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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rumpelstiltskin the writer

I regarded yesterday as a small victory. My output was slight--but I had an output. When I came down to my office after breakfast, it was looking bad: another day of project-avoidance.

I fiddled and footled with other things, painfully aware of my procrastination. But eventually I coaxed myself into opening up my working files. Unhappily and with distaste I made myself look at my draft in progress, the chapter I've numbered 31(b), growing slowly as a yew-tree. Where does it need to go? Has it started the right way?

The ice cracked when a specific question occurred to me. It was a question about how certain minor characters, holders of a specific job-function, would behave at a particular moment. What was their job? The smallness and specificness of this question was what enabled me to get going. I could go to my Notes document and type my thoughts, such as they were. Would they lay their hands on my character, or not?

This caused me to look at my story-world more closely, to go in and make a decision, or two or three related decisions--small ones. This is the difficulty of writing, I think: decision-making. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is vagueness: an indefiniteness about the subject. If your information is too scanty, you've got nothing to write. If you force yourself to write when you don't have enough information, you become an author of cliches.

In fiction-writing, developing the details of what to write takes effort. Those details have to be discovered, imagined, decided on. Ideally, you need enough information so that you can pick and choose: you can make creative choices.

This is partly a matter of technical research, and partly a matter of active imagination. For the writing to be good, the fictional world must become as definite and specific as the real world--the world of memories, for example. It's like constructing sets for theater or the movies: the set needs to be complete before you can film your scene there. In filmmaking there's a document called the call-sheet that specifies all the people and equipment that need to be on the set for the filming of that day's scenes: actors, hair stylists, special camera gear, automobiles, and so on. Someone has to work out all those details and figure out what's needed, and when.

Writing fiction is the mental equivalent of that. The "set" is in one's head--one's imagination. But it too needs to be furnished through a process. It requires education, research, imagination, and decision-making. I believe that the power of the finished work, the amount of interest and pleasure it can evoke in a reader, depends on how much of this type of effort has gone into it.

All that material furnishes the straw which Rumpelstiltskin the writer spins into gold.


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