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This is from Diana Gabaldon's Facebook page. A creation of a paragraph, Claire on Fraser's Ridge, with her granddaughter Mandy. It also includes bits of Jamie sitting next to her with Jem in front of a fire, his plaid wrapped around he and his grandson.
Diana "writing about her way of writing".
Want to watch me write?
A nice blogger named Thomas Snow (a poet himself by trade) asked me if I’d do an interview for his blog, which I did. One of the questions was a statement that while my writing is naturally prose, it’s occasionally poetic, and was I aware of the poetic element while I was working?
The resulting answer _may_ be a bit longer than he was expecting <cough>, but as I know we have a lot of writers here (and people who are interested in the mechanics, as it were), I thought I’d post the Whole Thing for those who are interested.
Thank you! But I’d like to see anybody write well _without_ being aware of what they’re doing. Still, I think what you’re asking is more in the realm of process than inspiration. Which is to say, everyone has their own working methods, and I know any number of writers whose method is to blap down a rough approximation of what they think they want to say, then go back (and back, and back) and “edit” as they put it, until they’ve got their prose shaped and snipped and whatever else needs to be done with it.
I don’t work that way. I start with something I can see or sense concretely—my “kernel”—and I write that down, in a line or two that expresses what I see or hear or whatever, as concisely as possible. Then I sit and stare at those lines, and I fiddle. I take words out and I put other words in, I move phrases, I add another line, I take half that line up to the beginning and add another half-sentence to connect it with what comes next, I see that I have the same word twice in this paragraph—is that what I want? And so forth and so on. I proceed in this tedious (and very slow) fashion, going to and fro and back and forth literally hundreds of times before a scene is finished. But when I’m done with it, it is finished: it’s as good as I can make it, at that point, and it’s what I consider fit for human consumption.
I mean—I don’t have rough drafts. I’ve got a kernel, I’ve got a scene-in-progress, I’ve got a complete scene. The “in progress” is where small things pop up in the way of language and image, as I try to express whatever it is as concisely, elegantly, and beautifully as I can.
And—as you plainly know—poetry is as much a matter of rhythm as of word-choice, and the words in a passage form a pattern with the others. So there may be phrases that look overtly “poetic”, but in fact, they wouldn’t work, if they didn’t work with or in contrast to the other words around them.
Here’s an example: it’s a really brief little introductory paragraph, and overtly simple.
“There was a stone under my right buttock, but I didn’t want to move. The tiny heartbeat under my fingers was soft and stubborn, the fleeting jolts life and the space between, infinity, my connection to the endless night sky and the rising flame.”
OK, this is a woman sitting outdoors by a fire, holding a small child, feeling the child’s heart beat. I started with the heartbeat; that’s what I could sense—what the woman was sensing; that soft (“soft” came to me instantly, and “stubborn” half a beat behind—there’s history to that “stubborn”—the child was born with a heart defect and nearly died, but didn’t (and we assume the audience knows this, as it was a big thing in the previous two books), stubborn beat. So that’s what I put down as my kernel: “The tiny heartbeat under my fingers was soft and stubborn.”
Well, plainly that’s not all there is to say about the situation, but do I want to give more information on Claire’s (the woman’s feelings), to enlarge on the little girl’s situation, or to pull back a bit and let the audience know what the physical setting is?
Now, _I_ know Claire’s sitting in front of a large fire, because I can see it (and I know who’s near her and a lot of other informational stuff, but that’s not relevant just yet…)…so, do I say something about her view of the fire—“The leaping flames before me”—no, very cliché, almost anything you could say about a fire _as_ a fire would be either clichéd or pedestrian (fire makes a good metaphor, backdrop, and source of light (see below*), but not that good as a subject, unless you’re burning down a house or in the middle of a forest fire.) So, back into Claire’s thoughts; what’s she thinking about/sensing _besides_ the heartbeat under her fingers?
Well, she’s sitting on the ground outside, and she doesn’t want to move because her fingers are on this tiny little pulse and she doesn’t want to lose that connection. But it _is_ ground, so what’s the odds she’s sitting on a small rock? (One always _is_ sitting on a rock when out in the wild…).
OK, “There was a stone under my right buttock,” and an instant later, “but I didn’t want to move.” All right, that works; it’s a very Claire-like observation, it gets the necessary information across in a sensory way—we can immediately empathize with the sense of muscular tension, the discomfort that isn’t pain, but annoying. And I don’t think I can state that any better; simplicity works here.
That being so, though…we’re firmly into Claire’s head because of the physical empathy thing, and the sentence _is_ simple…the reader is lured in…
So I can feel free to wax a little, coming back down to the heartbeat…it’s soft and stubborn—do I want to tell more about what the little girl looks or feels like in Claire’s arms? I can see her, feel her weight, but no, what I’m feeling is what Claire is feeling, and she isn’t thinking of the physical. She’s feeling emotional, exultant—she never expected to see this child again (her grand-daughter), and here she is, healed and healthy.
Do I say that? “Here she was, healed and healthy.” Well, nice alliteration, but no. That’s the _cause_ of Claire’s emotion, but it isn’t the emotion itself, and _that’s_ what I’m feeling, what I want to evoke.
