Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, November 27, 2009


There are lots of different ways of writing a novel. Some people just sit down and start banging away at the keyboard. Others, like John Irving, can't bring themselves to write until they've outlined the thing in detail. Irving has said that he doesn't like to start writing until he knows exactly how the story is going to develop. A lot of writers claim that they go where the characters want to take them. I'm guessing that these writers would be inclined to say that their stories are given to them by their muse, their unconscious, or whatever. Vladimir Nabokov scoffed at that approach. He said that he made his characters do exactly what he wanted them to do. I suspect that he said that because he constructed his novels in much the same way that he put together the crossword puzzles that he liked to compose. It was primarily an intellectual exercise for him.

When I first started writing fiction, I did it in much the same way that I wrote my poetry. I'd start writing, letting my imagination take me where it wanted to go. As when writing my poetry, I took great care with the language. It wasn't the best way of doing things, and it led to a lot of wasted effort. I'd put in all this effort trying to get things just right, only to find myself bogged down in the middle of the novel with no way of getting myself out. All that carefully written prose went in the dumpster.

I've finally figured out the best way for me to write a novel. I start out with an idea, usually something quirky and off-beat. For example, in the novel I'm currently working on, I had the following idea. What if there was a good, old boy who lived next to a stunning young women who he wanted so badly that he could almost taste it. However, she doesn't have the least bit of interest in him. Suppose, though, that she started visiting him at night while sleepwalking. Where would things go with them? Other ideas started coming to me, and I began to write. However, I've learned that it's initially best for the imaginative processes to just bang away, not worrying about grammer inconsistencies in the narrative, etc. What I end up with is something that's midway between a rough draft and an outline. Once I've got the whole story down, I'll start writing in earnest.

Now, as I've said, this method works for me. However, with this new novel I'm again bogged down in the middle, but with only a couple of months work behind me, and I think I can write my way out of it. The problem is the constraints. In the beginning, I could just let my imagination run wild and have a lot of fun with it. However, once the characters were developed, I had to start concerning myself with exactly how such a person would behave in different circumstances. I'm not as free to just let any crazy old thing happen. At this stage, composing the narrative becomes something like trying to solve a mathematical problem.

This character-driven approach is what comes naturally to me, so I'm stuck with the difficulties inherent in it. I'd love to write a crime thriller or some sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, just for the fun of it, but I can't. Such stories are plot-driven and I can't fit myself in that mold. Character is what's important to me and, as they say, character is destiny.


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