To attempt to write a truly damn good novel is to try your damnedest to write a masterpiece.
Gerald Brace says in The Stuff of Fiction that creating a masterpiece is "a matter of basic courage" because "the predicament of modern man is the premise." It is the artist's business, Brace says, "to confront truth." That is the first step in creating a masterpiece.
Confronting truth is a very painful business. Most people spend years on a psychiatrist's couch before they begin. A novelist trying to create a masterpiece will have to begin on page one, chapter one.
People who become damn good novelists write with commitment and passion and tell the truth. They show human beings and human behavior for what they are. People who write damn good novels know who they are as writers and what they are trying to accomplish. They have a vision. They have a truth to tell and are on fire to tell it.
If a writer has no vision of his or her work, if all the writer wants is to publish and make money, the work will lack depth. It will be mere entertainment without the power to move the reader profoundly. There can be little lasting satisfaction to creating such hack work.
What kind of a vision could a fiction writer have?
Any fiction writer might have a vision of himself or herself as a moral philosopher or a social critic. Or a Utopian. Or a satirist. Or a prophet.
A mystery writer might, as an example, envision herself as an entertainer, a puzzle maker, but someone who cares about justice and truth and the necessity for uncovering the evil that lurks in people's souls. Or she might passionately want to take the form of the mystery and push the limits of the conventions.
A literary writer might have a passion for the poetic possibilities in fiction or for exploring life's absurdities or the ambiguities of love. Or showing us the destructive nature of poverty or war or drug abuse.
A science fiction writer might envision himself or herself as a herald of the future, a seer showing the reader the implications of current events on the lives of our descendants, perhaps holding up a mirror of the future that reflects our present follies.
Writers of historicals or sagas often have a passion for revealing the past and showing how the past affects the present.
A romance writer might want to show that love is a healing power in the world and that true commitment to another is the path to happiness.
To find your own vision you need to look deeply within yourself and find out what you believe is important in life. If you could change people's minds about something, what would it be? What do you hate? What makes your blood boil? What do you love? Where do you stand? What would you be willing to die for? What can you bring to a work that shows the world in a unique light? What would be your gift to your fellow human beings?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn hated the totalitarian government in power in the Soviet Union. He attacked that government with every word he wrote. His works have a depth that can come only from feeling passionately about his material. His work earned him the Nobel Prize in 1970.
Harriet Beecher Stowe suffered the loss of a child to cholera, which brought home to her the suffering of slaves who were forcibly separated from their children. She wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to make her readers feel the same. Harriet Beecher Stowe's book sold an astounding 300,000 copies and gave enormous impetus to the antislavery movement in the mid-nineteenth century.
Ernest Hemingway had a vision. He wanted to write clean, crisp, clear prose that would be, he said, like an iceberg, 90 percent beneath the surface. He became by far the most imitated writer of his time.
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, among others, sought to make literature out of the detective novel and transformed the genre.
Jean Auel had, as John Gardner says, "an almost demonic com-pulsiveness" about prehistoric people. She delved deeply into the subject and novelized her research. At the time, it was widely thought that no one would be interested in reading about primitive peoples. But she had a passion, and now her books have sold millions.
Joseph Wambaugh cares about cops and how their jobs grind them down. His passion and commitment come through every line.
Once you read one of his books, you'll never see cops the same way again.
Peter Benchley had always had a fascination with sharks. He read everything he could about them and wanted to create a powerfully suspenseful story that would not only grip the reader, but open people up to a subject he loved.
Stephen King has become the king of horror novels, but when he wrote Carrie, he was just starting out. He has shown us, in a most entertaining way, what happens when you mess with a tele-kinetic like Carrie. But more than that, his story is about the cruelty of unthinking teenagers and the psychological damage they can inflict on their peers, a subject he felt most strongly about.
Margaret Mitchell, the daughter of the president of the Georgia Historical Society, felt passionately that the nation needed to know of the antebellum South and how the American Civil War destroyed that way of life. Not only one of the great best sellers of all time, Gone with the Wind won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was passionately interested in the idea of spiritual regeneration through suffering, which is the core of Crime and Punishment.
Jane Austen worked, in her words, "on a little bit of ivory with a very fine brush." Her passion was poking fun at the middle-class, provincial society that surrounded her.
Franz Kafka is a towering figure in twentieth-century literature. He lived in Central Europe and saw his world turned upside down by such titanic events as the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Modernism was being born, and men such as Freud and Jung and Einstein were turning the old world on its ear. He saw life as chaotic and absurd and man as a confused, alienated, isolated creature, and he wanted his reader to see them this way, too. This was his passion, and his works are now considered classics.
Stephen Crane's works, such as The Red Badge of Courage, are also classics. Stephen Crane helped found the American realism tradition, which includes Dreiser, Norris, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and many others. Stephen Crane thought of The Red Badge of Courage as a study of psychological fear rather than of heroism in war, as the previous writers on the subject had done.
