It’s A Geometrical Problem!

During one of her interviews Oprah mentioned that for her a good novel must be over 300 or 350 pages long. I don’t remember the exact number of pages even though I had it somewhere in my notes.

I personally don’t agree. Literature is full of stories that say otherwise. Because the value of a book for me is not in the number of pages. It is in the story, the characters, the way it is written, and most importantly the way I as a reader connect with the story and the characters.

writer

Among my all time favorites are Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea”, Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “For One More Day”, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”, Naguib Mahfouz’s “Midaq Alley”, Albert Camus’ “L’etranger” (The Outsider), Robert James Waller’s “Bridges of Madison County”, and Erich Segal’s “Love Story” just to name a few. 

Georges Simenon, one of the most productive writers of the twentieth century, has altogether 550 million copies of his work printed. He has written nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographical works, numerous articles, and scores of pulp novels using different pseudonyms. Capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, his novels are not much longer than some short stories. Most of his works are written and revised in about two weeks. Here’s how he does it:  

“It is almost a geometrical problem. I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives. Then I write my novel chapter by chapter. On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. All day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels. … And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons why my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t- it’s impossible. I have to- It’s physical. I am too tired.”  

Nobody else writes in quite the same fashion as Simenon. When asked if he would continue writing novels even if they were not published, he answers “certainly.” 

“I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.” Georges Simenon

ChK 

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Dammit! Stop Writing!

In my previous post I wrote about the first stage in writing a story, the idea, the germ, the “aha moment.” 

For me it’s hard to start a story with only an idea. There has to be something more, something emotional, a sensitive situation, a touching moment. To quote Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

“Generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit if exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes move you to tears.”  

Then comes a process of reflection, and meditation. Sort of conscious, wakeful dreaming. As Angus Wilson calls it, “the gestatory period” which he says is:

“…very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.”

“I always remember the date, the place, the room, the road, when I first was struck. For instance, World Enough and Time. Katherine Anne Porter and I were both in the Library of Congress as fellows. We were in the same pew, had offices next to each other. She came in one day with an old pamphlet, the trial of Beauchamp for killing Colonel Sharp. She said, ’Well, Red, you better read this.’ There it was. I read it in five minutes. But I was six years making the book. Any book I write starts with a flash, but takes a long time to shape.” Robert Penn Warren

Georges Simenon writes:
“As soon as I have the beginning, I can’t bear it very long. … and two days later I begin writing.”

“I never quite know when I’m not writing,” says James Thurber. “Sometimes my wife comes to me at a dinner party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing.’”

While Nelson Algren writes page after page to find his plot. He says:
“I always figured, the only way I could finish a book and get a plot was just to keep making it longer and longer until something happens.”

“I invariably have the illusion that the whole play of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously- that I’m seeing it in one flash.” Truman Capote

I too take a long time to write my book, a very very long time.

Dream

Happy writing everyone!

ChK

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Do You See Or Hear Things?

The month of June has been a difficult month for me and my kids. We had to face some really hard challenges. I rarely wrote during that time, because I can only write when I distance myself from situations and all kinds of emotions.

In times like that it’s hard for me to be myself. The only way I can lift my spirit and keep a positive attitude is to read about writing and other great writers. I have books and notebooks filled with quotes on how the great writers do it. I would like to share some with you.

Every story or book starts with an idea, a germ, or a flash as some authors call it.

Aha!

And as Henry James described it:

“The precious particle… the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point, its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.”

William Faulkner said that ‘The Sound and the Fury’ “began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and it would be a book.”

On the other hand, Frank O’Conner whose imagination was not visual, said: “If you’re the sort of person that meets a girl in the street and instantly notices the color of her eyes and of her hair and the sort of dress she’s wearing, then you’re not in the least like me. … I have terribly sensitive hearing and I’m terribly aware of voices.”

So does Dorothy Parker, for she said: “I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things.”

So which one of these writers are you? Do you see things? Do you hear things? Or maybe both?

Have a great weekend visualizing, hearing and writing!

ChK

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Play! Have Fun!

While reading Julia Cameron’s book the other day I came across the following paragraph:

“Creativity expands in an atmosphere encouraging to it, and constricts self-protectively in an atmosphere that is cynical or hostile. This is why artists can have a difficult time accessing their best work in academia.” 

I remember an interview I had read with writer Frank O’Conner decades ago that I would like to share with you.

