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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

write fast

Yesterday the great train of this mighty work lurched ahead again. Fearfully I opened up chapter 28 for the nth time and scrolled to the bottom, the end of the trail, the point in the story, the scene, where I'd left off. It was a long exchange of dialogue that has much import for my character. I couldn't figure out how to bring it to a close, what the real finishing point might be. So I executed a decision I had already made in the past couple of days: cut it off. Just end the exchange, the scene, and get out of there any which way you can and on to the next thing. Don't let this millstone drag you to the bottom!

It worked. I simply terminated the exchange and moved on to the next thing, and got four pages written that way. I'm still not at the end of the chapter, but I can sense it coming--the end is near! Sure, there are plenty more chapters still to come, like the ancient Greek tribe called the Myrmidons, or "Ant-men", who sprang out of the earth in numbers and kept coming--an enemy's worst nightmare.

I tried also to carry forward with another decision I'd made in the past few weeks: Write fast. It sounds like a joke for this ponderous glacier of a project, a thing so massive it causes the crust of the underlying Earth to sink into the mantle below. But wherever possible, if I know more or less what I'm trying to write, I want to just spit it out. Just say it. Grab words that spring to mind and use them; trust. I'm well able to do this; the biggest obstacle is the nagging feeling that it's somehow "cheating".

But it's not cheating--it's writing! The whole aim of mastering anything is to turn labor into ease. The training is laborious and effortful; the performance itself, if one is thoroughly trained, is a piece of cake. All mastery is essentially automation. When learning to do anything, the basic skills at first are laborious and deliberate. In time they become automatic, and the next-higher order of skills become the focus of the labor. On guitar one starts by learning how to make strings sound without accidentally muting them or making them buzz on frets, and learning how to finger chords. Thirty years later, for things I know how to play, I can spare attention for nuances of phrasing and such; the lower levels of skill have been automated.

Writing is not different. I get the feeling that laborious writing is the mark of one who still feels like a student. Yes, masters still train, still practice. A writer should keep reading critically, should keep looking up words and writing down the definition, should try out techniques in journals and so on. But at performance time the master should be able to switch on and draw on that training to let it flow.

It's a nice idea, anyway. Full steam ahead!


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