This Is Going in a Book, So It’s All True

Whale coming out of the water

Near Kansas City

In the process of writing a novel, I’ve noticed several problems. First, I’m writing it. I don’t mean I don’t like writing it. My involvement is actually more of a problem for the novel than for me. Other than relying on the kindness of strangers (and friends) to give me advice and critiques, the book can only be what I make it. And when I gaze ahead to see where the book is going, I see blank…empty…nothingness. Yonder all before me lie, deserts of vast eternity. Then I think “Oh my God, what the hell goes there?”

Where does a novel come from, anyway? It’s like I’m just making stuff up here.

As I’m writing the book, I have two friends reading bits as I give it to them. Patient, stoic friends…saints actually, wearing ragged garments in the wilderness, reading aloud to the birds, poring through the kind of false starts, sloppy wording, and weak characterization that no writer would actually want people to read. It is the job of my friends to tell me exactly where and how I’m a crappy writer. Without this noble service to art, no book achieves its highest level of perfection. The writer alone cannot do it, though there are no doubt plenty of writers whacking away at their hubristic keyboards.

Here is a second problem with my writing this book. I am lazy and I want to have fun writing it. If I were to slow down and do a really good job, that would require extensive thought, careful research, meticulous placement of detail, deep pondering of the psychology of characters, and tedious excision of banal language, worn cliches, and faded metaphors. Who wants to do all that when instead I could just type faster?

More than once it has been pointed out to me that some scenes might benefit from more description, to provide a better sense of the place. Oy, I know. And I could just create things, you know, fiction and all that, except I’m using real locations. I had Benedict and Miramar stop in Kansas City, a place I’ve never been and scarcely ever thought about. Did you know the city is full of fountains? Man, what you can learn on the internet. But I didn’t mention that fact in the novel, because once you start looking up stuff about Kansas City, the fountain data starts to seem like obvious information. I figured it would look like I wasn’t even trying if I used it, just took the first thing Google said. Instead, while my characters were in Kansas City I had them take a boat out to go whale watching. I guess Kansas City is near the ocean. Isn’t it?

And they’re driving across Kansas at the moment (when they’re not in the past, I mean). I could of course just say they’re driving across Kansas. But it would be a little more interesting to have some description of what they see as they’re driving. Everyone knows Kansas has tornados and little dogs, but what else?

Actually, the spot at which I’ve been writing for the past couple of weeks is St. Louis, in the 1876 part of the book. Perhaps I have more free reign here to lie like a Presidential candidate. Who could contradict me, other than historians, and seriously, who are you going to believe, an established historian who has published books and articles on 19th century America, or a slightly dissipated writer who thinks Kansas City is on the Pacific coast? I think we can agree on this.

I did, however, look at a good many old photographs of St. Louis. Did you know people wore hats back then? Wow, who knew? I guess that should be in the book, huh? Or maybe they didn’t wear hats. You’re not going to go look it up, are you? Actually, all the men wore floral print scarves.

In talking last night with one of the friends who is reading the book, I said that a problem I’m having is with the logistics of taking Benedict and Miramar back and forth between the present and the past. That might seem simple to you. To make it more complicated, they can only remain in the past for 24 hours at a time. The reason for that limit is actually for the convenience of the novel. If they could just go and stay as long as they want, then there would be no back and forth as they cross the country in each direction, and thus a basic structural idea for the book would not exist. But it’s a struggle to continually figure out how to make the transfer work. They have to use special time doors, and they have to find them, blah blah blah. As my friend pointed out last night, that struggle with logistics will probably remain until the end of the book.

So I need to add more detail. And develop the characters more. And add style. And start using commas. Had I but world enough, and time, I’m sure I could do this.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

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