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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 30, 2007

reflections on the immune response

Another weekend goes by--very pleasantly, in the main, although both Kimmie and I are fighting off simultaneous headcolds. Dosing ourselves with tincture of echinacea, we're holding the virus at bay thus far, having both started to feel symptoms on Friday night. We reckon we must have caught it together from the same source, but aren't sure where. Two possibilities: one of Kimmie's family members was a vector when three of them came over for lunch a week ago Sunday--giving a long-sounding incubation period of five days; or we picked it up when we had lunch together on Thursday at The Burgoo restaurant near her work. Neither of our waitresses appeared to be infected, but who knows what goes on in restaurant kitchens? I picture some cold-ridden cook sniffling his way through soup- and stew-preparation.

"Another reason to eat at home," said Kimmie last night, while we speculated on the source of our infection.

But in fact we don't know. Viruses arrive, board our cells like pirates, and then must be dealt with.

I used to think of viruses as more intimidating than, say, bacteria, just because they are not treatable with antibiotics, and their method of attack always involves a direct invasion of our cells and subversion of the cells' own reproductive process--creepy. Viruses are much, much smaller than cells and do not eat, breathe, or indeed metabolize in any way. They have no propulsion system of their own but move passively wherever they're driven. How can the body deal with such an invader?

I was heartened by reading the book Microbiology the Easy Way last year (I wrote a review of the book on Amazon.com, if you're interested). Our immune systems are wondrous and complex things, and include powerful antiviral weapons. One of these is a class of proteins called interferons. When a cell is invaded by a virus, the virus's commandeering of the cellular reproductive system causes the cell to produce interferons. Although an infected cell is generally doomed, it releases these interferons which are picked up by neighboring cells. The interferons cause these other cells to switch on genes for producing special proteins that can block viral reproduction. So when the viruses arrive in these cells, the cells are ready: before the viruses can invade the cell nucleus and subvert its DNA-processing, they are stuck with proteins that prevent them from functioning or can dissolve the viral nucleic acid. The viruses or their dissolved parts can then be broken down by the cell like regular cellular waste. Amazing!

I don't know whether this is how the body deals with the virus for the common cold, but if it does, I imagine the virus landing, possibly riding on water droplets that we inhale or smeared on our membranes if we touch our mouth, nose, or eyes with unclean hands, and invading the cells of our mucous membranes. The death of cells and their released products would trigger an immune response, which we experience as the symptoms of our cold. Neighboring cells arm themselves against the virus, which, multiplying furiously as it kills infected cells, leapfrogs over them to other cells that aren't warned yet. The cold spreads from throat to nose to lungs as the virus looks for pristine defenseless cells to invade. Eventually all the cells susceptible to the virus have been warned and are no longer vulnerable. The invaders are immobilized, dismantled, and flushed into the body's wasted system. The dead cells are replaced by reproduction among the survivors. By the end of the cold the body has probably produced antibodies to the virus--special molecules that fit the virus's exterior chemicals like a key in a lock, enabling the body's white blood cells to recognize them as invaders and vacuum them up before they can enter cells. The next time that type of virus invades, it finds the body much better prepared to take it out of circulation.

I bought the book on microbiology in December 2005 as part of my inquiry into the mystery of identity--for our immune system is a vigorous and complex assertion of our physical identity. It is the border patrol and immigration office of our body, getting rid of everything that is not "us". Our immune system knows what "we" are--but do we know what "we" are?

It's a mystery. Right now I'm grateful that my immune system seems to be strong and on full alert. Go, team, go.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

another stepping-stone of the artist

Yesterday I talked about my relationship with A. A. Milne's The World of Pooh as the earliest example of my being impressed and shaped by a work of literature. That was the first the literary stepping-stones that have influenced my own development as a creative writer.

The next stepping-stone was Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which I first read when I was 13. I've mentioned my encounter with this book before, such as here and here, but I thought I might say a bit more about it.

I was enthralled by the book. Looking back on it, I would now say that a large part of my fascination came from the fact that the hero was a criminal. He murders two old women, one of whom is the pawnbroker who he feels has been exploiting him and his kind, the other the pawnbroker's innocent sister, who merely happens to be at the scene when Raskolnikov commits his crime. Thus Dostoyevsky makes it clear that Raskolnikov is guilty, even if you buy the idea that his murder of the pawnbroker is justified. He kills in cold blood, and to me, at age 13, the idea of making a cold-blooded killer the protagonist of a story was strange and chilling. For Raskolnikov is otherwise not a bad person: he's a poor but brilliant student struggling to make ends meet. Without realizing it, I had been introduced to a truly and deeply conflicted hero, and experienced the mesmerizing effect of sharing in the life and thoughts of such a person.

I felt the crushing, inescapable burden of blood-guilt as I read. Raskolnikov's psyche deforms and cracks under the pressure of it. There was a sense of this leaden guilt overshadowing all the action of the book, which has quite a busy plot with many characters and twists, all of which seemed somewhat irrelevant when the crime was remembered. Just as in real life, when we're guilty of something, we manage to forget for awhile, and then the memory returns, and the guilt is fresh and painful. This experience must be the mainspring of the criminal's frequent desire to confess.

I loved the characters, the vivid portrayal of the strange world of St. Petersburg in the 19th century, and especially Dostoyevsky's handling of Raskolnikov's relationship with money--the ostensible motivator of his crime. I felt the preciousness of each ruble-note, each coin. All blood-tainted.

I suppose I would say now that with Crime and Punishment I became conscious of literature as an art form, something that can affect one deeply and shape one's views and life. I glimpsed how the deeper, more moving stories would be about not physical peril, as I'd read about so far in my young life, but about moral peril and the effect of ideas on people's lives and actions. Raskolnikov's conscience and his soul were the real battlefield of this novel, and the experience was an eye-opener for me. To find the most powerful stories, the writer needs to look within.

Crime and Punishment was an influence in a stricter sense than The World of Pooh too, because in reading it I formed the desire to write like this. I formed a certain competitive desire to be able to create a work that would affect others as this one had affected me. Harold Bloom, author of The Anxiety of Influence and The Western Canon, would say that I developed an agon with Dostoyevsky, a desire not to be outdone by him--a driver of high-caliber literature throughout the history of literature, he maintains.

So there we are, the first two influential works in my artistic formation:
  • The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne (age 6)
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (age 13)
The artist is being formed...

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The World of Pooh

What makes for a good read?

I've asked myself that time and again, looking into my own experience, into my own satisfactions and dissatisfactions. Some things I find very enjoyable to read, many things not. What's the difference?

Slowly, gradually, through my life I have groped my way toward a sense of my own literary values, my own true preferences and beliefs. Looking back on it, it's as though certain works of literature have been signposts or stepping-stones on this journey. The first of these, for me, was The World of Pooh, which I got at about age five and which I still have. Milne perfectly captured the sense of the young child's imaginative world, when his plush-toys have distinctive personalities and his yard is a whole country with mythically charged locales. His portrayal of Christopher Robin as the wiser, more mature leader and companion of his lovable but relatively simple-minded animal friends was brilliant, another keen portrayal of the child's world from the child's point of view.

