The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

One of the reasons that I was actually able to write Book One was that it was historical fiction, based on a few true events. While I invented almost everything in the end, these few true events gave me constraints. They severely limited the directions the story could go. I had a fixed starting and ending place, and I had some barriers directing traffic in the middle. Getting from A to B to C was still a challenge, but at least I knew what A, B, and C were.

And this blessing of constraints even creates an experience for the reader. Hilary Mantel, who has truly elevated the historical novel lately, reflects on the paradox of reading with suspense a historical novel in which the ending is known:

Our attention is transfixed, as we watch someone stride towards the edge of a cliff, when we can see the edge and the character can’t. The reader becomes a small, conflicted god, or a disbelieved prophet. He is in two places at once. He is at the foot of the cliff, wise after the event, and he is also on the path, he is before the event; he is the observer, and he is also the person who steps into air.

Only fiction can do this. It’s the novelist’s job: to put the reader in the moment, even if the moment is 500 years ago. There are techniques, but no tricks. You can only do it through honest negotiation with the facts and the power of the informed imagination.

Hilary Mantel, “Can These Bones Live?”,

Welcoming constraints in my writing turned out to be a tremendous cure to paralysis. I wrote the book, and then I wrote it again, and it still exists. And the process of writing and editing and rewriting and editing taught me how to write. This freed me up to write Book Two, which had no constraints at all, and which is probably not terribly good but that’s beside the point, because there’s a bunch of text out there, and I’ve now learned a lot more about what writing is like.

Book Three, like Book One, is based on true events. In this case, unlike Book One, the true events are somewhat well known and have their own Wikipedia pages. This actually raises the stakes on the constraints, because I could easily become paralyzed by the opposite problem from writer’s block: I could become frozen by trying to make every little detail accurate.

But constraints are still so welcome. It’s freeing, ironically, to have one’s options limited. A theme I’m beginning to welcome in my non-writing life as well, but that’s a different matter for a different day.

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