It seems to me there are two ways to liken writing a story to making a sculpture: the story can be molded from a shapeless mass of clay or it can be hewn from a solid block of stone. Both similes are useful. Both reveal truths about the art of fiction. Perhaps one writer makes stories in both ways, any given story requiring a different craft.
I have spent some months picking my way through the early stages of a new book. This involves free writing and false starts, note taking and self-directed writing exercises, and lots and lots of thinking. Most writers move through these stages in one way or another.
For me, an important part of developing a story is paring away the bits that don’t belong. I often begin with an idea that’s too complicated, and I must peel layers away, until I arrive at the kernel of the story. I must find the sculpture in the block of stone.
I choose a rock. I see potential in it. I have lots of ideas about it, and I apply my chisel. Soon, a shape emerges. I’m excited. “Look!” I cry to my friends and family. “Look, it’s a story!” And it is, but it’s rough hewn and unbeautiful.
I sit and stare at the story-to-be, and I decide which bits of rock to polish, which to cut away. Again, I apply my chisel. The shape of the story grows more definite as I remove elements. I pare away a sub-plot. I carve off a character. “Ah, there it is,” I say.
But inevitably more work must be done. More rock must fall away before I find the true story, a small gem of a thing.
I like to think I will know the story when I see it. Like Michelangelo recognized David when he found him in the marble, I will recognize my story when it becomes a solid and well-wrought thing.
Yet, the truth is, I drafted this post two months ago. I thought then that I had found the David in my rock, yet here I am, still chipping away at the marble. I’ve learned that I must never put the chisel away.