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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #3

The last twelve months have been busy. I’ve turned in two novels, The Long Sunset featuring Priscilla and a missing star; and Blame It On the Aliens, an Alex and Chase mystery, both to be released by Saga. Also, I’ve put together a story collection, A Voice in the Night, which will be published in August by Subterranean.

So now I’m looking at the next project. Most people who write fiction will probably admit that the most serious challenge they face when they go to work is not the actual day-to-day writing, but is rather pinning down the concept that will form the center of the narrative. Come up with that, and the rest is comparatively easy.

Back in the nineties, Ursula LeGuin and Michael Bishop came to town to join a conference at our local library and try to explain how the creative process works. They are both brilliant writers who perform at a different level from almost everybody else. When you’re operating on the edge of genius, as they were, it is of course not easy to explain how you manage it. Imagine Ernest Hemingway coming in and trying to show us how to put together something like A Farewell To Arms.

At this range, I can’t recall Ursula’s exact words, but she made it clear that a writer doesn’t simply come up with a plot idea, convert it into an outline and then write the narrative. Which is how most people conceive of the method. The reality is, she explained, that you have to live through the experience. So you can arrange to have the reader live through the experience. That is why you don’t create an outline. Or at least, if you do, that you do not take it seriously. As the writing proceeds, you will perceive other avenues, other possibilities, other courses of action, other ways to create conflict and emotion. You do not want to lock yourself into a preordained plan. By doing so, the narrative you create will lose much of its connection with an actual living experience.

My writing career at that point was barely off the launchpad, but that didn’t prevent me from having an exaggerated opinion of who I was. And the reality was that I was already writing mysteries, and I knew that before I could set up a mystery, I needed to know what the solution would be. So I raised an objection. I told Ursula that the system she described might work for her but it wouldn’t work for everyone.

I noticed a few people at the event providing me with tolerant smiles. And I suspect a couple might even have agreed with me. But eventually I discovered that I had been employing the same method myself, without realizing it. Everybody does, Mike told me. We had to be open to a wide range of possibilities. We discard most, but employ many of them, and take advantage of whatever possibilities the ongoing narrative provides.

Unfortunately, we lost Ursula last week. The Library of America has put together a volume of her work, recognizing her status as a compatriot of Edith Wharton, Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, and the others. Nice company to be in. In a sense, she’ll never really be gone.

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