A few years ago I led a writing workshop and introduced a prompt I called “The Infinite Library.” I had students imagine they had entered a library containing every possible unwritten novel, and could take any one they wanted off the shelf and look through it. I had them ask themselves a series of questions about the book: what it looked like, what the back cover copy might say, what the title was, how it ended, and so on. When I’m writing, this kind of thought experiment can help me sustain my excitement about a narrative. It can be easy for me to forget to stay curious about a text and instead feel like I am dragging myself forward through the work. It reminds me that I have the power to make things happen, to surprise myself and the reader, and to turn an uninspiring scene into one I’m excited to write. It also allows me to think about the writing process in a different way—rather than creating story out of thin air, I am instead interrogating a pre-existing fictional world, as if carving it out of a block of stone. The material is all there and all I have to do is find it. Take out what doesn't work and leave what does. When I write a novel, that's one more book I've taken out of the infinite library (and sometimes placed in the reality-library), and there are still endless possibilities left for me. If the book I'm thinking of doesn't interest me, I can return it to the shelf and keep looking. To begin, pick any book, visualize how it looks, and ask some questions. For example, take this bad one off your shelf (I'll leave all of the good ones for you):
Okay, there he is. In the wool coat. Dark green, unbuttoned. What is his hair like under that hat? Oh, is he all the way bald? He shaves a little. Evens it out. Understood. Is he walking with a limp? Just hurrying, and his left shoe is wearing at the skin over his heel. They’re new. He regrets them. He’s in a rush. I don’t know, I can just tell. He’s not looking where he’s going. Slanting forward through the crowd. The people around him seem resistant, hurrying toward tall beige office towers. Is it morning? A work day? Is he going to work? But there’s nothing in his hands. What about a bag? Over the shoulder? Messenger style. Right, there it is. Adding to the asymmetry of his gait. Seems like he’s headed south on a main street. Toward what? What’s that grey building blurred by the fog? I recognize that intersection, this is Toronto, no? Okay, like a Toronto-adjacent metropolitan Canadian city. Ambiguously Canadian. Still saleable to the States. How’d he sleep last night? He looks tired. Does he always look this tired? Never gets more than six hours and rarely that. Has he tried melatonin? CBD? Feels too old for it. Seems like a generational thing. Ate an edible once with his high school girlfriend and went to emerg. Now won’t touch it. More because he misses her. Won’t tell a doctor because it seems a weakness. The sleep, not the girlfriend. Anyway hasn’t seen a doctor in a decade. A strange flutter in the heart once in a while but he’ll look into it when it worsens. What happened to the girlfriend? Didn’t even leave a note. Stopped answering her calls. Didn’t hear a thing until the news. What kind of cancer? Uterine. And now she’s been in remission for four years. He couldn’t have known. He feels he not only mistreated her but gave her the illness. It keeps him up. He’s younger than he looks. Thinks about her all the time. No one since? What is he, middle age? That ended decades ago. Oh, it’s the train station. It’s hard to see in this weather. Ah, the forest fires. Same ones or is this in the future? Okay, 2023. The July fires. Air quality alerts on his phone all night. Right, so he’s tired. Rushing. Heading toward the train station. Does he have a ticket? Not much in his bag. And he’s thinking about that ex-girlfriend with the uterine cancer? What triggered that? She lives where he’s going. But he’s not going to see her. He is. He has another reason but all he can think about is seeing her. Is she married? She’s with someone. She has a child. Seventeen. Ambiguously-fathered? No, too easy. Very clear who the father is and not our protagonist. So when he gets there, is he going to look for her? Is he going to run into her somewhere? Why is he going there? What’s the real reason? How does he feel about his mother? Does he live alone? Did he forget anything at home? Is he late for his train? Does he miss it? Does he ever even get where he’s going? Does he talk to his seatmate? Will he respond if approached? Commonly ignores a bid. Doesn’t realize this makes him unapproachable. Disagreeable. What happens to the narrative if he dies in the first few pages? Who do the authorities alert first? How do they feel? What’s his name? Is there an afterlife? Is morality relative? Hello?
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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Fawn Parker is a Giller-nominated author of five books including What We Both Know (M&S 2022), Soft Inheritance (Palimpsest 2023), and the forthcoming Hi, it's me (M&S 2024). Fiction and poetry have appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The Walrus, and Maisonneuve. Fawn's official website has been surrendered to the great artificial intelligence and she is not in fact a gambling expert or addict.