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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 25, 2005

on (not) knowing enough

Tried to start the week with a fresh burst of enthusiasm. I still found it hard making notes toward chapter 15, but still made some incremental progress toward what I call the starting lineup for drafting the chapter. This really boils down to knowing enough to begin writing.

One thing I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen King and his writing advice is that there are potential pitfalls in using the "trust the unconscious" approach. Robert McKee says that often, when we reach into our minds for the first thing to hand while writing spontaneously, what we come up with is a cliche: something that we've read or seen produced before. "Cliche is at the root of all audience dissatisfaction," he says in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Further:

[T]he source of all cliches can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.

There it is. The main problem with dramatic writing? Cliches. The remedy? Knowledge--specifically the writer's knowledge of "the world of his story." The world of the story consists essentially of the characters and the setting. In writing about the ancient world, this knowledge will come largely through reading.

If I let myself think about this seriously, I get a bad feeling. Throughout my life I've been driven by fear of inadequate knowledge, and therefore have spent much of my life studying. If I had focused on one or two subjects, I might have been able to master them. But I have ranged far and wide in an omnivorous quest to know everything. Or not quite: my real quest has been to get to the bottom, to find out what knowledge is really essential.

With respect to my story, there's a huge amount to know. Experts spend their lives studying only small portions of the world I'm depicting. I can't possibly know my story-world in the godlike way that McKee demands--and neither can anyone else. Does this put it off-limits for dramatic treatment? Or will someone (me) just have to take on the sin of inadequate knowledge, and do the story anyway, at the risk of a certain number of cliches working their way in?

Even at the chapter level I can feel overloaded. But what to do? Just chuck the whole thing, now that I'm 30% of the way through a first draft, and have spent years in research and outlining? No. I've got to drag the thing across the finish line, warts and all, to a possible audience of zero.

These sorts of happy thoughts occupy my mind much of the time.


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