Alexander Chee: How Should My Novel Be Structured?

Many people have been talking about this powerful, intriguing interview with Alexander Chee, in which he describes the 15 years it took him to write his new novel, The Queen of the Night.

So how do you pull a novel just a few months before publication? That’s kind of a big deal.

At first I thought: OK, you really can’t delay things more than you have already. That would be a horrible thing to do to yourself at this point in your career. But the more I thought about it, I realized I would never forgive myself if I let the book go out and did not include some kind of redramatization of Lilliet’s relationship with Pauline. So I made the case to my agent. She made the case to my editor. We pulled the book back and I wrote somewhere between 70 and 100 new pages altogether. I was so in love with Pauline as a character. I felt like after finding all this new material that if I didn’t use it in the novel, I would just end up publishing some kind of novella about Pauline independently, which would be a shitty consolation.

Back in early 2013, you’d recently completed a new restructuring, and you weren’t totally comfortable with it. What was going on before you handed it in that first time?

The structure was basically the hardest part of the novel. I thought I was going to lose my mind making it all fit together. Sometimes I was sure I actually had lost my mind. There was an especially bad winter I was living in Leipzig, where I spent a lot of time walking around feeling like I was never going to finish and everything was hopeless. It was a very difficult time. The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project. Everything in my life felt like it was being crushed to death underneath this problem: How should the novel be structured?

Read the whole thing.

Stay Calm and Finish the Book

2016 has not been with us very long. But so far, at least, it has been a great year for my writing.

On January 2nd, I came back from New Orleans, after the Hands On Literary Festival, and I began to draft the third section of my novel-in-progress.

I knew I had a lot to write: the novel, called This City is a Clock, is going to be on the long side. It’s a historical / magical novel, set in Edinburgh in the 18th century, depicting, in semi-fantastical terms, the building of the city’s new town. It takes place over three sections, spanning the period from 1770 to 1791: one section when the main character is a boy, one section when he is a young man, and one when he is approaching middle age. 

When I began the third and final section, set in 1791, I expected it to run between thirty and forty thousand words.

I resolved to write at a reasonable, steady pace, trying to keep to around new 1,000 words a day. I already had in mind the major parts of the story, more or less, even if I couldn’t, ahead of time, outline every scene or know what order to put them in.

And so far, I’ve been keeping to that schedule. Today is February 4th. Since January 2nd, a little over a month ago, I’ve written 32,375 words. 

There is maybe one more week of writing to go, perhaps 7,000 more words, and the story will be complete.

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It’s an amazing feeling. Writing this fluently and regularly is a rare blessing. A blessing, but a uneasy one, a strange tightrope-walk between doing too much, and losing strength, or doing too little, and letting go of the thread. But this uneasy walk is, as a result, slightly nervous-making. As the book reaches its final pages, I’m feeling the impulse to (somehow) race ahead and finish it in one enormous day of drafting. 

The story is building to a climax: oppositions which have been brewing for hundreds of pages, since the book’s opening, are now about to erupt. The two main characters are preparing for battle.

With the end so close, I wish I could just blast through and be done. This would be impossible, however: at least for this project, the specific, sensory reality of the next 1,000 words seems only to come to me in the afternoons and evenings, once I’ve written the day’s 1,000. There is a richness to fiction — a pain in the heart, the taste of a particular food, shells crunching under one’s feet during a climb up a beach-side hill, the look of people standing far off in a crowded room — which I only seem able to evoke for a limited period each day. When that capacity is used up, I had better do something else.

Additionally, the quality of my prose tends to collapse after any day’s 1,300 word-mark. I can, in theory, write beyond that, but it’s not pretty.

Writing almost every day is mentally exhausting and yet doesn’t quite feel like “real work” — 1,000 words, after all, doesn’t take that many hours to type. Around lunchtime, each day, part of my mind whispers that I should keep going, that only a wimp would stop now. But experience has taught me not to listen. The physical energy required may actually be small, but one’s imagination — my imagination at least — has its own exhaustion point, one it’s not good to cross. I’ve actually been holding myself back, trying to keep myself fresh, deliberately ceasing work when I start to feel tired.

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I should also say: I’ve been extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to work on the book day after day. I am at a stage in my PhD where I have no teaching responsibilities: thanks to multiple fellowships, I have no students this spring term. The UTK English department also paid for an amazing trip to Edinburgh in November, where I did research in archives and explored the city with guides. 

It’s easy to complain about so many aspects of doing a PhD: this, however, feels like a very lucky, blessed time. And even better: once I finish this draft, I have expert readers ready to advise.

This novel is my PhD’s dissertation; I’m planning to graduate from my PhD in August, and my dissertation director, the author Michael Knight, is eager to see as many pages of the draft as possible. I’m supposed to show him what I’ve written next week.

Doubts fly around my head constantly. One worry is that the book is simply going to be too long. My idea of making a novel by combining three fast-paced novellas, — set ten years’ apart, each with its own mini-story, but with the same characters, who grow older as the main character does — was a cool idea when I first imagined this book. I had no idea how complex such an approach would be. And now, a few years later, I have to tell myself, again and again, not to worry about the finished book’s length. If this first draft is 120,000 words or more, the second draft can always be shorter. Cutting is easy.

And people like long books. Especially historical novels, right? Especially historical magical novels, right?

This, then, is my constant advice to myself: keep going. Don’t worry. Do a good session of composing each day. Write your 1,000 word sections until you finish the story. Then go back, and, with your advisor’s help, make it a great novel.

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PS If you haven’t heard me talk about the novel yet, here’s the outline:

This City is a Clock charts the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town and the development of the Scottish Enlightenment. The protagonist is a boy when the novel begins and has grown to old age by the final pages. As a child, he is put to work by the architects of the new town when they discover that he has unusual mathematical gifts. To them, his strange talent seems an emblem of the new rational order they are hoping to create. And the boy is eager to help them: he wants to be able to escape his impoverished background. His family is so poor that they live next door to a witch, and she terrifies him. However, the architects repeatedly run into trouble, their goals being opposed by a variety of vested interests in the city, and the boy discovers that the only way he can overcome these troubles is to go to the witch and ask for her advice. But each time she offers to help, the cost to him and the rest of the city grows.