Fiction Writing: Consumed by a Thought

A consuming thought in your head: that’s where writing a book begins. Writing a book involves a compulsion, a driving need to demonstrate what happens when a person or persons are seized with a need to act. Inside any story, the universe begins with conduct, after all. In this sense all novels begin with an expression of a mystery even to the writer. Who knows what is going to happen and how it will turn out? What is at stake? What will be the consequence?

If a thought or an idea consumes you, the writer, keep it a secret. Chatting on the bus and simply summarizing the consequence of some particular behavior doesn’t begin the process of storytelling because starting with the consequence is backward. Do not tell anyone what’s obsessing you; write the book.

Once you organize and articulate a thought out loud or in writing the book need not come into existence. That is why we have essays. The essayist’s job is to take out the mystery and the confusion of a story. Exploring an idea in an essay casts cause and effect in concrete. The backbone of a novel is a journey to the unknown; the essay aims at a destination. That’s why essays are not novel material.

Novels are not organized from the outside; they seem to write themselves. The characters tell the writer what to write because they are driven by the thought as well. Even historical novels leave the characters helpless to change what they and we know to be true. The key is what they will do with the predicament in which they find themselves.

Once a tale’s beginning, middle and end, is revealed, there’s no room in the room for magic. The smoke in the mirror vanishes, the light returns to normal, and the sound of the outside seeps back into the reader’s head like Circe’s siren calls to Odysseus. Once the real world wakes up the reader, the universe inside a book’s cover goes poof!

To whom do books matter? To people who like sharing thoughts with an unseen author. Reading a book is like saying hello or shaking hands when no one is sitting next to us. Readers get to know the writer because his or her expression draws us to the characters and we also grow to care about them as well.

Once engaged in reading, we are reluctant to put the book aside. When we get to the end many times we read the last chapter over and over hoping that the tale has another passage – another doorway – through which we can travel with the characters we have met.

We readers can be accused of daydreaming, noodling. Being a bookworm is to be adrift on a sea of pages, each turn a wave on which we float. If the writer has done his or her job, land will appear only at the last moment.

We readers also need to be consumed by the thought that drove the writer. Then, upon finishing a well dog-eared tale, we are a little saner, and more than likely to find that breathing becomes pleasurable in and of itself. And sometimes we are shyly smiling about as we remerge perhaps with a fresh point of view, a novel one.

Get it?

— Mike Cohen, 2017

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