On Not Being a Novelist I
I am not a novelist.
There, I said it.
My journey to not being a novelist ended Wednesday, Augest 16, 2006, but it began in the summer of 2003, when I was having lunch with a friend. We were dining on the patio of a little restaurant, and over salad and beer he mentioned a book he wanted to write—a work of nonfiction. The book would cover some of the methods he uses in his psychiatric practice. It sounded like fun, writing a book like that.
“I’ll write it,” I offered. “You just give me the content and I’ll package it.”
I was bored stiff at my job and needed a new challenge. I’d always enjoyed writing nonfiction, and had gotten consistent feedback that I was pretty good at it. He took me up on the offer, and so we started out to create what we would call “The Book.”
We met every week, usually at a cafe in the basement of a local bookstore. He told me about his treatment theories and I wrote down what he said. After our meetings, when I got home, I would try to build a chapter or a section out of what he had told me. We were working piecemeal: the structure of The Book, we hoped, would emerge. I first wanted to understand his ideas; after that, I would write them down in the clearest way possible. It seemed like a reasonable approach.
Each meeting lasted two or three hours, after which I would have sometimes ten pages of notes. My notes are close to transcripts: when I notate, I don’t think. I just transcribe sounds into marks on the page. This has benefits as well as drawbacks, as you can imagine. In this case, I think it was a benefit.
We worked like this for a few months, until around January of 2004, at which time I realized that there was no there there: there wasn’t enough material for a book. I had come up with a structure based on some other, similar books I’d read, but when I proposed it to my co-author, he didn’t like it. He wanted the book to be more philosophical; I wanted it to be more empirical. I just couldn’t see how this material was going to be a book of sufficient quality to have my name on it—or to even do it. This is not to say that his ideas and methods aren’t any good. I’m sure they are. But it wasn’t enough to make a book that could sell, I didn’t think. Today it may be different: his ideas have doubtless evolved. Maybe we’ll try again. Who knows.
While I really struggled to get the material into shape, though, I noticed something: I was really enjoying doing it. Even though it was frustrating and hard, I liked it. It was fun.
I missed writing. I’d written a ton of stuff in grad school and law school and as a young lawyer. And it was quite satisfying, even at the law firm. The first year of being a lawyer was, for me, almost the high point, as far as work was concerned. Writing memos and briefs was enjoyable. I was paid an insane amount of money to write stuff. But as I got more senior, I was able to do less and less of that. I got stuck drafting contracts. Not fun. Not fun at all.
Drafting is not writing. Contracts are not written in English (or German or French or whatever). They are written in some strange, artificial language. They make very little sense the first time you read them. Reading them is, to me and many people, painful. Extremely painful. And there’s no relationship (as far as I can see) between drafting and writing real English (or German or French or whatever). Worse, I think reading and writing contracts destroys your mind: you start thinking in these convoluted sentences. It’s a form of brain damage, I’m convinced.
So my book project fizzled. Now what? What was I going to write? What about a novel? I’d written short stories before. But the idea of a novel had always seemed to vague—I didn’t know how novels were structured, what the parts were, how the pieces of the story got glued together. And that enticed me all the more. Because I like a challenge.
And it couldn’t be any more frustrating than writing The Book. I mean, I could just make stuff up! It didn’t even have to be true. It was, after all, a story—fiction. It could be anything I wanted. So on April 23, 2004, I started my first novel, entitled “Utmost Emptiness.”
The title comes from a Buddhist prayer or poem or meditation, one line of which is, “The moon of the Buddha/Is floating through the sky of utmost emptiness.” While I’m not religious, I thought—and still think—that’s a killer line. Though I tried various versions of the title, sometimes calling the book, “The Sky of Utmost Emptiness,” sometimes calling it “Utmost Emptiness,” I stuck with that line as the inspiration.
But why? Maybe because the book was about realizing that what you thought was full was actually empty. Seeing emptiness can liberate you, I’ve found. I imagined a full moon reflected in a mountain lake. Empty sky. Empty lake. Empty mind. That was enough to get me excited about the book.
The timing was right. My wife was away in New York for a month or more. It was just me and the cat. I took over the kitchen table and laid out my “source material”—the inspiration for my book, which was, basically, my whole library. I remember thinking, “I’ve read a lot of stuff. I can roll it up into a novel.”
I still worked at Microsoft, but that job was so easy it didn’t take much effort. And during my commute from Seattle to Redmond, I thought about my story. I took a tape recorder and later a digital voice recorder, and each time I had an idea, I would record it. I also carried a notebook and wrote down lines and ideas and bits of dialogue.
So I started writing. And it was so fun. I hadn’t had that much fun in—maybe never! The thoughts just flowed out of me. As did the words when I sat at my computer. It was so much easier than I ever thought it could be. I had a million ideas. But rather than get bogged down, I just kept going.
For a while, I didn’t look at what I’d written. I just saw scenes in my imagination and typed them out. After a bit, though, I wanted to see what was showing up on the page. I was writing it using LaTeX and the Vim editor. I ran LaTeX on the source files and got a beautiful PDF of the book (LaTeX rules). And then I read it back.
Not great, but not terrible either.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I pushed on. Why not?
Soon, though, I realized I had to get a better idea of what I wanted. What the goal was—the end state. So I wrote out a bullet point list of what I wanted this book to be about—topics, more or less.
