There are many different ways of approaching writing, many different analogies for the process, but three models cover what most writers do. They are not exclusive and most books embody the different methods to different degrees at different stages, but they are recognisably discrete.
For the Architect-Writer, a book is a building. First, you lay the foundations, setting up the premise for a story, then you assemble a superstructure of plot to hold the edifice together, after that you fill in the various rooms that are to house divers threads of the narrative, then you install the additional staircases, corridors, and doorways linking the different bits together. Once all that is done, you call in the interior decorators and prettify the place with the beautiful details and brilliant flourishes that aim to beguile the eye and distract the odd –inexplicably– torpid visitor. Oh, nearly forgot, you also stick a roof on top, one you hope is going to prove reasonably waterproof if the critics start pissing all over you.
Most writers of populist bestsellers follow this model, especially those working in the main thriller traditions, but it has its adherents in literary fiction, too. Thomas Hardy is an obvious candidate for the Architect-Writer, not only because of the way he structures his books, but because he actually started his professional life as an architect.
Mind you, wouldn’t want to push that logic, too far.
True, Primo Levi’s life and work are imbued with his chemistry training, but the pharmacist Norman Lewis certainly didn’t dish out bromides and other soporifics in his prose, reading the work of dentist Alaa al-Aswany (see below) bears no relationship to drawing teeth, and though Anthony Trollope was prone to incorporating epistolary elements into his fiction, his career in the post-office didn’t inspire him to deliver late and let messages go astray. Even that other luminary of the postal service, Charles Bukowski, despite being infamously erratic in every other aspect of his life, was no slouch when it came to productivity. Think of Trollope and his contemporaries, though, and you soon realize that the nineteenth century was the great age of the architect-writer.
Flaubert was nothing if not a builder of houses, itemising the myriad details of his constructs to create a fictional world that was more real than the so-called real world. Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy were architects, too, albeit in a somewhat haphazard manner in Dickens’ case – “Right, lads, we’ll dump these bricks down here in the driveway in an entertaining fashion and work out what to do with them next week.” And the tradition has been maintained into present times by writers as disparate as Galsworthy, Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, and Updike.
Others have taken the conceit literally, piecing together books from the events that take place in or around a single building, as in Lao She’s Four Generations Under One Roof, Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin, and –most striking of all– Georges Perec’s Life: A User's Manual, which literally tours the flats in a Paris apartment block, describing the lives of its residents.
The Archaeologist doesn’t trouble himself with anything so vulgar as the construction industry, but for obvious reasons, isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. Digging down into the dirt and the muck and the middens of things hidden, your archaeologist unearths whatever artefacts he can find, beautiful or otherwise, then presents them for the delectation of the public at large, hopefully, but not necessarily, arranging them in a pleasing and edifying manner.
Misery memoirs are an obvious form of archaeology, some police procedurals, too, particularly those more concerned with the darker recesses of the human psyche than simple page-turning, but the main tradition runs in a direct line from Melville, through Lawrence and Thomas Wolfe to Jack Kerouac and, possibly, Philip Roth – ‘possibly’ because Roth sometimes gives every impression he’s delving into deep dark places then steps back from the abyss and tells you it was only a game.
As that list indicates, Archaeologist Writers share virtually nothing in common apart from a trowel, but that’s understandable since, when you start digging, you may well choose the site and have an educated guess as to what you’re going to find, but you really don’t know what’s going to turn up. Could be gold, could be a cesspit, might be both. As for people who have actually combined careers in archaeology and novel writing, the only one I’ve heard of is Fred Vargas, but since I haven’t read her, I can’t say whether her first job informs her approach to the second.
Of a similar temperament to the Archaeologists, but a bit more squeamish are the Anatomists, who like to take a body and dissect it to see how it works, all the while making sure they themselves keep their rubber gloves and white apron on, and don’t touch anything except with scalpel and forceps. Think Ford Madox Ford, Tom Wolfe, Jim Crace, Graham Swift, probably Proust (‘probably’ because I haven’t actually read Proust, either, so I’m talking even further off the top of my head than usual, but most of the snippets I’ve picked up secondhand suggest a sort of Über-Neurosurgeon of the Soul), and virtually every Frenchman who has written a novel in the last forty years. As for that famous lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, netting things, sticking a pin through their heads, and classifying them in a drawer . . . well, my dear, say no more.
