November 3, 2006 at 2:04 pm | Posted in backstory, books, writing | 8 Comments

As some of you may know, I am currently slogging my way through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Last night I came upon this gem in the notes et variantes section, from a letter written by Flaubert on the 18th of April, 1854:

Next September, I will have been working on this book for three years. That’s a long time, three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (particularly a style which has about as much to do with my personality as with the emperor of China’s), living always with the same characters, in the same setting, constantly beating oneself up over the same illusion.*

As of November 1st, I have been at work on my novel, more or less consistently, for exactly three years. It seems a bit wrong to celebrate it as a birthday, since I don’t think the book’s been properly “born” yet — let’s just call it the third anniversary of its conception.

And I have to agree with Flaubert: it is an awfully long time to be living with these characters, these ideas, this stylistic voice which, although it may have more in common with my voice than with the erstwhile emperor of China’s, is nonetheless a sometimes awkward and imperfect fit. But it is nice to know that this titan of literature once experienced the same exhaustion and ennui that I am now encountering.

I haven’t done it much on this blog, but longtime readers of my livejournal know that I love to, well… bitch about my writing. I tear my hair out over an inelegant turn of phrase, I despair over the occasional cliché, and a minor plot hole can send me spiraling off into deepest depression. And don’t get me started on the irrational rage inspired by certain friends and acquaintances who innocently note how easy it all is for them.

In light of this character defect of mine, I’m sometimes asked why I bother: “If writing makes you so unhappy, why do you do it? Why waste your life on something that brings you no pleasure?”

I can only answer that pleasure is sometimes found via a circuitous path.

This may sound a bit weird (and irredeemably geeky), but I think it best compares to the pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Now, jigsaw puzzles aren’t for everyone — lots of people think they are dull and frustrating and completely pointless. Why would I put so much effort into building a picture that I could just buy as a poster, and probably cheaper?

Puzzle nerds, of course, can’t help but smile at this question. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are frustrating. There’s a moment, just after you’ve spilled all those tiny pieces all over your table or floor, when you can’t help but think, Jesus, why am I doing this? And there’s another point, about two-thirds through, when you’ve finished all the easy parts, and all that’s left is about a hundred indistinguishable grey pieces, and you think, That’s it, this puzzle is a dud. They gave me way more pieces than I need, and none of them fit together! Obviously there’s been a mistake at the factory.

And if you are a normal human being, you walk away and watch tv or something. But if you are a puzzle geek, you will persevere, because you know that just behind this despair, a quiet sense of triumph is waiting for you when you find that perfect piece that suddenly brings the whole picture into view.

For me, that’s what writing is like: a series of seemingly impossible puzzles that only make sense once I, through perseverance and dumb luck, stumble happily on their solutions. That plot hole can be fixed by changing the season from late spring to early fall! That ugly turn of phrase will work if only I replace those two clunky words with this lovely one! And look here: a fabulously original way to restate that sloppy old cliché!

And suddenly the whole thing starts to fit together quite beautifully, and you allow yourself to feel just a little bit proud of all the hard work you did to get there.

Right now, the puzzle I’m attacking is, How do I take a character who is meant to be campy and over-the-top, and make her accessible and sympathetic? And all without resorting to cliché? At the moment, this problem seems insurmountable. I lay in bed last night thinking, “That’s it, it’s just not possible. I’m going to have to throw the whole book away.”

But today, the sun is shining, my calendar is clear, and the ghost of Flaubert is looking over my shoulder. So, who knows? Maybe today is the day that it all falls into place.


* “Il y aura en septembre prochain trois ans que je suis sur ce livre. Cela est long, trois ans passés sur la même idée, à écrire du même style (de ce style-là surtout, où ma personalité est aussi absente que celle de l’empereur de Chine), à vivre toujours avec les mêmes personnages, dans le même milieu, à se battre les flancs toujours pour la même illusion.” The translation is mine, please forgive any errors or stylistic oddities.



  1. Isn’t the gestational period for an elephant 22 months?

    Rats?… 21 days? (Holy Christ!)

    This is where I spin a metaphor that the more imposing and impressive something is, the longer it takes to make.

    Sounds more than a bit cliché, but there you go. The thought is this: Hang in there.

  2. JChevais — thank you for the charming analogy.

    I’m sure I’ll be proud when I finally birth this elephant, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to the labor!

  3. It sounds to me like you’re reaching a *ding* turning point — or a breakthrough, perhaps, as clichés go… And I’m sure all the pieces are gradually falling into place. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your book!

    This post was thought-provoking, in any case: I like your puzzle analogy.

  4. Thank you for the positive thoughts, Alice. Here’s hoping!

  5. It seems to me that the camp, over-the-top persona is often a mask that the person concocts to protect themselves. So, I think it would be most interesting to show what happens when that defense mechanism fails and the person is left exposed to their problems in way they can’t deal with.

    The cracks in a beautiful thing are sometimes more lovely than the beautiful thing itself.

  6. Ooops… I accidentally put that all in blockquote.

  7. Gridley —
    That idea works fine over the book as a whole, but the character has to be sympathetic within the first few pages or else people won’t read the rest. And finding a balance between the mask and the cracks is difficult in so little space.

    I’ve tried to do it with self-deprecating humor, but… Apparently not everyone shares my sense of humor. *grumble*

  8. Not that I’m an expert on fiction writing, but I’m more familiar with “campy” and “over the top” personalities than I care to admit. If you’re pressed for space to render “campy” into “protagonist,” you might consider just inserting some hints of underlying uncertainty or anxiety. I don’t want to pathologize camp, but the INTENSITY of over-the-top personalities often mirror intensity in another register.
    I guess a lot of this also rests on what sort of narrative voice you’re using. Is this being rendered in 1st or 3rd person? If it’s in 3rd person, does the narrator have access to her internal states, or just her external behaviors? It might be intriguing to the reader if you start “outside” her head, presenting speech and body language that only hints at underlying problems.
    Or, if you want something lighter, you could start with embarrassment, which I think is an important element in camp, anyway. Perhaps her campy/over-the-top ways have her in an absurd situation? That should show her as vulnerable but not necessarily crazy.

    p.s. thanks for the review on my blog!

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