Years ago I bought a score of ‘how to write’ manuals, only to find out most embodied the doctrine of how the writer thought others should write. In the parcel of tomes and manuals I found a treasure: ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. The reason I loved Mr. King’s book is simple: he didn’t once hint at how others should write, but explained how he did it.
I have no advice to give anyone. I grapple daily with your language, attempting to fathom its intricacies and learning to love it. In the process I’ve fought a losing battle with the rudiments of grammar and syntax. My heritage and speaking several Romance languages weighs heavily on my mind, often misguiding my pen into an arcane of unreadable Spanglish. My apologies. I’m trying. Hard. Cross my heart.
There’s a common notion, to which I don’t subscribe, that writing, music and drawing are art forms. And I don’t accept such qualification because I’ve always extracted a living from these three professions and I’m no artist. Needless to say, some writers, musicians and illustrators are artists, and the same could be said of cooks, architects or tailors. But most of us are workers and derive sustenance from preparing products for the market.
So, what about writing? I’m coming to it but first let us consider driving. There are car drivers, bus drivers, aircraft drivers, truck drivers, ship drivers, motorbike drivers, tractor drivers, racing drivers and all sorts of drivers. While attempting to tame their vehicles, drivers undergo a similar learning process: one sits behind the wheel, aghast at the scores of issues to address at the same time. There are mirrors, ignition, gas, gears, accelerator, RPM and uddles of dials to be checked in addition to driving. Over the following days, weeks or months, the driver assimilates the myriad details of his machine’s character to address most adjustments without thinking. When this pattern is firmly established, the driver can, at last, concentrate and enjoy driving.
Please, consider a bus and a Boeing 747. They are both vehicles to transport people and goods, they move from A to B, they start and stop; they have numbered seats and windows and aisles, fold-up tables and ashtrays to lodge your candy wrappers or chewed gum. Yet, these two vehicles are different in nature, scope and complexity: one trundles through the dust and the other flies.
Writing has a similar learning curve. The machine can be paper and pen, a computer and keyboard or a typewriter. Every time you hit a key or attempt a squiggle with a pen we write. Simple, no?
This is fine for general writing, but fiction is a different animal. In fiction, the writer needs to check dialogue, lexical variety, repetition and the countless sins of sloppy writing. No problem here. Practice makes perfect. The real problem arises with scene and chapter structure, characterization, point of view, tense, voice, tension and plot. You see, these have no dials, only sound. The driver must use the fingers to tune its engine until it hums. Please, notice that ‘hums’ is wildly subjective. What may be a pleasant idle for me may be racing and clunky for you and vice versa.
But enough driving for now. In my mind I’ve always have arbitrarily divided writers into artists and artisans: alchemists and weavers. While the first seek the elusive sound and meter of perfection, the second work a tapestry where the final picture emerges from intricate combinations of warp and thread.
“There’s alchemy in writing,” my fellow writer, friend and lover all rolled into one——when the kids are out of the way——once said. I had to agree with her. ‘I’ve loved you infinite ways’ conveys the meaning of, ‘I seem to have loved you in numberless forms’. Yet Tagore’s crumbling bones would rattle at my levity, and any fourth-grader would sense the first sentence’s inherent commonness. There’s alchemy in ‘numberless forms’ or magic if you wish.
Through history, alchemy adepts have referred to it as ‘the art’ and, in my opinion, rightly so: there’s little science in repeatedly cooking base elements searching for the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of eternal life.
Alchemist writers agonize over sentences, tasting one word over another for the right flavour. In an often unconscious way, they search for Wittgenstein’s chimera: Das erlosende Wort; the word that would throw open the door of our understanding, but most fall short of their goal. Their plot’s delicate texture disappears under countless coats of polish, to blind the reader with gleaming words. Like an overdose of chocolate, too much beauty can be lethal. I once heard Carmen Balcells, the dean of Spanish literary agents, complain: ‘good writers can be very, very boring.’
Everywhere, the predictable bellhops drone their platitudes time and again: Syntax, characterization, POV, show and not tell, grammar.... Fine, we must all learn to drive and correctly interpret the dials but before setting the vehicle in motion we need to plan our trip and, in my opinion, this marks the difference between writers. Perhaps this jejune view of the craft will anger critics, those legless people who insist on teaching us how to run, but one can’t please everybody. Alas, my scientific background is a poor potting soil for alchemical nuances.
To me, every novel is a travel log from a voyage starting on the first page and ending on the last. There are mundane trips to the store and vast voyages encompassing continents or uncharted lands and each writer will attempt to piggyback its readers along, not unlike the bus or aircraft drivers.
I write plots. Later, I string my plots and peg out to dry countless scenes: the threads that I will later attempt to weave into a story. I have a database with a repository of ideas, seldom numbering fewer than one-hundred; each linked to documents, graphics and photographs in a file with the same name.
Take ‘As Above as Below’ a working title for one of my projects far into the future. My wife sent me a magazine with a story about an African village by a lake. Intermittently, every ten to fifteen years, all habitants and their livestock would die during the night. The morning after, and regardless of meticulous examination of the cadavers, relief personnel drawn into the area couldn’t fathom the cause of death. Mysterious, no?
From an idea I work out a plot from beginning to end, schematic and without detail but complete. Next, I open character files, give working names to the players and flesh them up with physical, psychological and social details. Then I write short synopses of every scene, perhaps five to ten lines long, much like a film script. In my scene files I write the POV or camera position, a brief place description, a resume of the action and the characters involved. Underneath I jot notes about possible research, a fact-finding trip or expert advice I may need to write the scene.
The procedure yields a file with 250 to 300 scenes (average for a 100,000-word manuscript) that I enter into a different database labeled ‘Structures’. I keep an average of thirty structures ready for full-length works. This may seem too mechanical and no doubt most writers work differently, but it works for me.
All the order and discipline invested in the structures dissolve when I set out to write: I always work on several novels at the time and write scenes according to mood or time of the month, never in chronological order. I might write a scene close to the beginning of a book and others hundreds of pages apart at the same sitting.
On average I write 4,000 words in an 8-hour working day. I seldom do an 8-hour working day. When travelling or at weekends away from home, I write 12 to 16 hours between naps.
Once I’ve completed the scenes of a manuscript I group them into chapters and the chapters into parts before locking the file away sine die.
When I dust up the novel, I rewrite, edit, cut, reshape and reorder scenes before passing it over to my reader-editor-partner-lover and fellow writer Shawna. Afterward, I send the tome over to my agent who dons her Wellington boots, wet-suit and sou’wester to brave the stormy paths to publishing houses.
But I have left something out. I need to write. To me, writing is like a cursed addiction needing a daily fix. I can’t conceive a day without writing or a day without air.