The World of Pooh was the first book that stirred in me the feelings I would now call epic. The episodic adventures of Pooh and Christopher Robin were relatively detached from each other, exactly as my memory of childhood is--I can't now place the order of events in my own life before the time I went to school at age six, when my personal history took on, so to speak, a directional arrow. My own adventures stand as islands in an archipelago of memory, and Pooh's adventures are the same, as are those of the Grail heroes. And although Pooh and Christopher Robin and Piglet were the main characters, there was a sense of a company of heroes, a cadre of characters all involved in this closed world of magic and adventure together--again like the knights of the Round Table.

The color map on the front endsheets of the book conjured up feelings of wonder and excitement; I used to pore over it, getting a thrill from the place-names such as the 100 Aker Wood or Where the Woozle Wasnt: places where adventures happened. It was like my own wild yard in Upper Lonsdale, or perhaps nearby Carisbrooke Park, a steep, grassy half-block with many distinct zones where I played with friends.

I never tired of having this book read to me. It seemed magic to have all these adventures and feelings brought together in one place, in a book that could be read again and again. Each locale, each episode, had its own special place in the whole; each was significant and each invited your attention and created a sense of a whole made of magic parts.

If I try to identify the feelings the book aroused in me, if I tried to name the enjoyable stirring somewhere around my heart, I would say that the book evoked a sense of wonder and significance. As I think about it now, it seems there is a kind of magic that arises from episodes that are stories in their own right, that have a directional flow from beginning to end, but which are themselves scattered without a strong sense of direction between them. The little episodes reflect each other without causing each other. So there is a sense of a magic world whose borders are unclear, which edges off into the rest of the world in a misty way: a mandala where everything is precious and everything relates to everything else.

There: the first book in Paul's literary education.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I've just spent time keying notes over my morning coffee, from A History of Israel, volume 1; The Golden Bough; and Cosmos, Chaos, & the World to Come. Sticking with the plan, sticking with the flow of normality (insofar as the creative life can be called normal).

This sticking with the flow is important when one's mood is not ideal. Now, when I lie awake in the dark of predawn, I find myself racked by worse doubts than usual. At such times there is no optimism; the inertia of lying in bed seems to be an expression of life in general. Then I wonder about the very concept of "success", one of the mirages we chase through life.

All around me I perceive sureness in people: certainty. People are definite in their opinions, both in the conversations around me personally, and in printed matter and among TV commentators. We all like the feeling that we know, and dislike the sense of uncertainty, ignorance, which is so paralyzing to action. If you strap explosives to your body and go detonate them in a crowded place, killing yourself in the process, you must feel very sure of what you're doing, very certain that your view of the world is correct. You're sacrificing your own life and the lives of others on the altar of your certainty.

My point, of course, is that such certainty is mistaken. It's as though the pleasurable, affirmative
feeling of certainty were so important and desirable that we adopt it even though the content of our thought lacks actual certainty--the thing itself. This was essentially the problem noted by Rene Descartes in 1641 at the beginning of his famous Meditations, when he noted that he himself had for many years held many things as true which turned out to be false. Or, as he puts it in the opening of his first Meditation:

It is some time ago now since I perceived that, from my earliest years, I had accepted many false opinions as being true, and that what I had since based on such insecure principles could only be most doubtful and uncertain; so that I had to undertake seriously once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted up to then, and to begin afresh from the foundations, if I wished to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.

Here is the famous Cartesian doubt. Doubt generally prevents action. Descartes describes in the very next sentence how he came to start writing his book in spite of his doubt:

But as this undertaking seemed to me very great, I waited until I had attained an age sufficiently mature that I could not hope, at a later stage in life, to be more fit to execute my plan; and this has made me delay so long that I should henceforth consider that I was committing a fault if I were still to use in deliberation the time which remains to me for action.

Hmm. "Committing a fault if I were still to use in deliberation the time which remains to be for action."

Rene, I hear you. For me, the "action" is now merely to follow the deep groove of habit in my task, and hope for the best.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

still creative

On Friday I opened up my project but found I could not face it. I've become gun-shy.

It's not the first time, of course, and I dare say it will not be the last. If I look into the state of mind directly as it's happening, what do I find? There is fear, aversion, and a willful sense of No, I won't! There is a primitive sense of exercising freedom, as when a teenager skips out of class, or the adult phones in a fake sick-day. Only those most lacking in maturity and introspection can do so with a single, untroubled mind. You must completely believe that you are victim and that the school/job is an actual oppressor.

Who's my oppressor? When I think defiantly, You're not the boss of me, whom am I addressing?

Or, instead of the defiant rebel, the skipper-out/hooky-player more often engages in some justifying self-deception: "Those bastards deserve it, after what they did to me," or "I just can't deal with it today." The rules are too inhumane and inflexible to be dealt with honestly; deception is necessary in order to achieve a just outcome. (The justice of the outcome being something that I alone assess--in secret.)

But who's the author of my inhumane, inflexible rules? Who's the boss?

After sitting frozen for a time, I switched focus and thought I'd try to think about cover art for my book: what might it look like when done? I pulled down my cardboard box of art supplies from the top of my built-in shelves over my old filing cabinet, and pulled out a couple of my old sketchbooks. I got looking at things I haven't seen in years. I remember when I used to do more drawing (cartooning mainly) when I was in my late teens, early 20s. Here's an example of the kind of stuff I did when I got myself a technical pen in 1978, age 19:

(Dang--can't seem to get this image any bigger. The speech balloon reads:

"Straighten out your carnation Bob. You're always such a mess!")

I found myself scanning some of my old drawings from that ancient sketchbook. My relationship with drawing has been fitful since school, and I only have two full-size sketchbooks since then, plus one or two small ones (which I couldn't find--must be around here somewhere).

I didn't come up with a full cover design, but I did do a bit of sketching and lettering. It felt as though rusty wheels were being pushed into motion.

"This is creative," I told myself. "It's still creative, it still counts--sort of..."

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it for now. Let's see how today goes.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

a drop in the thinking bucket

After a few days of poking my nose into another writer's work, maybe it's time to get back to talking, at least tangentially, about my own.

But it seems there's not much to say. The process of writing, considered as a physical act, is unexciting. In some sense writing seems to be the least possible physical result of mental effort--well, perhaps not quite, for what about meditation? The image that springs to mind is this: meditation is like sharpening the knife; writing is like making the smallest possible cuts with the knife.

I'm still making my way through James's The Principles of Psychology, volume 2. He stresses that the natural result of every thought whatsoever is an action. Every thought leads naturally to action, and is prevented from becoming an action only by one or more countervailing thoughts. "Action" might be something physiologically subtle, such as quickened breathing or an elevated heart rate, but every thought will out in the body. There are no "dead-end" nerves; the sensory nerves lead into the brain and the motor nerves lead out; there is no insulating barrier between them. Stuff goes in, bounces around, and comes out; it does not simply vanish.