Another, apparently more superficial but not necessarily lightweight version of archaeology is Beachcombing, sticking to the surface, wafting along, picking up the pretty things we chance upon en route, treating the world as you would an exotic setting traversed in the course of a travelogue. Most writers of picaresques and kindred epics indulge in an element of beachcombing, from Cervantes and Sterne to Henry Miller and García Márquez. For all the darkness and despair of his life, Richard Brautigan also fits nicely into the beachcombing tradition, as does that other great counterculture chronicler, Tom Robbins, a beguiling mongrel bred of the gadfly and the magpie, who contrives to pick up a bewildering pot-pourri of pretty things and make them seem profound at the same time.
Sculptor-Writers are pitched midway between the Architect and the Archaeologist. They have a vision of the sort of shape they want at the end, but first they have to find their rock. The rock maybe a real life story to be reshaped into something new and striking (Melville again, but then Melville was such a protean figure that he defies these tawdry little classifications), it maybe a nugget of personal experience that has lodged somewhere in your gut and has been causing dyspepsia for years so that you just have to get the thing out (I know little or nothing of their respective lives, but I wouldn’t mind betting Conrad was a sculptor of this stripe, also Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry; and I recently saw a quote from Colm Toíbín claiming he writes because “I have things that will not go away”), or something as simple as a compelling image that’s stuck in your head and declines to stand aside gracefully, demanding instead that it be worked up into a story (a process described by John Fowles in his preface to A Maggot).
I’m treating this model last for three reasons. First, because it borrows from the previous two models. Second, it is the model I adhere to most closely. Third, this entire blog is a brazen bit of PR and the notion of ‘first find your rock’ will feed nicely into a promotional hyperlink.
Writing has always been a pleasure for me and I have no time for the sort of writer who lounges about bemoaning the tyranny of the blank page and the travails of the suffering artist. For God’s sake, you’re not hacking coal from a crumbling seam buried deep in the bowels of the earth with little more than a few dodgy pit-props and a frail looking canary to stave off disaster. You don’t have to spend the best part of the night out on a windswept moor with half your arm stuck up a sheep’s backside. You’re not shovelling shit . . . at least, hopefully you’re not. You’re not hiding in a foxhole on some barren hillside in a foreign land where all the locals want to kill you and your only option is to kill them first because some political popinjay thousands of miles away has decided it would be nice to have a little war. You’re sat in a room, most likely a warm room, telling yourself stories. You’re a lucky bastard!
Ooh. That was good. Excuse me, but if there’s no room for an intemperate little rant in a blog, where else can one turn? I mean to say. In this day and age. One has one’s standards.
Right, I’ve calmed down a bit now.
My intolerance of preciosity notwithstanding, I must admit that I’m not a great fan of the first draft. I don’t exactly suffer, but I do sit down to work with a degree of trepidation, wondering where the next bit is going to come from, if it’s going to be any good, and how it is going to be tacked onto the last bit. I remember one particular story, my stab at a baggy, Moby Dick style, philosophical novel, all 1300 pages of it before I began cutting the thing down to size, during which I would settle at my desk every day and physically feel as if I was plunging my arm down my throat to drag something out from deep inside me. That might be why it was never published. Stuff dragged out of your throat from deep inside you tends to be fairly messy.
Anyway, it’s a draining process, cobbling together the hardcore that fills the pages of the first draft. As a consequence, I often race through the initial telling of a story, slapping down more or less, though not quite, any old rubbish so that I’ve got something to work with i.e. my rock. Plastic artists have it easy. They can order their rock from the quarry, get somebody else to do the dirty work with the JCB, thus skipping the dirty business of dousing themselves in dust and cultivating the prospect of spending their declining years battling a bad case of silicosis. Unfortunately, writers have to excavate our own bits of stone. Only then can we begin what is, for me, the really enjoyable bit, shaping the raw material, whittling away the unsightly corners, chipping out large chunks of superfluous spoil, no matter how adamantine it may seem, trying to find the shape latent within my bit of rock. Truth be told, I’m not really a writer at all. I’m a rewriter.
How pleasant it is then . . .
This is the plug, by the way. Turn away now if you’re not interested.
How pleasant it is then when the rock is given. I’m talking walking guides here. No sweat, no intellectual or emotional sweat at least, just a straightforward description of the world without and the way across its various surfaces. Better still when the rock is a real and rather lovely rock like the island of Mallorca.
Why should you care about all this?
Well, I thought it might be nice if you bought my new walking guide, that’s why!
To buy The GR221 Mallorca’s Dry Stone Way from the publisher – click here.
To buy The GR221 Mallorca’s Dry Stone Way from Amazon – click here.
To see a synopsis – click here
To read the first two pages of the introduction – click here.
To read an outtake – click here.
To see some photos of the route – click here.
Next week, another shameless plug: The Making Of . . . Better Than Whisky
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace