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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 15, 2005

on (not) feeling like it

Objectively, not a bad writing day. It feels like slow going in the morning research-notes session. Since I'm rereading Roman Lives and reading Vintage for the first time, I seem to inch along. I manage about 2 pages of Roman Lives and maybe 4 pages of Vintage, including pasting extracts into my Encyclopedia folder.

As for writing itself: I made a few more notes on chapter 14, switching between these and the draft chapter. Feeling not very inspired, I pushed forward, writing dialogue whether I believed in it or not. Pages! I wanted progress. I wove new material into the existing draft, pushing the whole thing a net 4 pages to 17 pages by about 11:10. Then I lost compression. It was anticlimactic: I was simply turning my outline bullets into prose, mainly. Not much came to me while drafting it. I have to trust that it will look better later than it felt while I was writing.

I take heart from something I read in the diaries of Thomas Mann. While writing the story "A Man and His Dog," Mann said one day that it was hard, uninspired work. But he had noticed that when he read over his material after weeks had passed, he couldn't tell the difference between days when he was inspired and days when it was drudgery. The quality of his prose was about the same. I'm hoping for that built-in consistency too. A bit of Mann's quality wouldn't hurt either.

Ever-present danger: "on-the-nose" dialogue. TV and movie characters almost always say what they're really thinking and feeling, whereas real people seldom do. This is one reason why most TV shows and movies are poor. The concealed thoughts and feelings beneath spoken dialogue are known as subtext, and good writers make sure it's there. As a writer you can find it by asking yourself, "What would a real person be concerned about here?"

If somebody says, "That's a nice dress," what are they really saying? Some possibilities: "The dress is nice--you're unattractive." Or: "I'm sorry about how I acted yesterday." Or: "Hey--notice me! I like you!" The key point is that it's not simply a factual statement about the quality of a garment. Real people don't simply report what's going through their hearts and minds; characters shouldn't either. Subtext keeps us interested.

But when emotions run high, we become honest. Maybe that was happening to my characters today.


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