Sunday, May 10, 2015

Facts v. General Law

My belief statement is not original. In fact, I stole it. But I’ll tell you where I stole it from, and from whom. Then I’ll explain why I believe it has much more to do with writing a novel than it has to do with studying fish. Don’t worry; you’ll understand in a moment.

My statement is this: “Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law.”
I stole it from Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born biologist and geologist renowned as a preeminent scholar in the natural history of planet Earth. Specifically, I stole it from an essay entitled “In the Laboratory with Agassiz,” by Samuel H. Scudder.

In his essay, Scudder describes the time – four days, in fact – he spent under Agassiz’ loose tutelage, studying a single preserved fish. Agassiz started Scudder on his odyssey of discovery by teaching him how to care for the specimen in question. “No man is fit to be a naturalist who does not know how to take care of a specimen,” Agassiz said.

Scudder was to keep the specimen wet using alcohol from its own jar, and to keep the jar tightly corked to stop the alcohol from evaporating. He did so as he studied the fish, first with his eyes, then with a pencil as he drew it, then with his mind as he spent his nights pondering the fish, trying to discover the hidden complexities Agassiz insisted were there.

After four days’ study, Agassiz was finally satisfied that Scudder knew the fish adequately enough to become a naturalist.

And here comes his statement on facts: “Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law.” What could he possibly mean by that? Facts are what naturalists thrive on, right? This fish has scales that reflect the colors of the rainbow, thus it must be a rainbow trout. That fish, however, has odd whiskers near is mouth; thus it must be a catfish.

I might have been frustrated with Agassiz’ dismissal of facts if I weren’t working to be a writer.
Doleful Creatures is my current work in progress. I wrote its first 50,000 words in 2012 and thought at the time I had a wonderful story filled with story-based facts: Talking animals, slovenly farmers, spooky spirits and a commentary on writing twee little books about talking animals. I poked it here and there and figured, at 75,000 words in 2014, it was ready to enter the world of beta reading – asking someone to read the book before I sent it to publishers.

My beta reader, however, found Doleful Creatures lacking. Her assessment, in brief: I had the facts, yes. But I did not have the facts connected to any general law – in this case a story worth telling or a story worth reading. I had beautiful writing, she said, but the story was so hidden she couldn’t find it.
I felt just like Scudder must have felt after studying that fish for eight hours and having Agassiz say, in effect, you haven’t discovered its most obvious feature. Go home and be ready to work harder in the morning.

Fortunately, like Scudder, I didn’t give up.

I have revised Doleful Creatures six and a half times now. I’ve used various techniques, going beyond beta reading to reading my own book as a beta reader should – taking notes on individual chapters to tell myself what is lacking among the story’s “facts” as linked to the “general law” of telling a coherent story.

I think I finally get it. The story I started with in 2012 has evolved considerably. Many of the facts are still there. But I’ve used the intervening years and experiences to apply those facts to a general law. If I were to pitch Doleful Creatures to an agent today, this is the query letter I would likely use. It shows – I hope – my comprehension of the General Law of Storytelling: Make Sense or Your Readers Will Leave.

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