Once you get bitten by the writing bug everything becomes a work in progress. I think it is a way to sweep the clutter from our conscious minds. I am a believer in the power of the subconscious to a certain extent. Now most individuals quickly picture some part of the brain engaged in its own through processes to the exclusion of the rest of the brain and that is simply not so. There is no little man stomping around in your brain and largely unknown except when some flash of insight suddenly comes to the conscious mind. Freud was wrong when he posited that we have both a conscious and subconscious mind existing with our thick skulls. The fact of the matter is that we are always thinking, always have something on our minds. It’s not single neurons firing alone in the night but the influence of bundles of neurons becoming active. The connections are not well understood since for the several billions of brain cells we have a good many may have great multiples of connections among them. Neuroscience is a very fun study and the brain offers some very fascinating features for researchers. Contemplate how memory might be organized for those who tend to operate with the more encyclopedic memory. Would the brain use a modified index sequential method or does it prefer a relational model and computes its own third through ninth degree relations? Ah, but I bore you already if you have neither knowledge of data base constructions or neuroscience and memory.
For a decade or so I kept my small notebooks, those bound 8 x 5 artist’s sketchbooks you see at Hobby Lobby. I really prefer the ones that are bound with rings instead of the standard glued spine. That way the pages lay flat when I am writing. The other thing I do is that I rotate the page so that the spine is always on my right. Anyone who wants to read it will have to constantly rotate the book to read the next page. At first I simply wrote down my thoughts. Nothing very bright or deep, you know. What was the weather, what was I thinking about at the moment, what happened yesterday or today depending on when I wrote that passage. If I were traveling in a foreign country I would write down my observations. Most of the time I would take my notebook with me and sit in a cafe carefully writing a few notes. I mention this because writing becomes a habit. For example, I have always been a reader ever since I was a small child. Our family had a small supply of Golden Books and I always had a bunch of them out, I read the pictures. That old saying a picture says a thousand words is pretty near correct. To a child of three and four and five, perhaps a little older, those pictures tell a story. I would examine them and extract my own telling of what was illustrated. I got into the habit of day dreaming about them as I looked at those images. You know, humans really are very visually oriented. We construct visual images of what a character may look like and how a room is oriented to the rest of the building. We want to know what’s in that room. We construct all that from a collection of memories.
I’ve written two spy mysteries of sufficient length. I say sufficient length because I am a firm believer in keeping the length of a book to under three hundred pages, if possible. I have read Tom Wolf and he does get unnecessarily wordy. And if George Foster Wallace had cut all the non brilliant prose from his vaunted novel he wouldn’t have needed a hundred pages of end notes, the volume would have been under three hundred pages and he might have actually said something about the human condition. But if you think Wallace is so fucking brilliant, read Elliott Baker’s novel A Fine Madness and you will see what true brilliance is. One needs a certain length to develop the characters. One thing that I did was to write biographies of my characters. Where were they born, who were their parents, I mean the whole nine yards. I gave them childhood pets, well, not all of them, I gave them hobbies and sundry skills. Could my heroine use small hand tools? How did that affect her character? Did the hero know how to bake a cake from scratch? Does the villain like telling jokes? These biographies for the main characters often filled six pages or more. It’s the characters you need to detail, not the plot lines, that’s for film making. A film usually has between ninety and one hundred and twenty minutes to tall a story. You’ve got three hundred pages. Eric Amber does it with such ease, his plots just roll off the page so smoothly while his characters do all the work. Read these old guys, they knew how to write. I read Angela’s Ashes and was horribly disappointed. I mean they gave a pullet surprise to that clown who essentially used that old Johnnie Carson joke; “How poor were we? We were so poor…..” What a mealy mouthed whining remembrance of family and childhood. Didn’t he ever have any good times? Was his life so intensely miserable that the only thing that kept him from suicide was the thought of all the royalties he would get from being recommended by Oprah? Is that what passes for modern literature today? Time to tell New York City and the university MFA system to shove it.
Yes, plot does matter, but you can’t force it, you can’t plan it in great detail like you do in writing a history of some nation and age. Besides, the past has already done so much of your work for you. Plots need a suppleness, a way of slipping into the future in ways that were unintended or far from straight line. I sweated plots, I mean I wrote and tossed away enough material to fill a book. What killed my novels was the fact that I had little to say. There is not much of a story in repeating history and that is what my spy novels felt like, poorly written history. A good plot goes somewhere because it has a good destination and not just an end. We want to know more than the success of the mission, we want to know that the mission made some difference if only to a few individuals. Did our people, our characters, learn something from from the doing? The world didn’t need to be made any safer, only that there is some hope for a few who lived through the experience. That is what I missed and it has taken me a couple of years to understand that point. You know, all writing has a point. Even if you are making out a shopping list, it has a point. Set down a few thoughts in the morning or evening? You have a point even if you are not immediately aware of that point. Even when we are idly thinking of nothing in particular we are still thinking, our mines are active and that is the point. All writing is work in progress because all writing can be polished, tightened up, improved, etc.. But that is the metaphor for life, is it not? Life is a work in progress and if you are good your life may get published and applauded. And we all seek the limelight.