The great jazz pianist Bill Evans once said that a common error he saw in students who came to him was a tendency to “approximate.” He said that many students insist on trying to get their arms around the entirety of a piece and that in so doing they take certain shortcuts which result in their “approximations.”
This makes their playing less interesting, and less real. His advice to them was always to focus on a smaller part, if necessary, but to attack that part in a way that was “very clear” and “very real” and “entirely true.” In other words, it’s better to be super-focused on something a bit smaller in scope than it is to be vague on something larger.
I thought about this a lot as I wrote BALLARD; in fact, I think about it a lot, period. Evans’ advice brings to mind some lines from Bob Dylan that I have recently decided will represent the rest of my life’s work:
“And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal // pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul // from me to you // tangled up in blue”
So, how do you be “very clear” and “very real” and make sure that every single one of your words “ring true” and that they glow like “burning coal”?
I think you have to start small and do the work. It’s drudgery, but you put it together, piece by piece. The pieces that work you keep; the ones that don’t you throw out. You build a foundation. And as the structure grows larger, it gathers momentum … and eventually the entirety WILL come to you and you’ll be ready to attack it, get your arms around it, master something large in a way that is real and true.
With BALLARD motor court, I started with the supernatural event that thwarted the attempt on Ballard’s life in the convenience store. It’s one of the briefest scenes in the entire novella, but it was absolutely critical. I rewrote it dozens of times, but eventually I got it right (I think!) and then the rest of the book began to fall into place, forward and backward.
I’m sure there are LOTS of other ways to work … but this is the way that make sense to me, and seems to offer the surest path to creating things that will make you stop and take notice.