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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, June 30, 2006

pit stop

Summer sunshine and heat. Unusually for me, I fell asleep after the alarm and didn't revive until about 6:13, after some vivid dreams. I hauled myself and got on with the day.

Yesterday I finished reading Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I appreciated the book, and feel that Zuckerman has valuable advice for me or for any novelist who wants to maximize the size of his audience. His tips are good in themselves, but in my case they have also provoked me to think about what I enjoy in a work of fiction: what makes something a good read for me?

I know my taste is not the mass taste, although I have nothing against the mass market, and am generally indifferent to works that are self-consciously "literary". Many of the things that supposedly make a work "commercial" are in fact things that I enjoy about a book. In particular, the emphasis I place on storytelling is itself a "commercial" approach, even though my aims are not specifically commercial.

I want to think through my approach, so that the second half of my draft makes use of the principles I want to bring to draft two. Hence, another long pause while I tinker with ideas and approaches. The image that just came to mind is of a high-performance automobile, up on blocks again with me under it, tinkering, adjusting. On race-day all this tinkering needs to have been done.

(Awhile ago I thought of this joke for a standup routine: "Every man needs two cars: a high-performance automobile, and one that runs.")

I moved on to my copywriting project, and soon Kimmie was home early from work for the long weekend (Canada Day). Tomorrow we're off to visit my father on Vancouver Island, and will return Sunday. Probably no blog-post until Monday at the soonest.

And now: more reading, more thinking. Tonight we'll have hotdogs for dinner, and Miss Vickie's potato chips--a treat.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

meaning as literary value

The heat of summer has arrived. We have brought out the fan to blow over us in the night--nice. I seem to be more tolerant of heat, especially at night, than many people. Robin, also equipped with a fan, has not been able to sleep in her room the past two nights. I think back to subtropical nights in Mexico when I traveled there with Brad in 1979. Some of those were hot and humid--as well as bug-ridden in a couple of cases. And for a few days we found ourselves bunking down on solid concrete, padded only by a sheet and our clothes. No--I know comfort when I've found it.

This morning at coffee-time I found myself almost paralyzed here at the PC--something very like writer's block, I suppose. I'm still working through my response to Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel, which I still have not finished reading. Even though I'm not deliberately writing a blockbuster, I still want to learn and apply what I can, for I feel Zuckerman's advice is valuable. But how much can I apply? And can I get my story to the point where I think it's good?

For this to me is the key point. My goal was and is to write a book that I would want to read. By and large, I don't want to read blockbusters. So I need to preserve those elements of my work that I regard as indispensable for a truly readable book--whatever those may be, and I'm not sure exactly what they are. I have spent several days examining the question in my journal--this is what has been taking up my writing time lately.

The best I've been able to come up with is that I'm looking for writing in which the writer shows an awareness of the meaning (or meanings) of his or her work, and has taken the trouble to go through and weave those meanings into every aspect of it, so that every detail reflects those meanings in some way. That is when a work of writing has true integrity, quality, and what I would call literary value. Of course, I also take it as a given that it must be a good story, well told--rare enough in itself.

Fussy devil, aren't I. Well, I'm suffering in an appropriate way, then, for I am turning my fussiness on myself. It's a terrible experience--but also good.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

fear of soap opera

The headcold, despite my best efforts, became fullblown. Tuesday and Wednesday I had the full set of symptoms, culminating in slight fever and painful coughing last night, as well as what I referred to as "tap-nose" when describing it to Kimmie.

She is off work today and tomorrow, assembling the cake for her great-niece Lynn's wedding on Saturday. Today she had to overcome her fear of starting the delicate next phase: setting all the icing flowers she has made (hydrangeas and calla lilies, along with unnamed little starlike white flowers--all impressively lifelike) into an arrangement to lie on the multi-tiered cake. She didn't know how she was going to do it. But she came down here about three-quarters of an hour ago to show me her initial effort: a spray of flowers arranged on a twiglike wire, complete with green gumpaste leaves. It was almost uncannily lifelike, the little blossoms trembling in her hand as they would on a real plant in a faint breeze.

"It's sculpture," I said. "You're an artist."

Kimmie was delighted with the praise. She did a kind of joyous pirouette on her way back to my office door.

"Don't drop it," I said.

"Oh no," said Kimmie, as though that possibility had not occurred to her. She crept away to continue work.

As for me, my past two morning writing sessions I have spent in my journal, digging into my thoughts in response to reading Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. As I tried to explain to Kimmie over our breakfast today at the Corner Cafe, I want to get to the bottom of my reactions to what I'm reading. These are now the thoughts that are keeping me up at night (only one or two hours at a time).

Here's a short extract from yesterday's entry:

I have confused, mixed feelings, since I'm not setting out to write a blockbuster, and since I don't even like the books that Zuckerman holds up as examples (Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, and Ken Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg, even though I haven’t read that). Nonetheless the specific points he makes are good ones. They are aimed at heightening the reader's involvement in the story; and they are story elements--the aspect of fiction-writing I regard as paramount.

In other words, I suspect that my problems with the blockbusting storytellers lie more with their lack of proper execution rather than with the approach.

My concern is that the kinds of intense character relationships and interactions that Zuckerman advocates often don't rise above the level of soap opera. But what do I mean by that? What is soap opera? Later in yesterday's entry I discovered this interesting thought:

Soap opera is a generalized form of pornography. In pornography, character situations form perfunctory pretexts for sexual emotions and acts; in soap opera, character situations form perfunctory pretexts for other strong interpersonal emotions and acts. They are structurally the same and have the same meaning: they portray human life as a series of reflexes to gratify strong emotions. They show human behavior at its most animal level.

In this sense, pornography and soap opera are cynical: they assume the worst about human motives. They show human beings with large parts of their humanity switched off. They kind of answer the question, "What would it be like if our id were given free reign?" or "if our animal instincts were given free reign?" Like HAL in 2001, our higher centers are shut down, and we run on a more basic set of brain functions.

I kept searching for what really bothers me about soap opera, and came up with this:

It's endless tit for tat, Punch-and-Judy reciprocations. There's no learning. That was the slogan of Seinfeld: "No hugging, no learning." It made for a successful sitcom, but it can't stand as a slogan for all artistic creation, never mind life.

Probably the most outstanding characteristic of soap opera is the lack of character growth. They're famous for being essentially unchanged after months or years--a viewer can tune in years later and find the same situations. The specifics are different, but there has been no character growth; no one has learned anything, and no one ever will.

A good-quality story must involve learning: a character grows by having insights into the nature of the world and into his own nature. The reader shares in these insights, and this provides the truest and deepest pleasure of reading.

That's no more than a sketch of where my mind has been traveling the past few days. A look through the keyhole into the agitation of the artist's mind.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

straying from fidelity

Today was to be a day of traveling over to Sidney on Vancouver Island to visit my father, but I had to beg off when I realized that I seem, despite all my prophylactic efforts, to be developing cold symptoms. I thought I had dodged the bullet, having fended it off for so long after Robin and Kimmie came down with it, but seemingly not. I phoned Dad and rescheduled for the Canada Day long weekend.

Kimmie and Robin are off to Metrotown to do shoe shopping. I had them drop me here; I can't face Metrotown.

This morning I indulged myself by allowing myself to explore a new story idea. After working for years on one idea, and following it down so many byways, staying more or less faithful to it, this is like forbidden fruit: the excitement of new romance. In fact, each stage of a writing project has its joys, I think. But there is the initial intoxication of an idea that captures one's imagination. "What if that did happen...?"

Before I finally committed to working on my current opus, I was "dating" a number of different story ideas. My idea was to try to follow my inspiration: which of the ideas captured my imagination most? Which one was calling to me?

It turned out to be less clear-cut than I'd hoped. Eventually I decided to commit to The Mission because I had already invested so much effort and emotional energy in it, and because it does represent the culmination of my thinking and wondering over the past 20-odd years. Everything else is only a passing infatuation by comparison--a story crush.

This idea is set in the future: the opposite of what I'm working on. I'm naturally attracted to big, strange ideas with wide-ranging consequences. That's what gets my juices going. So I'm playing with that, having some recreational fun. It may crystallize in another book.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

the true joy of writing

I tunneled further into Albert Zuckerman's Writing the Blockbuster Novel, starting chapter 4, "The Outline Process", in which he makes an object lesson out of four successive drafts of the outline for Ken Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg. I read with great interest, since I am a strong believer in outlining.

Some people believe, or anyway say, that writing outlines is not very creative. I disagree. It's simply a different kind of creativity. In an outline, you're not trying to craft excellent prose; you're trying to craft a flow of events for a number of strong characters. The words of an outline capture a flow of imaginary action. As I've said before, few human activities do not benefit from planning, and writing a long work of fiction is certainly no exception. As Zuckerman puts it in the opening words of this chapter:

No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big novel must have the literary equivalents of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type. Yet there are authors who commence a novel without first working up an outline. Outlines, they say, cramp their creativity, inhibit their characters from roaming free and becoming interesting, and take the joy out of writing because this planning process denies them the possibility of making wonderful discoveries that come to them only while they're setting down the novel itself.

My surmise is that few writers who talk this way ever see their books on the best-seller list.

Hear, hear.

I spent months working on my outline, and I often worry that I didn't put enough work into it. Since I am doing a historical work, I had a good idea of the flow of historical events I wanted to cover; the challenge was to create dramatic storylines for my characters, not only in and around those events, but helping to bring them about.

Early on I developed profiles for my main characters, working up their personalities. Then I created story goals for them--the things they are trying to achieve in the novel. I set each one in a starting situation, and tried to think of what he would do next in his effort to achieve his goals. To discover what forces were working against a character required research. So for months--this was partly while my leg was still in a cast in 2002 from my ruptured Achilles tendon--I sat in the living-room with my binder, writing notes in longhand and reading books to find out more about my world. I moved back and forth from outline (still only story notes at that point) to research, research to outline.

I've just pulled the blue three-ring binder from my desk. The first index-tab is for "story notes"; it runs 177 pages of longhand notes, plus a further 30 pages or so of character notes. The next tab contains research notes from books. The first section appears to be a list of all the characters I encountered while reading Josephus's The Jewish War. Then some notes from The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas. Then detailed notes from The Jewish War, about 40 pages' worth. Then some notes from Jung's Aion. And a few more works, including 24 pages from Judaism: The Evolution of a Faith by Phillip Sigal. I shake my head to think I did all this in longhand; I still didn't make proper use of my PC. (I now have much, much more material than this on the PC.) Another index-tab is devoted to my early longhand drafts of the actual novel, about 33 pages' worth, which I just couldn't resist writing, and almost none of which I have used. And finally a section of photocopied research material from the library, maybe 50 pages or so.

Quite a bit of work for a binder I almost never look at now. On the PC, I currently have typed-out notes from 187 books and videotapes. Some are only a couple of pages; others run to 90 pages. My Encyclopedia folder, which contains extracts of these books arranged by topic, runs to 438 topics, each between 1 and about 25 pages.

As for the outline itself, I created a separate outline for each of my four main characters. Then I amalgamated these in a unified outline, of which I have a long version and a short version (several drafts of each).

Could I have just sat down at page 1 and started typing my book? No. I can barely make it as it is. The writer needs to focus on the reader's enjoyment rather than his own. In so doing, I believe, one can find the true joy of writing.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

anatomy of a blockbuster

Yesterday's reading: Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman; and Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux.

I spent more time than I expected reading Zuckerman's book, reading all the way through chapter 3, drawn in as ever by reading "how to" advice on how to improve storytelling. In chapter 2, Zuckerman gives an overview of the elements he feels are central to writing a "big" (that is, capable of becoming a major hit and attracting strong interest from publishers) book. These are:

  • high stakes
  • larger-than-life characters
  • the dramatic question
  • high concept
  • multiple points of view
  • a sexy or intriguing setting

By "the dramatic question" he means essentially what Robert McKee does by the "story question"--a clear, simple question (or few questions) on the reader's mind, such as whether Scarlett O'Hara will succeed in getting Ashley to return her love, and whether she will recognize that it's really Rhett she loves. Despite all the incident in the novel, these questions drive the story forward.

I like Zuckerman's take on "high concept", which defines as a "radical or even outlandish premise", such as Michael Crichton's idea of cloning disonsaurs from fossilized DNA. My own feeling is that "high concept" is appealing because it provokes an imaginative response in the potential reader (or viewer). I saw this happen myself while doing The Odyssey: people were immediately intrigued when they heard the concept for the show: "An 11-year-old boy, falling from a treefort, lapses into a coma and finds himself in a strange world populated only by children, where he only remembers that he needs to return home--wherever that is." I could see people's minds spark with curiosity and interest: what would happen in a show like that? What would it look like? The Odyssey was a high-concept show.

But I would add something further: it is essential for the high-concept story to be realistically presented. The real power of a high concept is taking a situation that most people recognize is strange or awe-inspiring (such as, what would happen if a giant asteroid smashed into the Earth?), but which they find hard to imagine, and then taking them through the experience. The audience goes through a once-in-a-lifetime (or once-in-1,000-lifetimes) experience in the safety of their livingroom. You imagine it for them.

So I think I agree with Zuckerman on that. Although small stories can be bestsellers, note that the Harry Potter series, about a wizard's boarding school, and The Da Vinci Code, about a plot surrounding the hidden life of Jesus (I think that's what it's about--haven't read it), are both high-concept works. I like high concepts, always have, so that's in my favor as a would-be blockbuster author.

And multiple points of view? Yes. Hard to write, but potentially very enriching for the emotional range and thematic range of a work. I have said before that I believe this is one of the marks of what makes an epic. My own take on it is that it creates a sense that the story is bigger than any one character, which suggests that the world is rich, complex, and meaningful.

