The Art of Fiction
I finished up The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner earlier this week. As I read, I felt those horrible wheels turning in my Underbrain, and several times I stopped reading to take notes on something I wanted to write. The surest sign that I’m reading something worth reading is how easy that book is to put down, jump up and get my hands dirty. My hands were filthy by the time I finished The Art of Fiction.
I take notes when I’m reading to learn. “Reading for discovery” is how I think of it. I pause often while reading to send myself emails with relevant quotes, fragments of the larger work that resonate with me, and ideas for my own work. Things I want to write about later. Anything that makes sense to me, in the larger context of wanting to be a better writer.
It is partly in this way that the fictional process forces the writer to say more than he thought he could; that is, to make discoveries.
This happens every time I sit down to write. A little window into my daily writing process: I come in armed with an outline, fortified with black coffee, ready to bang out my daily word count, eager to work on the next scene.
But things change. I have a general idea of where I’m going, but not how I’m going to get there. I’ve gotten a view from 50,000 feet up, enough to have a rough idea of the story I’ll write. But it’s rough, and it changes. I’ve described writing a story as a bit like excavating. It’s something like digging up a buried monument. An artifact whose shape is visible through loose soil, but something I can’t see well enough to make out details. And so I dig. And the soil shifts underfoot as I dig. And the shape of the thing itself changes as I dig.
I find characters saying things I didn’t plan, taking actions I didn’t foresee, and disappearing altogether. Shapeshifting into different people, the more time I spend with them. An example that popped up this week, from my current work: a boy and his younger brother are on a journey east. They’re alone, but they’re not scared. Being alone is familiar. They’ve just left a cabin after holing up for a few days, and the older brother insists they bring a shovel with them. Despite its weight, and without bothering to explain why.
This wasn’t in my outline. I didn’t know about the shovel - it was something I didn’t plan, and yet it has imposed itself and made itself necessary to the plot. I didn’t see this detail coming, but it emerged, fully formed, making complete sense within the larger arc. It’s more than a wrinkle (although wrinkles also appear while writing) and heavier than texture. You make discoveries as you write. You discover about your characters, the world you’re creating, and the stories that take place there. That’s the magic. Writing is about discovery, even with an outline. Even with an outline a thousand times as detailed and structured as the ones I create, I imagine.
But if the writer writes only of what honestly interests him, and if he thinks of his work not simply as thoughtful exploration, as it should be, but also as entertainment, he cannot fail to have, at least for some group of serious, devoted readers, both immediate and lasting interest.
This is a long sentence. Much longer than most I end up writing, but my take is you’ll find success if you’re writing stories like the ones you like to read, rather than writing to hone your technique or to explore ideas. If you’re having fun with what you’re writing, you’ll be successful. I’ve been writing horror because I enjoy horror. I’ve been a fan of horror since I was a child. I like writing stories about monsters, and ghosts, and deals with the devil, and what happens to perfectly nice people when they’re confronted by something otherworldly.
Every writer seeks glory, for some definition of glory. Every writer wants to see his work in the world, even if no one else ever reads it. The surest path to get there is to enjoy the work, and to write the stories you want to write. To write the kind of thing you’d read without question. Without hesitation, and without complaint.