Posts Tagged literary fiction
A review in The Times of Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won this year’s Booker, has me worried. (James Marriott: ‘Booker choice is all that’s wrong with literary fiction’.)
I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:
Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.
If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?
Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)
Literary novels don’t have to be plotless or weighed down by their meanings and value (see my post here where I tackle the ‘plotless’ question).
Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)
All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?
And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?
Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book
Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.
Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.
A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.
I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.
Research – complicated but not really
I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.
Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.
Fiction for research – getting more complicated
Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.
Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.
Interlude, where I don my editor hat
Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.
This is not complicated.
Reading while editing – really quite complicated now
With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.
I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.
I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.
Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.
Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.
It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.
Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?
PS You can find Nail Your Novel here
Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?
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.
If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!
There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.
Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.
Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way. Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?
Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.
Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.
In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.
(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)
How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.
This year I’ve been one of the guest tutors at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s site Writers Helping Writers. It’s my turn to take the lectern there again, and the subject they asked for is endings.
Are there any must-haves for an ending? Well, the answer isn’t simple, but there are some abiding principles that hold good no matter what you’re writing. You can read about them at Angela and Becca’s site … and if you want even more, there’s a chapter about them in my Nail Your Novel plot book. Have fun!
I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.
Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined.
For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.
My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.
My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.
Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.
Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?
I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.
Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.
That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.
Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.
This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.
One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.
I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach. Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.
Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.
In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.
So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.
More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.
Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.