The process of writing a book starts, for me, with a place in time that I find intriguing. I begin to do a little research -- if possible, with novels written at the time -- and then, if all goes well, I experience a kind of flash of complete understanding a few weeks later. Every character, every setting, every moment of tension, choice, betrayal, and resolution comes into perfect focus. But only for an instant. It’s as if I’ve been given this one chance to see how the book is meant to be, and the rest of the process -- the next year to year and a half -- is spent trying to recapture everything from that flash. Of course, I never manage to get it all, but that moment floats above and acts as a kind of guide. Luckily, there are some bits that remain clearer than others. The general arc of the book -- the scenes that I know I have to get to -- usually seems pretty well fixed, but what happens between the scenes is left for me to discover. And, I suppose, I prefer it that way. I’ve never been one for detailed outlines. I have the five or six scenes that stand out -- usually those when choices are made and, later on, when consequences play out -- but, aside from that, I like to see how the characters get from one place to another as they go.
It’s not as arbitrary as it might sound. Most pieces of fiction -- whether novels, films or plays -- are written in three acts. The best way I’ve heard to describe it runs as follows: In the first act, you take two sticks in either hand and place a rubber band around them; in the second act, you pull the sticks away from each other, making the rubber band as taut as possible -- another inch and it would snap; at the beginning of the third act, you stretch the rubber band just that bit further . . . and then let go. Seeing structure in that way guarantees that conflict (or tension, or however you like to describe it) remains the driving force in the story. How that conflict manifests itself -- through characters, plot twists, etc. -- makes for the discovery.
The lengths of the acts can vary greatly. I’ve been surprised to find myself at the end of act one twenty pages into a book, and at other times, 100 pages in. Act three can be half a chapter, or three. Of course, having a good editor to tell you that an act is too long, too short, not fleshed out enough, etc. is crucial.
What resonates most strongly from the flash, however, is a connection with one or two of the characters. In my first two books, that wasn’t much of a stretch since the main characters were, to a greater or lesser degree, versions of myself. This time around, it was something entirely different, not just because the main character was someone I had to get to know, but because one of the characters wasn’t a person, but the city of Berlin. That might seem odd, but I’ve come to discover that place is as much a living, breathing thing as are the people who inhabit it.
Once all of that is in place, I go back to research. For my last book, I put together nearly fifty pages of single-spaced typed notes on language, settings, characters, clothing, etc., 95% of which never made it into the book. I do that because I have to feel absolutely certain in the world I’m creating before I begin to write, otherwise how can I expect a reader to accept that world as something possible. And that is always of critical importance given the type of books I write. My fiction is of the “what-if” variety. I like to find moments in history where there are gaps, or unknowns, and then play with what might have been. This is different from taking something we know and saying, “actually it happened differently.” I’m not one for rewriting history, or for distorting things we know to be true in aid of fiction. I take what we know surrounding the moment, make sure I relate it in authentic terms, and then create my own story inside the gap. For instance, in my latest book, we know historically that Rosa Luxemburg returned to Berlin in November of 1918; we know that she, along with Karl Liebknecht, plunged Berlin into revolution; we know both were killed on January 15, 1919, thereby bringing the revolution to a halt; and we know Liebknecht’s body showed up the next day, while Rosa’s remained missing for four months until it was found floating in a canal in May 1919. My book begins on January 16, 1919, the day after her death, and imagines what might have happened during those months she was missing. And at the end, it remains absolutely consistent with the history beyond that moment. If I’m successful, the reader is never quite sure where reality leaves off and where fiction takes over, and that’s what makes, in my opinion, for a very fun read. As long as the reader trusts me in the first thirty pages or so -- that I know this world, and that he or she is now stepping into it -- what I then decide to create on my own will fit into that reality, and the reader will have no choice but to follow along.
As for the actual writing, I need to do it every day. I need to go in sequence -- I’ve never been any good at jumping ahead to a scene that I know I have to get to. In fact, I prefer to have that scene hovering above, prodding me along to get there. I write in silence and I often find myself reading my stuff back out loud. I know when I’ve gone off -- or when the language is wrong -- when I begin to hear myself humming as I read. That’s the telltale sign that I need to go back, hit delete (saving the deleted text, of course, in some far away file), and rethink what I’m doing. I can usually go for about five hours, and then my brain gives out. Editing is another matter. I can do that ad infinitum, but, in the end, that’s not terribly helpful. Over-editing is just as dangerous as not editing enough, and the longer you edit, the longer you stay away from pushing the characters along.
Most important during the writing is having a bit of inspiration nearby. For me, it’s always been Graham Greene. By my estimation, there is no one better at capturing an emotion, a moment, a place with such perfect ease or beauty of language. Greene is also remarkable at creating choices for his characters that, on the surface, seem almost insignificant, but that ultimately impact the world to shattering effect.
Along the way, I get comments from my editor, my agent, other writers and try not to get sidetracked for too long. Eventually, a first draft emerges, and I invariably go back and fiddle with the beginning, and then realize that the ending is completely wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever written an ending that was right the first time around. I take several more passes through while waiting for my editor’s comments (I usually bombard her with replacement pages during those weeks, which must be annoying), and when the manuscript comes back to me, I go through it several more times. They say of a poem that it’s never finished, simply abandoned, and I think that’s true of all writing. At some point, the red pen gets put away, and the editor, copy-editors, etc. step in. Hopefully by then, I’ve gotten the idea for my next book so that while the business of publishing takes over, I’m on to another intriguing place, with characters to meet, reality to play with -- and the process starts all over again.
Are there any fixed rules for writing fiction? I don’t know. All I know is what works for me because, in the end, writing is a purely idiosyncratic exercise.
Copyright © 2005 Jonathan Rabb
About the author:
Jonathan Rabb is the author of the new book Rosa: A Novel (Published by Crown; February 2005; $24.95US/$34.95CAN; 1-4000-4921-0) as well as The Overseer and The Book of Q. He lives in New York City.
For more information, please visit www.rosa.crownpublishing.com
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