I came across some great advice on writing, in of all places the September issue of Vogue. Tucked between the full-color ads is playwright David Hare's account of how he came to write the screenplay for Louis Malle's film Damage. After intruding on Hare's St. Tropez vacation after inducing him to read the novel by Josephine Hart, Malle asked him to recount the story of the book over breakfast -- an effort that ended up stretching into late afternoon. Malle would interrupt every few moments with questions -- clarify this, explain that slowing the progress so much that, on Day 1, Hare barely made it through the first six pages of the book.
Over the course of ten days, the process repeated itself. Hare told the story while Malle pushed and prodded. Each day, he insisted that Hare begin at the beginning. For the playwright, the whole thing was excruciating. But as he complied, something began to change:
"...after three or four days, even I had to admit that I was becoming like an Olympic athlete whose punishing hours of training were bringing unnoticed rewards. Much to my surprise, my muscles were starting to ripple. I could even get through whole sentences without interruption. It was as if Louis and I were laying down planks over marshy ground and together finding a path. Slowly we constructed a watertight narrative, which was secured by the oddest of means: endless repetition. The more often I told the story out loud, the more natural its logic and development seemed to become.
"At the end of the ten days, I was able, without notes, to recount the entire story of the book in approximately 20 minutes. My listener did nothing more than light and relight his pipe throughout. When, for the final time, I got to the dramatic end, our hero disgraced and in lifelong exile, Louis beamed with pleasure and said, 'Well, you might as well write it now. After all, you've done all the work. The script itself will be a formality.'"
This way of proceeding, Hare says, is what he came to know as the interrogative method. It reminds me of a formative experience I had in Dan Stern's novel writing workshop in the early 90s, just a few years after the event Hare recounts. Short story workshops abound, while novel workshops are rare. As a result, I enrolled with enthusiasm, imagining myself completing a novel during the course of the semester.
Class after class, I would bring in my ambitious chapters, only to have Stern shoot them down. He would ask me questions about the main character, the setting, the background, focusing on minor, even pointless details. Sometimes I answered with a shrug. Sometimes I gamely invented details whose inconsistency testified to their improvisation. "You don't know the story," Stern would conclude. "You should know these things."
If I'd had ten days one-on-one with Stern, I might have developed the Olympic muscles Hare alludes to. But I didn't. I experienced the frustration, but only learned the lesson much later. In a sense, I was writing too soon, before I knew what I was writing about. I was making things up as I went, and it showed.
When it comes to the novel, you write it twice: first at the story level, and then at the sentence level. How this is accomplished varies from writer to writer. The interrogative method sounds like an interesting thing to try.