A (not so) novel idea…

reading and writing

Next week my Prose Fiction class resumes after a two week break. In our first lesson back we’ll be looking at ‘Writing Novels’. Now, I think it must be one of the Good Lord’s wise and practical jokes that the allure and mystique surrounding the idea of writing a novel is always counterballanced by the mind-splitting torment of actually writing the thing. And that’s before you even try to find a publisher. As Flannery O’Connor once put it:

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.

Okay, perhaps that’s presenting too bleak a picture. But forwarned is forearmed, as they say. Not wishing to totally dismay my students, however, I thought I might take something of a back-to-basics approach, emphasising the tried and tested truth that the key to successful writing is good reading. What follows are a few cursory reflections on the versatility and enduring appeal of the novel form, followed by a close reading activity I plan to recommend to my students, together with a summary explanation of why I think it might prove helpful.

The novel is a most remarkably versatile literary form. Because they are much longer than short stories, novels enable a far more detailed exposition of characters and events. Indeed, it could be said that ‘interiority’ is one of the defining characteristics of the novel – i.e. the deep and expansive insight novels provide into the interior (emotional and psychological) lives of their main characters. In his classic collection of lectures, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster suggests that the novel provides the reader ‘a world where the secret life is visible’. He goes on to explain:

We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, and apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life. In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence, and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence, and even if the novelist has not got it correctly, well – he has tried.

Additionally, novels are generally marked by a realistic account of the experience of individuals. In other words, novels strive to portray human experience in an accurate and convincing way. Of course, novels may vary enormously in terms of the kinds of experiences they deal with, as well as the social and historical settings in which such experiences take place. But even the most fantastic novel will succeed only insofar as it draws the reader into its secondary world, providing a psychologically coherent and meaningful narrative, within the limitations of the secondary world as defined by the author. Again, let’s hear from O’Connor:

Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic…

So novels are enormously varied. That said, almost all successful novels exhibit a set of key characteristics, integral to the ability of the book to arrest and sustain the reader’s attention, while making for a story that lingers and expands in the mind for years to come. Here I will be generalising (perhaps unforgiveably), but the sad reality is that a creative writing class must on some level strive to be practical. To see these various tropes in action, therefore, think of a novel you remember really enjoying, or believe to be exceptional. Revisit the book now and take note of the following:

  1. First Impressions: Consider the book’s cover, including the title and the blurb. Together, these are the author’s (and the publisher’s) first chance to make a good impression. Think about the title of your chosen novel – what does it suggest? How does it excite interest in a prospective reader? Is there a cover illustration designed to do the same? Read the blurb and notice how it provides some essential contextual details (often raising a question in the process), designed to entice the reader’s interest. To be sure, a blurb is no substitute for the reading experience, and covers can be deceptive. But the fact is that’s where most people start and first impressions make a difference.  
  2. Enter the Hero: In most novels there is a distinct moment at which we meet the protagonist (another first impression). A novel may have more than one protagonist, of course, but typically there is a central character. This might be the narrator (if the novel is written in first person). In your chosen novel, identify the passage where we first ‘meet’ the main character, or protagonist, traditionally referred to as the ‘hero’. Read it carefully and consider what sort of impression the writer is trying to make, and how you as the reader feel compelled to respond.
  3. Meet the Bad Guy: Ditto for the antagonist, or ‘villain’. 
  4. Look Who’s Talking: Dialogue is perhaps the most enjoyable part of reading as the characters interact and move the story forward. Identify an especially appealing and revealing passage of dialogue. Read it aloud and take note of how much important detail re character and plot is being conveyed through the conversation.  
  5. Going Places: Most novels ebb and flow between passages of story (told in scenes) and more reflective, summary passages that aid explanation. Both are essential, and striking an effective balance between the two is half the battle of good writing. Typically, however, scenes dominate – i.e. passages that provide us with characters interacting or undergoing some particular experience. Further, every scene has to take place somewhere. In your chosen novel, identify a paragraph that sets a scene for a chapter or segment – read it and revel in the author’s ability to conjure a sense of place, or to provide the reader with mental images that bring the scene and the action to life in the mind’s eye!
  6. Random Read: This is all about a writer’s style. Successful writers have a confident (natural) and engaging way with words. A writer’s style might be dripping with personality, or it might be more subtle, impersonal, but nevertheless effective. By and large, good novelists are able to reassure the reader that they are in control of what they’re doing – they write with clarity and confidence. Select a passage at random from your novel and see how it comes across, out of context. Does it tell of a writer who’s in control? How so?
  7. Closing Lines: Is there ever a good way to say ‘farewell’? The end of a good book, like the end of a life, is always tinged with sadness. How do good novelists deal with the inevitable ending? Some pitfalls include summing things up too neatly (like a long-winded and overly sentimental eulogy), or stopping suddenly with no hint at what might come next (like a loved one who goes missing, never to be heard of again). Of course, every writer will try to end on a particular note, and choose what they think is the best way to strike it. But the ending should do justice to the story, and help the work to succeed as a whole. Read the closing lines (or final chapter) of your book and try to recall what it was like, the first time you read it, to come to the end. Were you satisfied? Why? Why not? How did you feel? How important was the way the author wrote the ending, in relation to the story as a whole?

Responding to these questions means adopting a different mindset to when we simply sit down and read a book for pleasure. And I’m not suggesting that this sort of exercise is any substitute for doing just that. But thinking about these things can help sharpen our awareness of language, and of how good writers use words to creative effect. This, in turn, can provide an additional perspective to bring to our reading and writing. Indeed, what we’re after here is a quality of attention that can and should enhance our ability to read, even for pleasure. The quality of attention I’m talking about is central to what Francine Prose calls learning to read like a writer.

Prose insists that, like all writers, she ‘learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.’ She goes on to explain:

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This sort of ‘close reading’ strives for a heightened awareness of the way language works, and is a habit that in the best writers seems almost intuitive. But like all habits, it may be developed over time, with practice. To be sure, Prose admits, ‘some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light’. Nevertheless, ‘reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing how a writer does something brilliantly’.

The exercise I’ve suggested above might at first blush seem trivial or contrived. But it’s not. It’s intended to prompt a closer, more critical and appreciative approach to reading – yes, even reading for pleasure. By taking note of what works so brilliantly in the great work of other writers, the more attuned you may become to what is and isn’t working in your own writing. Most importantly, a methodical, systematic exercise like the one I’ve suggested, will compel you to slow down and to read carefully, which, according to Prose, is the key to close reading, to reading like a writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

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