The Man in the White Suit

Hey – are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Yeah, sorry – not me. Last year was enough. But a last week, before November had properly started, Tom Wolfe came to Google and gave a talk. Mostly about his new book (uh, no, I haven’t read it – sorry. You know how I am about reading novels), also about the process of writing itself. Strategy, style and that. He had some advice for new writers.
Anyhow, if you’re the kind of person who would so casually bring a new novel into a world like this, I owe you an apology for not getting this to you earlier.
1. Don’t focus on the narrative, construct the story as a series of scenes. That makes sense – our brains are wired to take incidents and thread them together into a story regardless. I’ve actually got something resembling a half-written essay brewing (growing mould?) in my collection on something like this. And, given my realization that I’m utterly incapable of writing anything compelling that doesn’t focus on a single impressionistic snapshot in time, I practically did a little fist pump in the air when he said this.
2. Details make the scene. Wolfe spent a lot of time on this, delighting in the fact that it was one of the few things that movies Could Not Do as well as books. In The Godfather, he said (no, I haven’t read it), Puzo spends pages on the details of Corleone’s clothes, conveying their significance to other characters in the story. Who knows – the story behind the type of leather in his shoes, how they’re polished – how that would be recognized by a supplicant as demonstrating the immense wealth and power of the man of whom they’re asking a favor. But in a film? The camera can linger on his shoes for a few seconds, and we say “Yeah – what? Did he step in something?”
3. Dialogue, dialogue. It’s easy to write good dialogue. Much easier than writing good narrative. We communicate with each other in dialogue, so it’s an easy way to keep the reader engaged while you drag the story along. I’m going to have to go back to my (now elegantly autographed) copy of The Right Stuff, but it almost sounded like he was saying you could do much worse than to write a book that consisted of nothing but dialogue and detail.
4. Write each scene from the point of view of one person, inside their head, even when you’re doing it in third person. When necessary, cheat by using the downstage voice. It’s tough finding a voice that works for an entire novel, so Wolfe says he mixes it up a bunch. But when you’re writing historical novels, such as The Right Stuff, you don’t have enough of the actual words that were exchanged to support the kind of dialogue you need. So rather than making up a bunch of he-said-she-said, Wolfe says he highjacks\h\h\h\h\h adopts the voice and intonation of a character on the sidelines. That way it feels like dialogue – someone’s other than the guy in the white suit is talking – but you can focus on what you need to have happen in the scene.
5. Holding it all together requires a “theory of life”. For Wolfe, it’s about status and class distinctions, the way human relations are driven by maintaining or changing their social status. For the ancient Greeks (and I’m going out on my own here – Wolfe said nothing about the Greeks), the gods were fickle and petty, dictating the greatest of man’s tragedies and triumphs by whim or neglect. That was a theory of life, and there are a thousand stories you can paint on that canvas. Wolfe’s is status. Find your own, he said, use it, and your stories will hold together.
Okay – that’s what I remember. I’m sure there’s more, and I’m sure that half of what I’ve written here is wrong. But it’s what I’ve remembered. And, as they say, that’s my story – and I’m sticking to it.

[Oh – by the way: you’ve probably that the layout of the blog has changed a bit. Blogger asked if I wanted to update my template – yeah, sure, what the hell. Embrace the change, and all that. It then said “Hey you can make MONEY by letting us put ads on your blog!”

Heh. Okay…. let’s see how that works.  Ads are over there —> on the right. I’d be curious if you find them annoying/amusing/distracting. I think I get something like one cent for every thousand people who see/click whatever the ads, so it’s not an actual revenue stream. No, don’t go clicking on the ads to try to make money for me – that’s not fair play. I probably won’t keep them, but hey, you should already know from my blog that I’ll try anything once….]

2 responses to “The Man in the White Suit

  1. I put flash on click-to-play a while ago for security reasons, and haven't switched it back since the chrome sandbox update (and probably won't–I'm not a fan). It's an amusing, and cheap, form of ad blocking :-}.


  2. These are well-stated tips on how to really start and organize novel-writing. But the most important throughout the process is to have an inspiration on a regular basis to make sure ideas keep flowing in as you try to overcome each step. Thanks for yet another swell post for today's writing venture.


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