Mozart, Beethoven and the Golden Mean
One of the questions you need to solve as a writer is: are you a Mozart or a Beethoven? Do you just start writing as inspiration hits you (and hopefully, if you’re anything like Mozart, you end up with a brilliant piece in just one go) or are you like Beethoven, working with trial and error? In general for writers the question has come to mean: do you just start and see where things take you or do you first work out structure and start filling in the details later? I’ve tried both. Neither quite worked for me.
From Mozart to Beethoven and back again
As a poet I started out a natural Mozart (except from the part where you end up with works of pure genius). I jotted down a poem and never edited a single word. That changed over the years as I gradually turned more Beethoven. On my computer there still are quite a few ‘dead ends’: lines that never made it into a poem. But somehow the Mozartian poems, the poems that get written in one go without any pain, seem to be the best ones. Maybe that’s why, when starting on prose, I took the Mozart-approach without any second thought - and it didn’t work at all.
With prose you need to know where you are going - you at least need to know where you want to end up. With poetry it’s often the other way around - it takes you places you never thought of going. Maybe it’s because a poem has an innate structure or at least the suggestion of it that makes things fall into place. In fiction this line by line see-where-we’ll-end-up approach doesn’t work. Well, not for me, because I have heard of others who use with success. But if I take the Mozart approach to writing fiction, I end up with lots of Beethovian dead ends and half-finished going-nowhere stories.
To outline or not to outline
So, after a workshop on writing, I started outlining. I thought up plot and storyline before I started writing. I worked out characters, setting and a timeline and that worked. I finally managed to finish stories. I did find that there’s a something like too much outlining. Not only does (too much) outlining keep you from actual writing (like a lot of writers I’ll take any distraction NOT to write and outlining is a great excuse not to write) but you also may end up with a lot of detail you want to put in your story, not because it works or is so great, but because you’re partial to the clutter you’ve thought up. I especially have that with outlined setting, where I suddenly just have to mention that the couch is red because that’s what I thought of in my outline - but who cares? If it doesn’t add to the story, it has to go. After a few stories I find that some things need to be outline beforehand, either on paper or in my head and some stuff is best when made up along the road.
The golden mean
For my novel I chose the golden mean. I started with some general back work on symbolism. Now I take it one chapter at a time. I do some outlining or mind mapping on the stuff that needs to go in the chapter (story lines and symbolism) and then I start writing. I allow clutter at first (any thing that keeps me writing) and then review the chapter critically. If a scene doesn’t fit with the theme of the chapter, it has to go. In between chapters I do some more mind mapping on the whole of the novel and then it’s onto the next chapter.
I can’t tell yet if this approach is the one that will work for me, but so far so good. The best part is being able to alternate between ways of working on my novel: if the writing slows down, I can do some outlining and if the outlining gets too detailed or complicated, I need to get to writing again.
I’m not sure if there’s a composer who’s famous for this approach. If you know… let me know :)
The setting, part 2
My first chapter (which I hope to start with today) will have two settings. This will be the second one, Les Alyscamps in Arles, France.
Elysian Fields (Les Alyscamps) by Vincent van Gogh
In Roman times Les Alyscamps used to be situated outside of Arles and functioned as a necropolis. Legend has it that St. Trophimus, being in doubt whether or not Christians could be buried on pagan grounds, saw Jesus himself blessing the cemetery - and even leaving a knee print in rock for good measure - which settled the matter. Burial on a site that had been blessed by Christ himself of course became pretty popular. In no time, bodies where floated down the Rhone from nearly everywhere, carrying a coin in the mouth for payment. Another legend maintains that the bodies of Charlemagne’s Twelve Peers (Roland and his homies) were brought back to be buried at Les Alyscamps after the Battle of Roncevaux. Quite a place for a shady character to start dwelling….
Ireland, Ireland, Ireland… or Scythia?
Finally nothing held me back. I wasn’t sick, I had found the pass to renew my library card, I wasn’t expecting any furniture being delivered - so finally, finally I could go to the University Library, my old hangout.
Ah, the memories (all the seats for studying being taken, looking for books and not finding them and then finding them but not needing them).
Now all I have to do for today is decide where to start reading for my novel research.
Source material: The White Goddess
Picture that’s been used on the cover of the White Goddess: 3 goddesses giving an apple. Note the birds, the snake and the labyrinths.
Nevertheless, the book makes for good source material. Not only does it give a crash course in mythic symbols, it also steered me towards the main juxtaposition I’d like to use in my novel (the triangle of beloved woman, lover-hero and ‘weird’, the twin or opponent). Also, the idea of the hero and his twelve companions. At this point, the number twelve may play an important part in the novel and I’m looking for any connections with twelve, especially mythological. So, in a sense, I have to take this book not as a scientific essay but rather read it in a poetic way, having it show me connections that otherwise may have stayed hidden.
The setting, part 1
The whole thing started with this, I guess. This street. I read about it, not in the usual place (I would read that book only after having started off on a first, not much liked version of the first chapters of what I hope will one day be a novel) but in a book by Coetzee, a book about someone writing a book about someone in a book and that someone in a book, let’s call her Molly or Mrs. Bloom, lives in this street. It’s quite a nice street too, not nearly as shabby as I expected it to be. Well done, Bloom!