Friday, August 8, 2014

Kim: Donna Tartt is My Imaginary Friend

Or, How I Get Unstuck During Revision

When I’m revising a manuscript, I carry a book with me at all times. It bangs around in my bag, its corners wearing soft. It has oily fingerprints from wasabi peas. Friends do not ask to borrow it. I panic when it goes missing. Rumpled and stained, it’s like a beloved teddy bear. 
If you’re inclined to slice a teddy bear down its middle, rip out its stuffing and weigh it. Burrow under its button eyes with a seam ripper and examine the stitch-holes beneath. Measure the diameter of its ears and paws and marvel over its symmetry. 

I abuse these books in the name of revision. They are my touchstone texts, the books I return to when I need a master storyteller to tell me what to do.

In edu-speak, “touchstone texts” are books teachers use for lessons on writing craft (disclaimer: I know nothing, Jon Snow, about being a professional educator). My practice is probably closer to what teachers call using “mentor texts”, where one student uses one book to further their own writing. I like this term very much, because it allows me to fantasize that these authors are my actual mentors (yes, Lev Grossman, I fantasize about you). Even better, that my favorite authors have their own mentors. Imagine the pairings! Dickens traversing death and time to cast his spectral gaze over Donna Tartt’s sharp (I imagine it is sharp) shoulder. His bushy eyebrows rise in delight: of this, I’m sure.

My touchstone texts don’t have to be my favorite books (though they often are). They just have to do one thing extremely well. With the perspective of time, I can generally tell where my manuscript falls short, and where I need to turn.

When my lexicon feels tapped, I pick up Yōko Agawa’s Revenge, which inspires me to keep searching for the fewest, most precise words. When I need to ground the reader with a salient detail, Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides reminds me of the power of the ordinary (“a hot-water bottle the texture of inflamed skin, a midnight-blue jar of Vicks Vapo-rub fingerprinted inside”). If a chapter feels pedestrian, I re-read everything Karen Russell, whose stories about presidential horses and silkworm factory girls challenge me with their ingenuity. If my characters feel loosely drawn, I open Tartt’s The Goldfinch on my Kindle and do a keyword search for every mention of Xandra-with-an-X. If I start to worry that my protagonist is unlikable, I read a few pages of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then slap my own hand.

Touchstone texts aren’t books that inspire my novels’ concepts. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the inspiration for my third novel. But I won’t let myself near it while I’m writing. I’ve already got a version in my head, filtered into the elements that fascinate me. Besides, there’s the risk of too much Highsmith making its way onto my page. Or that I’ll judge my work against Highsmith’s, and become paralyzed.

Along these lines, I have some hard/fast rules for my touchstone texts:
  1. Touchstone texts have no business near first drafts. For all the reasons mentioned above.
  2. If you drift into the voice of the touchstone text author, banish the book from your cache.
  3. Mix. It. Up. There’s something to be learned from every great book. Don’t be afraid to study a writer whose style diverges from your own. Lately, I’m learning the rewards of a slow-rising character arc from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.
Revising? Jonesing for a touchstone? I offer the following suggestions:

For Leads: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier; Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs; Thank you for Smoking by Christopher Buckley; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

For Endings: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Constant Gardner by John leCarré; Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (including the last chapter, published 20 years post-release); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

For Voice: The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud; Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (for Libby Day); Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

For Tone: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

For Crafting a Well-Constructed Narrative: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; Bleak House by Dickens; Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
For Ingenuity: Antigonick by Ann Carson, Sophocles, and Bianco Stone; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell; I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro

For Elegant Prose: Speedboat by Renata Adler; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

Yes, that’s a lipliner holding open Tartt’s Secret History. I’m not writing with it, though that would be glamorous. And messy.