Say you’re writing a story about an airplane pilot who is thinking of leaving everything behind and becoming a monk. To bring this guy to life, you have to know something about flying a plane. So what do you do? Take lessons at the local airfield? That would be ideal, but most of us can’t go that far for a whole variety of reasons. We are fortunate to live in an age when knowledge is everywhere and easily accessed.
This is a clip of Denzel Washington telling Graham Norton that he learned a skill he needed for a role by going to YouTube and practicing what he saw. You can find just about anything online, so there’s really no reason you couldn’t write about a construction worker, a butler on an English estate circa 1920, a woman who gives birth to twins, an unsuccessful contestant on America’s Got Talent, a pig farmer who decides she has to be a vegan, or pretty much anything else.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a tortured soul. I came across this quote of his today:
Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.
This is from Love of the Last Tycoon, a novel with a story of its own. It was left unfinished at the time of Fitzgerald’s death. Edmund Wilson took the manuscript and assembled it into something that could be published under the title The Last Tycoon. Later literary critic Matthew J. Bruccoli, a Fitzgerald specialist, took various drafts, Fitzgerald’s notes, and his own work on the author and the novel, and published a critical edition which was reviewed in the Hollywood Reporter by David Freeman in 1994.
So now I’m thinking I might learn more about Fitzgerald from this critical edition of an unfinished novel than I would from a biography. When I get around to reading it I’ll let you know.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has been around for a good while. I’ve known a lot of people who participate and like the process. That is, you sign up to participate and try to write a whole novel in a month.
First, anything that actually motivates you to write is a fine idea, but I hope people go into this knowing that the exercise is its own reward. You will not produce a publishable novel in a monthMore important: I hope that people keep writing once the month is over. Or really, the effort may not be worth the return.
Finally, I worry that for writers who have little understanding of the mechanics of fiction writing this process might do more harm than good. The very idea of rushing through makes me nervous. So it’s not for me, but it may be for you.
Illustration: Livingstone’s 1871 field diary