That’s No Way to Write a Book

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to view my writing technique as “organic.” I think that came out of the numerous (innumerable) discussions I’ve read about the differences between being an outliner and being a pantser. Organic may not be exactly the right word, but since I’m neither an outliner nor a pantser, it’s the best one I’ve come up with so far. My stories do seem to grow, starting out lean and bare, putting on flesh in a way that’s no more predictable than what happens when you plant a garden.

Set Me Free, my book about the death penalty, has been struggling to sprout and grow for far too long now. Right since the beginning, I’ve wrestled with its shape and tone, with the only certainty, developing early on, being that it would not be formal in tone, neutral in its position, and buried in authoritative bibliographic sources. It was a relief to settle the question of what it would not be. The question of what it would be has remained a mystery I’m still trying to solve.

As I sit here, writing this post, I’m still working away at the mystery. An analogy that just came to mind is Greek drama, with myself as an interlocutor to the chorus of voices from death row cells. Another idea that has evolved since the beginning is that there should be less of me in the book, and more of them. In the last two days, that’s firmed up a bit, but the way of working it out has seemed more like trying to bring order out of chaos than growing a garden.

The idea was to pick a provocative quote, let it tell me what to say, and keep adding relevant quotes and my own insights until it formed a cohesive whole, maybe a short chapter or a subsection of a chapter. That’s more a process of accretion than organic growth, but at this point, maybe it doesn’t matter how I label it. It may be less chaotic, but it still seems awfully random, like sticking a pin in the dictionary or phone book. Just pick a quote and see where it takes me, and then pick another and do the same thing again? Is that any way to write a book? Of course, it isn’t. But the Greek chorus feels as if it could be the structuring force I’ve been looking for.  In a way, that’s what the classical Greek tragedies did, bring order out of the chaos of life, and give it meaning.

It could work.


18 thoughts on “That’s No Way to Write a Book

  1. Writing organically is a risky business and requires courage. It takes longer and there’s no insurance – sometmes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But unless a writer wants to write genre fiction, I suspect it’s often the only way to go to create something arresting and original. Good luck with it.

  2. I guess I do want to write something arresting and original, when I think about it. I’ve thought mostly in terms of reaching people’s emotions and hoping that will take them beyond the stereotypes and media demonization of men and women on death row. Yes, it certainly has to be arresting. And comparing it to the usual books on the subject, it will probably be original. Will all that help it get read? I hope so, but for once, I’ll be promoting, sending copies to activists who can spread the word. And producing a paperback as well as an ebook. Not looking forward to that at all, but maybe I can dig up the money for a good formatter I know of.

  3. My former writing partner, Sandy, was part of the effort to get rid of the death penalty in NJ, so I know a bit about it – I keep thinking fiction can get past some of the barriers that people put up, but the entertainment value has to be extraordinary, and the preaching can’t show.

    Delicate balance.

    1. I’m conflicted about fiction as a way to address important issues. You’re right, it’s a delicate balance, and too easy to produce something that winds up entertaining readers and letting them bypass the core theme as something real.

      1. I’ve seen The Confession mentioned here and there, and read the blurb. I’ve considered buying it, and I may yet. If you’re recommending it, then I can probably learn something from it. Thanks.

      2. And Harriet Beecher Stowe made a great case against slavery… And Nevil Shute wrote On The Beach…

        Fiction is the way we find out that monsters and odd people and different people are much more like us than they are different, but we hadn’t noticed.

        I aim to do that for disability, among other things – most of the previous literature has the disabled/ill person dying, or stepping out of the way (Hunchback of Notre Dame, anyone?).

        We have lots of fiction that just props up the established ideas (Tess of the D’Ubervilles?) and reinforces bad decisions (Madame Butterly). And ‘punishes’ deviance, especially in sexual matters ( La Dame aux Camélias ).

        Showing consequences IS one of the important ways we use fiction, but it isn’t the only one. And with so many avenues to get factual information about AIDS, for example, it took Tom Hanks and The Philadelphia Story to make an important point.

