I wore a headset and microphone on the ride to work today. Since I can’t write all my novel ideas (Hamlet would say “Novel, indeed…”) in my pretentious Moleskine notebook, I hooked up a headset to my digital voice recorder and talked to myself for fifteen minutes and nine seconds. During my session I contemplated the novel and how it is ultimately constructed. I’ve been writing my novel in pieces, mostly through dialogue exercises between the characters, trying to work out the logistics of a given situation. For example: two brothers are on a long road trip to retrieve the dead body of their youngest brother. The dead brother was murdered, and the brothers on the road trip are working toward (because that’s what I want them to do) blaming themselves for his death. During the trip they pass a New Jersey state trooper with a radar gun sticking out of the car. The brother who is driving slows down and the passenger brother waves to the trooper nervously. As they continue down the road, the driver begins to warn drivers in the oncoming lane by flashing his lights at them in a steady rhythm. The passenger brother is bothered by this, and he lets the driver brother know it. That is how the dialogue begins.
This is the first time I’ve ever written out the actual summary. Most of what I’ve been doing is throwing the characters into the scene that existed in my head and have them speak to one another. In every case the dialogue took a while to get going and many times the conversations would hit a dead end and I’d have to start over, or I’d find the place it seemed to trail off into insignificance and I’d pick up from there. I have a series of these dialogues in my Moleskine, and they’re essential to me in that they will help stitch the middle of the book together. From what I’ve read about the construction of a novel, the middle is often the most difficult part to negotiate.
It seems that the easier task, once you have the central idea of your novel, or a synopsis of the book, is to piece together some basic incidents or plot lines that can serve as the framework for the novel.
In the car this morning, I equated it to assembling a puzzle and the strategies applied to its completion. The main plot threads are the corners of the rectangular puzzle and the plot points that are obvious to a writer are like the flat edges set aside in preparation for the more difficult work ahead. These take a bit of time to put together, but for a writer with some ambition, it might be a relatively easy task. It’s the middle, the thousands of little bits and pieces that are harrowing in their totality, that take years to negotiate.
If you write a folk novel, though, this thing that has become more popular now, or maybe I’m just noticing it more because it’s aggravating me, you don’t seem to have to worry about all those middle pieces of the puzzle, they’ve already been formed for you. To create what I’m calling a folk novel, you take a successful novel from the past, study its plot, then write a culturally modern novel, using the finer plot points of the classic novel to guide you. Despite my disagreement with it, my thinking it’s hackwork, it’s something that’s been done for centuries. Shakespeare wrote his plays using plots from the past. It is theorized that Shakespeare created Hamlet using a Danish historical text about a prince named Amleth. In my view the genius isn’t in the stories created, but in how the plots were rendered — how the characters were developed and filled out and how he wrote every play on the fly, basically, and in iambic pentameter, a rhythmic method of five beats per line, in a series of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. He wrote entire plays this way.
Just like any confused essayist, I contradict myself, and I guess if I think that the novel should be intentionally original and new, then that’s my problem.