Sunday, March 23, 2014

If You Want To Write A Novel, Build A Campfire

As I’m finishing up my next novel to be published this summer, I’m struck once again by how important the little details are. These are details of character, details of plot, details about details! Each by itself would seem to the casual reader to be of no particular importance. But bringing a novel idea from a potentially-promising-but-crude-and-stumbling first draft to - nine or fourteen drafts later - a story that actually works is dependent on countless little details. It’s relatively easy to write a book-length manuscript with the basic components that most novels contain. But it requires an enormous amount of time and thought for this writer to shape it into a story that has characters that readers will care about, worry about, identify with, and cheer for, and a plot that will make readers want to turn the page.

It was a dark and stormy night

Which brings us to campfires.
I’ve spent uncountable nights camping. Living outdoors and sleeping under the stars is nice, but perhaps the best part of camping is the campfire. Whether it’s the coffeepot heating up over the flames in the morning, lunch roasting on flame-heated rocks midday, or the roaring blaze at night, showering sparks into the air, the campfire is the soul of camping. Take away the fire - when forest fire danger is high - camping is still fun. But it loses its soul.
You’d think with all my camping that building a campfire in any conditions would be easy. And I have, in fact, built a roaring fire after a four-day downpour with nothing but scrounged, soggy wood from the forest, from which I’ve cut some dry heartwood tinder that I lit with a single match.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of failures. I’ve constructed many fires-to-be with my tinder and sticks and larger splits and big logs arranged just so only to strike the match and have the flames grow and spread and then, as I watch with great disappointment, it sputters, coughs, and goes out in great large puffs of moist, choking smoke.
Many times I’ve looked at my smouldering failure and thought, How did this fail when I had it so right? Then I discovered what I did wrong. It’s always about the details of my fuel, or the space between the pieces, or the air flow, or my orientation relative to the prevailing breeze, or my improvised tarp-shelter from the rain, or the moisture level in my wood, or the temperature and humidity… You get the idea.
You can get so close on a campfire and still have it not work.
But with enough attention and focus on the right details, the fire will ignite, burn with a comfortable confidence and draw you into its heat and warmth. If you really score, the people near the fire won’t be able to ignore its power. And even if they're tired and they want to crawl into their tent and sleeping bag for the night, they can’t because they are so engaged with the experience of the fire that they can’t quit it. So they sit up past their bedtime to stay in that combusting world.
Get the details just right, your novel will be just right.

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