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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


What does a writer who's writing about his writing write about when he's not writing?

Last week I saw, in a book my mother had bought about writing, a snippet from Lawrence Durrell, which I paraphrase as, "All blocks are at bottom a form of egotism".

For I do feel rather blocked. But at the same time I recall Robert McKee's sterling advice, that the cure for writer's block is research. According to him, writer's block is simply lack of knowledge of your subject.

I suppose that writer's block is actually a symptom, and not a disorder in its own right. It could therefore have different causes, as a fever can have different causes. Durrell's egotistical block sounds like a symptom of the writer who has donned the hat of the editor or critic, and sits perched at the desk, waiting for the creator to come up with something so he can edit/criticize it. The creator, like a gopher in a hole surrounded by vigilant dogs, knows better than to poke his nose out in that environment.

I do suffer from that type of block, but it has not been debilitating. It has not prevented me from creating--although I do think it has limited the quality of what I have written, and I have taken various steps in my life to try to improve the situation. I have tried to both throw the hounds off the scent, and also toughen up that little gopher so it can sock it to the hounds if it does find them on-site when it emerges. I've used things like writing drills, in which inhibition is smashed by forcing oneself to write nonstop for a short period, like 15 minutes. But I think this obstacle is also overcome somewhat by taking on projects that are so challenging in other respects, such as in size and complexity, that one's attention is forced to those aspects, leaving one's actual manner of expression, one's use of words, to fend for itself.

But in general I think McKee's assessment is more to the point, and more debilitating if left untreated. For the slavering hounds called Editor and Critic can be thrown off the scent by one trick or another, but if you don't know what you're talking about or what you're trying to say in the first place, you really are stuck. Then it's true that only research can save you. You have to refuel the empty tank of your head.

This is what I've been trying to do. Yes, I've been researching my world and my topic almost nonstop for five years. Yes, I read from at least one and usually two or even three relevant books on it each day, and type notes into Word files. But I need to get my hands on the right books, the right topic areas. And it takes me time to get through them. I'm steady rather than fast.

Then there's the task of synthesis. If I read more than one authority on a subject, and they disagree, which version do I go with? What do I think happened? This is decision-making in the face of uncertainty, which is inherently stressful and hard. Each decision defines the world of my story a little more, gives it its character and its meaning. For each decision is made by particular criteria, whether conscious or unconscious. If I have a choice, then I should choose that which furthers the aims of my story, which is largely still an intuitive choice.

The other danger with research, also cautioned against by McKee, is that of spending all one's time in research and never getting down to writing. This is the sign of the nervous student or amateur. In McKee's view writing should proceed as a series of steps of writing and research. You write as much as you can, until you get blocked from lack of knowledge, then you turn to research. As soon as you know enough to proceed, you do so. You learn what you need to know in the course of writing, so that by the time you finish your final draft, you know the world of your story completely--and not before that time, if you've been writing efficiently.

I've been embroiled in the world of the cults of the Roman Empire, and seeing ways to incorporate this material in my work. It's very relevant, since my work is a spiritual story at bottom. I'm still stuck at the same chapter, but I find myself making notes in other chapters for how to rewrite them in draft 2. I am learning enough to find that my current draft, draft 1, is already becoming obsolete.

And yet I must finish it. Because going back to start a new draft before you've finished the current one is suicide, I think. Don't rewrite something that isn't written yet.

Patience. That's what I really need. I think that's what I'm really trying to learn.

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