This week I’ve been asking myself this question: Where is the story. Firstly, because my publisher asked me to write a cover blurb for my novel. Secondly, because I’ve been revising a short story and have been overwhelmed by the possibilities.
In both cases the problem was the same: too many choices.
Writing a blurb for a 100,000 word novel is an obvious challenge. You want to be faithful to the narrative and represent the story fairly to potential readers. You also want to make the tale as engaging as possible so people will want to read it. But when you have a few dozen characters and a fairly complex plot, distilling the essence into a paragraph or two is far from easy.
A short story represents a challenge of a different kind. Instead of being faithful to a narrative you’ve already created, you have to identify the truth at the heart of the tale.
For my novel, a Sherlock Holmes tale called A Biased Judgement, I could focus on the fact that I’m weaving real life events with the canon to throw new light on Conan Doyle’s work. Or I could elaborate on the network of assassins Holmes must defeat. Then there are things like his relationship with Watson and Mycroft, the backdrop of the Queen’s diamond jubilee; the fact that Holmes is now considered an Elder Statesman by newer members of the police force and, of course, there’s that great villain… Ultimately, however, I chose to touch only briefly on the plot and instead focus on the storyline that relates to the title:
“Sherlock Holmes thrives on danger. Sudden knife attacks, being stalked, and facing a network of assassins present little more than a cheery break in the monotony. But the enigmatic Lady Beatrice presents danger of a different kind. Is she a murderer or a potential victim? Or is she something even more perilous? Uncovering her secrets could change Holmes’s life forever, and in ways even he cannot anticipate.
The newly-discovered Holmes diaries shed new light on a tale so potent, Watson was never permitted to reveal it.”
Now don’t be misled into thinking these two paragraphs sprang into being without a ha’p’orth of effort. These 67 words are the result of multiple rewrites and several days’ work and may yet undergo more changes. Ultimately, art is about the choices we make. That means what we choose to leave out as much as what we elect to keep.
I’ll say it again: ART IS ABOUT THE CHOICES WE MAKE.
You’ll notice my two paragraphs give just enough information to entice the reader. I’ve stated right up front who my hero is. I’ve listed three of the problems that he faces in the novel: a knife attack, stalking, and the assassins. Also, there is, I hope, a little bit of wit in Holmes’s reaction to these threats, “a cheery break in the monotony,” because I’ve tried inject some wit into the novel itself.
Then I’ve introduced Lady Beatrice because she is one of the most important characters in the story. I’ve described her as ‘enigmatic’. Holmes certainly thinks so. Is she a femme fatale or an innocent victim? The reader will have to buy the book to find out.
The short story represents a similar if not identical problem. Here, I’m trying to identify where lies the heart of the tale so every single word rings true.
My inspiration for writing a short story comes from an image or a ‘what if’ scenario. In the case of the piece I’m currently revising, it was inspired by an interview with a great author I watched on television some months ago. There is no question this man is one of the giants of modern literature, and he has lived a pretty interesting life. But now he lives alone in a cabin miles from anyone and cherishes his privacy. I can relate to that because I like my solitude and privacy too. But it got me thinking: what sort of a man lives his life solely for his art alone? And is such commitment the preserve of men alone? You don’t hear of women doing such things. We have houses to keep and children to tend…
Then I wondered about the families of those great artists. Are they bewildered by their kinfolk’s genius? How did Theo Van Gogh deal with his brother Vincent, for instance?
My ponderings led to Crushed Lilac. The story is, in the most general terms, about two brothers, and I chose to name them Theo and Vincent. Unlike the Van Gogh brothers, in my story Theo is the passionate artist and Vincent the calm, rational one. The story is told from the point of view of Zoe, Vincent’s 16 year old daughter.
The build up is easy. The family gathers to watch a television interview with Theo, whom they have not seen for years. Vincent is horrified at his brother’s deterioration and takes Zoe to visit him. And that’s where it gets tricky.
Because I don’t write with a particular outcome in mind, I have to feel my way ahead, I often take wrong turns. A successful short story feels organic, inevitable. And I really want Crushed Lilac to say something about the burden art can be, not for the artist, but for the people who love him or her.
There are so many possibilities as I work towards the ending. I really want to finish it on an upbeat note because I really care about these characters. But that sort of ending would break faith with the heart of the story so I can’t do more than inject just a modicum of hope. Or is that still false?
These are the issues I’m still dealing with. It’s frustrating at times because there’s no one I can ask. No one who can say, “This bit here, this rings false…” As the writer, I’m the only one who can decide that. But that’s what I love. That’s what writing is for me. Seeking the truth and telling it as fearlessly as I can.
Art is about choices.