Posts Tagged how to write literary fiction
What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one
Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.
I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.
I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.
And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.
Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.
In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.
I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?
I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.
Is it still the same story?
Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.
The how-to bit: making the story bigger
Find the other characters who have a story arc
My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.
Go beyond the original timescale
Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.
Look for missing moments
As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.
Brief moments become major turning points
This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.
The end of exploration
Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)
The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.
When it felt like it had been there all along.
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You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?
My guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.
That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .
An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).
Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?
When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.
Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:
Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.
Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.
But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.
And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.
The conflagration spread to Twitter
And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’
It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?
It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.
Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?
This is something, as writers, we must avoid.
I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.
Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.
We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?
Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.
Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.
Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.
So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?
Again, I’ll let Dave speak:
In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.
Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’
So, er, what?
I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.
Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.
So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.
Anyway, the floor is yours.