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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, November 13, 2005

learning as I go

Back at the note-making again this morning. One foot after the other, keep walking. The method I've developed is to reread the previous day's notes with Word's highlighter function switched on. The "keeper" bits I highlight as I read through. When I want to review my best thoughts on the current chapter, I can scroll up and read the yellow highlights.

I'm liking chapter 19 better. I'm feeling that the beast is in the thicket; I just need to flush it out. Choices previously made, as far back as the outline stage, restrict my freedom now. But somehow in that restriction of freedom lies the expressive power of what I'm doing, the thematic depth, and also the verisimilitude. My lack of choice makes the situation feel lifelike to me.

Does it bother me how long chapter 19 is taking me? Yes. Sometimes I let my mind glance briefly and only implicitly at the arithmetic that would reveal how long it might take me to finish my opus if every chapter took me this long. But, damn it, I can't be pushed by such considerations. If I don't like what I'm writing, there is very little chance anyone else will--and why would I ask them to in any case? So my mission is to soldier on until I like what's coming out.

Today I liked where the notes were taking me. I review the basic steps of the chapter, again and again. What kinds of developments would turn the outcome of my chapter into the biggest surprise? Then: what would those developments imply about the meaning of my work, about the themes that my characters are carrying?

My first paragraph of notes today ran thus:

So: Act 1 is Habib trying to justify himself to Menahem. And also explaining his crisis: that he has promised to return worldly goods to gentiles, or confirm that they are to stay on and become full members, at least, in the sense of being allowed to cohabit and eventually journey "home" with the real villagers. It might be a case of Menahem respectfully listening, waiting to get a word in edgewise. The turning-point is Menahem switching him off to inform him that it's Menahem who is to be punished--and what his crimes are.

I us the "Act 1" label because I try to see the action within a chapter or a scene as having its own three-act structure. I don't by any means succeed at this all the time, and it's not always appropriate, but I find it useful, especially when I'm having difficulty giving shape to a scene.

I liked where I arrived at today. But it implies going back to earlier moments in the chapter, when Menahem is alone with his thoughts, and changing those. More and more I see this as a decisive turning-point for him, his view of the world. I'm not sure what's at stake--I'm learning as I go, as any reader would.


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