Hence, in simpler cultures, feelings of elation or joy erupt spontaneously as laughing, singing, and dancing. Feelings of sorrow erupt as groaning and pounding the ground. According to this view, our "civilized" cultures have more taboos on expression--countervailing thoughts--that block the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling, and no doubt (this is what I surmise) put us into a state of physical tension, like a strung bow.

Personally, I think he's on to something. It makes complete intuitive sense. And it occurs to me that even seemingly passive, purely aesthetic feelings, such as looking at a beautiful nature scene, push the body toward action--such as trying to express one's feeling of beauty in a work of art. I'm familiar with this feeling: there is a sense of being filled by an experience, energized by it, and an impulse to express it creatively. The energy comes in, is cycled through the system, and reemerges to join the world again.

Back to meditation: a practice in which one does not physically do anything, except maintain a particular posture. The effort of meditation is an effort of attention: bringing the mind repeatedly into the here and now. I've read that there are characteristic physical changes that come over the meditator: a slightly elevated heart rate and blood pressure. These things say "exertion", do they not?

And writing this blog-post? Here my thoughts and feelings, such as they are, find organized expression. How often have I sat thinking, when the output was merely a few muscle-clenchings, finger-drummings, impatient sighs, and the like? The energy of thought dissipating randomly, like heat from a running engine. So I have many times told myself: "If you're going to think, write it down."

Thus thousands of pages of journals and notes--and now blog-posts--have been generated in my life. No doubt a drop in the thinking bucket, but better than nothing.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

humanizing the character

After yesterday's post examining my quickie rewrite of scene 1 of The Da Vinci Code, I was talking with my mother, who'd read the post, and she was expressing how the character of Robert Langdon needs to be developed more, made to seem more real. To her he doesn't feel like an academic who is passionate about his subject--as presumably he must be in order to have written several books on it, and to have become famously associated with it.

When he is awakened by the ringing phone, she thought, he might even be thinking or have been dreaming about some problem or subject related to his work. Sure, I thought--why not? As a student of symbolism, he might very well get an idea or inspiration from a dream (I thought about the famous story of how the 19th-century German chemist Kekule solved the problem of the structure of benzene by dreaming of a ring of dancing elves, or some such). If Langdon were to awake excited by an idea arising from a dream, he might be eagerly groping for his bedside notepad to scribble it down before he forgets it.

Notice what this would do for his characterization. First, it would show him to be passionate about his field--he's doing it even in his sleep. Second, the problem or image itself could eventually plug in to the mystery of the main plot. A nagging puzzle that he brings into the story could relate to the story puzzle, and get its kickoff here, right at the top. Third, the fact that he might jot down a dream-image before answering a ringing phone at night tells us something powerful about his values: it's a choice he makes, and the choices that characters make are exactly what tell us about their nature--what is interesting about them. This guy is a symbology nerd who puts symbolism ahead of ringing phones.

So that's a good idea. Mom went on to imagine some other possible details, such as whether Langdon might not have his own bathrobe from home instead of using the hotel's silk one. That might be her own preference if she were in the hotel, and giving the character similar preferences helps to humanize him and make him more self-assertive on his environment: he's not just a passive user of stuff provided by others, he brings his own choices along with him. A comfy old bathrobe would be a piece of home you could take with you, and the prof might lounge in it while working at his laptop in the hotel room. Such a Langdon is starting to feel more real to me.

These ideas are things to help with the characterization of Robert Langdon--crucial if he is to be an interesting and believable character. But characterization, defined as the details by which a character manifests him- or herself, is not the highest or first job of character design. What the main character should really have are contradictions in his nature that create conflicts for him. I haven't read the actual novel, but the level of writing suggests to me that Brown does not design his characters at that level of depth. A paradoxical Robert Langdon might be, for instance, an expert student of religious symbolism who was also a passionate atheist. Such a person makes us wonder what makes him tick; it suggests complexity and personal history. He might find himself getting, almost against his will, into heated arguments with clerics and believers, attacking their naive faith even as he knows more about it than they do.

That's just an off-the-cuff example. A well-designed story brings out the contradictions in a character, and leads him to tough choices that put his values to the test. A writer can't even begin the task without a lot of self-knowledge. You need to know what your own contradictions are to be able to get inside someone else and feel theirs.

So my own rewrite was more of a technical exercise; I did not set out to rewrite the book or recreate the character, only to render scene 1 in a way that did not violate my sense of the characters' personhood, if I can put it that way. At the very least I need to be able to sense that I'm reading about people, and not just looking at words printed on a page. The task of deep character means going up the levels of story, getting into it at the level of theme, and that means taking on more and more "story responsibility"--assuming the burden of knowing what the story is ultimately about, why it is worth telling, and how these particular characters are the best for telling it. It's a heavy burden.

Still, it might be tempting to try a rewrite based on that more fully characterized Langdon. On the other hand, aren't I supposed to be doing some writing of my own at some point?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Da Vinci rewrite: postmortem

In the late 70s or early 80s the comedian and talk-show host Dick Cavett, in his autobiography, said that in his comedy career he always found it easy to write material for other comedians but hard to write material for himself. He could write a joke on any topic or theme, and put it in the style of the comedian concerned by getting into the persona of that comedian and letting the joke come out in that person's voice. Cavett gave off-the-cuff examples, "writing" jokes for Jack Benny and Bob Hope, maybe a couple of others. As a writer for Jack Parr on The Tonight Show, he could crack off his week's work in a couple of hours in one day. But when it came to writing material for himself, he agonized. What was his persona?

(I remember one of Cavett's own jokes: "When I was in college I got in some blind dates with some very unattractive girls. On this one date--you've heard of a face that could stop a clock? My date had stopped sundials.")

Well, I've had a faintly similar experience with my little rewrite job on scene 1 of The Da Vinci Code. When it's not your project it's easy to breeze through. One reason, I think, is that the decision to do the project in the first place has already been made; someone has assumed liability for the validity and value of the project. Someone has already answered the question, to his own satisfaction, "why this?" So the material is a given. The rewriter can relax and just play with what's already there.

So for me the rewrite was pure fun, not something I slaved over. I did my "thinking-through" the revision, such as it was, here in my blog, then just sat down and dashed something off yesterday.

By bedtime I had gone over it a couple of times and tweaked it a bit--the way I do with my own material, changing and deleting bits on each read-through. Can't resist. Maybe it would be useful to mention these tweaks, to give an idea of my thinking.

I remember only two (I think that's all there were). The first was down in the paragraph where I had Langdon saying "What's this about? Am I under arrest?" I deleted the first question and just had him ask the second--the one that counts.

The second tweak was in the bottom paragraph, where I had Langdon wonder about his family back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That bugged me even as I was writing it--the inclusion of "Massachusetts", a purely expository addition, to let the reader know we're talking about the U.S. and not the U.K. It seemed pretty clear that Langdon was an American in any case, although of course he could, theoretically, be teaching at Cambridge in Britain (assuming he wants a pay cut!). But soon he will be talking with a cop, and it would quickly come out that he's a Harvard prof. So I cut "Massachusetts".

