The other day my friend Cesar asked me, “So, how’s your new book coming?” So I gave him a brief update: meetings with my editor, rewrites, need to get the cover designed, blah blah blah. And he said (as only he can), “I really just want know if there are bra-less French women in the next book too.” To which, I thought for a moment, and said, “Why yes, as a matter of fact there are.” And then I thought back and realized that my main character’s love interests usually begin to show their affection for him by hanging out in thin clothing and no bra. By using it in the sequel I was wearing out the device. More edits.
One of many struggles I’ve found with writing a sequel is that everything I write is tied to something I wrote almost four years ago. I’m writing for an audience split between readers who’ve read the first book, readers who haven’t, and readers who read it, but don’t remember what happened. The second book needs to stand on its own. I wanted this so much as I wrote the first draft that I was awkwardly retelling the entire first book. Think:
Han Solo: “Gee, Luke Skywalker, wasn’t that awesome when we blew up the Death Star last year. Ahhh, the good ol’ days.”
Luke: “Yeah, but it sure was sad when old Ben got killed by Vader.”
It was cringeworthy.
The backstory has to be revealed tactfully, naturally, and in a way that doesn’t distract the reader. My novel is in the first person, which presents a few obstacles when using backstory to develop characters or plot. The narrator's lack of omniscience means I can only relate to the reader what he already knows, sees or learns through dialogue.
The issue brought to mind a book of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham that I’ve been reading. I know how pretentious that sounds, so I should state that I do not typically sit around reading Maugham. But my mother-in-law loaned me this book, and it’s a beautiful old volume that’s just fun to hold. I also don’t normally read short stories because so many short stories are written in some intentionally obscure manner, concerned about impressing the reader with the story’s atmosphere and the writer's deep vocabulary. I’m usually left saying, “What just happened?” while other people are pretending that it touched their souls.
But I digress. And that’s what struck me about one story — Mr. Harrington’s Washing. It’s all of 40 pages, and I’d guess that 30 pages of it is backstory… digression. Maugham does it masterfully. When he actually got back to the main plot, it had slipped my mind that there was a story, about naive Mr. Harrington, who during the Russian Revolution could not bring himself to flee the country until he retrieved the shirts he’d entrusted to the hotel laundry. The backstories are the highlight and the main plot is merely a vehicle for creating these wonderful characters.
I began to wonder if Maugham is known for his use of digression. Like maybe I should know this before I try to have a conversation with a literary scholar or talk about it in a column. So I Googled “W. Somerset Maugham and digression” and what did I get? A quote:
“The inclination to digress is human. But the dramatist must avoid it even more strenuously than the saint must avoid sin, for while sin may be venial, digression is mortal.” W. Somerset Maugham
Wait. What? Avoid digression strenuously? But I just noted how masterfully he’d done it! (And I had to look up the definition of “venial,” because I studied economics in college.) Is he joking? Or maybe he’s just trying to save us from ourselves. He even wrote a book on writing fiction that had the word “digression” in the title. Now I needed a literature professor to help me out, so I consulted the esteemed Dr. Thomas Hallock from USF St. Pete to give me the skinny.
“I do not have much to say about Maugham," he replied. "I can only say that humor writers have a strategy called ‘laying pipe.’ That is, before you digress, you need to set things up — comedians do this all the time. My favorite digressive is the late David Foster Wallace.”
You never leave a conversation with a literature professor without a reading assignment, and since this is the third time this week someone has referenced David Foster Wallace, I’ve ordered his book of essays. And thanks to Tom for covering one of my many blind spots and giving me a different definition of "laying pipe."
Digression good? Digression bad? I suggest we go with a twist on the old adage, “Don’t do as Maugham says, do as Maugham does.” Because sometimes a good story is brief, but it needs a great setup. This entire column was a digression in order to tell you about Cesar’s amusing observation of affectionate women in my first book. After the bra came off, I was just laying pipe. (For the sake of the story — get your mind out of the gutter.)
Bad genes forced Jonathan Kile to give up a life as traveling salesman. Good genes make him a fine and — some would say handsome — writer. His first book, The Grandfather Clock is available on Amazon. The sequel, The Napoleon Bloom, will be ready when it's ready, dammit.