Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Writing v. Invention

Every writer of fiction faces a bifurcated challenge: there is obviously the writing, i.e., the construction of sentences and paragraphs, the choice of words, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc., but more importantly, and less talked about, is the challenge of invention, the imagining of a story that is worth reading. The writer must succeed on both levels in order to produce quality fiction.

I have a bookcase full of books on writing fiction, and they are all about the writing. They drone on and on about techniques for getting the imagined story on paper. But I don't think I own a single text that addresses the process of imagining the story in the first place.

How does one imagine a story? And what makes a story well imagined or poorly imagined?

I don't have an answer for this, but I often feel, when reading superior fiction, that the story has been, for lack of a better phrase, "deeply imagined." The writer seems to see and hear the scenes portrayed with such clarity that it becomes difficult to believe that they only existed in his mind. The deeply imagined story provides us with unfamiliar details, details not borrowed from a television show or common knowledge, details that lift the people and situations described from the generic to the specific, to a new and shimmering specific unlike any we have seen or read about before.

In great writing, this freshness appears at every level. At the level of descriptive detail, but also in the acts of the characters (and thus the plot or story line), in the dialogue, in the phrasing and word choices. It is, once again, the antithesis of the commonplace.

How does the writer achieve this state of fictional grace? Imagine everything obvious, everything easy, everything familiar, write it if necessary, and then throw it all away. Then the real work begins.