Sunday, April 3, 2011

100 Things About a Novel

I didn't write a word of what follows.  It's the work of Alexander Chee, whose first novel, Edinburgh, was called by Kirkus "a striking debut . . . filled with moments when agony and extraordinary beauty somehow coexist," and by Booklist, " A spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching tale."

I even stole the visuals from Chee's wonderful site, Koreanish, which I recommend to everyone.  It's serious, funny, relevant and irreverent at the same time.  A great blog is just an invitation to spend time with a really interesting mind, and Koreanish is like a friend I never get enough of.

Chee has been writing a sporadic series, "100 Things About a Novel."  I think it has something -- in fact,  many things -- to say to everyone who reads or writes books. Or to people who paint or work in stone -- any longterm creative activity.  Instead of talking about this any longer, I'm simply borrowing a few of Chee's "things" and sharing them with you.

1. Sometimes music is needed.

2.  Sometimes silence.

3.  This is probably because a novel is a piece of music, like all written things, the language demanding you make a sound as you read it.

5.  It begins for me usually with the implications of a situation.  A person who is like this in a place that is like this, an integer set into the heart of an equation and new values, everywhere.

6.  The person and situation arrive together, typically.  I am standing somewhere and watch as both appear, move towards each other and transform.

11.  Writing a novel is sometimes like going to a party and hearing someone call your name outside the window and when you get there, a dragon floats in the night wind, grinning.  How did you know my name, you ask it.  But you already know it's yours.

19.  Novels are voracious.  They move around my rooms stripping half-finished poems of their lines, stealing ideas from half-finished essays, diaries, letters, and, sometimes, each other.  Sometimes by the time I get to them one has taken an enormous bite from the other.

21.  There is no punishing a novel in these circumstances, either, because hunger has its own intelligence, and should be trusted.  It is dangerous to be a new novel around another new novel in the years in which they are each being written, but they know this.

22.  Revision, meanwhile, turns something like laundry into something like Christmas.

23.  This is because a first draft is like scaffolding; often it must be torn down to uncover the thing being built underneath.  Which is to say, some second drafts, when they emerge, have very little visible relationship to the first,

24.  And so another way to think of a first draft is as a chrysalis of guesses.

41.  Of course the novel is also a mask.

42.  Not for the novelist.  Not for the reader.  But for something else the novelist brings in from the back of the tent like a lion on a chain.

Okay, how much would each of you give to have written that last line?

I could go on and on; ideally, I'd quote them all. But they're all over at Koreanish, and I hope you go read them -- slowly -- for yourself.  And thanks to Alexander Chee for letting me plunder his site.

Tim -- Sundays.


  1. Tim--

    Thanks for this delightful list.

    My favorite treatise on the topic, though, remains Edward Gorey's "Mr. Earbrass Writes A Novel."


  2. Tim,

    Thanks for this truly thoughtful post. I just wish I weren't so busy trying to get a certain short story done by this weekend that I had more time to reflect on Chee's observations...especially the one about bringing in something "from the back of the tent like a Lenny on a chain."

    Loved it!