Looking over it this morning, the next thing that's bothering me is the way I introduce the character's name. I have nothing against--and everything for--simply giving the name early, as Brown does himself by making Langdon's name the first two words of chapter 1. But in this case I have the concierge addressing him by name in paragraph 5 (which I believe is motivated), so strictly speaking giving his name in paragraph 1 is not necessary: we're getting it twice on the same page. If I were to work it further, I would cut his name from paragraph 1 (using good old he), let his last name come out when the concierge calls, and let his first name be revealed in the interview with the cop. This way, exposition comes in a natural way, from the flow of motivated action--always preferable, even for a seemingly small and obvious thing like getting the name of your character to the reader. Don't get me wrong: I dislike "cute" efforts to conceal the character's name and bring it out in the action; but here I feel that its occurrence is soon enough and natural enough to make it work. Also, by holding back his name, it makes Langdon's sense of disorientation more immediate--maybe he doesn't remember his name at the moment. We're not just watching him, we're experiencing along with him.

Oh--I found another tweak I did. I broke out the sentence "Five sharp raps sounded on his door" into its own paragraph. It's more shocking that way--gives it the prominence it deserves.

Found another: In paragraph 19, "Hold on!" etc., I changed the word said to added for his line "Gotta put some clothes on." This to me gave a little more quality of afterthought to this line, as well as suggesting a quieter, sotto voce quality. It also provided a bit of variety from the workhorse said (although, again, I have nothing against said and usually dislike efforts at "elegant variation" in using other verbs for this one).

Looking over the rewrite now, I see the usual wordiness of a first(ish) draft, and would prune out more if I went through it again. I'm not totally happy with the exchange between Langdon and the concierge--there are a couple of nonsequitur-ish aspects that arose as a result of deleting and rejigging while I was drafting the material. They are subtle, not noticeable to others, perhaps. But part of the goal is to make it so that events and information are happening in a motivated, connected way, so that the right information is being delivered at the right time. Each character is responding to the situation as it has just unfolded to that moment. An example: I moved around Langdon's checking of the time, finally settling on putting it after the concierge's telling him that a policeman wants to speak with him. Notice how this feels natural? "A cop wants to talk with me--what the hell time is it?" The weirdness of the hour is an index of how serious the situation is. It works for me, anyway.

There: some real inner workings of the writer's mind in the act of writing. Speaking for myself, this is fun!

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Da Vinci scene 1, take 2

After my critique of the opening scene of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code over the past couple of posts, I have decided to stump up some prose of my own as an alternative. I've just sketched in a rewrite of the first part of the scene, using the principles that I've mentioned in the previous posts.


If you want to refresh your mind as to how the real book opens, check this post first.

Here's what I came up with:

A telephone was ringing--tinny, strange. Robert Langdon, dragged from a deep sleep, felt a spike of alarm in the cavelike darkness.

Where the hell am I?

The room was hot and still; he smelled stale cigarette-smoke. Paris. Yes: Hotel Ritz. Relieved to remember where he was, but not liking the dark, he fumbled for the bedside lamp and switched it on, snatching up the telephone handset as he sank back into the massive bed.

"Hello?" he croaked.

"Mr. Langdon? I'm very sorry to disturb you." It was the concierge, the short guy with dyed hair. His English was excellent. "There is a policeman here who wants to speak with you."

"What?" said Langdon. He glanced at the bedside clock: 12:32 A.M.

"I told him to wait until tomorrow, but he says it is urgent."


"I don't know what it's about," said the concierge. "He wouldn’t say."

As though searching for an answer, Langdon looked dumbly around the pretentious opulence of his Louis XVI room: its heavy drapes, its frescoed walls.

Five sharp raps sounded on his door.

Langdon jerked involuntarily, an instinct to run away. He remembered stories of how the Gestapo would always show up in the middle of the night. He could see why. His heart thumped, his mind was blank.

"Am I under arrest?" he said.

"Oh no Mr. Langdon," said the concierge, "I don’t think so."

You don't think so? thought Langdon.

"It's very rude of them to disturb a guest at this hour," said the concierge. "We'll be filing a complaint."

Great, thought Langdon, you can keep me posted on that in my jail cell.

There were three more raps at the door.

"Hold on!" said Langdon, now feeling anger. To no one in particular he added, "Gotta put some clothes on." Then, sarcastically, into the phone: "Thanks for calling."

He hung up and swung his legs out of bed. The four-poster, too big for the room, sagged and creaked so much that Louis XVI had probably slept in it himself. No doubt his hosts, the American University in Paris, thought they were treating him well. A surge of adrenaline was making him tremble. Wanting to stop that before he opened the door, he took his time pulling on some underpants and putting on the hotel's monogrammed jacquard bathrobe.

Breathe deeply. Think. What have I done or seen in Paris that could possibly be of interest to the police?

Then another, much worse thought came: what if this was about his family back in Cambridge? Had his son crashed that goddamn motorcycle? Langdon strode to the door, no longer caring whether he trembled or not.

I think that instead of going to a flashback of Langdon's lecture, I would let backstory emerge in his interview with the cop. That seems a natural place for us to find out Langdon's job and what he's doing in Paris, and what he was up to today. Since the reader shares some of the same curiosity as the cop, the writer can use that to answer questions in the reader's mind.

It's not perfect--but I think it's better.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

scene 1, continued

A light drizzle falls outside; Kimmie's short Easter-time vacation is over, and she's soon to head back out the door to Mother Corporation. Time also for writers to pick up their tools dropped nine or ten days ago and resume work tunneling through the granite mountain of their project.

But I wanted to finish my thoughts on chapter 1, scene 1 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In my last post I looked at how I (not having read the whole novel) might approach the backstory to the scene. That job can be done only provisionally in one's first draft. You won't really know--or be able to know--what your story is truly about until you've finished a draft. Only then can you go into a scene with a knowledge of its real function in your story. Only then can you make sure it has the right things in it, and that the characters are loaded with the right motivations.

So with this work I'm strictly at a first-draft level; I don't yet know anything more about these characters than what I read in the first scene. My ideas and suggestions therefore rest only on that limited basis.

I'd like to look at the writing in a bit more detail. Here's the opening again:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

A telephone was ringing in the darkness--a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Where the hell am I?

The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram: HOTEL RITZ PARIS.

I've already commented on the opening sentence. Because of its softness, its low impact, and the fact that we don't yet know who Robert Langdon is, I might cut it. I have found that the quickest way to a stronger opening sentence is simply to delete it, and open with your second sentence. This is true not just of fiction, but of almost all works of writing. Often the first sentence is a kind of warmup; the second sentence starts getting to the point. Opening your work that way is much more vigorous. Try it.

Sentence 2: A telephone etc. It's a bit wordy, and also contains an awkward repetition of the word ring.

Sentence 3: He fumbled etc. It's okay: prosaic, purely expositional. One thought I have is that it's not self-evident that one would switch on a lamp in order to answer the phone in bed. Would I, especially if very tired and groggy, hoping to get back to sleep? I might, if I felt some disorientation and anxiety about being in an unfamiliar bed--or plain old fear of the dark.

