In the NYT today, I read a piece by Roger Cohen, quoting an Israeli author named Amos Oz. I thought you’d like it:TEL AVIV — Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”
I was rather startled to find that by the time I got around to responding to this, the article is over a month old. My excuse? To use Oz’s terminology, I’ve been lost in Legoland.
Except my Legoland is not the same as his. For me, choosing the right words is the easy part. When I’m in full flow, the words and their carriages—the punctuation—arrive without struggle or thought. Yes, it can all be tightened and tidied when I rewrite, but generally the words and sentences are the ones I want. The real work lies in getting to that state of flow.
To begin, I need to start in the right place.* Where the protagonist begins helps determine where she ends, and that beginning-to-end is the emotional arc of the story. That emotional arc is all about how and why the main character changes; it’s about her choices and their consequences. For me, the ringing truth of a novel rests on its people.
I have to know my people. What they do and how they think. How they feel and where they’re from. Landscape is central; for me as a writer, people are their places. I have to understand what they notice about the world and how easily they move through it. I need to know, deep down, what metaphors they use to talk to others or to themselves.
All this takes time and active work. A lot of that work looks like doing nothing in particular: lounging about eating chocolate, sitting in the pub drinking beer, surfing the web for interesting PhD theses or blog posts. Some of it looks remarkably like daydreaming over a cup of tea, and sometimes, I admit, I am just loafing about. But mostly I’m working: I’m feeding the black box in my brain the raw material to make magic.**
Some of the work is much more obvious: creating charts and spreadsheets and maps. (Making maps gives me vast pleasure, too, which means—inevitably—that it sometimes devolves into making pretties and not really progressing with the work at hand. But that’s balanced out by the fact that I loathe and detest spreadsheets.)
If this all sounds as though I’m one of those writers who sit around and wait for inspiration to strike then I’m doing a poor job of explaining. I work hard, many hours a day, it’s just that I’m not always increasing word count. Sometimes I’m frantically researching climate, or trees—what species blossoms when, what fruits when, how tall do each grow, how easy is the wood to carve?—or tides or trying to work out travel times which means figuring out what state of repair the Roman roads or Iron Age tracks would be in, which in turn depends on how they were getting there, which of course rests on what time of year is it…and what trees are blossoming in what weather.
But all that, believe it or not, is secondary. They are the container in which I put the people and then watch. The question I ask myself most often is: Yes, it’s very cool, but, really, would she do that? You wouldn’t believe how many gorgeous, gorgeous scenes I threw away in the writing of Hild because, really, she wouldn’t do that.
And now I’m working on Hild II. Which is more complicated in some ways but which I am determined will be shorter, even though it covers as much narrative time (about fifteen years). In every single scene I aim to cut to the heart: begin as late as humanly possible and end as early as possible—while appearing unhurried.
The false notes I’ve hit always come when I don’t know, when I’m thinking with my fingers instead of coming to the desk with a bone-deep certainty of who, what, where, when, why, how: the smells and sounds, the dreams and disappointments. And, most importantly, where and when to enter. And in this I agree with Oz: readers always hear a false note. If you don’t know, they will notice. But if you do know they won’t even see the words, only your people, only your place. They will live in the world you built alongside the people you brought to life. It’s worth a little work.
* For more on this see Hauser and Reich’s, Notes on Directing. It is very short, and in the form of numbered rules for directing a stage play (“Never, never, never bully actors,” “movement will always draw an audience’s eye.”) The book began as twelve pages of notes handed by Hauser (an English director who has directed the royalty of the stage: Judy Dench, Ian McKellan, Lawrence Olivier) to Reich (at the time an American neophyte) with the murmured words, “You might find these helpful.” In addition to being a fascinating window onto a world I’m not familiar with, it is wickedly funny in places, and thought-provoking for anyone whose business is narrative. What I took away from it has been very useful: if a scene is going wrong, you entered in the wrong place. Too early, too late, or just the wrong scene at the wrong time. Then, of course, you have to figure why…
** The Language of Hild, an essay for Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Work in Progress. I’m only talking about one aspect of the work in this piece but it’s relevant to the discussion at hand.