The Novelry Blog
Where the writers are.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? I'm both. I rely on the 'divine write' but I also have a cunning plan up my sleeve. Read on!
I have this crazy notion that I used to write novels without planning them overly, that I was guided like some seer, by the character and their predicament and the story unfolded before me as I sat down to write it.
That's about 10% true.
I probably did write my first two unpublished novels that way; the ones in the drawer.
I was obliged to plan my first novel because I had a few daft runs at it to work from.
My second novel was planned with military oversight, I had the theme of the thing, a key scene, and then I worked out the story, had a pinboard with places and characters and spent close to a year researching and writing to the programme (plot) I'd set myself.
Fiction is not mathematics. Yet, when we work at a draft a number of times it starts to feel that way. We write a novel step by step the first time, then we go over it at second draft to check how each chapter serves the story, each paragraph, each sentence, we look at how one thing leads to another and how they add up. Yes, this is how to write a novel, but no it is not everything. Sometimes addition can become subtraction.
You have to be really careful not to lose the mystery, those non-linear lines in your fiction which defy logic. These are the curious sentences whispered to you as you fall in and out of dreams and daydreams. They are the very soul of the novel.
With my first novel, I had a sentence which haunted me and it was really the 'x' that marked the treasure for me writing that novel 'Becoming Strangers'. That sentence was 'I am coming to you for help, I don't know why.'
I set it in a dream sequence in which my hero, who is dying of cancer, sees...
There comes a time when every writer has to face the awful thought that they may have to kill their manuscript.
“Often when I sat down to work,” wrote Michael Chabon about a novel he ditched after five years of work. “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”
It's hard to be sure for a while, then when it becomes clear, axing that book feels like a release.
Nothing is ever lost. You learn, you get better. Sometimes, as with the plot a novel, you have to go through a few ordeals to learn to turn and face the enemy. The enemy, in novels and life, is so often internal. But usually, there's a blind spot. Clarity, vision, can come a little later than you'd like.
If you have more than a niggling feeling that something's wrong with your novel, if you're worried it's not showing any signs of life, here are some clues...
“I want to write something new - something extraordinarily beautiful and simple and intricately patterned."
That was The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald began in the wake of wild times had with his wife Zelda, their friends, and total strangers in New York City and on Long Island in 1922. Fitzgerald wrote steadily through 1923, and had a first draft of the novel finished by April 1924.
'Trimalchio' was the title of the finished novel, which he submitted to his publisher, Max Perkins, in October 1924.
Maxwell Perkins enthused about the novel's glamour, (you can read their exchange of letters below) but was uncertain about the way Gatsby's character was revealed.
In 1925 Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, spent six weeks in Rome and on Capri, where Fitzgerald revised the book to meet Perkins's recommendations and in April of 1925, six months after the initial draft had been sent, The Great Gatsby as we now know it was published.
The Great Gatsby...
Shame and Sacrifice.
The modern novel, when it's great, turns these sad old tricks beloved of its forbears.
When I was reading Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, I was struck by the name of the male character, the romantic hero, 'Nick Conway'.
I thought - 'Nick Carraway'?
You will know that is the name of the narrator of The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, and when I started to compare those two books, I began to think about the prose and structure of both side by side. Then I began to compare the roles of the characters in the great classic Gatsby with Conversations with Friends. In Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes the romantic hero, admires him and his beloved Daisy. In Conversations with Friends, the narrator Frances observes and admires most of all Bobbi, who has no love object. This little matter creates a bit of a dead-end in the structure of the book; it turns out on closer inspection. Bobbi is self-sufficient in a way I guess many of us would wish our...
Sally Rooney is my writer of the year. 'Conversations with Friends' - my book of the year.
At just halfway through the year, and with Ms Rooney just 26, you may think this is a moment of ill-considered or reckless admiration on my part. You may think I'm really stretching things to claim she is the heir apparent to Hemingway, based on one novel.
But I will make a case for that based not just on that novel but the short story 'Mr Salary' for which Rooney was Winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. I should add that with her new novel 'Normal People' being published next month, Ms Rooney is not a one-book wonder.
Sally Rooney writes with such a painstaking candour and more as I will show below, that I am sure we have great things to come from her.
It is the case that the 'truth' will set you free as a writer, as Hemingway himself practised sp robustly, and Sally Rooney purveys the same...
If you are a woman and you are a writer, you are not allowed to be angry.
If you feel angry about something and write with high feeling, you may be described, as a former agent once described a piece of my writing, as 'hysterical.'
She did not mean - 'very funny'.
Hysteria: extreme fear, excitement, anger, etc. that cannot be controlled.
- an old-fashioned term for a psychological disorder characterized by conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization) or a change in self-awareness (such as a fugue state or selective amnesia).
- "characteristic of hysteria," from Latin hystericus "of the womb," from Greek hysterikos "of the womb, suffering in the womb," from hystera "womb
Hysteria was a psychological affliction presenting exclusively in women during a period of greater individual freedom and migration in the Victorian era in the United Kingdom with a developing urban industrial economy...
Most 'big' books will have a theme and that's what I mean by politics.
This is not to say that theme belongs to a party-driven agenda - a book should not be in my opinion a vehicle for an organized group. Party = partie, in French, parted or departed, divided, to one side. Taking a position which is aligned to any established group degrades the author and the reader. (I hate to see authors' politics trumpeted on social media, it puts me off reading their books. No one wants their nose pushed into the swill of the trough.) Readers are intelligent people who form their own opinions and many will have experiences and opinions quite different to yours and if you only wish to speak to those who agree with you, then you should stick to social media and keep hitting the unfriend button.
'Big' books fast-forward our collective thinking, usually by crushing or condemning a commonly accepted truth or way of life. They trample on convenient, fast-food commonplace ideas.
Women, Men & Other Clichés
'I think being a woman is like being Irish... Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the time.' Iris Murdoch.
Gender is an old-fashioned concept, but it has played some part in the body of work that is literature, and it might be innocent to say it no longer plays a part. Yes! The LGBTQI has been a huge and helpful force for change to think outside the two boxes, but we're not there yet!
The Man Booker 2007 winner, Anne Enright has spoken out on how books by women are rarely reviewed by men, while books by men are appraised by critics of both genders. The implication is that literary editors believe books by male writers express universal concerns while those by women are regarded as much narrower in scope, lacking the subtlety needed to engage the mind of the cerebral male. Anne Enright has also observed that The International Dublin Literary Award (formerly known as the Impac),...
Sometime back in the 2000's 'literary' became a dirty word.
My first book was published in 2004. My work was hailed as 'the opposite of chick lit' but that was a double-edged sword ...
I didn't see myself as conforming to any genre. I had never considered genre at all. My first novel was a dark comedy, written in quite a light-hearted tone of voice entirely and purposely unsuited to the subject matter of a man trying to die with dignity. My second was, if you like, 'historical fiction', set in Belfast during The Troubles of 1979-1981. The third was another black comedy, concerning a hapless Englishman 'living the good life', a pharmaceuticals salesman selling anti-depressants to the African continent and enjoying sex with strangers. The fourth was a quainter comedy, an old man determined to claw his way back into the bosom of the family who do not want him.
It's 2010. I'd produced four novels, one every one and a half years.
I went to see my agent. 'How...
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