Words are guns. If you feel strongly about something, aim your guns and fire. That's what having a vision means. Writing with a vision means you are writing with "an almost demonic compul-siveness."
If instead you create derivative work in imitation of others, if you create exploitive and sensationalistic work, you will not find much satisfaction. Only work you're committed to, that is deeply meaningful to you and your readers, gives any lasting satisfaction. You can write such work only if you envision yourself as a writer and know what you have to say to the world that is uniquely yours.
Melba Beals, who took a few of my workshops at U.C. Berkeley Extension, felt passionately about telling her story. She was one of the black children who had integrated all-white Central High in Little Rock in 1957. She wrote Warriors Don't Cry, an account of her experiences of being spit on and insulted, threatened, bullied, and terrorized. The book received a large advance from Pocket Books. It's an important book of lasting value because it was written with great passion and great heart.
Arnaldo Hernandez, who was a close friend and briefly a student of mine, was originally from Cuba. As a teenager he'd fought against Batista, but after Castro took over, he felt the fight for freedom had been betrayed. He published three damn good thrillers about spies fighting against the spread of communism.
Grant Michaels took a couple of my workshops. He has a passion to show gay people as real people, with all the same quirks and foibles, searching to end their loneliness and find meaningful relationships, just like everyone else. He sold a wonderful, wacky, comic mystery series to St. Martin's Press that does just that. His hero, Stani, is a gay hairdresser.
Another member of one of my workshops, Paul Clayton, felt strongly that the indigenous people of America got a raw deal at the hands of the Spanish, and he wrote a damn good historical novel about it called Cacique. It sold to Berkley Books. His advance was not large, but the editors want to see a sequel, so he has a good start on making a career.
Phyllis Burke, whom I was lucky enough to have in a couple of my workshops, was always fascinated by the way the public sees the famous, particularly JFK and Marilyn Monroe. She wrote a damn good, even brilliant, satirical novel about it called Atomic Candy, which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press and was widely reviewed and praised.
Another student of mine, April Sinclair, grew up on Chicago's south side during the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She longed to tell that story, to make her readers understand what it was like, she says, "to be black and female before and after black was considered beautiful." She worked damn hard for several years, writing and rewriting and honing her story and her prose to a high level of art and social commentary. Hyperion bought Coffee Will Make You Black the third day it was offered.
When you sit down to create a novel, mediate on what you want to say. Ask yourself what you feel strongly about. Ask yourself: What am I about as a writer? What is my mission? Where am I going? What do I stand for? What do I want my readers to say about me? What am I trying to achieve? What are my themes? A novel may explore one theme, or two, or even more.
"A writer," Gerald Brace says in The Stuff of Fiction, "must have something to say." By which he means, a writer must have something important to say. What do you have that is important to say?
To have something important to say does not mean that you want to preach. As Percy Marks warns in The Craft of Writing (1932), by writing from moral indignation the author "may write a sermon instead of a novel, and we do not read novels for preachments."
It helps to write a statement of your purpose, to get down on paper what you're trying to achieve as a writer as your life's work, and what you're trying to achieve in the particular book you're writing. It's a good idea to take a look at your statement once in a while and think about it. What do you really want to accomplish?
A friend of mine writes popular fiction. He writes about people who have committed great sins and feel that redemption is not possible. He writes about how big institutions—the justice system, spy agencies, large corporations—grind people up. He hopes his readers will be horrified and see things in a new light.
Another writer friend is a Buddhist who believes strongly in the power of compassion as a force for good in the world. Her characters, through intense inner agonies, always come to some kind of enlightenment, an enlightenment she hopes the reader shares.
Another friend writes romances. She hopes that her readers may be inspired by her plucky characters to take risks with their lives, to try new things, to experiment. Her aim is not to write great literature, but to write great romances, ones that show the healing power of love and what true commitment means.
The notion that a story has a premise goes beyond its technical aspects, which were discussed in Chapters Four and Five. When you write a story you are saying, Here, reader, take a look. Given these characters and this situation, human nature is such that it will end up this way. This is your truth. This is what you must feel strongly about if you are going to write a damn good novel.
Writing is an act of sharing experience. It is a ritual of transformation. There is no such thing as "just an entertainment." What you're writing has an emotional and spiritual effect on readers, and if you do your job well, the effect will be profound.
When you're writing fiction, you have the possibility of doing good in the world, of making a difference, of changing people's lives. To do so, you must reach deep inside yourself and tap the root of your passions; that is where you'll find your power. Once you find it, you've opened the gateway to the possibility of writing a damn good novel, perhaps even a masterpiece, a novel that will profoundly affect readers well into the next century and even beyond.
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