Sentence 4: Squinting at etc. Hm. I suspect we don't need the word plush, since any "Renaissance" bedroom with a telephone in it is not likely to be a flophouse. We already know it's a bedroom, so that word is not strictly required either. I don't know what Louis XVI furniture looks like--but that's okay. To me it suggests "old, French, and expensive", which fits the bill. Again, "hand-frescoed walls" is redundant, since fresco is the art of painting on wet plaster, and as far as I know there is no machine process for this. As for the colossal mahogany bed, that's certainly expensive-sounding, but I feel a vague doubt that mahogany is Louis XVI, since mahogany is a tropical wood. It might be genuine (colonial forests), or possibly someone made a Louis XVI-style bed out of mahogany, although that seems unlikely: why make expensive period furniture out of nonperiod materials? What would they say on The Antiques Road Show? If the author has seen a Louis XVI mahogany bed, then no problem. Or if the hotel were in Las Vegas instead of Paris, then I would not expect them to care about the authenticity of the furniture. But if I were writing it, I'd play it safe with a European hardwood.

Sentence 5: Where the hell etc. This feels a bit out of sequence for a guy who has already turned on the bedside lamp and looked around. He found the lamp, which must be of different type and location from the one at home. If it were me, I would have thought this before I groped for the lamp. To have such a sustained experience of not knowing where you are is uncanny-feeling and anxiety-provoking. We should see this in the character.

Sentence 6: The jacquard bathrobe etc. It's the bathrobe that answers Langdon's question about where he is. This also feels late. The French Renaissance bedroom is a tipoff he's not in Kansas anymore. Possibly he travels so much, and stays in so many hotels, that he can't bring the name of this one to mind without help. But I suspect that the writer has used this detail as a mere expositional device, to tell the reader where Langdon is. This is bad: the writer has sacrificed character authenticity for a minor bit of exposition. In reality I think Langdon would recall exactly where he is when he switches on the lamp. If he doesn't know at that point, he's in a dissociative state. Sure, he might be a sleepyhead, a non-"morning person" who can't get it together so quickly upon being wakened, but then I think the writing should lead us to that conclusion more definitely. The narrator implies that Langdon is lucid enough to note the Renaissance style of the room, the mahogany of the bed, the jacquard of the bathrobe, while still not knowing where the hell he is. For me it just doesn't add up. I see "expositional device", and that would be enough, probably, to put me as a reader off the whole book. This writer does not see his character as a person--so why should I?

Well then, there's some more detailed criticism of scene 1. Next time, perhaps, Vitols the writer will turn his own hand to rewriting the opening of one of the best-selling novels of all time...

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Da Vinci, scene 1

Let's dig deeper into chapter 1, scene 1, of Dan Brown's mighty bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (I picked up Mom's discarded copy at her house yesterday).

In my last post I looked at the first sentence:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

Now let's read on from there:

A telephone was ringing in the darkness--a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Where the hell am I?

The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram: HOTEL RITZ PARIS.

Slowly, the fog began to lift.

Langdon picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"Monsieur Langdon?" a man's voice said. "I hope I have not awoken you?"

Dazed, Langdon looked at the bedside clock. It was 12:32 A.M. He had been asleep only an hour, but he felt like the dead.

"This is the concierge, monsieur. I apologize for this intrusion, but you have a visitor. He insists it is urgent."

Langdon still felt fuzzy. A visitor? His eyes focused now on a crumpled flyer on his bedside table.

proudly presents
an evening with Robert Langdon
Professor of Religious Symbology,
Harvard University

Langdon groaned. Tonight's lecture--a slide show about pagan symbolism hidden in the stones of Chartres Cathedral--had probably ruffled some conservative feathers in the audience. Most likely, some religious scholar had trailed him home to pick a fight.

"I'm sorry," Langdon said, "but I'm very tired and--"

"Mais, monsieur," the concierge pressed, lowering his voice to an urgent whisper. "Your guest is an important man."

Langdon had little doubt. His books on religious paintings and cult symbology had made him a reluctant celebrity in the art world, and last year Langdon's visibility had increased a hundredfold after his involvement in a widely publicized incident at the Vatican. Since then, the stream of self-important historians and art buffs arriving at his door had seemed never-ending.

"If you would be so kind," Langdon said, doing his best to remain polite, "could you take the man's name and number, and tell him I'll try to call him before I leave Paris on Tuesday? Thank you." He hung up before the concierge could protest.

That takes us to the end of the first scene, just before Langdon starts reminiscing about the past year and the past day. After the flashback scene, we return to Langdon's hotel room, and a pounding on his door by what turns out to be a police officer, Lieutenant Jerome Collet of the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire.

Not having read the book, I can only assess the scene on its own content. The story function of the scene is to rouse the protagonist from his everyday life by having a new problem impinge on him. In that sense, it's exactly the right place to start: right as the story launches. The scene conflict is between the concierge, who is trying to prepare Langdon for the arrival of the cop, and Langdon, who doesn't want to be disturbed.

That conflict idea, while okay, feels a bit underpowered, considering who the players are in the scene. Since the police are here as part of what appears to be an investigation (a man linked to Langdon has apparently committed suicide), I expect they have the legal power to question Langdon if they want to--that is, they don't need his permission. In any case, scene 3 starts with the cop pounding on Langdon's door, so his effort to put off the concierge looks and is ineffectual.

The concierge's behavior and dialogue are, to me, not very plausible. His opening remark that he hopes he has not awoken Langdon seems weak and insincere. He's waking Langdon because the cops are making him wake Langdon--it's not his fault, it's theirs, and if I were the concierge I would make sure Langdon understood that up front. Instead we have a concierge who is strangely mysterious about who is visiting. He seems overawed by the policeman and refers to him cryptically, in an urgent whisper, as "an important man." Huh?

In my opinion, it appears that the backstory to this scene was not worked out. The writer did not think through the motivations, backgrounds, and actions of the characters involved. If I were writing the scene, I might start by imagining my concierge. He is probably on the same floor as Langdon, attending to the guests on that floor, he works at a posh hotel, and is very probably a snob, used to seeing famous people come and go, and helping them with various personal matters. He's probably territorial about protecting the privacy of his guests, and would resent a cop coming up and using the law to override his authority here. To him the cop is not an "important man"--his guests are important men: Bill Gates, Vladimir Putin, Justin Timberlake. This is just some cop throwing his weight around. The people tipping him--and tipping big--don't want to be bugged, least of all at 12:32 a.m. His job is to get rid of pesky, officious plebs like the cop.

Therefore, in my backstory, I imagine that the concierge has already fought the first battle with the cop--and lost. He would certainly make it plain to Langdon that any inconvenience and annoyance are 100% the fault of the cop, that he did his best to prevent this rude intrusion. He might not do this in a crude, obvious way, but that would be his attitude, and it would color his dialogue. If the concierge has no further role in the story, that will probably be enough for him: he will have enough color and attitude for a good minor character.

