Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

Renault’s The Persian Boy May 25, 2007

Filed under: books 2007 — itsy @ 10:17 am

I take it as a sign of an excellent book when, even if you know what happens, you can’t help reading anyway. So it has been with Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, a historical fiction novel about Bagoas, a Persian eunuch of celebrated who is given to Alexander as a gift becomes his lover. There it is–the entire plot. But as with all good books, it’s the telling that really counts, and this one just won’t let me go. It’s packed with pretty much every kind of tension you can imagine: political, physical, emotional, and yes,the steamy hot sexual kind, which she treats boldly and honestly but with unerring grace and subtlety.

I can’t help but compare this to Pressfield’s Alexandriad, The Virtues of War–both have been written in the first person. Not only is it delicious to see Alexander through Persian eyes, but the contrast between the two renditions could not be starker. Renault’s Alexander, 25 when the story begins, is shy about love, brash, inexperienced, at times uncouth, always striving for the ideal. So complex he is, and so flawed, I could easily imagine him as a friend of mine. Pressfield’s character is more of an archetype, a powerful, matured, single-minded warrior, no less fascinating, but less personable, somewhat intimidating to read. He is concerned with logistics, politics, crossing this and that plain; Renault’s is infinitely more nuanced, concerned not just with fulfilling his ambition, but also with his desire for love, his weakness for liquor, his desire to be noble and heroic in the Hellenic sense.

Oh, and I have to add, I absolutely love how Renault flows in and out of time, as one should, when telling a tale in the first person. Pressfield does it to, but in a more regimented, structured way. Renault slips in and out as easily as taking a sip of tea.

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chapter one May 21, 2007

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 1:43 pm

Today I opened up a new file and wrote at the top, “Chapter One.” And stared. And stared some more. And some more. Okay, time to blog.

A whole month has gone by? Really? I’d like to say I’ve been busy writing. Busy trying to write would be more accurate. I’m still coping with the fact that I have 1300 pages waiting for me to go through and rewrite. Much of it needs to be re-imagined entirely. I have not made much progress. In my panic I’ve turned to “how to write” book, a comforting way to procrastinate. I devoured Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in one sitting and found it to be as comforting as a good plateful of mac and cheese. It’s good to know she gets as stuck and frustrated as I’m feeling now, and that she

I found more practical advice in Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction. Paraphrase your story, he suggests, and write a scenario. If you’re not satisfied with that scenario, write another, and another, until you’re satisfied. “Don’t talk to yourself about the story,” he writes. “Tell it to yourself in this concentrated form… do include images and motifs and moments that you know drive the story forward.” The underlying theory: you have to know and understand your story in order to write it. So if you don’t know it, time to discover it.

So that’s what I’ve been doing these last few days, working out scenarios. And I get stuck just about in the same place. My character is supposed to do something crucial to the story line. The problem is, he’s not wanting to do it. I’m prodding him, poking him, ordering him, ’cause if he doesn’t do it, a good part of my story just sort of falls flat. But it’s dangerous to make your characters do something they don’t want–it’s forcing them for the sake of plot, and usually, readers are on to this sort of thing. It feels forced and unnatural.

Okay, fine. We’ll work on that, I tell him. In the meantime, I can start writing Chapter One. Hence the blank screen. This time I know how much work and anguish it takes to write a novel. I know how much pacing, how many chocolates I need to eat for the moments I feel worthless and incapable of writing, how many bags of chips or loaves of bread I’ll need for those anxious moments of feeling I’m on the cusp of something big, if only… if only… And the thought of putting myself through it all again seems insane. And I will do it, because I love doing it, and because I can’t help but do anything else, but I do wish I had some greater sense of rightness, because when all is said and done and draft two is finished, who knows if it will be any good? Maybe I’ll just have to start with yet another blank screen, titled “chapter one” and reimagine the whole damn thing from start to finish.