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Excerpts from James Morrow's 1998 Lecture
On Research, Plot, Persistence, and Workshopping

copyright © 1999 James Morrow

On Research:

Often where I start my research for a story or a novel is with a children's book about the topic. Because if I know nothing about it, a children's author will give me the most lucid entrée, and just help me organize the facts. In my novel This Is The Way The World Ends, Act 2 takes place on a submarine. I knew nothing about submarines, and so I went into the children’s section of my library, checked out a book about submarines. So I could just get the basic vocabulary and the geography of a submarine in my mind. You should never let a fact stand in the way of drama.

On Plot:

OK, I'll begin with a kind of a confession. I used to think, when I first began cobbling fiction together, that plot was it, plot was everything, a sine qua non of the medium of fiction. I no longer think that, for several reasons. First of all, there really are, it seems to me, a limited number of perfect plots in the universe. You're not likely to hit upon more than one or two perfect plots in your life. So if you want to write more than one or two stories, you're going to be addressing other virtues of fiction besides plot.

I also have come to feel [that] plot is really the most satisfying element in a story. It's crucial; you can't get by without it. But I think if you'll muse over the fiction that's meant the most to you, it is not simply the twist and turns of the structure, OK, the bones of the story [that you remember]. . . . It's stuff like a really memorable character, a great idea, an astonishing theme, the voice, maybe, the voice of the author, the style. The way I put this now, is I think plot has to be the servant of character, theme, voice, story. In some cases, I would even rank plot below setting. I mean, there are some stories in which what we most remember is the setting. Frank Herbert's Dune is a good example of that.

Now if you were listening closely to what I just said, you heard me make a distinction between plot and story. And that's one of the things I threw up on the board there. But I do want to add that you can't get by without a plot.

On Pressing On:

So it's incredibly discouraging what you've all elected to do with your lives. But no matter how horrific your story, there's an even more horrific story. You must have the hide of a rhinoceros, and not expect miracles. As John Gardner would say--and he's up there somewhere, isn't he? Anyway, a point I've seen him make a couple of times, that if you want it badly enough, there is not that much competent writing going on in the culture. You'll eventually crack it, but it's a tough nut to crack. But it'll happen.

Student: So far everyone has said, in these words or otherwise, don't expect that you are going to make a living doing this.

Yeah, I'm trying to decide if that's in fact good advice or if that's true wisdom. I've been making a living at it. That could change overnight. . . . I've seen that in the lives of some of my colleagues. My nuclear war novel has been optioned by the movies and that brought some money just when I needed the money. But you can't depend on Hollywood, God knows.

On Workshopping and Taking Advice:

The great thing about being a fiction writer as opposed to, say, a screenwriter, is you always have final cut. And nobody is going to know, except the person who gave you the advice, whether you're following your heart or the fact that six people gave you the same feedback. Everybody has this problem. So I'd better do something about it. I don't think I've ever ignored a reaction that was that unequivocal. My writing's been less social lately . . . but I don't think that is a defect. I am writing longer books. My workshop never would have let me get away with that. They would say, cut this, cut this. But I like experimenting, maybe in a more epic form.

Thanks for dropping by!...

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Updated Nov 30, 2002
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