Friday, January 29, 2016

ON WRITING: What is a novel?

I’ve been writing seriously for a few years now—was writing in a semi-serious fashion (or, at least, in a manner I felt to be serious)—for a number of years prior to that.  My focus, for most of that time, has been on short stories, prose and comic, in order to learn how to write.  Looking back over these past handful of years, I can definitely see an improvement in, coupled with a new way of looking at, my writing.  I’ve met with some success with these short stories.  Now, I want to level up.  That, to me, means writing a novel.

While I’ve been focused on short stories, I have also been working toward writing novels.  They’re a totally different beast and require a new approach and a new set of tools.  Over the years, I’ve started five novels.  Three of these died around the 100-page mark of the manuscript, for multiple reasons.  At the end of March, 2014, I finally finished an initial draft of a YA novel, roughly 82,000 words.  In retrospect, I realize the premise relies a bit too heavily on the visual aspect of the characters and would work better in a format more attuned to that, i.e. television or film, so it remains unrevised on the hard drive, but a testament to the fact that I can do this.  This allowed me to start a second novel, an expansion of a short story I wrote a few years back, “The Call of the Sea.”  I really enjoyed expanding that, adding new characters and plot twists, and fleshing out the idea I had, initially.  Almost a year after completing “Masques,” (the YA novel mentioned earlier), I finished the first draft of Call of the Sea.  The manuscript came in at around 115,000 words, and I look forward to revising it and sending it off to publishers sometime in the near future. 

But first, I find myself debating about what a novel should be and whether I can find my voice before I hack Call of the Sea into kindling, to put it back together in an engaging narrative.

Each narrative form has certain strengths and weaknesses.  Short stories can delineate a specific idea with a hard punch to the gut that is a singular collaboration between reader and author, while films can expand on those ideas utilizing all of our senses to elicit an emotional response in the audience, and novels are able to delve deeply into ideas and characters, revealing truths and horrors, among other things, that we may never have considered before, or never considered in just that way.  (these are obviously reductive and simplistic characterizations meant only to demonstrate that there are differences between narrative media/formats) 

Novels, by dint of their length and the readership’s ability to translate the words on the page into images in their minds, are able to dig more deeply into characters than other narrative forms (though television is now moving toward that, with much of its more acclaimed fare, in recent years).  The strength of novels, for most people, is this excavation of the interiority of character.  It is what makes a novel a novel, in the minds of many readers and authors.  I have seen myriad arguments against novels that do not explore this aspect deeply enough, questioning why something so plot heavy is not, instead, created as a film or television show (two media looked down upon by snobbish readers).  And this is an area where I feel I struggle, with my writing. 

This raises a question:  is this the only way to write a novel?  The idea that one must adhere to this unwritten rule feels wrong to me.  Could that be a result of my feeling inadequate in properly fleshing out my characters, in this way?  That is certainly legitimate argument.  But it doesn’t end the discussion. 

I started seriously thinking about this interiority of character—a phrase I’d read, and heard mentioned, many times before—this past winter, as I read Rick Moody’s wonderful novel, The Ice Storm.  He manages to reveal this interiority of character through his evocative prose, and it was really a joy to read and experience.  It also, for the first time, really got me thinking about how I should approach the revising of Call of the Sea, as well as the writing of the next novel. 

Then I read William Gibson’s The Peripheral.  This is the first Gibson novel I’ve read, and it was great.  Something I noticed, though, was how short and quick his chapters were—only a few pages each, some of which were less than a page—and how dominated by dialogue they are.  It was an entirely different approach to the novel that not only did not flatten his characters, but also did not lessen my enjoyment of the narrative.  (yes, I know I have read many of these two—and it’s not a binary matter, except for my own argument—but I’ve never really thought deeply about it before) 

Reading these two novel so closely together, raises the question of what—to my mind—a novel is, or even has to be.  Must I dig deeply into the interiority of my characters through colorful, and insightful, metaphors and anecdotes?  Or, can I seek out my writing voice, in novels, without burdening myself with these unwritten rules? 

It’s funny.  I wrote this as an exercise, a way to get my thoughts (unformed, at best) out, in order to reach a definite conclusion about how to attack the next novel, and the revision of Call of the Sea.  When I started, I had an idea where I would land—leaning toward the William Gibson model briefly stated above.  Now, roughly an hour later, I find myself tipping back, ever so slightly, toward the former.  Both approaches, along with myriad others I haven’t fully considered here, are valid.  Obviously. 

The problem for me, as I see it, is that if I go with the easier path, I am allowing myself to become stagnant, even as I want to be moving forward.  I understand I have so much more to learn about writing—lots of known unknowns, or known unknowns, or is that unknown unknowns?—and I know that if I do not keep working to elevate my game, it will all be an exercise in futility.  So, where do I go from here? 

I’ve got a science fiction idea I want to pursue.  I think that’s the next big project.  Write the first draft of that novel, paying attention to how I’m writing, as I go along.  Focus on the interiority of my characters, to the best of my ability (knowing that a first draft is a s&*t draft and can be fixed in subsequent revisions), and complete that.  Then, with the experience—and, hopefully, the insights gleaned from that—go back to novel #2, Call of the Sea, and apply what I learn to the revision of that novel.  From there, who knows? 

Thanks for letting me ramble. 


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