Langdon himself, as the protagonist, needs lots of attitude as well. He shouldn't merely be a generic professor who's peevish about some of the effects of becoming famous. He should have passions, issues, problems--things on his mind while his career carries on. If he's being woken up, why not use the opportunity to learn more about him? What if he were waking from a dream about his wife, who has recently divorced him? How about waking to the memory that he's just been diagnosed with heart disease? Something to start suggesting a person and not just a name and a job.

For the purposes of this scene, I would want to figure out how Langdon feels about being in France--does he come here a lot? Can he speak French? Does he travel well, or is it a chore--does he miss his home? If he doesn't speak French, does he notice the attitude of the local French people toward him regarding this fact? (I recall being in Paris and watching an American traveler approach an information table staffed by a young woman. The traveler simply started talking in English. The woman responded in excellent English, but she was coolly polite. When I approached I first asked, in French, permission to speak English, and got a much warmer reception.) The concierge may be subtly patronizing toward those who do not speak French. How observant is Langdon? Is he used to staying in posh hotels? How does he feel about it? I would want to know these things--and show them--if I were writing the scene.

All these questions and issues form part of the backstory of the scene--the story before the story. The writer needs to know what attitude each character has toward each of the other characters in a scene. The concierge, to the cop, might be arrogant, resentful, and minimally compliant. To Langdon he might be ingratiating, self-justifying, and subtly patronizing. The cop might be self-assured and ironic with the concierge, and to Langdon be polite, apologetic, and slightly intimidating.

You get the idea. I'll have more to say on this scene--but that's enough for today.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

an opening sentence--in depth

Last Thursday, when I went to visit my mother for lunch, she had a bag of books resting in the front hall, ready to be taken off to a thrift store for charitable resale. The top book in the bag was the paperback version of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Never having read the book, I picked it up to have a look.

Of course I'm aware that The Da Vinci Code is one of the best-selling books of all time (I recall a figure of 40 million copies sold). It alone will have made its author a multi-millionaire. It didn't even appear in paperback until the release of the movie version last year, so the book will have been a particularly rich source of revenue for Dan Brown.

Good for him: I salute anyone who can do well at writing. I also think he did not deserve to be sued by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a key source of ideas for The Da Vinci Code. Unless The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was intended as a work of fiction, they were wrong to sue him, and I'm glad he won.

I have undergone a fair amount of angst ever since I heard about The Da Vinci Code, since I am making use of many of the same ideas (I think) in my own work; I too was inspired and fascinated by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and felt a huge uprushing of creative energy when I read it in 1994. The fact that Dan Brown "got there first" and hit such incredible pay-dirt with this material I found troubling and dispiriting. Partly for that reason, I didn't want to read or even look at The Da Vinci Code until I had finished my own book.

While Mom heated up some homemade beef soup for us to eat, I perused the opening scene of chapter 1 and we talked about the book (Mom herself could not get into it, and bailed after the first few chapters). I thought I would express some of my findings here in my blog.

First: the novel opens with a dramatic prologue--a device I generally frown on, as I have pointed out in previous posts (such as this one). Usually a dramatic (as opposed to expository) prologue is a "grabber" intended to hook the interest of the reader, who otherwise might find the story starting at chapter 1 to be too boring. Typically it contains a murder scene or other shocking or surprising element, and is intended to make the reader wonder more about the world of the story. The bad thing here is that the writer is himself sending the signal that he's afraid his story opens in a boring way. The writer thinks the story is boring--not good. Following my usual policy in assessing a novel, I skipped the prologue. I understand there is some kind of albino geek in the book who kills people, and I expect the prologue contains the first of those killings.

On to chapter 1 proper, then. I don't have the book in front of me (got to pick it up from Mom's place), so I can only quote the first sentence verbatim:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

I'll start with that. I'll go into some detail, because I think first sentences are important--I often use them to decide whether I want to read on.

Overall, I think it's a fairly weak first sentence. Not terrible, perhaps, but not great. It tells us four things: that there is a character called Robert Langdon; that he was asleep; that he is now waking up; and that he is waking up slowly, as opposed to quickly. In storytelling terms, let's see what this does for us.

Robert Langdon: Character names are important. This is a fairly bland, Anglo name--no crime in itself; there are no doubt many Robert Langdons in the world living worthwhile lives. But it doesn't give us as much of a sense of character as might a less colorless name. How might you feel if the book had opened with

Myron Berkowitz awoke slowly ?

Oliver Mbehele awoke slowly ?

Luz Fernandez awoke slowly ?

Differently, no? Of course, we don't know anything about these characters either, but they provoke us into imagining backgrounds for them a bit more--we have the beginnings of expectations about them, expectations that may well be defeated by the story, but that will create subtle tensions within us, tensions that are, in my view, synonymous with interest. Robert Langdon right off the bat has a harder job in getting us to imagine him as vivid and real. Is he a banker? A blue-collar worker? A drug dealer? No way of knowing as yet. He's a blank slate.

Next: awoke. That's okay--awoke is a perfectly fine verb. It tells us he was sleeping, an activity we can all relate with. We're willing to extend the narrator credit that the fact Langdon was sleeping may be important for some reason.

then: slowly. Hm. Why modify the verb awoke here? Presumably it matters that he awoke slowly as opposed to quickly or "normally". To me it suggests deep unconsciousness, or perhaps the gentleness of the stimulus that awakens him. I might be awoken slowly by a soft breeze starting to move through my Mexican beach cabana, for instance. Or I might awaken slowly after taking sleeping pills, or being knocked unconscious.

It will turn out that Langdon was indeed deeply asleep in a Paris hotel room, tired from giving a lecture earlier on. But I don't find that this opening sentence tells me much of use or interest about the scene. It is utilitarian; I get the feeling that it is simply something to communicate the name of the main character. The transition from sleep to waking is symbolically powerful, and could be heavily charged. Another (very different) novel that opens with a character waking up--or rather with the dream from which he awakes--is Gravity's Rainbow, which opens famously thus:

A screaming comes across the sky.

When I first read this I wasn't sure what it meant, but I did get a sense of uncanniness and danger--a bit of the dread of having a bomb or missile approach. It's certainly not bland, and too poetic to be a run-of-the-mill "grabber" or "shocker" opening, although it does have shock value. The unusual use of the gerund screaming signals that this writer is a poet who is willing to try things to achieve his effects. It establishes the subject-matter of the book: the development of the German V2 rockets in World War Two, as well as the important theme that these weapons, which live on in the form of the giant nuclear arsenals of today, are aimed at us all right now. Thomas Pynchon has opened his novel by launching a ballistic missile right at us. At six words, his opening sentence is 50% longer than Brown's, but two of those words are a and the--function-words that simply hold the rest of the sentence grammatically together. Four words do the main duty: screaming comes across sky (the way a Russian might say it).

You might say it's no fair to compare Dan Brown to Thomas Pynchon, and sure, it isn't. But a sentence can do a lot of duty for your story, or not, whether you're writing a smaller novel (and arguably Brown's novel is hunting even bigger thematic game, in a sense, than Pynchon's) or a major work.

Of course, to do a proper assessment of the first sentence we need to look at its context: what comes after it. But that will have to wait until I get my hands on a copy of the book again!