So back to the heartbeat sentence, which I thought was too short—let’s launch off that. What does Claire feel—emotionally/spiritually—about the heartbeat? It’s life. It is, literally, life, but in this instance, it’s Claire’s life as well as the child’s. And since it’s her grand-daughter (and the fire is part of a gathering where other family is present), she’s feeling the sense of continuity, of everlastingness. So the…what’s the word for how a single heartbeat feels? (run through and discard a dozen or so possibilities, settle on “jolt” for the moment—but that’s not quite good enough, sounds too forceful for a small child’s heartbeat…”fleeting jolt”, that’ll work; it’s distinct, but gone almost before you feel it, fine.) So the fleeting jolts are life. (In Claire’s sense of things)
Pause, feeling around in Claire’s senses and emotions. She’s a doctor—she’d be aware of the lull between beats, as well as the pulse itself…and she has a vivid memory of the time when she listened to this child’s heart, fearing that every beat might be the last—those intervals of silence…and she looks up from the fire (seat of homely warmth, symbol of life) into the huge black mountain sky, thick with stars, God…infinity. OK, nice contrast, nice unspoken sense of Claire’s thankfulness to the Almighty for this life in her arms, without having to say anything explicit along those lines…
“The tiny heartbeat under my fingers was soft and stubborn, the fleeting jolts life and the space between infinity, my connection to the [something] night and the [fire].”
More fiddling with the night and the fire. You don’t want to overload those with adjectives, but you do want a little more than “night” and “fire.” Well, “infinity” naturally suggests “endless”—and that’s what we think when we look up into the sky, so “endless night sky” seems OK.
Now, we’re conscious all along of the evolving rhythm of the sentence (and the paragraph) because I keep reading them over and over while doing this mental fiddling, and I _know_ I need three syllables at the end, to deal with the fire. So I go back into Claire (as I’ve been doing throughout) and she’s looking into the fire, her eyes guided _up_ toward the sky—the flame is rising in front of her, and “the endless night sky and the rising flame” gives us a nice image of an altar and the flame of sacrifice (which certainly applies in this situation) rising toward the infinite glory of God—but again, without having to _say_ that. (Poetry is, after all, essentially the art of condensation.)
Run through the sentence again—the punctuation has been niggling at me—take a moment to try things with and without commas, semi-colon, whatever, and see quickly that it has to be “the fleeting jolts life and the space between, infinity,” for clarity—and I like the way “infinity” is set off there, separate from the rest of the sentence.
Now that sentence structure is not that complex, but it’s long. It has to be well-balanced (and interesting) to work. I have the simple first sentence to lead people into it, but the second sentence itself will have to hold them.
So, we’ve got:
"There was a stone under my right buttock, but I didn’t want to move. The tiny heartbeat under my fingers was soft and stubborn, the fleeting jolts life and the space between, infinity, my connection to the endless night sky and the rising flame.”
Ok, the second sentence has three parts, balancing around the word “infinity” (either two or three is always good in terms of structure; go more and you have to _really_ know what you’re doing)—and everything in it modifies “heartbeat”—though the final clause actually makes a connection between the physical heartbeat of the little girl and Claire’s connection to both her physical surroundings and her emotions. And yes, that is what I want. <g> We’re done. For now…
(You probably begin to see why it takes me so long to write a book.)
For the sake of general interest, these are the two paragraphs that follow that one:
“Move your arse a bit, Sassenach,” said a voice in my ear. “I need to scratch my nose and ye’re sitting on my hand.” Jamie twitched his fingers under me, and I moved by reflex, turning my head toward him as I shifted and resettled, keeping my hold on Mandy, bonelessly asleep in my arms.
He smiled at me over Jem’s tousled head, flexed his now-free hand, and scratched his nose. It must be well past midnight, but the fire was still high, and the light sparked off the stubble of his beard and glowed as softly in his eyes as in his grandson’s red hair and the shadowed folds of the worn plaid he’d wrapped about them both.”
I _could_ analyze those two, in terms of pulling Claire back to earth, breaking what might be too much overt poesy if it went on much longer, and bringing the other characters into the scene (and then illustrating what I meant about the uses of fire, in the third paragraph), but this is already too long, so I won’t—but feel free to admire the construction, alliteration and rhythm of the final sentence there. <g>
(You could, if you care to, also note how all three paragraphs keep a similar rhythmic structure (ala formal poetry, like a quatrain or villanelle): first sentence a two/three part simple (semi-humorous), down-to-earth statement of physical circumstance, followed by a longer, more complex and somewhat poetic sentence dealing with the emotional. This is (part of) how you move a story forward, while sucking the reader into it.)
*Footnote on firelight. Look at the last sentence. It’s got good internal alliteration: still/sparked/stubble/softly/grandson/shadowed, and that draws the eye through the text—but notice also the description of the light: high/sparked/glowed/shadowed. The thing about using fire as a light source is that it _moves_. You can use it like I did here, to evoke the outdoors and give depth to the picture we’re looking at, but you can also use the moving sense of a fire to focus on specific things that you want the reader to “get” unconsciously.