When asked how he feels about the academic approach to the novel versus the natural approach, here is what the author said: 

“All the university men of Shakespeare’s day thought he was a simpleton, a bit of an idiot. 

to be

The university novelists have been having it their own way for thirty years, and it’s about time a natural novelist got back to the job and really told stories about people. You see, I don’t believe there is anything else in the world except human beings, they’re the best thing you’re ever likely to discover.
To me, the novel is so human, the only thing I’m interested in- I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer. I really got into this row, big, at the novel conference at Harvard, when I had a couple of people talking about the various types of novel- analyzing them- and then we had a novelist get up and speak about the responsibilities of the novelist. I was with Anthony West on the stage and I was gradually getting into hysterics. It’s never happened to me before in public; I was giggling, I couldn’t stop myself. And, “All right,” I said at the end of it, “if there are any of my students here I’d like them to remember that writing is fun.” That’s the reason you do it, because you enjoy it, and you read it because you enjoy it. You don’t read it because of the serious moral responsibility to read, and you don’t write it because it’s a serious moral responsibility. You do it for exactly the same reason that you paint pictures or play with the kids. It’s a creative activity.”

Creativity is fun. Creativity is play. I hope you have fun creating!

ChK

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I Treasure Those Memories

It was 4th of July weekend this weekend. Even though I live in Montreal and am Canadian, I have the sweetest memories of my first and only 4th of July. 

When I watched the news these last couple of days and saw the high security measures that were being taken to ensure the safety of the citizens, it was disturbing. What has happened to our world? How did we allow all this to happen? How could things change for the worse at a time when we are getting better and better in sciences and in technology and in many, many other fields. 

And I remember my 4th of July weekend in 1988. It was my late husband’s and my first trip to the United States. We started with New York. We were there for only four days, but I can say they were among the most memorable of our days. We landed at JFK airport. Even though we carried a Lebanese passport at the time and were traveling from Dubai, everything at the airport, customs and all, went so well for us that even we were surprised. Because at the time the civil war was still going on in Lebanon and we were prepared for the worst. 

During the four days (including the weekend) that we were there, we managed to visit an exhibition at Lincoln Centre, stroll around Central Park, visit the Statue of Liberty, roam the streets of Manhattan, visit MOMA the Modern Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum. We also managed to see the Broadway show “Midnight Express”.

Most importantly for me however was my visit to Doubleday bookstore. You can imagine my excitement when I first entered the bookstore.

Promo

There was nothing like it in Dubai, and even the bookstores we had visited on our previous trips to Rome, Venice, Paris and Australia were nothing like that. I was so overwhelmed that I felt like a child again, walking around in awe just looking at all those books until my late husband reminded me to get my list out.

It was on that day that I bought my first John Dos Passos books. I had read about him in Jean Paul Sartre’s writings. Sartre had referred to him as “the greatest living writer” back in 1939. I wanted to buy his U.S.A. trilogy, since I had read somewhere that he used a special technique called the “camera eye” to write the trilogy. I not only found the three volumes but thanks to the salesman I also bought The Manhattan Transfer. 

I treasure those memories specially now that my husband is no longer here with us, and traveling has become such a problem. Just as I treasure all the books I got on that day, most of all the books by John Dos Passos. Throughout the years I have read his trilogy over and over. I have so much respect for his talent and writing technique, even though he once said in an interview:

“I never felt I wanted to be a writer … I didn’t much like the literary world as I knew it. I studied architecture. I’ve always been a frustrated architect. But there are certain periods of life when you take in an awful lot of impressions. I kept a good diary- very usual sort of thing- and I was consistent about putting down my impressions. But I had no intention, really, of being a writer.”

ChK  

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What To Do!

One day the great sculptor Michelangelo was carving a statue in a courtyard and a small boy asked him why he was hitting at that rock. He answered: “Because there is an angel inside and it wants to come out.”

I don’t remember how many times I have heard and read the following advice, “write what you know,” or, “as a writer, your finest work will emerge when you free the angels and the dragons that exist within you.”

Write what you know. Write what you feel!

To be honest I am the happiest when I try to write from my heart. From that vulnerable place at the very core of my being, using feelings that may have been experienced long ago but that resonate in my life even now. 