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

bookstore blues

Yesterday while out on our shopping errands Kimmie and I went to Park Royal. While she prowled Fabricland for snippets of fabric for her Barbie-doll outfits, I stopped in at Staples to buy highlighters (two packages of four Sharpies--don't want to run out of highlighters!), then down to Chapters-Indigo to check out the books. In terms of floor area it's a fairly large bookstore, but it doesn't seem to have much in it. But, as I sometimes do, I decided to search for a novel I might want to read.

I had been slightly inspired at our earlier stop at Wal-Mart at Cap Mall, where I browsed the (very small) book rack while Kimmie negotiated the checkout. As usual, I picked up a few paperbacks and checked out their opening sentences and opening paragraphs. For me, all off-putting, except a novel in a vermilion jacket called Gone by Jonathan Kellerman. Apparently it's a murder-mystery/thriller of some kind, but I found its opening much better than the typical bestselling (or any-selling) novel. I don't recall the opening sentence, but Kellerman sketches a portrait of a 68-year-old rancher somewhere in the southwest, out in his truck to buy some animal feed and pick up some chips and beer at a store. The author gave me a strong, plausible sense of this crusty old guy with his various medical problems, opinions, and sick animals--a portrait I basically believed in. Soon, of course, a naked girl comes running out screaming in front of his truck, he slams on the brakes, and the thriller lurches into motion. I didn't read on from there (didn't have time).

But I thought, Hm, I might read a book like that, given a chance. So at Park Royal I thought I'd scour the long, low fiction shelves to see what I could find.

Nothing. As usual, whole sections were no-go zones, occupied by writers I know I don't want to read (Maeve Binchy, Danielle Steel). To me this makes the fiction section look the way a woodlot does to a forester in central B.C.: whole swaths turned dead orange by the mountain pine beetle. But even the still-possible interstices were filled with stuff I couldn't get interested in: chick lit, formulaic thrillers, series novels ("a Chet Brockton novel", etc.). No, no, no.

I did pause at one book: a Penguin paperback with a black cover, City of Shadows by Ariane Franklin. Set in Berlin, 1922, it is about a cabaret owner who, finding out about a woman in an insane asylum claiming to be one of the Romanovs, gets the idea of trying to put her back on the throne (I think that's the idea). Not a murder mystery, not a thriller, not a ponderous effort at comedy around mating themes--something different. I perused the opening, flipped ahead, and decided against. I still detected an effort to write for show--to portray characters in broad, flippant strokes rather than get into the reality of someone's world, someone's life. Novels seem to be borrowing their attitude and approach from the sitcom--a dead form, as far as I can tell.

I did not buy. I left the store depressed and disappointed.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

write when ready

Yesterday the train lurched slowly from the station one more time: I started writing chapter 28.

There comes a point where I feel ready, or anyway, ready enough. It happens when I develop enough knowledge of what the chapter is to contain, what it's about, and when I feel a certain excitement or enthusiasm about it. This, at its own small scale, I understand to be the "intoxication" that Nietzsche said must precede the creation of any work of art. The word enthusiasm itself, which I just used, from the Greek enthous, "possessed, inspired", originally meant to be possessed or inspired by a god. No doubt this is also the same as what the poet seeks in turning to his muse, as John Milton did right in the text itself of Paradise Lost.

Many times in the past, impatient to get going, I have launched into writing before the material was ready. It never works out. I start out with the thought, "I'll fix it up in the next draft", but this is hopeless. What happens is that I wind up struggling with the wrong problems at the wrong stage of the process, and therefore in the wrong way and with the wrong results. I don't know enough to be able to write well, and so struggle with the material, feeling blocked. Indeed, as I've said before, I think "writer's block" is just simply insufficient knowledge of one's subject. It's not that the writing is blocked, it's that there's nothing to write.

So I'm learning to be patient. I get worried and depressed when I'm not turning out prose for my work, yet experience has taught me that there's no use writing scenes whose purpose and content I don't yet understand, at least provisionally. I take that worry and direct it at my research--"research" including the thinking-through of the world of my story, including its fictional, made-up aspects. To do this I must make decision after decision, which is hard. But once a decision is made, I feel a sense of solidification and definiteness, as though I had just added more concrete to the foundation of my story.

That definiteness, specificness, seems to be the essence of good writing. The whole process of a work of writing, including "creative" writing, seems to be one of taking a vague but inspiring feeling and gradually shaping it into a definite, intricate, detailed form. A weak piece of writing shows signs of lingering vagueness. The writer contents himself with "he put on a hat", instead of visualizing the scene definitely enough, and knowing his character well enough, to write "he put on his tweed motoring cap". Notice the difference?

The vagueness of course can run right through a project, all the way up to its thematic level--its heart. These will be the weakest works of all--those in which the writer is unsure of what he or she is trying to say at all. When you're not sure of what you're trying to say, you don't know what belongs in your story or what belongs out.

You can't start out sure of what you're trying to say. You might think you know, but if you don't discover anything new in the writing, you are merely a lecturer. This is why nothing can be any good after only one draft. I think only the most rudimentary and uncreative stories can be written that way.

No doubt there are lots of exceptions to these rules. It may well be that a great work can be written without the writer knowing consciously exactly what it means, what its deepest message is--it will be unconscious knowledge. But I believe that the ideal process for writing a creative work is one in which you work your way through a first draft as best you can, then read it over and discover what you're really writing about, that is, become conscious of it, and then go on to write the subsequent drafts in that conscious knowledge. Now you can throw out scenes that don't belong, and do this with a sure hand. And you can beef up scenes that are not strong enough, because you know why they're necessary.

Yes, I'm trying to convince myself that it's okay to tinker so much with my material before writing each chapter. But it is okay, dammit. It is.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

the work behind the work

In the long march to the beginning of this project (the novel series I'm calling The Age of Pisces) I spent some time in the 1990s trying to develop my ideas, my beliefs, in the form of pencil notes on a long roll of paper I got, I think, at Ikea. I used to clear off the pine coffee-table (also from Ikea), set the roll on the floor next to it, and unroll the paper across the tabletop. I would then kneel at the table with my pencil, working on my notes. My cowriter Warren dubbed this thing The Scroll, and I still have it: now a bit yellowed with age, it stands against the blue wall of my office next to my wicker wastebasket.

Unrolling the first few inches on the table next to me, I see that I labeled it "Literary Mandala", and it's dated 4 Nov 1994. The idea of the scroll was to set down all my various thoughts and ideas in different areas, and then link them with lines and arrows. I used sketches and diagrams as well--anything that might express my thoughts.

Under the title of the scroll I wrote the heading "Factors or Realities to Relate", and made a bulleted list down the end of the paper (about 24 inches high--the whole roll was maybe, I don't know, 50 feet long):

  • God, Satan, angelology/demonology
  • mathematical-geometric dimensions
  • "science": physics
  • prophetic history: the Great Pyramid & the messianic mission
  • the gyre of astrological history: the precessional ages of man
  • extraterrestrial species & ufology
  • gnosis: salvation thru knowledge (Gnosticism)
  • Hermetism (alchemy): keys to gnosis?
  • Vajrayana: ultimate reality & enlightened society
  • spiritualism & channeling
  • scientific revolution; paradigm-shift
  • personal mythologies, projected mandalas
  • Tarot journey
  • the Holy Grail
  • sacred alphabets
Then I listed a few book titles, and then started writing notes along the paper, mainly in printed majuscules, often putting them in boxes. As I got a few feet in, it started to look a bit like a flowchart.