The list contained the following topics: Buddhism and Chomskyite politics and intellectual property laws run amok and biological engineering and the experience of life inside a large corporation and how the corporation is the fundamental organizing unit of human society. Some sort of a story revolving around those topics. Why those topics? They were interesting to me at the time. Now different things interest me.
I looked at my list.
Something was missing. Something big: I didn’t have a model—didn’t have a book about which I could say, “I want mine to be like that, only with the following differences.” So I started to think. What fiction books had I liked?
Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. I liked that. I had read it twice, in fact. The Name of the Rose. That’s still my favorite (story) book. What else? Mating, by Norman Rush, but that didn’t really fit. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. Nostromo, by Conrad. Yeah. That could work, I thought. I can fit those together. Nostromo was the one I mostly used as my model. I thought mine could be Nostromo in the future, but instead of the mine, it would be about biology.
But what genre?
The only genre I was familiar with was science fiction. Now, science fiction is, generally, crap. On the other hand, that meant the bar was low. I’d recently read this piece of garbage by Greg Bear called Moving Mars (which made me give up on the genre, actually), and I thought, “I can do so much better than that,” at least as far as character and story are concerned. I can’t do the hard sci-fi like Bear, most likely, but I can do better on all the other dimensions. That’s what I thought. Is it true? I don’t know. But it was enough to motivate me.
So I revised my idea of what I wanted it to be: Nostromo in the future. With a lot of characters. I like that. Complex—I wanted it to be complex, like the beginning of Dune, where you don’t have any idea what is going on, but somehow you keep reading. And I sort of liked that about early William Gibson, whom I read in high school. You weren’t always sure what was happening, exactly, or how it worked, but it was cool nonetheless.
OK, I needed a protagonist.
I’ve worked with a lot of engineers from India at Microsoft and, generally, I love Indian proper names. I love the sound of them, which explains where my cat got her name. Names like Gurdeep, Amitabh, Vivek—I just think they are so cool. And then I thought about demographics. The book is in the future. What’s that going to be like? Well, India and China will likely be the dominant countries, I figured, based on population. And the U.S. would likely be hispanic. So the President of the United States would be Hispanic. But China would be the world hegemon, with India a close second.
But what did my protagonist want? Who was he?
A lawyer. Working for a big, hegemonic company. And by the end of the book, he realizes that what he’s doing is bullshit. His company is corrupt. And he throws away his career in order to do the right thing. Yes, that felt right. It was hilariously autobiographical. Kind of juvenile, even. But so what?
In my defense, anyone who says novels or stories are not autobiographical has never written one, I don’t think. Stories have to be autobiographical to be worth anything, as far as I can see. Otherwise, they don’t ring true and end up like a sitcom or a movie-of-the-week. Trash. Did I want this to be a movie-of-the-week or the new Nostromo?
So I started writing the first scene of the first chapter, with the line, “Suresh Kumar had no idea how he was going to negotiate this position.” My protagonist was in medias rea headed to a negotiation over a biological rights concession—an analogy to the oil concessions that varies countries granted companies in in the early 20th century. I had recently read Daniel Yergen’s wonderful book, The Prize, about the oil industry, and wanted to work that in. But, instead of petrochemical prospecting, I wanted to use “bioprospecting:” hunting for novel genomes that could be used to treat diseases.
Where did that idea come from? I’d read an article somewhere about Craig Ventner and how he was sailing around collecting genomes from various little critters in the ocean. Some may have utility. Change this gene here, add this one there, and you could get, say, a bacterium that would shit out oil or diamonds or plutonium. Sounded interesting. So I stuck it in.
Plot, though. What was the plot going to be?
That was hard. I had vague notions of Freitag’s Pyramid still encoded in my neurons, but I never really understood that model. Didn’t make much sense. To vague. But, I thought, rather than looking for abstract models, why not look at something concrete?
I thought about my favorite movie, Star Wars.
You may be laughing at this point—“Star Wars is you favorite movie! You obviously have no taste!”
Possibly. But let me make the case for Star wars. Sure, the acting is horrible. Much of the dialogue is risible. And a lot of it is hokey. But think about the plot—Luke’s journey from the moisture farm to destroying the Death Star. Watch the film and just focus on the story beats. You’ll see there’s a great movie under some of the lameness.
I didn’t know much about plotting then (I know a lot more now), but later I would learn that Star Wars had spawned a whole approach to storytelling—based on “the hero’s journey”—that is still influential. So, I wasn’t alone in thinking there was something really right about that plot. Something timeless. Classic. Mythic. Forget the details—the plot, the logic of it, is tight. Lucas apparently crafted the plot based on Joseph Campbell’s ideas in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. So that plot—Star Wars— seemed to be general enough to be used again. I’ve come to think that the “mythic journey” model is actually too limiting, and there are better plot schemas. But at that time, Star Wars was my paragon.
With this schema of a plot, I made up three worlds. The first part of the story would take place on the first, the second part on the second, and the third on the third. Kind of boneheaded, but simple and easy to grasp. And the journey in between worlds one and two, and two and three, would give me an opportunity to vary the setting. The action there would take place—on a space ship! Sure. Suresh Kumar had to get from one world to the other some way, so I imagined a big, interplanetary transport. So big, in fact, that it could be its own world. A completely artificial world, to contrast with the natural worlds from which and to which he was travelling. That gave me roughly five parts, and that seemed like a good number. Maybe because I had the Shakespearian five-act structure floating around in my head.
And then I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And it just came out of me. It was just about the most natural thing in the world. It surprised the hell out of me, actually. And with that I was on my way to not being a novelist.