Recently, I had the pleasure of stumbling onto Dan Simmon’s website. It includes the usual list of the author’s works, as well as a forum and a series of essays called Writing Well. The latter are so well-written and entertaining that I’ve linked to them for you here.
One of my favorite passages from Simmon’s essays includes the theory of developing a story (I think it’s a perfect description of what occurs when I write a novel):
Harlan Ellison once described to me his idea for the gestation period for a story – or any piece of writing: Harlan suggests that it’s like having this little motor, flashing-light thingee that you’ve created, but rather than putting it on show, you just pitch it into the swamp of the unconscious that every real writer depends upon. Down there under the algae scum in that swamp, the little idea-machine – useless by itself – begins to connect to other things already already lying in the dark. Writers are the ultimate scavengers. As Henry James (a friend of Harlan’s from the old days, I think) once said – “A writer is a man on whom nothing is lost.” Walking along the boggy shore, the writer finds new things to toss in – a human skeleton, a 1948 Buick V-8 engine, a worn Stetson, a 3-gallon vat of carbolic acid, part of the wooden case for a 1932 Philco floor console radio, some used junkie hypodermics, a chewed-red deer’s leg separated from the carcass, iPod earbuds – and all the time your original flashing, blinking thingee-idea is down there melding, joining, connecting, growing. Finally, often when you least expect it, this . . . THING . . . pulls itself up out of the swamp scum and comes lurching and dragging its parts and killing blades through the primordial ooze and onto dry land.
That’s when you can start writing about it.
Exactly! I’ve been speaking to a lot of reading groups across the country, and am invariably asked whether I know, at the beginning of the novel, how it’s going to end.
The answer is sometimes yes, in a general sense – but always, along the way, I gain new insights into the story and see many connections I would have missed if I hadn’t been living with the characters and story events for so many months. I won’t put any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that I did not see the ending of THE BORGIA BRIDE coming, nor did I see the major plot twist at the very end of I, MONA LISA. I am always delightfully surprised by such insights – which seem to come, interestingly enough, after nine months spent with the material.