Out of curiosity, I've just unrolled the scroll on my office floor. I was surprised to discover that I actually made it most of the way through the roll of paper, maybe 40 feet in, all marked up with small penciled notes. Toward the end there is more white space around the notes, and I mainly was drawing radiant diagrams of central concepts such as "the Holy Grail" surrounded by associated ideas (things like "coincidence of opposites", "symbol of supreme value", "transcendence of any single system of symbolism or imagery"), all connected by wandering strands of pencil-lead.

The scroll was a crude paper website. After I got a Windows computer in 1998 (jeepers, the same one I'm using right now) I got myself Microsoft FrontPage so I could build websites for my work. I made some progress with that, but gave up on it when I felt that I was spending too much time learning how to build and maintain the web and not enough actually thinking through my ideas, especially since the web was only for my personal use and not intended to be made public. I could progress faster, I thought, just by keeping my notes in Word documents on the PC.

"Faster" is a relative term, of course. Here it is AD 2007. But I do believe there is something special, and especially intriguing and authoritative, about works of art that have a great depth of preparation underlying them. Da Vinci's "Last Supper" was not something he just sketched out quickly; it was the product of much preliminary work and reflection.

I remember too watching a TV documentary about Canadian painters, back in the 1970s. I'm pretty sure the painter in question was Christopher Pratt. He was working on a painting of a boy and a girl picking apples in an orchard. He did many sketches, and came to represent the scene as having the boy putting red apples into the girl's skirt, the hem of which she held up to form a carrying-bag. The painter narrated the progression of his work. Eventually he came to feel that the boy was redundant. The finished picture showed the girl, facing the viewer, holding up the hem of her skirt, which was full of red apples--an intimate moment of sharing.

"Now the viewer is the boy," said the painter.

I found this to be striking and moving, and it deepened my appreciation of pictures and how a good artist works. The originality and specificness of the finished picture derives from the developmental process the artist went through to arrive at it; the picture is rich with its own history. It's fully evolved and complete.

A work that is thoroughly prepared always has more polish and authority than one that isn't. It also has more originality and personality. These are qualities that I'm seeking for my own work, and I'm willing to devote the time--a great deal of it--to do the preliminary work.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

be honest

While there is no one right way to write something, there are endless wrong ways. I've never taken a creative-writing course, although I have given tips to others on writing--those who have asked for them.

I'm trying to think whether there is a general statement for writing that is comparable to the general statement for visual artists: "draw what you see". I remember giving this tip to Kimmie years ago when she was drawing something on the dining-table up at my sister's place. She asked me how to draw better, and I gave her the "draw what you see, not what you think" tip. It was a revelation to her. She was amazed at the power of this simple advice; it changed the way she saw, and immediately and dramatically improved the way she drew.

Is there something similar for writing? The first thing that springs to mind is this: "be honest".

This advice, like the drawing advice, is deceptively simple. And, like the drawing advice, it calls first of all for a change in attitude. It has nothing to do with technique--with how to execute the work. It has to do with the way of perceiving what it is you're trying to portray. The painter detaches from his thoughts, his beliefs about what he is depicting, and shifts his attention to the raw input of his eyes. My stapler sits next to my keyboard. If I were drawing it, I would pretend I had never seen one before, and did not know what it was used for. It is mere colors and shapes on my retina, which I translate to paper.

Writing is perhaps more subtle, in that the writer's medium itself is conceptual: words. Nonetheless, the best writers are those who are able to detach from their preconceived beliefs about what they're depicting and see them with fresh eyes, shrugging off the conceptual influences of morality, religion, convention, and "common sense" to describe the thing as it is in itself. This, in my view, is a much more difficult trick to achieve than the painter's ability to set aside his conceptions when looking at an object.

The other day I had an unsettling taste of the flavor of honesty in reading this (compressed) extract in James's Principles of Psychology, volume 2, from the chapter on "Instinct":

As Rochefoucauld says, there is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; and an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which "Shocking Atrocity" stands printed. See how the crowd flocks round a street-brawl! Consider the enormous annual sale of revolvers to persons, not one in a thousand of whom has any serious intention of using them, but of whom each one has his carnivorous self-consciousness agreeably tickled by the notion that he will be rather a dangerous customer to meet. See the ignoble crew that escorts every great pugilist--parasites who feel as if the glory of his brutality rubbed off upon them. Let a curtain be drawn over the ferocity with which otherwise fairly decent men may be animated, when (at the sacking of a town, for instance), the victory long delayed, the sudden freedom of rapine and of lust, the contagion of a crowd, and the impulse to imitate and outdo, all combine to swell the blind drunkenness of the killing-instinct. Our ferocity is blind, and can only be explained from below.

When I read that first observation by Rochefoucauld, I had an unpleasant sensation of recognizing something in myself. Rochefoucauld was reporting--writing--something about himself as well, of course: something unpleasant but true. He was being honest.

Honesty compels both the attention and the assent of the reader. The mind thirsts for truth, even as we spend so much of our time trying, for various reasons, conscious and unconscious, to bury the truth and substitute something more pleasant. But just as only water, in the last analysis, answers the body's thirst, only truth answers the mind's.

So the writer's dictum, "be honest", is not so easy. It means going within; it means not accepting the pat answers and slogans that we usually live by. It means looking to find out what one really thinks and feels, and then calling a spade a spade.

What one really thinks and feels: it sounds easy. It should be easy, since this is the stuff of our most immediate experience. But it's hard--very hard. For even the visual artist's approach of shaking of visual conventions is harder than it sounds--many people can't seem to do it at all. They don't understand what it means to look at, say, a table and not regard it as a table, but only as colors and shapes. This is why artists, for training, sometimes deliberately get away from a conventional point of view. One of the best likenesses in drawing I've ever achieved was when I drew Kimmie's sleeping face from a position where it was upside-down to me. Lacking any conceptual guidance, I was forced to draw only what I saw, as exactly as I could. While I drew I had no idea how accurate my likeness was; I was puzzled and shocked by some of the line-combinations I found. Not till I was finished and rotated the sketchbook could I see how I'd done, and I was very surprised and pleased with the result. My sleeping wife! Amazing!

I'm not aware of any comparable mental trick that a writer can use to see things differently. But a writer, to be any good, to have a chance of writing something that might stay in print, must see things differently. For, just as what we conventionally call a table is just colors and shapes on our retina, so what we conventionally call an event is made up of components--thoughts, feelings, intentions. We may not acknowledge these to ourselves most of the time, but we recognize them when they are shown to us, reported to us by a writer who has acknowledged them.

Thus the writer, the artist, as a denizen of this usually ignored world, is an alien, even as he is more intimate with our inner selves and inner lives than anyone else.

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