by Leonard Bishop
There are two persistent threats that intimidate all inexperienced writers who want to write novels. And unless they avoid those threats, they will never write their novels. When I was instructing at the University of California, in Berkeley, I repeated, to the point of nagging, “A novel is not thought out, all at once. The writer does not know all he must write, when he begins.” The student-writers who attended that insight eventually published novels.
I learned that insight many years ago through an experience that was not related to the writing of novels.
I was living in San Francisco with my first family. We had a three room apartment on the fringe of the Chinese section. I had a novel ‘soon-to-be published’ at Random House, but the advance money had already been spent. We were cramped and uncomfortable. Then I sold a television script to “Naked City” and another to “Rawhide” and decided to use the money to buy a house. It would be the first house I ever owned.
Real estate prices were irrationally high. I finally located one in the outer mission area. It looked like it was dropped from a mashed Cracker-Jack’s box. The floor sagged, the walls were cracked, the concrete foundation was just clots of talcum powder. The window frames were warped, you could see the sky through the ceiling. I called it “Blight Manor.”
Because my high school background was in “the trades” and not general academics, I was not frightened by this ramshackle residence. I isolated the jumble of defects and viewed them individually. I could shingle a roof. Change siding. Re-do the plumbing. Replace the faulty wiring. I knew that with patience, skill, and persistence, I could restore the house into becoming solid and livable. I did not panic myself by realizing, all at once, all that I had to do.
The same vision is necessary when deciding to write a novel.
After the fullness of the novel is realized by the writer, it should be viewed from a vision that is deliberately short-sighted to prevent the writer from becoming over whelmed by all that he must do. When considered, all at once, what a novel contains, and what the writer must know, it is impossible to write a novel.
Though a novel is written in an accumulative manner, it is not always written with progressing regularity. Often the writer creates scenes out of sequence. Sometimes because he is stuck and cannot continue the sequence he is on. Or because he knows exactly how a later scene should be written and he doesn’t want to lose it. Sometimes he writes out of sequence because that is how he feels. A novelist does not allow himself to realize, all at once, all that he must not yet know about the novel he is writing. If he admits to this dreadful recognition, he will not begin the novel. He understands that more of the novel is hidden within him, than has been revealed to him when first conceiving it. Past experience encourages him to know he will be able to dredge up from himself all that he will have to know.
Novelists are always dabbling with miniature outlines. They write for a while and then the material begins suggesting content they were not aware of before. Extensions of character, complications of plot, background scenes, etc. When that happens, the writer stops the novel and works up a short outline. It is a “learning” outline used for clearer direction.
Nor does the writer allow himself to realize all the defects in his writing, all at once. Such an awareness, while he is writing, would paralyze him. While he is writing he is aware of when he is writing poorly. He plods on. He rushes slowly. He will repair the defects when rewriting.
He is not searching for the refinements of prose, the refinements of craft, the refinements of meaning. He is reaching for the astonishment of drama. If what he writes is truly dramatic, he will inherently have incorporated the refinements of prose, craft, and meaning in the drama.
The scene you planned to do in nine pages becomes overwritten if you use three. You believe you would need 4 sub-plots to create suspense and complication. But no one in the profession of writing has ever satisfactorily defined what a sub-plot is–or how it is consciously accomplished. You intended to kill the hero at the end. But three quarters into the novel you learn that if the hero dies, the conclusion is pointless. Etc.
Experienced novelists always anticipate change and long intervals of ignorance when they begin a novel. They do not distress themselves by thinking of the entire novel, in detail. Nor do they frighten themselves with the admission of all they do not know and all they must learn before completing the novel. No experienced novelist ever knows what he is doing, all the time, all at once.
©2013 the Estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published January 26, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)
My first novel was published this year, June 2013, after 11 years of working on it. I am often asked how I came up with the story. When I tell them I didn’t know the story would go this way, that I only had bits and pieces of it over time, they don’t understand. Eudora Welty said if you have a well developed, strong character you don’t even need to know the direction of the novel much less the end. Her statement and Mr. Bishop’s column above are liberating. I don’t feel the pressure to know everything and am free to let my imagination go and do what I set out to do…write. Thank you for sending me Mr. Bishop’s writings. They are so helpful and encouraging. Sandi
Congratulations! Thank you so much for your kind words!