So, I am starting a new novel. The hardest part at the beginning is finding a good voice, the voice in which the story needs to be told. There will be starts and stops, lots of frustration. Probably a good dose of gut-wrenching terror, especially since this book wants to be in the first person which I find incredibly uncomfortable. But I don’t care if writing this whole damn thing feels like wearing an itchy sweater, as long as it works in the end.
Something else that is likely to be a challenge is that a lot of this book is going to be about scorching sexual chemistry. There was a bit of that in the last book and there will be more in this one. When sexy prose works, it is really really good. When it doesn’t, it is positively disastrous. Sex is possibly the hardest thing there is to write, one wrong word choice can render a steamy scene totally laughable. While polishing up the last book I had a whole exchange with my editor about the word “cunt.” She had concerns that it would be too jarring for some readers. I wrote back the following:
I kind of avoided naming female genitalia with circumlocutions like “inside her” and stuff like that, but eventually you just have to name the thing you’re talking about. “Vagina” is not hot, it’s too doctor’s office. “Pussy” has the disadvantage of being both too cute and too porny. I decided to go all out and use “cunt,” after all this is not a shy book. But I didn’t just throw it around willy nilly, I saved it for one or two special occasions.
The argument boiled down to: dude, sorry, but this is just a cunt kind of book. And the argument worked, because it was.
Now that I am back at square one with a new novel, I have to ask myself: is this one a cunt kind of book? The narrator is a very stark person, oftentimes unflinching. But she is also very young, and sex is in many ways her softest spot. Figuring out what language she would use, what she would say and not say, is going to tax my skills. Everything has to match up with who she is; the silences have to be just as telling as the graphic detail. At this point I still don’t know what word she would use to talk about her ladyflower (probably not “ladyflower” though), and if I had to guess I would say she herself would have a devil of a time choosing a word that fits her. Part of what I may have to portray with the text is her struggle to find words for an experience so powerful and puzzling, one that is both ineffable and thoroughly embodied. (This is part of the reason why I think first person may kick my ass: having the language still flow while also trying to render its troubles attempting to find a flow… Christ on a cracker, this is the sort of thing that may make me chicken back out into third person!)
One thing at a time though. Before I find out what words she would use to talk about making love, I have to find out what words she would use to talk about her morning commute, her cat, the dreams that wake her up in the middle of the night.