        I still emphasize that unless the fiction is impeccable, the point can easily get lost – because it is easy to dismiss the FICTION.

        So, the more important what you want to say, the better you have to hide it in compelling stories. People do NOT like being preached at. IMHO

        1. Oddly, I’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I imagine it would seem overly sentimental and dramatic now. Books like On the Beach (not the best-written novel I’ve ever come across) and Alas, Babylon were popular in their day, and maybe they both woke up a few people to the dangers of nuclear power, but their ultimate impact…? I suppose we have to accept that writers’ influence, even bestsellers, is going to be infinitesimal.

          It’s also a matter of timing — whether it’s in tune with current concerns. I read quite regular reports about the ongoing catastrophe of Fukushima, but as far as the public is concerned, it’s a non-topic. When I think about disability rights and the struggle for even the most basic accomodations, I realize that’s also a non-topic, for the most part. People are concerned primarily with what impacts on them personally. There will never be a resolution for any of the causes, only ameliorative steps forward that can be undercut at any time. Look at what’s happened to women’s rights to control their own bodies, for one example of a huge step backwards. The latest regressive, crack-brained idea is to deny children birth certificates and financial aid if the mother doesn’t name a father.

          1. Where do you live for this to be reality? Your About is MOST uninformative. Your choice, but I did look.

            In in central New Jersey, US. And I’m very disconnected – when the brain cells are on, I write and try to put a bit into getting fitter; when they’re off – 9/10 of the time, I stare at the wall or the computer.

            1. I’m pretty private, so I don’t generally write much personal stuff in my “Abouts.” But I recently relocated to southern Michigan from the Philadelphia area. If you’re referring to the birth certificate news, that comes out of Illinois, thanks to republican legislators who’ve introduced it. Maybe it won’t pass, but I wouldn’t count on it.

              When my brain cells are off, I either spend hours surfing the net or reading lots and lots of fiction. Staring at the wall is for bouts of depression — not as frequent as they used to be, thank goodness.

              1. We’re near Philly. And I have a lot of kin in Michigan, if you know any Butchers.

                I’m not depressed; I fight that every time it comes, trying to lie its way in to ruin what’s left of my life. Staring at the wall is what I do when I can’t think – and can’t find anything short and easy to read.

                I should do other things – read, play my guitar and sing, other stuff – but that’s why I’m non-functional, because I physically can’t.


                Glad your bouts of the big ‘D’ are less frequent. It’s a curse. I can’t take anything – so I have to use the ol’ CBT. Which works – not too severe – but takes time and piles of writing.

                1. Well, sometimes the wall makes a nice screen for the play of ideas. Can’t take anything either, so had to learn to deal with it. But for reading when down, I prefer long and immersive. Getting back to sewing, in a small way, and some crocheting, and indoor gardening. Staring at a screen all day is no way to live, even if when I’m in creative mode.

  4. Catana, please don’t buy THE CONFESSION because of me. A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carre, which makes its (hidden) point about the victims of government anti-terrorist activity is, I think, a better book – though Confession is skilfully constructed to be a page turner. What I read is entirely the product of whatever a neighbour of mine leaves in a basket on the doorstep, or friends happen to lend me. I’m obsessive, you see, so it’s better for me to just read randomly and not get bogged down into one line of reading. Of course, there are lots of things I won’t read, even though theyve landed on my doorstep. I can’t read chick lit or light romance, for example. .

  5. Goodness, you sound as if you’re in a panic. I did read the sample of The Confession, and it’s just okay as far as the writing goes. Not something I’d rush to buy. I haven’t tackled the used book sections of any of the thrift shops yet. I read The Firm many years ago, and don’t remember a thing about it. That’s the only Grisham novel I’ve tried. I do like Le Carre, though I haven’t read anything by him in quite some time. I’ll look up A Most Wanted Man.

    No chick lit or romance for me either. Though sometimes, I indulge in a non-traditional romance if the plot intrigues me. Seldom happens.

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