Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


I’m at the point in my writing cycle where I’m overanalyzing how writing works. I often need to break apart stories and books and try to find what makes them readable, desirable, and functional. Although I feel that Rumored to Exist is a good book in many places, I don’t know how it will stand as a complete book, and I don’t know how I will come up with the ideas to finish it. Because it is so loose and free-form, there’s no cohesive story to follow, which puts me in the danger of never finishing. I’ve been hacking at Rumored for a little over two years, and I’m barely halfway done. Another round of edits could put me well below the halfway bar, if I start chopping the pieces I absolutely hate.

This means I start thinking about the theory of plot and structure of story. It also means I think about my interests and try to find new topics to research, combine, and twist into new ideas. It’s a nervous prospect, since I have absolutely no attention span right now, and I can never apply myself to projects like this. It’s the reason I could never learn a foreign language, or pull a decent GPA in largely scantron courses like psychology or sociology. So I might be off this kick before too long.

The perfect starting point and example is, of course, William S. Burroughs. He lived a life of ecclectic and bizarre connections: heroin, South America, homosexuality, classical literature, psychology, technology, and travel. He worked jobs just to find out what it was like, as a private detetective or exterminator, and took a strange path, studying at Harvard, going to Vienna for medical school, living in the middle of nowhere in Texas, and then going across the globe: Mexico, South America, Tangiers, Paris, Austria, New York, Kansas. His life provided the raw material to produce his books. He often went on about different topics, such as the Mayans, time travel, scientology, the corruption of a Christian society, drug dealers, and more. But he didn’t write straightforward narratives about his experiences, like Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller or something. It was more veiled in complicated structures; cutups, fragments, dreams and chaos used to frame the pieces of his stories.

If I wanted to rip off Burroughs entirely, the two basic pieces to investigate could then be defined as the content and the method. This sounds pretty arbitrary, but it’s an important distinction, because I think in most of your writing 101 classes, the division of story would be something like plot and character. I don’t think plot is required, because it’s really a part of method. The method of a story, especially something nonlinear, doesn’t have to include plot. It could use any mechanism that would pull the reader through the story. A book like Naked Lunch is not plot-driven. (The well-versed Burroughs scholar could argue that it is, but the first-time reader would disagree, so let’s stick with that.) And character is somewhat of a division of content. Although characters are important in WSB’s work, he doesn’t rely on a top-down cast like a Hollywood movie. And it isn’t a typical first-person narrative like so many literary works.

I don’t know where to start, and I don’t think I can investigate both of these today, but the easiest way for me to begin would be with content. I always try to find new, cool things to discuss in Rumored, be it designer drugs, high-tech weaponry, pop-culture icons, or obscure history references. I’m not always 100% happy with some of these things, and many have been cut or toned down as the editing of Rumored continues. I need to think of new topics, but I need to think about how they are discussed or applied, and that’s where it gets even more complicated.

Back to Burroughs – a lot of his work has a mystical, investigative approach. He talks about the Mayans and Ah Pook the Destroyer and all of that, with a spiritual approach. I don’t mean that he is a religious writer; it’s that the characters and reference – the content – relies on a religious framework to interact through his books. When he talks about heroin, it isn’t a Trainspotting sort of Calvin Klein ad for junk; he talks about it in a spiritual sense. He has created a culture which has its own minor morality plays based on the unique aspects of drug use and addiction. It’s not like a Hollywood movie where the use of drugs pushes one of the characters in the stereotypical inventory of characters through the stock five plot movements, i.e. I’m a high school cheerleader and I have a football player boyfriend; Someone offers me drugs and I try them so I can be pretty/popular/better; antics ensue; I weigh 500 pounds and smoke a pound of hash a day; I learn to love god. moral: don’t do drugs, kids! Burroughs seems to walk far outside of this, because he isn’t pushing a plot like they are. He might have some plot elements to keep the pages turning, but it’s not all designed to be a 2 hour movie of the week.

Although I haven’t read his stuff in years, I was thinking of Asimov as another example. He wrote all of these books about robots, but the books aren’t really about big aluminum men running around killing people or whatever. He took the angle of social commentary and engineered it around the limitations and issues of robotics. Asimov wasn’t a religious guy (If I remember correctly, he’s a Humanist, which is probably my closest fit, religion-wise) and his books aren’t knit together with a spiritual overtone. He takes his unique topics and works together the content with the political or sociological consequenses. Other writers would have a plot-driven theme about robots, but he uses a light plot to drive home the unique circumstanses of man creating artificial “life.”

So my homework for tonight is to come up with a laundry list of topics I could further explore and research for the universe created within Rumored to Exist. There are tons of things there, but many of them are free-floating. Someone might be injecting some cloning serum in his arm, but the purpose and placement of clones in the book is somewhat secondary. I think if I picked apart some of the topics I’ve discussed and brainstormed further mutations of them, there would be more coross-pollination of weird stuff and more ideas for new pieces.

And maybe tomorrow I can talk about method. Or maybe I’ll still be babbling about this.