Novel thinking

Atwood talks about waves in poetry being closer together, while in the novel they are further apart.  She says you set something up in the first chapter that comes to pass in ninth. I heard this at a time when I was thinking what people meant by exposition and episodic writing. It seems things get episodic without exposition –  but I don’t think you can just add exposition to episodes.

I heard Eleanor Catton saying that novels are principally about change. A character has to move from the beginning state to the end state. The story is the means of getting there.

Atwood says novels are about time – and time management.

Emma Martin used a good analogy to distinguish between short stories and novels. She used to do gymnastics and she saw the short story as a vault – a quick execution in which all sorts of tricks could occur in the air in a short time period but the ending had to be firm like the vaulter landing perfectly on both feet. The novel however was a floor exercise – a longer execution. Later, in workshop, we talked about some of her work containing two acts, something a little unusual in a short story.

Atwood says the hardest part of writing fiction is the stuff you know you have to put in – expository e.g. getting people to move around, off the stage, the not very interesting stuff, if you are competent enough the reader won’t be able to tell which parts they are. We hope.

The other hardest part is taking out the wonderful stuff that doesn’t fit – I feel I have a silver medal in this and might even get a gold by the end of the course. I’m ok about deleting, I just wish I didn’t write it in the first place. The story of my life though is things would have gone better with a bit more planning and maybe that’s what I need to do with my next big work. But if you are being creative, damn it, why do you have to plan! Well, I think it probably saves time but then does EVERYTHING become expository? No it probably means you are writing in the right direction.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries seems to have begun with a particular structure in mind.  The more I listened to her talk about it the more I think she created creative constraints. Twelve characters inspired by the zodiac and their (supposed) character traits, and then their minions and even their allegiances all pre-ordained in her structure. Then she let herself loose in the boundaries of that. I’m sure that gave her an enormous sense of world to write in.

Atwood, like me, writes poetry. In a poem she says her wavelengths are close together and in a novel they are far apart – ideas set up on page 100 that don’t come together till page 300. When I heard this it was something of an epiphany and I suddenly saw I had not been clear to my reader about what the purpose of my narration was. I had not provided linking clues, I had not put Chekovian guns in rooms.  I started to see how to move out of episodic structure and make the parts all connect.

Some novels though, are really like long short stories. An example of this is Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I like the construction of this novel, it is about the events of a few days. When you read it you get pages of beautifully nuanced detail that are minute by minute accounts of the action. The second time I read it I saw that he had made a softly detailed solid build up so that when the story reached its dramatic and long climax of tension it is not like time has slowed down. We are used to the detail and also we don’t need too much more because we’ve met everyone and we know the setting. Different readers get different things from Saturday but I feel it is chiefly about sphere of influence. The protagonist is a doctor who sees detail in the world and everyone is slightly medicalised in his assessment of them. He manages to twice overcome adversity on the day by drawing on his medical skills and finally uses them again in an ethically charged moment when he must save his antagonist. It’s interesting for me because it seems a long short story.

We had a workshop with Janice Galloway, Emily Perkins asked her if she had any rules about writing. The first thing Janice said was, ‘Yeah don’t be boring. … There are plenty of books out there that nobody wants to read.’ I liked this because I think the writer does have to attempt to engage.

Another thing she said was that (Writing) gets harder because you set yourself higher bars. I really relate to this but out there on my own I didn’t really come up with bars and that is something a masters year gave me.


A fine site