One problem: Zuckerman uses Ken Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg as his main example book--and neither of my local libraries has a copy!

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Monday, June 12, 2006

my little blockbuster

Summer heat is setting in. Kimmie is off work with her cold. I'm balancing my own writing with a copywriting job on the side.

Today another book arrived in the mail (yippee!), always a treat. This one is Writing the Blockbuster Novel by the literary agent Albert Zuckerman, who has represented Ken Follett, among others. I look forward to it, since I enjoy informed, technical advice on how to improve the commercialness of writing, even though I am not a "commercial" writer.

What am I really trying to say here. I am not a commercial writer in the sense that I mean: that is, someone for whom the commercial aspect of writing--making money--is at or near the top of his priority list. The cash-starved creative writer is an ancient character, and has included most important literary authors as well as mainstream hit authors such as Stephen King. I've been one myself--am one myself--and I didn't like it. Most genre writers and other professional income-earning authors are under pressure to turn out a book a year or so in order to pay their bills.

Fair enough. Other writers are more like artists, who can't or won't (or don't have to) subordinate their creative standards to the need to earn a living from writing. Here I think of writers such as James Joyce and Franz Kafka and Malcolm Lowry. They put the quality of the project at the top of the priority list, and then make ends meet as best they can. While I don't pretend to be in the same quality bracket as these writers, they represent the values that I hold in writing: quality.

On the other hand, I am not a "literary" writer. I don't put any value on having an elevated or poetic prose style, or deliberately frustrating readers' plot expectations, or creating work that anyone might be tempted to call "experimental". I regard all those things as low-hanging fruit, and not productive of enjoyable reading experiences.

No. For me the top literary value is storytelling. Yes: I'm saying that a novel with a well-crafted story is of higher literary value than a more overtly academic or experimental or poetic work whose story is weak or absent. As Robert McKee says, writing is relatively easy; storytelling is hard.

And storytelling, of course, is a "commercial" quality. Books with strong stories sell well, because this is what readers--virtually all readers--are looking for. It is rarely achieved. I believe that most breakout bestsellers--those novels that propel a new author to the bestseller lists--have good stories. (Most books on the bestseller list, on the other hand, are by brand-name authors who at some time in the past wrote a good story, and who enjoy the good fortune of a loyal audience even though their follow-up works are not as good.)

So, I have bought Zuckerman's book (on the advice of the Grumpy Old Bookman, by the way, who used to be a client of Zuckerman's as well), not so much to turn my opus into a by-the-numbers blockbuster (no chance of that, and no interest either, since most "bestsellers" are boring to me), but to learn what he has to say about the crafting of story to create a "big" book. I hope to make it better by my own criteria; if I also make it more saleable, then so much the better.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

quick post during rest period

I honestly want to write more posts! I used to be so diligent, and now...

I'm taking echinacea in an attempt to ward off a cold that Kimmie has now caught, seemingly from Robin. I have risen from a brief lie-down after we took care of our errands. Kimmie too is resting on the leather sofa, sniffling and reading another vampire book. The washing-machine rumbles upstairs on its furious spin-cycle, which seems too strong for the cheap sheet-metal to withstand.

I spent some time this morning writing a book review for The Origins and History of Consciousness on Amazon.com. I gave it five stars, and reviewed it because I felt that the existing reviews didn't quite do the book justice. If you'd like to read more of me, check out the link.

Again teatime rolls around, and the opportunity to do what I love: read.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

proof of life

Too much time has slipped by: I'd better log at least a short post to show that I'm not deceased.

I'm not sure whether I am legitimately more busy than I have been in the past (there have been things to occupy me lately, such as strata business--preparing for our AGM this month--and also some other, copywriting work coming in), or whether it is a sign of resistance.

I'm very familiar with the phenomenon of resistance from my training in meditation, where reluctance to meditate is one of the hallmarks of the practitioner. We were taught to see resistance as a sign of engagement with the practice; the more you suffer with resistance, the stronger your relationship with the practice is. It's like standing in a river, refusing to go with it: pushing against the current takes work, and the stronger the current, the more work it takes. Simpler, of course, just to give up and go with it: let the current take you.

Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, in his Wake Up to Your Life, says this about resistance (he calls it "unwillingness"):

We avoid meditation for specific reasons. To discover the reasons, first establish a definite time and place for meditation. Every day at the set time, go to where you practice and stand there until one of two things happens: either you know exactly why you aren't going to practice that day, or you sit down and practice. In a week or two, this exercise will expose at least one of the reasons underlying your unwillingness to practice.

Maybe I should come down and stand here at about 3 p.m. each day and find out something about myself.

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