Research Notes · 02/12/2016

Square Wave

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mark de Silva writes about Square Wave from Two Dollar Radio.

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Writing a novel, especially a first one, pretty clearly just is a kind of research project, even if that’s not the sexiest name for it. Most obviously, it’s an investigation of the substantive themes and questions, characters and settings, the book treats. Just as much, though, it’s a form-finding mission — a running inquiry into how the book is to be composed. Inasmuch as every novel must find its particular form within whatever broader parameters define the novel in general (if such exist), this kind of formal research appears to be no more avoidable than the substantive kind, whether its your first novel or your fifth.

Discovering the right structure for Square Wave, then, required finding the right principles for writing it. It took a good deal of trial and error to reach these, but here are the key maxims — injunctions I gave myself while writing, essentially — I learned to more or less abide by in completing the book. I can’t say whether they will carry over to the new novel I’m developing. I’ll have to discover the form of that book as I go too, I suppose. But certainly these proved critical in writing Square Wave, and its character must owe something to them.

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Read little.

Voracious reading can leave you no less out of shape than voracious eating. As the subject matter of the book is wide-ranging and often abstruse — cloud physics, experimental music, British imperial history, and political philosophy, among other things — I was constantly tempted to research these areas in the comprehensive way an academic might. But quite early on I realized there was such a thing as being too thorough, and that being so created rather than clarified muddles in my draft, distorting the contours of the writing. I switched tack and focused on a few critical texts in each domain; greater coherence, lucidity, and incisiveness resulted.

Something similar occurred in terms of fictional style. The book draws on as many genres as it does subject areas: speculative and historical fiction, the detective story, the psychological thriller, and the novel of ideas, among others. Once again, reading less — only the most sparkling examples of each kind, really — served me better in terms of inspiration. Reading more broadly than that seemed debasing. (One frequently hears it said that there are simply too many good books to read these days. I’m not so sure that’s true, if one refuses to read work that is anything less than staggering.)

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Read loosely.

This is a corollary. In reading through the various historical documents, treatises, textbooks, and biographies, I learned to search out something like the key the text was in, the basic progression it followed, to use musical metaphors. This made it possible to imaginatively improvise in a way that stayed true to the tenor of the material without getting bogged down in every little detail. This meant learning how to read less carefully, or rather, less analytically, which also meant learning how not to take meticulous notes — not an easy process after many years in graduate school. But the book is better, I am sure, for this unlearning.

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Draft finally.

If, in researching for fiction rather than nonfiction, I learned to loosen my grip a little, I had to tighten it in the writing. I wrote a chapter or two of very scattered material that I assumed I would later revise, through a series of increasingly polished drafts, into something that gleamed with finality, in the same way I wrote my dissertation. But leaving things for later like this in the first draft, working purely from instinct, whatever came to mind, just didn’t fly. I worked over this material a few times before discarding it. (Writing scenes out of order, something I tried too, produced a similar lack of organic fluidity.)

So I started again, this time improvising the fictional world of the novel more slowly, more precisely, with a greater sense of shape and purpose from the jump, rather than simply spitting out whatever came to mind. I didn’t have to go quite so far as the jazz musician in terms of finality in this draft, where the spontaneous solo just is the finished product, but I did have to learn not to treat what I was putting on the page as if it were merely a rehearsal for some later performance. The essence of the work really did have to emanate, in some appreciable sense, from what was in that first take, otherwise it would seem tacked on.

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Revise intuitively.

I’ve heard it said about novel-writing that first drafts should be all improvisation and subsequent drafts mostly critical correction. This did not serve me well. After finishing the first draft, I read through it and pondered it, yes. I got a better feel for the characters and setting and I re-arranged a few scenes. But when I went to actually revise and rewrite, line by line, I found that thinking analytically about the text, as I would in revising nonfiction, made my eye weaker not stronger in identifying what exactly was wrong and in figuring out how to fix it. Things I found suspect in that draft from the critical point of view — a character that seemed superfluous, or an “unmotivated” jump cut — would later turn out to be essential to the feel and flow of the book and have to be reinstated; and many bits that survived or emerged from critical scrutiny had ultimately to be scrapped for their lack of intuitive verve, however much “sense” they might have made, however smart they may have been. I learned over time to treat revision not as analysis or dissection but simply as a second “take” — an improvisation — conditioned by the first one. Compositionally, in-the-moment responsiveness, instinct, remained primary.

This may strike some as curious, even incredible, after looking at Square Wave, given how cerebral the book seems (or is). But that is merely to underestimate how rigorous the imagination, properly harnessed, can be.

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Mark de Silva holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). Having served for several years on the editorial staff of the New York Times’s opinion pages, he now freelances for the paper’s Sunday magazine. Square Wave is his first novel. (mark-de-silva.com)