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By Kim Ekemar
(author of the August Book of the Month, The Lost Identity Casualties)
At school I was taught to begin with a skeleton synopsis, brief but precise, before dressing this with the main body of work. Speaking for myself, this approach has worked for me when creating a full novel manuscript. However, it’s important to underline that inspiration sometimes works in mysterious ways also without a synopsis. It’s interesting to study how some great authors in the past have used different approaches to get their words together.
I doubt that Alexandre Dumas (France, 1802-1870) could have followed my teacher’s instruction. Dumas started out as a successful playwright for the theatre before turning to writing novels. He invented the “roman-feuilleton”, i.e. the serial story, when his novels were published in daily papers chapter by chapter on a weekly, and often more frequent, basis. With the help of Auguste Maquet, who made the historical research for him, Dumas turned into one of history’s most prolific writers. Merely consider that, during the years 1844-1846, he simultaneously wrote The Three Musketeers; its follow-up Twenty Years After; The Count of Monte Cristo; and an additional four novels. That’s more than 5,000 printed pages of quality text in three years, handwritten by Dumas and produced by him thanks to a daily 13-hour work discipline and the absence of a writing block. The editing, however, never bothered Dumas; it was done by the daily paper when the chapter was typeset. Incredibly, since each chapter was published as soon as it was finished, this work method implicates that Dumas had to adhere to anything previously published – there was no way of going back and adjusting the story if the need arose.
Another productive writer was the Russian count, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whose masterpiece is the lengthy War and Peace that took him seven years to write. The count purposefully arranged his hours awake into four strict segments. Although he belonged to the nobility and was a rich man with many employees, he began the day with hard physical labor like wood-cutting or clearing snow. He dedicated the time from breakfast until dinner at 1:00 p.m. to writing and activities of the mind. From dinner until supper, he concentrated on artisan labor and dexterous workmanship. Then, after supper, it was family time and social activities.
The Swedish author Fritiof Nilsson the Pirate (1898-1972), developed his own particular style of writing. He wrote one 250-word page, meticulously editing that page until it became a polished gem before starting on the next one. In recognition that he wasn’t a fast writer, he composed his own tombstone epitaph that reads: “Here lies a man who all his life was late, until he on his last day improved his ways”.
Anthony Burgess (Great Britain, 1917-1993), best known for A Clockwork Orange, was a teacher when he in 1956 was told by his medic that a brain tumor only allowed him one more year to live. Since he desired to leave his wife with some income after his looming death, he used the remainder of the time he had been estimated to live with the goal of writing five novels. He had nearly met his target, finishing four and a half of these, when he was told that the information about his brain tumor had been incorrect – his death sentence had been a bureaucratic mistake. Nevertheless, Anthony Burgess didn’t believe in planning a novel using a synopsis. When interviewed, Burgess said he believed “over-planning is fatal to creativity, since the unconscious mind and the act of writing itself are indispensable guides”. He wouldn’t have got good grades with my middle school teacher, for sure, but I’m sure he would have merely shrugged his shoulders. Burgess had some interesting ideas how to present the text of his novels. One of these is Napoleon Symphony, in which the novel’s structure is shaped using Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.
Perhaps the most bizarre writing material ever used was the 120-foot scroll of tracing paper Jack Kerouac (USA, 1922-1969) assembled writing his epic On the Road, celebrating his travels with Neal Cassady in the late forties. It was written during a three-month burst of inspiration, typed single-spaced and without margins or paragraph breaks. Its uniqueness, together with the attraction of its content no doubt, caused the original manuscript to sell for 1.43 million dollars at auction not long ago.
After Johannes Gutenberg (Germany, 1398-1468) invented the mechanical moveable type printing, the coming centuries saw a need to distinguish letters and sentences to make the text easier to read. Hence the dot over “i” and “j”; the elongated letters (extenders) upwards or downwards; and the invention of punctuation. The sometimes confusing rules of the latter was a technique Claude Simon (France, 1913-2005) challenged for poetic purposes, and for this he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1985. However difficult it is to read the text, it should be seen as an experimental way to receive a certain poetic continuity.
Julio Cortázar (Argentina, 1914-1984) was another author interested in experiments. The preface to his book Hopscotch encourages the reader to read the chapters not in the way they are presented, but by jumping back and forth at leisure. A surreal way of getting a reading experience, no doubt, and to make it work, I have no doubt that Cortázar needed a very precise synopsis to write it.
Personally, I use the synopsis as a tool for longer works (i.e. novels). It’s great to have a backbone you can use to flesh out your test, but I find it more exciting to make up things while working. Other tools I use are newspaper cuttings or downloaded articles I’ve collected over the years that contain some interesting detail or point of view. I also jot down wordplays and plot ideas on pieces of paper. I regularly visit my archive to see if there’s something I can incorporate in whatever I’m writing to have parallel developments of events.
The challenge of writing with a set of conditions before the plot idea has been determined, is interesting. I asked a friend to give me two ingredients for a short story, and she came up with “a tongue-whipping mother-in law” and “a jealous wife”. I went to my archive and found two clippings, one about how people spend their time and the other about virtual reality. I stirred these four ingredients into the melting pot of my imagination and the result became Virtual Heaven. It’s a short story about the last six hours in Ole Olsen’s life. (The story can be found in my book Graveyard Grapevine.)
When it comes to short stories, I find it interesting to not just have a plot and a handful of characters. I set them in different times and places around the world, while looking for some novel approach to present the story. I have presented them through letters and diaries; a palindrome and discussions around a screenplay; a chessboard and bank transactions. I have even used a train as a metaphor for the accelerating life of a rock star (Signatures for Sale in At the Heart of the Ivory Maze). In this short story, the first paragraph uses the rhythm of a train leaving the station, stressing every third word while gathering speed. As the train picks up speed the sentences become longer until losing all commas and full stops.
A different approach – beginning with the paragraphs, then the sentences, then the words – is one I used to indicate the effect of a lethal injection as a murderer recalls the story that has led to his execution (Face Value in Graveyard Grapevine). As he recalls the events, the story becomes increasingly chopped up.
As opposed to visuals, I used expressions of noise and music in A Final Note in D-sharp minor in At the Heart of the Ivory Maze. I wanted this story about a saxophone player, who finds that his wife is cheating on him, to rattle the reader with sounds.
But, the biggest challenge – and beyond doubt, the most interesting I’ve taken on so far – was writing Homage to a Man of Letters. In it, twenty-six distinct persons write their tributes to a man who dedicated his life to words, with the relay baton being the last letter of the next person’s surname. Besides, in each essay, every author has hidden a contradictory two-word message that the reader is challenged to find.
To sum it up, there may be a million ingenious ways to get a message across, but in the end it’s the way the words are joined together that really tells the story.
view The Lost Identity Casualties on Amazon
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