle, holding the catbird seat, the position at the apex, while forming the base of the triangle are two women (wife and mistress) who love him and between whom he divides his affections.  One day the tables turn.  His mistress takes another lover and assumes the catbird seat in a new triangle.  She divides her affections between the protagonist and another man.  He suddenly understands how cavalierly he’s treated others’ affections.  I still think it’s a great premise.  But Ms. Kelly of Little, Brown was right, the story was lousy.  I had spent too much energy on why instead of what.

I still spend the majority of my writing time trying to tell a story well.  David Mamet, in a pithy little book, On Directing Film, has this advice for directors, advice applicable to telling stories in print, too:

You understand the story as well as you possibly can, and then [the reader] will too.  . . . [You] can ask what the character is doing, but better to ask what is the meaning of the scene. . . .

As long as the protagonist wants something, the [reader] will want something.

Here are some notes I wrote to myself trying to figure out the best way of attacking this story, Abrupt Edge.

  • From January 17, 2008: Jacob tells what’s going on in the present-the war, the preparations for attack, etc.-the background is Isaac telling his life, the prostitute and the young guard talking about Glory, a captured Gloryite talking to Jacob about getting a wife as his reward for fighting. These are all “live” narratives. In quotes.
  • Also from January 17, 2008: Jacob needs to fall in love with one of the prostitutes. They dream together-a cozy cottage for two, kids, a dog. At the end, like Adam and Eve cast out of Paradise, they flee the war. “The Guard” fills them in on the end.
  • From March 10, 2008: Flash!: (or, hot shit, as the case may be!) Jacob isn’t the only narrator. There’s stories, as in the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales: Isaac, the doc, Gloria, the watchman.
  • From March 16, 2008 This book is crap. I started out to do a Sanctuary and I’m ending up with a Sunday School preach. Dive into the dirt or get out of the garden.

What the fuck (the word used deliberately) is it all about?  It’s about a sort of innocent couple escaping what gets made a hell by extremists - religious and anti-religious.

o      Religiosity versus impiety

o      Hypocrisy versus sincerity

o      Mars versus Venus

o      Sins of the flesh versus sins of the soul

o      Faith versus infidelity

o      Faust/Dr Faustus (could Isaac Wayman be impotent, or dying of syphilis, or simply mad?)

o      Could it be that this life, the whorehouse as the centerpiece of a Shangri-La, is sold to the prossies* as an “honest” life, but it’s just sin mixed with hatred for, and defiance of, Adam Wayman and his religion?

  • From July 31, 2008: What is the story all about? Why write it? It seems to be about hubris, religious and secular. It’s about the consequences of male rage. It’s about the urge some persons have, to create balance in the universe, even if it means creating evil. It’s about revenge, which isn’t rational and doesn’t make for a moral. (The folly of revenge? How revenge destroys the avenger as well as the object of the revenge?) It is about the sins of the father being visited upon the son unto the fourth and fifth generation. It’s about a moral blank slate learning to understand why he has to find his own moral compass, no matter how attractive badness is and how unattractive goodness is.

Most of all it’s a yarn, a tale, a drama.  The premise is resolved within the story, not by reference to any outside moral or civil dictum.

  • From September 14, 2008:

What does Jacob want?  He wants to succeed as a writer.

What does Isaac want?  He wants a revenge (on his brother) that the world will understand as a revenge, which is why Jacob-the-historian is important to him.

What does Asenath want?  She wants revenge on Abraham, too, but her brand of revenge is neutralizing the testosterone in men, civilizing (or effectively castrating?) them.  They become her pets.  (”Why do I need a pet?  I have all the men who come here.”)

What does Gloria want?  She wants a “normal” life, although I need to think about what she considers a normal life.

Obviously, if Glory isn’t to disappear altogether, a good many persons opt for staying there and living the FLDS life.  What do they want?  They want security, they want someone with divine authority to tell them what to do.

Tune in to the next episode to read where all these mutterings took me.


* A term for prostitute I borrowed from someone who had intimate knowledge of brothels.

Abrupt Edge Diary - 11

This is the eleventh in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

10.  What’s in those nineteen chapters

I haven’t read a Russian novel for a long time.  I have nothing against Russian novels (I thought, before I became acquainted with Thomas Mann, that Dostoyevsky was the end-all of novelists) but they defy the kind of style I learned from Forties movies and from crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, both of whom I admire for their story-telling.  I want to jump right into the story, to have the reader say, “Oh yeah?  Tell me more.  . . . And then what?”  I don’t want the history of the hero’s family two generations back, and how many serfs he owns and his rise through the ranks in the hussars.  I want the sabers to come out of the scabbard and the horses to crash into the enemy infantry.  Fuck back story.

I didn’t start Abrupt Edge that way.  I started with Jacob Gleason and his roommate, Ben Corelli, watching fireworks and Jacob talking about his heebie-jeebies, the need to get out in the world and “get some experience.”   In other words, the need for change.  Ben, older and having had a lot of experience he’d rather not repeat, says, “Stay here, keep plugging way, keep sending in those manuscripts.”

Jacob uses the modern equivalent of an oracle and goes online, looking for a “writing job.”  And he finds one that intrigues him-a mysterious ad for an “autobiographer.”  Everyone knows no one hires an autobiographer, unless it’s an autobiography the likes of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  He follows where the ad leads him-which becomes A Quest, the knight errant kind, and takes him, with travails and temptations and helpers and hinderers, to Abrupt Edge, conveyed over the last five miles in the battleship-sized Caddy convertible of Isaac Wayman, the bad cat himself, planner, developer, financial backer and CEO of this whorehouse in the wilderness.

There’s description of Abrupt Edge, a mini-metropolis complete with a five star hotel, world class executive chef, an Old West saloon and a security force increasingly concerned with “varmints” in the guise of skirmishers from Glory, you know, the FLDS community over the hill.

There’s the beginnings of Jacob’s coming to grips with evil, especially with an attractive evil like Abrupt Edge and it’s platinum card whorehouse, Carne Viva.  Up to this point in time in his adult life (his childhood isn’t explored) he’s been a laissez faire moralist:  he has an ethic, he treats his chums, his neighbors and his co-workers ethically, but he has no basis, no philosophy of life, to judge the actions of others.

And there’s Gloria, this gorgeous girl next door type who turns out to have been a prostitute before she became Isaac Wayman’s secretary:  Gloria, who’s been assigned to be his Beatrice, to lead him through . . . what?  Hell?  Heaven?  You know he’s going to be smitten and doubt the wisdom of falling for her.

All this is important stuff, but it’s not what makes a person say, “What happens next?”  It makes him say, “That’s nice,” and set the book aside for when he happens to be snowed in or otherwise forced to sit still for along time.

Airplane book, anyone?

Next post I’ll explore how I thought my out of this linear attack on the story.  Stay tuned.