Holding the Whole Thing

FreeGreatPicture.com-26108-holding-blank-cardAbout midway through my first draft, I became intimate with a hurdle I posit is probably specific to the novelist. How could I hold the entirety of my novel—of the world I was creating—in my mind?

In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Block addresses this issue as one that stops many would-be novelists in their tracks. He immediately reassures the prospective writer that it shouldn’t be a prohibitive concern. No one, Block says, can mentally grasp the entirety of their novel-in-progress.

There are two potential solutions for the obvious need to understand the breadth of the work even while you are mired in the minutia of a particular scene, paragraph, or line of dialogue. Every scene should be informed by the thrust of the whole, after all. We have to be merciless in cutting what doesn’t serve the entire book.

Block says the first way of guaranteeing that this continuity happens, is to make yourself a roadmap. (The Agile Writer’s Storyboard is an excellent solution to this problem.) Alternatively, and from my initial vantage point paradoxically, Block posits that you could write without an outline—writing quickly and from your gut, letting the work lead you organically. Follow your own creative nose wherever it leads.

The classic Plotters vs. Pantsers debate. I have explored this dichotomy in other blog posts, so I won’t revisit it here, except to say that I think both approaches have merit, and the guiding principal in deciding what approach to use should be the most practical one—which one works for you, for your current book?

I’d like to explore some other ways in which I think the author can ensure their connection to the overarching thrust of their work, the taproot of this tangle of narrative.

A very famous quote by Mark Twain came to mind when I was mulling over this issue, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

If you tell the truth. What does Twain mean by truth? Fiction is hardly factual. But, is there a deeper kind of truth to be adhered to in a novel? One that could help maintain continuity throughout the story? In other words, if I—as the writer—have an emotional impression of each character, if I understand my character’s truths, would that be enough for me to intuit their motivations and continuously write them in a compelling and believable way? Even if I couldn’t remember every detail of each of their appearances “on screen” by the time I reached the end?

I think so.

I think there is another, simpler, and more pragmatic way to get around this problem too. I have a hunch that what I really need to do to ensure the continuity of my manuscript is read it cover to cover. Radical, I know.

It sounds strange to imply that I haven’t read my own work. I have, in a way. I mean, I reread everything I write during the process of writing. And now that I am in the thick of my second draft, I have literally reread more than half of the book.

But not all at once.

Even my critique partners, whose feedback is invaluable and thorough, have not seen the whole of my manuscript at once, with the ability to read it at a more natural pace. They only get weekly splices. Which isn’t sufficient to know how well I am pacing the book. It’s not adequate for detecting inconsistencies or redundancies either, especially if they are spread out.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Is there a truth or truths that keep you on track in your novel? Have you read the whole thing through?

What Does it Mean to Be a Storyteller?

Brand-Storyteller“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” -Joseph Campbell

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.” -Plato

We have been reading Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit as our group selection for the craft of writing portion of our weekly meeting. What has struck me most profoundly in the book so far, is the small section in Chapter 5 when Block makes the case that the most important skill a novelist can possess is to be a good “storyteller.”

Being a good storyteller, according to Block, is far more important than being a good stylist. The largeness of the plot structure will buoy up a novel with lackluster style. On one level, this seems utterly true to me. On another, I am shocked by it. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms.

I came to Agile Writers above all to get help with crafting a plot. I was familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell, and recognized that in his study of the “Hero’s Journey” he had distilled the human story. I wanted to somehow use this template to write a novel. Enter, Greg Smith, who—to my total astonishment—had made the leap from Campbell to novel already.

But even after the rigorous process of Storyboarding and planning my novel, a first draft and half of a second draft, I find that what I think of as good writing still leans heavily on good style. My fiction is pretty stylized and I admire writers and books that have a definitive voice.

The other element, the element of plot—storytelling, theater—still seems foreign to me. I am so grateful for the help I have received at Agile Writers to structure my plot. But, I find myself often scratching my head, not knowing if what I am writing is compelling on that larger level. Is it exciting enough? Dramatic enough? Compelling enough? Not just my usual question: is it beautiful enough?

But, is it going somewhere?

This may just be the middle/muddle talking (I am 150 pages into the rewrite. . . ), but that is the hardest question for me to answer. Am I telling an important and interesting story? If not, all of the style points in the world don’t rack up to anything. They are hollow.

The only way I can feel confident in my plot, in my story, is that it is written in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey—the oldest and most compelling human story. I can trust that, with the help of the Agile Writing Method, I am reaching toward telling a true hero’s tale. My readers will recognize the story deeply, in their bones. And they will feel drawn along by it. At least, I hope so.

Agile Writers, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller?