Writing a Novel is Like...

Renting part of your brain to a theater company for a year or more. They begin as strangers—perhaps interesting strangers, but still different from you, with their own needs and exotic ways. They spend the first part of the year discovering their roles, exploring their characters, resolving conflicts within the troupe, and rehearsing their lines in the middle of the night. Because it's your brain, you must sit up with them and help them. Over time you may come to like and admire them, although some of the cast members will always be a bit unapproachable, if not unlikable, if not downright awful. Then, as the play develops, you must—again because it's your brain—attend rehearsals and the stage production, taking notes, getting everything down in type. The sad part is that, after a year or more, the production finally closes. The lights go dark. The scenery fades. The characters pack themselves away in trunks. You are left with an empty, echoing auditorium. So you must go out and look for another company to come and play.

Addressing the Human Condition

A fiction writer must, at some level, involve his or her stories with the human condition. But what, exactly, is the “human condition”? The phrase is used differently by different people, but to me it means that, as the evolved primates on this planet, we are born to paradox. Consider:

With humans, for every yes there is a no and two maybes. For every no, a yes and a why not. It drives some of us to the beautiful ambiguities of Zen.

Only Seven Plots…

When I was a youngster, people would confidently tell me there were only seven plots—or maybe only six—in the whole world of literature. The business of writing, they implied, was simply to ring the changes on those seven archetypes. Flesh out the details. You get the idea, young fellow.

“Well, what are they?” I would ask.

But no one could tell me, and no reference book ever gave a list of, those magical seven plots that made it all easy. Anyone who believed in them would stammer and say things like, “Well, there’s boy-meets-girl… and then there’s boy-loses-girl…” And there the list stops.

To that short list, I now could add some modern favorites, like John Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” And the ever-popular “Man/Men Against the Wilderness.” And a couple of variations on people of different stations in life switching identities, the first rendition being Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. There’s also the day you lose everything, including your identity—which was rung by Sandra Bullock in the film The Net.

Some of these approach the status of archetypes. Some are simply modern retellings of old stories. And some are borrowed from the threads of Shakespeare. But seven simple neo-Platonic plots to cover all of literature? Don’t you believe it! Plotting is a treacherous enterprise, full of potential wrong choices. What a character may do next has to come from the author's mental image of that person, his or her surroundings, and the available choices—not from some mechanical picklist.

I think the notion of “only seven plots” was invented by people who are not themselves writers. It's their way of saying, “See? There's a trick to it. This isn't such hard work. It doesn't take a genius.” Well, no. It's terribly hard work, and writers are all certifiable geniuses.

The Role of the Subconscious

As you may gather from the above, plotting a story is usually hard for me. Not impossible. But not something I can sit down and do, like solving an equation or filling out a form.

First, a fragment of a situation becomes real to me. I write it down, with a question or two, and put it away in a folder in my computer called The Nursery. Some days, or weeks, or years later, the idea comes knocking again, and I expand the file. When a flavor of a character finds a name that seems descriptive and settles into that fragment of a situation, things may start perking. Ideas will come in fits and starts. Good connections will present themselves and stick in my mind. Wrong turns will present themselves, quickly turn to dust and ashes, and blow away. The thing grows, like a shoot from a seed.

If I try to push this process, make it speed up, the result is always disappointing. I find myself accepting, as a kind of working premise, a connection, a bridge, a scrap of motive that I’m not really happy with. And if I try to piece together too many of these scraps, the result is a shoddy structure that doesn’t feel right. Nothing I could use to cross that dark abyss from the known beginning here to a working story line and a credible ending over there.

More and more, I can’t even solve the problems of a book with active thought. I frame the question in my mind, determine to come up with an answer in a day or two, then go to bed, go back to work, go make dinner, whatever. And almost always, within the specified time, I find myself getting a glimmer of an idea that quickly, almost before I can get a pad and pen, flowers into a solution, usually with a strong graphic or sonic image attached, occasionally with dialogue. Where does the idea come from? All I can say is the subconscious. The parts of my brain that are not operating in real time, not open to totally logical processes, and never amenable to being pushed.

After all, why should I have only one mind when I have three brains?

The Word Generator

I believe in this little machine that sits inside my left hemisphere and spins out words. Sometimes they are very good words if I’ve primed the word generator with a topic for consideration, have a general idea—not an exact and fixed rendition in my mind, but just a general sense of what comes next—and fed it a good first line.

If I haven’t met these conditions, the words may be vapid nonsense, or worse. I sit down at the keyboard and nothing comes. Not a thought. More often, I can’t even get myself to the keyboard. My finger hovers over the computer’s on-switch, and I know that booting up will be a waste of time.

But always—even if I have a clear idea of what has to be said—I still need that first line, the first image, the first sound or smell or feeling or something that kicks off the process. Without it, the word generator is silent. I’m lacking the “downbeat.” The first slug of water through the pump. The first bead on the string. When I have that, I can follow the scene, the action, the dialogue, the story through to the end, to a natural stopping place.

Without it… thud.

Thud? The sound of a body falling. Of a rock thrown against the front door. Of a sack of mail, old mildewed letters, landing on the post office floor. And away we go.

Looking for the “Downbeat”

Like almost everything else in my writing process, the “downbeat”—that first line of dialogue or sensory image—comes from the subconscious. The subconscious sends it up to the surface like a dealer sliding a card across the table. Sometimes it’s the Ace of Spades, sometimes the Two of Clubs. If it’s not a good card, if I don’t think I can work with it, I will try sending the dialogue or image back, demanding my subconscious come up with something different. And sometimes, when that Two of Clubs keeps reappearing, I sigh and decide to try to build something with it.

The Novelist as Creator

When I write a book, I am creating a world that is two hand spans wide. It doesn't matter if the book is science fiction and includes an actual new planet to explore, or a story set in contemporary times, or even a piece of nonfiction. The act of creation remains the same: I am taking the reader into a place or a mental realm that he or she does not yet know and building a world to be explored—visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile—with its own expectations to be realized. (Yes, even a contemporary story must be set in a world new to the reader, because there is no one, received, institutionalized view of the times in which we live, no single viewpoint.) It's an act that emulates, in a pale and imperfect fashion, the work of God in Genesis.

If I am merely adequate to the task, then the world will sustain itself for as long as the reader is actually holding the book open. But let him or her close the covers and think about what has been written, and things start to fall apart. “A desert planet whose chief export is wine? Don't a vineyard and winemaking require lots of water? Absurd!” Or, “Well, it was certainly convenient for the plot that the character leapt out of the window just then. But who was chasing him? Why did he do it?” Such a book is like a set designed to be viewed through a proscenium arch. So long as the audience remains in their seats, the illusion of walls or mountains holds. But let them come down on stage, wander into the wings, peak backstage, and they quickly see it's all wood battens and painted canvas, an artifice.

If I am skilled in the task, then the world will stay in the reader's mind long after the story ends. I will have created internal connections and implications, relationships that are not explained but are implicit in the structure, that will answer the reader's latent questions. “Well, what about her feelings? Oh, yes, she gave him the glove.” Or, “And where was he living then? Oh, yes, the long bus ride means he was out in the sticks.” The battens do not show. There is no canvas side. And that is the art of creation.