I used to get angry and sad every time I thought about my experiences of the civil war in Lebanon decades ago. But then I realized that those events that have occurred have prepared me to write best about certain types of emotional responses. I have used those emotions and experiences to write my first book “The Lost I”

Since it was my first time writing a book and I was not confident enough to send it first to a publisher, I sent my manuscript to a Manhattan firm to be evaluated. Here’s how they responded:

“There is a nice element of mystique in “The Lost I”; the narrator does not fall into the common trap of giving away too much future action and over-expressing the motivations and emotions of the characters. There is a very subtle incorporation of small details and aspects of life within the context of the novel’s reality. Also, the characters are three dimensional and realistic, and as such will engage both the interest and sympathy of the reader.
“The Lost I” is a compelling read. It is a very exciting story. Overall, the plot and the conceptual uniqueness of “The Lost I” will recommend it for publishing.”

Excited and happy by such positive response I started my search for publishers. After searching for a while I realized that almost all publishers don’t accept unsolicited material, so I started searching for agents. Most of the responses I got were just a simple no of course. But to my surprise two different agents responded in the exact the same way. Here’s what they wrote:

“Thank you very much for sending your query and for offering me the chance to review your material. I’m sorry to state that I will not be asking to represent your manuscript. It is crucial to find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, and your project did not seem like a good fit for me.  
Please understand that this is a subjective industry, and what does not work for one agent or publisher may in fact work well for another. Although I cannot recommend someone specific, I encourage you to continue seeking out representation elsewhere.”

I got this response from two different agents in two separate emails. They “cannot recommend someone specific.” Sigh! 

What am I supposed to understand from the above reviews? That even though my story is compelling no agent can help me find a publisher because it won’t sell?

Endure

What do I do then? Do I continue to write from the folds of my soul and expect no one to publish my material? Or do I just write something, anything, with the market in mind and be dishonest to myself and to the readers?

ChK

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Happy Father’s Day!

“Nothing is worse and more hurtful than a happiness that comes too late. It can give no pleasure, yet it deprives you of that most precious of rights – the right to swear and curse at your fate!” Ivan Turgenev

Today is father’s day. A sad day for me and my kids. I am sad because almost four years ago I lost my father and a year after that I lost my husband and my children lost their father. My dad was old, in his early eighties when he passed away. He had lived his life and had seven grandchildren. When my husband passed away in his fifties, his death overshadowed my father’s. He was young and had so much to see and do for his family, his kids and himself. He left behind so many unaccomplished dreams.

I know I should be grateful for the time we had together. And I am. Because he was this true gentleman, loving, caring, giving not only to us, his family and loved ones, but to everyone who crossed his path. He never said no to those who needed him. And in our competitive and materialistic world people like him are rare to find. To quote Ivan Turgenev: 

“He was the soul of politeness to everyone – to some with a hint of aversion, to others with a hint of respect.” 

I am so grateful for the times we had together, for knowing you, for loving you. I am lucky to have met you and spent the best years of my life with you. You were the best husband and the best dad and the best friend and companion and soul mate I could ever have or ever wish for. Except that for all those years that we lived in Dubai we never celebrated father’s day. It was just not in the culture, at least not when we were living there. Neither did we celebrate it in Lebanon back then. It was only when we moved to Canada that we started. 

Ironically though, in the thirty years that we were married we only had one real father’s day celebration: the first year we were here. After that our life and everything in it seemed to take a downfall. 

There’s an old saying; “Take whatever you want from life but never forget God expects you to pay one day.”

I guess our payback day had come somewhat early. What is left is a new us. We will never be the same again, or see the world as we once did. It’s like with our loss has come yet another loss, that of innocence. We have come to realize that life is not what it seems to be. And that something like this can happen to us and has happened. And as a consequence we are more vulnerable and sad now. 

And on this father’s day, it will be exactly two years seven months and five days since his passing. Lots have happened since then. And with each day we feel his loss more and more. We long for his presence here with us more than anything in the world. There’s an emptiness in me, in us, that will never be replaced no matter what. 

And on this day I cannot help but think of all the dads who are not in this world anymore. I think of the dads who are away from their families serving their country or working their butts off somewhere far away in order to provide a better life for their kids.
 
And on this day I cannot help but be grateful for the life we (the kids and I) had with him, for the love I knew, for the joy he brought into our lives. Father’s day should be a day of gratitude for the three of us and we will celebrate his life with tears in our eyes and an empty heart. For the legacy he left us in the short time that he was with us is far greater than any we have known so far. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre:

“There is a future that lies beyond death and that almost turns death into an accident in the individual’s life, a life that goes on without him.”

Happy father’s day my darling. I like to believe you’re up there somewhere together with my dad watching over us.

Dad-1

ChK

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