Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The making of a novelette (part 2)

with 2 comments

Note: As before, spoilers for my novelette “Kawataro” follow.

Audiences dislike formulas for a reason. There are few things more depressing than realizing you’re about to sit through a movie or TV episode that you’ve seen, in various forms, a thousand times before. (See: almost every recent episode of Glee.) But there are also times when, like it or not, formulas can be useful. Formulas are really just story structures that have proven effective over time. And a good formula, if not relied upon exclusively, can provide a narrative line on which the writer can hang more interesting things—character, atmosphere, information—while trusting that a classic story form will hopefully keep the reader engaged. For “Kawataro,” then, after deciding on the basic scientific story, I decided to structure the plot itself around one of my favorite science fiction conventions. In X-Files parlance, this was going to be a Monster of the Week.

It’s important to remember that the original premise of “Kawataro” could have been used as the basis for any number of stories. The primary elements were an isolated Japanese village, a community of deaf burakumin, and a genetic syndrome that would be revealed only at the end of the story. I could have assembled these pieces in all kinds of ways. “Kawataro” could have been a love story, with the heroine falling for one of her patients and trying to figure out why he was growing weak; it could have been a straight adventure, with a team of scientists searching for a remote village of the deaf; it even could have been a simple medical mystery, with the story dryly following the main character as she tested and rejected various hypotheses. (I’ve seen a lot of stories like this in Analog.) For whatever reason, though—perhaps because I’d been attracted by the narrative possibilities of myxedema madness—the idea that seized my attention was something closer to horror, verging on a ghost story, which meant that I almost certainly needed a creature to serve as a red herring.

So what would this creature look like? As opposed to the early stages of the process, where I could transfer the setting from Israel to Japan without batting an eye, by now, I was operating under severe constraints—which, as I’ve said before, is where creative breakthroughs usually occur. My creature had to be Japanese. It had to be a part of local folklore. It had to be capable of driving the plot forward, probably through a series of killings. And it had to be adequately explained by the science I’d cooked up so far. It seemed to me, then, that the ideal creature was a sort of Japanese vampire. And after I’d poked around online for a bit, it didn’t take long to come up with the figure of the kappa, or kawataro, which fit my purposes admirably: it worked for the setting, it was suitably mysterious, and best of all, its traditional description was startlingly similar to the symptoms of extreme hypothyroidism. (This is the sort of serendipity, familiar to all writers, that tells you that you’re on the right track.)

At this point, the major elements of the plot had fallen into place: a series of mysterious killings in a Japanese village, blamed on the figure of the kawataro, but later revealed to be something else entirely. (I called my creature a kawataro, instead of kappa, by the way, because I preferred the sound of it and because the literal meaning of kawataro—”river boy,” as opposed to kappa, “river child”—served as a clue to the reader.) I was pretty happy when I arrived at this narrative structure, because I knew that the device of periodic killings, while familiar, would serve to hold the reader’s attention and allow me to deliver a lot of atmosphere and suspense. I also knew that this was a story I could write, that would engage me, and that I could probably put together in publishable form in less than two weeks. (The knowledge that a story is squarely in one’s wheelhouse means a lot, especially when the really hard work is about to begin.)

The next step was to drill deeper. Although I only had a few days allocated to pure research, it was still enough time for me to quickly read a couple of books on Japanese villages, a very useful New Yorker article, and the wonderful book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, which I’d been meaning to read anyway. I rewatched The Cove, one of my favorite recent documentaries, taking notes on setting and atmosphere. Some articles on the burakumin gave me the idea of structuring the conflict in the early part of the story around the merger of two villages. Bit by bit, then, I was fleshing out a world that had taken shape in my imagination, and, just as importantly, I was getting an idea of the feel of the story, which I was sensing would be a homage to Japanese horror: The Cove meets The Grudge. Next week, I’ll be talking about how I turned all of these pieces into an actual story, and what happened when I sent it out for submission. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

2 Responses

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  1. I really, really appreciate your letting us peek behind the curtain and showing us how you construct a story. As someone who comes at stories and plot from mushy inchoate impulses to write about feelings or a situation, I have learned so much about formal aspects of storytelling from reading this series.

    I have been reading mysteries for years to soak up some of the things you’ve forthrightly described here, most especially how to find the nugget of the plot. That you found your way through scientific research and not by running through plots and character oddities is like a light going on in a room. I’ve been reading science articles for years and marveling at scientific processes (entropy, wave motion) and how they allude to so much about life but have never found a way to incorporate them into writing that was anything other than groan worthy. Now I have some ideas. Thanks again for a great post.

    kirstenmajor

    April 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  2. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that you can back into the heart of a story from all kinds of unexpected directions. A reader of “Kawataro” might assume that I began with the setting, or the main character, or the figure of the kawataro itself, when in fact I wound up with these elements almost at the end of the process. (Though ideally, of course, every element in a story should seem equally inevitable.)

    Really glad to hear that you’re enjoying these posts!

    nevalalee

    April 22, 2011 at 3:10 pm


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