Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Questioning Fool’s Self-Examination

"There are three rules for writing a novel,” W. Somerset Maugham once said. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Words of wisdom that no doubt still hold true. I found myself thinking of Maugham’s quote as I read Donis’s wonderful Saturday (Aug. 15) blog, “The Hard Part.” I thoroughly enjoyed her essay partly because her approach to writing a novel is so very different from my own.

“When I start a mystery,” Donis explained, “I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it.” I don’t know whether it is a curse or a blessing, but as I have written previously, I usually enter my stories like a blind man wandering through the forest. As I bump into trees, trip over stone walls, and discover a few cleared pathways, I solve each of my story’s small mysteries, and those seemingly minor answers usually lead to larger and more important revelations.

In fact, what I do not know drives my writing process. Agatha Christie wrote her novels in reverse order (last chapter first and so on) to be able to lay clues in precise places so she could “play fair” with the reader. By contrast, I find that writing novels is about answering my own questions. I ask many as a write, and I attempt to write scenes that force the reader to ask just as many.

Most of my questions stem from the characters I create. My goal is always to create a main character that is realistically flawed and is one that I genuinely care about. If I have done that, the character will come alive (at least for me, the book’s first reader). Therefore, the more complex and real the character, the more complex and real my questions can be. And these questions determine the book’s plot. For instance, Why did he say he found the note in Toronto? When was he there? Why did his lecture include the statement about his twin brother? I must pursue the answers to these questions right along with my sleuth. I will never claim that this is the most linear method of writing. (I once wrote 144 pages, scrapped them, and started over using a different point of view.) But I enjoy this process, and in the end, the better my character development is, the more interesting my plot is. Character equals plot; the events in my book, just as in real life, are limited to and expanded by the people in control of them.

There is an adage that goes like this: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This is one of my three rules of fiction writing. If I could remember the other two writing would be easy.

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