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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

back to basics

Sweaty after going for a run. It had stopped raining, and there was even the beginnings of wan sunshine. It felt good to set off down the damp sidewalk, even though I felt heavy and not in the mood for running. There was a cold breeze and a complex sky: crevices of bright blue like canyon rivers behind clouds of misty gray, opaque charcoal, and sunlit white.

Before that I talked with Mom on the phone. She too is a writer, finally in retirement pursuing a lifelong desire, but finding it hard, frightening, and easier to avoid than actually do. I told her this is a universal experience of writers, as it is of meditators: resistance. I believe it stems from fear: fear of failure, fear of being no good, fear that nothing will come to you if you do try it, fear you won't enjoy it, fear of ruining your dream, fear of boredom. And probably many others. The ultimate remedy is to recognize resistance and then choose to step over it.

Every writer knows about resistance. But, as in meditation, resistance is actually a sign of engagement with the discipline. We resist because we're connected, because it's important to us. Resistance is another expression of the value we put on writing. Even in our avoidance we're honoring it.

Chapter 14: today I wrote no prose in the chapter itself. I wasn't happy with how it's progressing. It's too thin--not enough conflict, not enough of the unexpected. I'm writing it from Marcus's point of view, and the other characters are just acting like chattels; they're not pushing into the action, as they should. I opened my Notes document and started:

Need more attention to Alexander's and Gaia's motivations during the chapter, and their behavior. Alexander should deal with the book question before Marcus's revelations.

I went back in my mind to the end of chapter 13, and imagined things from Alexander's point of view. How does he feel? What is he thinking? What does he want? I typed the thoughts that came to me. Then: If that's what he feels, what would he do? How would he react to Marcus's actions? How would Marcus react to his? What would I do in that situation?

I started building a sequence of "beats" for Alexander in chapter 14: his goals and behaviors during the action. When I started looking at this in detail--and it's quite a logical process, nothing particularly mystical or "creative"--ideas came to me. Yes: he would try to do this, and Marcus would stop him, so he'd try to do that. Each character is trying to achieve his objectives without being derailed by the others.

I created a bulleted list of beats for Alexander. The first bullet: "vomiting attack, desperate try to return to shop, thwarted by Marcus." Other bullets followed. As I thought of new ideas I could insert new bullets in the growing list.

This is not the Stephen King approach. It's much more a Robert McKee approach. To me, this is even more free. Why? Because a bulleted list can't be sacred. It's almost asking to be rearranged, have things inserted, deleted. When you write prose, no matter how off-the-cuff, there is a certain attachment. It is your creation, and at some level you resist deleting it or changing it, even though you know you should. Those words are your children. Can you just stuff them in a sack and throw it in the river? Maybe you can--but there is a twinge. But a "notes" document, a bulleted list--these are changeable, disposable.

I enjoyed myself. It was as though these other characters had had their volume controls turned down, and now I turned them up, including them in the mix. They pushed back. They didn't just take what was being dished to them: they resisted, they argued, they tried to get their own way, in their own way. As soon as a character starts pushing back, it forces your other characters to adapt, to get creative. Your creativity is their creativity. They have to think of ways of dealing with each other.

This is how drama takes shape. It's what Warren and I learned to do while writing The Odyssey. Even if you have a strong outline (a very difficult document to achieve), each scene is work. A scene, if you just "execute" your outline, will generally be weak. There's a sense that the characters are just doing what they're supposed to do--what the author intended. When we were struggling with a scene, we usually realized that we hadn't done the preparatory work. It's tempting to skip, because it's time-consuming and rather difficult: it requires actual mental effort, not unlike multiplying 2-digit numbers in your head. Going back to examine the starting lineup of a scene can make you feel ignorant. Don't we know this stuff already?

The answer is no, you don't. You don't know exactly what that character is doing there at that moment, and why. You know in terms of the story, as an author--but not from the character's viewpoint. As far as that character's concerned, why is he there and what's he trying to do? Those are the questions. The first answers you reach for are often unsatisfactory. You have to dig. What was happening just before this moment, and why? What is this character's long-term goal and what's his immediate objective? And how does this conflict with other characters' objectives? How exactly?

It's work. Often strained and difficult. But it can be wonderful: ideas come. Characters think of ways to achieve their objectives, and other characters get in the way, and soon you're generating business in the scene. You feel the tension of characters preventing each other from having an easy life.

I got almost all of chapter 14 reworked this way. I didn't write any prose--but I look forward to the next time I do.


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