Tomorrow morning I’m catching a Czech Airlines flight from Budapest to Prague, then a second flight to JFK, where for two nights I’ll be back in the Big Apple. Why? A PR lunch on Monday with editors and reviewers from various publications, put together by my generous publishers, St Martin’s Minotaur. If that wasn’t fantastic enough, the guests o’honor are Ken Bruen and myself…which means a good time’s going to be had, even if I show up in a sour mood.
On the way back, I’m going to try to do a couple-day stayover in Prague in order to do some final detail research for Liberation Movements (or The Istanbul Variations). My research technique (which some journalist friends consider the crappiest technique on the planet) usually involves as little research as is required to write a story. Only after the story’s written do I get out to the places I need to see and fix what I’ve gotten wrong, adding details I couldn’t have know about otherwise.
I first learned this approach in grad school, from Andre Dubus III, a stunning novelist. There are different schools of thought on this, but in Andre’s school one tries to find a story from within one’s self. You can’t write a story, particularly one dealing with other cultures, without some measure of research, but at some point the writer must separate from the facts in order to write the tale he needs to write. My problem back in 1999 when I was in Romania writing my failed opus was that I forgot this rule, and as a result the bulk of the novel read like lengthy research notes stacked end-on-end, rather than as a compelling tale.
Another professor and brilliant writer, Christopher Tilghman, referred to his technique as the dumb approach (or something along those lines‚Äîit‚Äôs been years), meaning that you write without “thinking”. This essentially means (if I remember right) that you try to tap into the subconscious and let it run the show. (Just to be clear, there’s nothing “magical” about this, no “other voice” speaking through you—it’s simply the result of years of practice, where the techniques of writing and plotting and characterization are so ingrained that they’re forgotten, like a musician who doesn’t need to think about where they’re going to place their fingers on the cello strings.) When Chris tells this to other fiction writers, they nod with a kind of understanding; when he tells it to critics or literary theorists, they raise the corner of their lips in scorn. Either you get it, or you don’t.
I’ve had heated debates with a friend here about how much one should plan, not only the story and characters, but also the themes, motifs and (god forbid) “message”. I’m firmly of the camp that you research minimally, then zone out and write a story as best you can, planning ahead only when necessary to get you moving again. The abstract levels of the story, the themes, will come naturally out of your personal obsessions. Often, I only learn what my story’s themes are once I’ve finished a book—and it’s always a surprise.
So that’s that. I’ll try to get my lazy ass to post a NY report when I return next week, at least to let everyone know if Ken Bruen’s still alive.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)