The Granularity of Life

Granules 2 This is the fourth or fifth post about the process of writing “Chocotle,” a someday novel. I thought it would be interesting for me, and maybe also to others, to document the process of writing it, in parallel with the actual writing of it. That interest remains to be evaluated.

I’m documenting chapter-sized chunks of the project. I couldn’t do anything smaller scale, because writing a chapter is like writing a short story. It’s all-absorbing. It dominates my thinking for days at a time, and when the flow is flowing, that’s not the time to reflect. To reflect upon the flow is to stop the flow. Necessarily. There are philosophical reasons for that. Anyway, I’m mentally exhausted after writing a chapter. I need at least a day to regenerate.

Chapter 5 is the latest one to be born, titled “Descent.” Like others before, it ended suddenly, surprisingly, at 17 pages and 4,000 words.  I had a lot more to accomplish, but it was a natural ending, so, listen to the muse.

The goal of the chapter was to show main character Scott, slowly descending from ordinary, unquestioned everyday life, to turbulent waters where the most fundamental assumptions are questioned. I didn’t want a big fat epiphany, but rather, a series of little events that slowly hammer on his assumptions. So I got him acting strangely at work, so his boss tells him to take two weeks off.  At home, he pretends it was his decision to take some time off, and he gets into a stupid argument with Allie, his wife. Nearly all domestic arguments are stupid, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.  Angry, Scott runs off to the beach house, where he can be alone with his chocotle experiments for a couple of weeks. So, we got ripples on the pond at work, ripples on the pond at home. That part’s solid.

Next, he’s at the beach house and he needs to buy groceries, and clothes because he left in a huff. I also needed to get him out of the house so it could be robbed. Now, all that could be accomplished in two sentences, as the previous two sentences illustrate. Instead, I used 700 words to say it. He wakes up, analyzes a recurring dream he’s been having, then goes to a diner for breakfast, then to a clothing store, then to a grocery store and finally comes home. That’s the 700 words, and I wonder, is that level of granularity too fine?

Do we need to know he was out of toothpaste, that he disdains shopping malls? Should I have shown him shifting the gears of his Mini-Cooper? Should I describe his breathing? What is the correct level of granularity for displaying a life?

Being out of toothpaste is not random. I wanted to show that the beach house is a vacation place, not fully stocked as a regular house would be, and that gives him more reason to go out to a Walgreens, and also helps make it believable that not much was stolen in the burglary because there wasn’t much to steal. The toothpaste comment could be brushed out, but I decided it pulled its weight.

Interpreting a dream as he shaves: Is that too much? I thought his analysis revealed something about his world-view, perhaps revealed more to the reader than he himself understood, namely that his life is no longer under his own control; that he is a victim of his social and economic status.  That will be important later, when he leaves it all behind. So I see the dream analysis section as laying groundwork that helps justifies a big change later. That isn’t one of the goals I set for this chapter, but once it started happening, I thought it was legitimate. It is, however, very fine-grained stuff, and hardly anybody likes to read about someone else’s dreams. I hate it when writers do that. I just skip over dream sequences when I read, because they’re generally pointless, as dreams are. But here, it was the analysis that was important, not the golly-gee-whiz, bizzaro, special effects of a dream itself. Maybe it won’t survive a future revision, but right now, it seems to reveal character.

So even though I used 700 words to say, “Guy has a dream, gets up, eats breakfast, buys some clothes and returns home,” I feel that everything is working; nothing is filler. Who knows? This whole book could be considered “filler.”

Another unusual feature of this chapter was that it did leave me a springboard for the next one. Because of where it ended, with Scott questioning some fundamental life choices, he needs more time at the beach house, because more things need to happen, things that were supposed to happen in this chapter but were cut off by the ending. Maybe I can get a running start at the next chapter without the startup being so painful – same scenery, same mood.

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