Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Stumbling into a story: top down or bottom up?

with 2 comments

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville

Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.

At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.

The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.

My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. When I started my recently completed book, I was working a fulltime office job and was eager to write, not research, so I decided to undertake something close to my own experience. Posterity will tell if it was worth it. But I can say that spending seven years trampling over my own life for use in fiction was a poisonous enterprise. Yes, it did mean a blazing start, I had so much to say, but as the editing and rewriting process wore on having the material so close to me made the work worse. I would never, ever approach a book that way again.

    kirstenmajor

    June 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

  2. There are definitely emotional risks to writing a story that draws too closely on your own life—something I’ll probably address in a later post. There’s nothing wrong with putting something of yourself in a novel, but it’s usually better to smuggle it in.

    nevalalee

    June 28, 2011 at 10:31 am


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