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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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