A work in progress

A work in progress

A new year, and a work in progress—a novel set in 1959 Berlin.

I’m far enough along in the writing process to be able to see the shape of the finished work; so I’m past the point of writerly no return. Sometimes it’s better to walk away from a partial manuscript, when the imagined story somehow isn’t translating to the page. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those times, but I do have some works in progress that are no longer in progress—abandoned when I realized that they were falling short of the storytelling mark.


There is no one way to write fiction. I’m a block writer who works from a very loose outline. After composing blocks of dialogue and scenes, I stitch them together and then begin revising and rewriting. In contrast, sequential writers start at the beginning of a book and work their way methodically to its conclusion.

I’m not wired to write sequentially. Block writing allows me to skip around and make some progress every time I sit down to write. Since the length of the finished novel will be somewhere between 85,000 to 100,000 words, every word composed today means one less that I need to write tomorrow.

After the first draft is complete, I turn to revising. It’s the final write-throughs of a novel that I find to be the hardest part of the process. Nagging questions require answers: Does the narrative flow? Are the characters fully developed? Is the writing—the prose—clear? Is it specific enough? Is the story one I would find worth reading? And then I try not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good—it is possible to spend years rewriting the same book and in all that time no story is being told.

I take inspiration from those time-lapse videos of artists completing their paintings. First, the painter sketches a pencil or charcoal outline on an empty canvas, followed by the application of layer after layer of paint. Watching as a talented artist returns to the same spot on the canvas and alters previous brushstrokes (and in some cases scrapes off some of the existing paint) is a reassuring validation of the revision process I employ.

With any work in progress, I find it useful to focus my energies on step-by-step, day-by-day progress. If I do the work, meet deadlines, and rely on craft (not talent), the story will emerge, a story I trust will be worth telling.

Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

The mind of the maker

The mind of the maker

Ernest Hemingway once hit out at critics who had analyzed his Nobel-prize winning The Old Man and the Sea:

“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

So was Papa right? After all, it can be argued, he wrote the novella. He is the maker, shouldn’t he know what he has put into his own writing? If he wanted the book to be loaded with symbols, he would have, correct? Who better to tell us what the text means?

And yet the insights of Freud and Lacan and others about how stuff in the unconscious can be manifested in unintended ways gives us pause. Some Freudian literary critics have tried viewing the text as the dream (the expression of the unconscious) and comparing it to the author’s biography (looking for links between the two).

When considering how what is in the mind of a writer is translated into the work, there are several layers. There is the personal experiences of the maker, everything that has happened and has been recorded by the mind, that may surface in different ways. Then there are the social and cultural images and ideas that have been implanted.

All of this ends up being transferred from the author to the page–whether or not the author is completely aware of what is happening.

The English author and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers has a marvelous little book, The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares the process of artistic creation with that of God’s relationship to man (through the Trinity). What is in God’s mind (the Word) is made real (in the Son) and is connected to man by the Holy Spirit. What is in the author’s mind (the Word) becomes real (the book or film) and is connected to the reader’s mind by the act of reading or watching.

So despite Hemingway’s protestations, it is very possible that there are deeper meanings in The Old Man and the Sea, some he intended (and is being disingenuous in denying) and others he did not intend.

And once released from the mind of the maker, and connected to the reader, the doctrine of free will suggests that the book takes on a life of its own.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders