How to think like a novelist – with help from Station Eleven and Emily St John Mandel

Think like a writer‘I am very good at imagining doom. That is why I write novels.’ The other day I posted on Facebook about my horse’s health problems, which I have been worrying about, and finished with those words.

Imagining doom. This made me wonder: what characterises the writerly mind? I thought I’d run a diagnostic on the mental routines that make me the scribbling sort. You can tell me yours at the end, or summon Nurse Ratched.

To infinity and beyond
First of all, there’s the tendency to conjure chains of events, especially the unthinkable possibilities. We’re sensitive to the skull beneath the skin. That might be a safety valve, as with the many cheery crime writers I know. Equally, it might be a curse. Ask David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath.

Station Eleven Emily St John MandelEverything is wondrous
I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It’s a work of great imagination, about a flu epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population. In one chapter, a character is among the survivors trapped in an airport, and a pilot decides to fly a plane to Los Angeles, to see what’s there. After so long among the grounded planes and the silent skies, the viewpoint character watches the plane speed down the runway and lift off. He thinks

Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never realised the beauty of flight? The improbability of it?

I read that line and thought: I have always seen the improbability of aeroplanes, and the wonder. I have always thought that electricity is astounding, and so is what we do with it.

I recently read an interview in the Paris Review where Ray Bradbury said:

If I’d lived in the late 1800s I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of 70 years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.’

This is the writer’s mind. The questioning never stops. It is like Brownian motion – why, what, what if. What could be different, or taken away? What if I looked from a different angle?

As I walked from Moorgate station through the Barbican centre, I passed a glass ziggurat and saw it as a resource. Perhaps a supply of cutting edges. Until the glass ran out, of course.

Dismantling the world
I have always questioned reality. I have always dismantled the status quo and the world around me. In real life, this can make for abstruse conversations. Doh, Roz, what’s the big deal about aeroplanes? Electricity? Whatever. If you say so.

But writers are surrounded by big deals, things we can uninvent and meddle with, and a past, present and future that changes at the crook of a finger.

But it’s real
Still with Station Eleven. That world is as real to me as the house I left, and the office I walked into when I finished my journey. People in my imagination, whether put there by a writer or invented by me, are as real as a table you can knock your knuckles on.

I must tell the page
This post sprang into my mind as I walked past the fragile skyscrapers, still half in my book. I hurried to my desk and hammered it in rough. Musicians are more complete when they’re at their instrument. Writers are more complete when talking to the page.

tenth of decemberProse is transformation
Let me introduce Janys Hyde, who runs the website Words of a Feather (and has invited me to run a writing course in Venice this September, details here). Janys reported on a Facebook post that she was reading the Tenth of December short story collection by George Saunders. She said:

His writing is like being flooded with emotions that you weren’t aware you had, or had subconsciously chosen to repress.

Go and befriend her now.

Janys must have been eavesdropping in my house because, by coincidence, I’d been having exactly that conversation with Husband Dave – about how good prose dyes your mind, makes you see in a new colour, opens doors you didn’t know you had. (Lest that sound too lofty, the next remark was: ‘your turn to pour the wine’.)

And this is why, although I love movies and other storytelling forms, prose is my favourite way to travel.

PS The hanging teacups in the pic are the window display of Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead, where its proprietor and I record So You Want To Be A Writer for Surrey Hills Radio. Photo by Adam Waters.

Do you recognise any of these traits in yourself? What others would you add? Or maybe you’d just like to confirm that I’m in a category of one, and that you’re leaving my subscriber list forthwith. The floor is yours.

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  1. #1 by Laura L. on May 17, 2015 - 7:15 pm

    Reblogged this on wtf Am I On About Now? and commented:
    I thoroughly enjoyed this. Now I’m also jonesing for the book she’s mentioned. If I were a writer, I would recognize some of the writerly traits (or symptoms?) she discusses, like the wonder of electricity and the looking at things from a different angle.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 18, 2015 - 5:45 am

      Hi Laura – and thanks for the reblog! Your blog name is a perfect illustration of the concepts I’m wrangling here.

  2. #3 by bevbaird on May 18, 2015 - 1:05 am

    Just finished reading Station Eleven – what an imagination the author has – but can so see all of it happening!. Great post by the way.

  3. #5 by raulconde001 on May 18, 2015 - 3:00 am

    Interesting post! 🙂

  4. #7 by Erin Bartels on May 18, 2015 - 6:41 pm

    Great list. I might add that a writer is someone notices or makes connections that many others do not–stringing threads between history and current events, between this person and that one, developing entire ecosystems of thought that balloon and grow and reach out to others with spiraling green tendrils, seeking to make them a part of it. That’s what great writing always does for me–bids me enter not just as an observer but as a living being within it.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 18, 2015 - 7:29 pm

      Hi Erin! What a good point, that great writing makes you a part of the book. So my experience of Station Eleven won’t be the same as yours (should you choose to read it); my reading can only be done with my own chemistry. Also, I love that point you make about connections. I don’t make the same connections you do, and you don’t make the same connections as anybody else. This is why I disagree with those who claim there is nothing new under the sun. There is, all the time. We make it.

  1. Could be good, could be bad | Muscat Tales

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