How to Piece Together a Book

There’s a moment in Autumn Rounds, a novel by the French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin, where the main character poses a question to his friend Jack, who is a writer,

“So you’ve started a story?”

“I haven’t started writing it, but it’s in my head. It’s just a little thing off in a corner somewhere, but it will grow, slowly. I have to give it time . . .”

Jack’s description of his writing process immediately rang true to me. My books, my stories, and my essays have all begun in an unpredictable fashion: a spark of surprise where before, there was simply nothing.

Most books aren’t written by beginning with page 1 and proceeding step-by-step to the inevitable last page. While books are read sequentially, the writing of them is far different. Often, a new work of fiction begins with a title (which may not end up being the book’s ultimate title), or a budding insight about a still-unknown character, or a conversation between two as-yet-unnamed characters that might eventually end up in an early, middle, or late chapter. I once began writing a short story, “The Deserted House” (from my story collection, The Art of the Knock), with a scene that I was sure was the beginning; it turned out to be the ending.

I have often described to my students this process of building a book as akin to the rising of islands out of the water, with each island of the emerging archipelago growing bigger until they begin to connect and create a larger landmass.

Another metaphor that can be used is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Who hasn’t developed their own strategies to finally fit the last piece in place? Start by finding all the pieces that look like mountains. Or look! These pieces could only be part of a Monarch butterfly. Sometimes, first collecting pieces into groups that share a color is a good strategy. And what about the edge pieces? Get the frame completed, and then work inward. So many possibilities.

And so we come to the Land of the Fuddles.

The Fuddles are people who are made of many small pieces, and they like to fall apart so other people can put them back together.

The Fuddles appear in the novel The Emerald City of Oz, which is the sixth book in the fourteen volume Oz series written by L. Frank Baum.

Most people don’t know that Baum wrote fourteen volumes of his Oz saga. They’re most familiar with the first book, thanks to the classic film version. A pity, since most of the other books, for sheer inventiveness and brio, live up to the standards of the original novel. They include many new characters, such as the Shaggy Man, the Sawhorse, Patchwork Girl, the Highly-Magnified Woggle-Bug, Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, and many others. I know these characters well, because when my daughter Hannah was six years old I read her all fourteen books for our bedtime story ritual; it took about a year to go through them all, and our attention never flagged.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is when Dorothy and her entourage (which includes two additional new characters, Kangaroo and Omby Amby), took a journey through the many regions of Oz and came upon the town of Fuddlecumjig in the Land of the Fuddles. Dorothy asked,

“Are the Fuddles nice people?”

“Oh, very nice,” answered the kangaroo; “that is, when they’re properly put together. But they get dreadfully scattered and mixed up, at times, and then you can’t do anything with them.”

“What do you mean by their getting scattered?” inquired Dorothy.

“Why, they’re made in a good many small pieces,” explained the kangaroo; “and whenever any stranger comes near them they have a habit of falling apart and scattering themselves around. That’s when they get so dreadfully mixed, and it’s a hard puzzle to put them together again.”

“Who usually puts them together?” asked Omby Amby.

“Any one who is able to match the pieces.”

As Kangaroo later observed, “It’s just a habit they have, to scatter themselves, and if they didn’t do it they wouldn’t be Fuddles.” Supposedly, the Fuddles consider this great fun.

When Dorothy and her companions approached the town, “instantly a wild clatter was heard from the houses and yards. Dorothy thought it sounded like a sudden hailstorm.” This turned out to be the sound of the Fuddles undoing themselves. Dorothy and her friends entered the first home, and they found

the floor strewn with pieces of the people who lived there. They looked much like fragments of wood neatly painted, and were of all sorts of curious and fantastic shapes, no two pieces being in any way alike.

They picked up some of these pieces and looked at them carefully. On one which Dorothy held was an eye, which looked at her pleasantly but with an interested expression, as if it wondered what she was going to do with it. Quite near by she discovered and picked up a nose, and by matching the two pieces together found that they were part of a face.

“If I could find the mouth,” she said, “this Fuddle might be able to talk, and tell us what to do next.”

“Then let us find it,” replied the Wizard, and so all got down on their hands and knees and began examining the scattered pieces.

“I’ve found it!” cried the Shaggy Man, and ran to Dorothy with an odd-shaped piece that had a mouth on it. But when they tried to fit it to the eye and nose they found the parts wouldn’t match together.

“That mouth belongs to some other person,” said Dorothy. “You see we need a curve here and a point there, to make it fit the face.”

“Well, it must be here some place,” declared the Wizard; “so if we search long enough we shall find it.”

Dorothy fitted an ear on next, and the ear had a little patch of red hair above it . . . She had also found the other eye and the ear by the time Omby Amby in a far corner discovered the mouth. When the face was thus completed, all the parts joined together with a nicety that was astonishing.

“Why, it’s like a picture puzzle!” exclaimed the little girl. “Let’s find the rest of him, and get him all together.”

“What’s the rest of him like?” asked the Wizard.

“Look for a white shirt and a white apron,” said the head which had been put together, speaking in a rather faint voice. “I’m the cook.”

The cook told Dorothy and her friends how to complete him, and, finally constructed, he then began to prepare a meal for his guests while the rest of his Fuddle companions were pieced together.

I believe that many, if not most, writers employ a similar procedure. We add our books together piece by scattered piece. We trust that they are secretly connected, that somehow they will eventually join the narrative’s arc together. Intuition is largely our guide here, as well as a certain dogged persistence. And then comes the time when a critical mass of addition is achieved (a point that is always different for every book), and, as in the Land of the Fuddles, a “mouth” is found: an insight that speaks with an echoing authority, which helps the writer better understand what they have been attempting.

This is the moment that a writer searches for, often unconsciously: a “mouth” of insight that will speak for more than itself. This is the point when a book switches from hopeful guesswork to far more intentional construction. Mysteries may certainly still abound, but a point of no return has been reached, and the writer increasingly believes that their book will eventually be born, its last piece finally fit into the waiting pattern.


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