Writer’s Journal: January 8th, 2017

(a little background: I’m working on a novel about an old Korean lady who gets trapped in an elevator and teleported to pre-Islamic Arabia)

At least two hours yesterday went to research. I determined that Meccan traders went north to Syria in the summer and south to Yemen in the winter; these seasons may be the same there as they are here, or they may be in reference to the monsoon, which comes to southern Arabia (which is apparently some kind of unknown tropical paradise, Arabia Felix!) during summer in the northern hemisphere, and which would have brought spice traders riding the winds from India. This is apparently their autumn…

At that point I was exhausted. It had been incredibly hard to find that information. I also researched the situation of women in Pre-Islamic Arabia; the topic is infested with Muslim (Wahhabist?) propaganda and difficult to trust, as it largely, laughably insists that women’s lots improved under Islam. Based on the facts, however—Muhammad’s first marriage, for one, as well as widespread worship of feminine idols (to the apparent exclusion of masculine ones)—it seems to me that the reality is more complex: some women, at least, must have had positions of power and respect in Mecca before Muhammad took power.

Although I’m fascinated by Pre-Islamic Arabia, by the apparent relative freedom before the Muslim conquest, I’m frightened by the consequences of depicting this period in a manner which strives for accuracy. Anything less than hagiography will obviously enrage certain dangerously insecure parties.

I pushed on, somehow pumping out nine pages while standing in the library. Around the time I was finishing up I had been there five hours or so, and my feet were aching so seriously I decided to sit down, at which point I began to lose concentration and fall asleep while clutching my laptop (this is one among numerous reasons I write standing up). Just as I was nodding off I got a phone call from my five-year-old son, who was wondering when I was coming home; initially I was annoyed, but the call came at the perfect moment, restoring my energy without knocking me out for too long, so after talking with him and his younger brother I got back to work and finished rewriting the second chapter, accomplishing my goal of ten pages.

It took thirty minutes to walk home, largely beside busy highways of smelly, roaring cars. Initially I listened to a podcast, but soon it was too loud to hear anything, and I seized the opportunity to think about my work. Something felt wrong about it. The chapter felt rushed. It took time, but eventually I figured out that there wasn’t enough conflict or drama. Things are too easy for the main character, while the secondary characters are sort of monologuing—explaining situations they would already definitely understand to one another. Yet in some ways this is realistic; how many people constantly repeat the same few trains of thought virtually whenever they open their mouths? Still, if you have someone saying something like, “Xactar, you know the reactor core will blow if you push the lever to maximum!” it’s pretty poisonous, isn’t it?

So, back to work today on making things more difficult and realistic, even if reality isn’t realistic a lot of the time. This is the pattern I’m seeing in Breaking Bad, which I’ve been watching for a few weeks now (I’m in the middle of season three): each character is constantly beset with mounting difficulties, which they almost always barely overcome, and which generally lead to greater disasters, which causes panic, machinations, and decisions which lead to still more disasters, and on and on and on. The show’s writers, to their credit, are constantly turning up the heat in each episode, cooking the characters into their opposites: the loser slacker dad into the evil drug kingpin, the good faithful wife into a cheating hypocrite, the unbearably cocky DEA agent into a coward tortured by his fear. People take this kind of magnificent feat for granted, but I think only a minority of professional writers is capable of even attempting to pull it off. Breaking Bad manages to do so with a handful of characters; The Wire does it with dozens or even hundreds—writing scenes and sequels again and again, transforming characters before our eyes.

Plot, characters, style.