Saturday, December 1, 2007

How It All Comes Together

I was talking to a friend last night, a writer whose work I like, about his forthcoming book, a novel told in a chronologically fragmented way. I asked how this approach had come about, and he told me that he didn't see the benefit of pressing the life of his protagonist, an old man, into the shape of a typical narrative. It was too complex--strands of the book stretched across time and across pages in a way that made his chosen structure feasible, if not inevitable.

While working on it, he'd asked a mutual friend, another novelist, what he though of this approach. And our friend told him that he ought to just write the book in the order it came to him.

It's possible to assign too much power to this perhaps overly simplistic piece of advice, but I cannot count the number of times I've disobeyed it, only to realize I'd taken a wrong turn. Almost all my best stuff, whether it has a predictable structure or not, retains the shape I imagined it having when I started. The actual content is often radically different, but the structure, no.

I'm not sure why this would be. I'm a big believer in the Drastic Rewrite, and I like to think there's nothing I've done in a draft that isn't open to possible revision. And indeed, there is a major exception in my work to this initial-conception rule: my last novel, Happyland, which was completely reimagined from its early drafts. But perhaps that doesn't count--what was eventually published (in severely abbreviated form, in serial) was essentially a new novel, formed out of the busted-up pieces of the original idea.

Even if inspiration isn't the main ingredient in the creation of a good book, it is real, and ought to be respected. Warily, of course--because some inspiration is stupid. But respected nevertheless. I feel as though an idea that hits hard and sticks to the roof of your mind must have something going for it, however coarsely it expresses itself at first. Inspiration isn't magic--it's the product of countless hours of subconscious cogitation, the opening of a painted-shut window you've been idly rattling at for ages. It may be untrustworthy, but it is meaningful, and it can lend direction to the grunt work to come.


Grant Munroe said...

If the structure's solid but the content variable, at what point do you stop revising? How do you know you've come to an end?

Anonymous said...

I suppose it varies from writer to writer, but I'm done when I would rather back my car over my own head than write another word... is never perfect. Never. In fact, it's ruined the second you write the first sentence. But interestingly ruined, you hope.