Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for April 21st, 2011

The making of a novelette (part 1)

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Note: This post contains some unavoidable spoilers about my novelette “Kawataro.” You’ve been warned!

With all due respect to Faulkner, I think it’s occasionally useful for a writer to be able to sit down and will a story into existence, if not for the money—which is rarely a worthwhile motivation—then at least for the practice. There’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a story from conception to final draft in only a couple of weeks, whether the goal is to satisfy an untapped creative urge or simply to fill a hole in one’s schedule. In the case of “Kawataro,” I had a break of roughly a month in the writing of The Icon Thief, when I was waiting to get some comments from my agent, and I decided to fill the time by writing a couple of short stories. One story, “Ernesto,” has yet to be published, although I hope you’ll have a chance to read it at some point. The other was “Kawataro,” the development of which provides a—hopefully—interesting illustration of how I work.

“Kawataro” began, as many of my stories do, with a trip to the library. Whenever I need an idea for a story, I head for the periodicals section of the Sulzer Regional branch and pick up a large stack of magazines, preferably Discover or Scientific American. (I used to have a big collection of back issues at home, purchased off eBay for the specific purpose of generating story ideas. These were left behind after my move to Chicago, but not before generating ideas for “The Last Resort,” “Warning Sign,” and “The Boneless One.”) My usual method is to browse until I see one or two articles that get my attention, and then to daydream about possible connections or plot ideas. For “Kawataro,” the inciting article was Margalit Fox’s story in Discover about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins of Israel, who, because their population contains a high percentage of genetically deaf individuals, have developed their own unique sign language. (Fox’s book Talking Hands tells more about this fascinating community.)

So how did an article about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins become a novelette about a remote Japanese fishing village? As usual, it was a combination of chance, inclination, and the inexplicable workings of the writing process. After reading the article, I had a vague idea for a story about a scientist trying to solve a mystery involving a community of the deaf, which could only be explained when it became clear that her patients were suffering from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. (This may seem like an oddly specific story structure, but it’s actually a variation on the plot of my first Analog story, “Inversus.”) Looking into conditions resulting in deafness, I found that Pendred syndrome had the characteristics I needed: it caused deafness and hypothyroidism, which I thought might be useful for a medical mystery, though I didn’t yet know what the mystery was. Then I stumbled across this article, which contained the following fateful statement:

Goitre is the most variable syndrome in Pendred syndrome and is caused by impaired thyroxin production because of an organization defect. Goitre prevalence is dependent of the daily iodine intake and is, for example, seldom seen in Japan, where the daily iodine intake is high.

This may not seem like much, but when I read it, my receptivity to potential material was particularly strong. At once, I saw the outlines of my story: a Japanese village, a community of the deaf, and a syndrome that had gone undiagnosed because of the local diet. (I even suspected that a burakumin community might provide a suitably endogamous population for such a syndrome to take hold.) Now I had the scientific backbone of the story, and if I were just trying to write a short vignette, it might have been enough. But I was planning to write a novelette, which requires a real plot, and hopefully some action and suspense along the way. What next? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I hit on a structure for the plot itself, and how the mysterious figure of the kappa, or kawataro, first entered the picture. (For the remaining installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Quote of the Day

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But I would say to never force yourself to write anything. Once you do that you begin to think, “Well, I might as well force myself to write something and make a little money out of it.” And then you are sunk—you are gone, you have stopped being a writer. You must be an amateur writer always.

William Faulkner, in Faulkner at West Point

Written by nevalalee

April 21, 2011 at 7:33 am

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