Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Good Novel

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its Gilbert_Chestertonauthor.

G. K. Chesterton
English author & mystery novelist (1874 – 1936)

G K Chesterton is well known for the above quote but, after a day of reacquainting with my (almost finished first draft) of Cold Steel I am left wondering exactly what he meant.

I consider myself an apprentice writer. Published but still a learner. I guess this is in much the same way that we continue learning to drive, learning Yoga, learning to cycle. We never truly finish our apprenticeship because there is so much more to take on board, to experience, to live. As part of my apprenticeship I read Alex Keegan’s essay on theme (premise) this morning.*

And Keegan’s words interested me (and scared me) far more than Chesterton’s. Keegan tells us that theme is at the heart of a story. A good story[teller] knows the theme. Theme is not plot, it is not what happens but the underlying story that emerges; it is what we, as readers, are told as we read the story. Told in a subtle way. So that we begin to hear a message despite it not being written in stark letters across the page.

And I think this is what Chesterton meant, perhaps, that a good novel has at its heart a strong theme, such that we discover and learn with the characters. And that is how it is as a writer. I do know my theme, I am writing about grief and memory and loss and discovery (are they themes?) and to get there I am putting my characters into the pages and seeing where they take me. I haven’t got a road map or a plan. I haven’t got spreadsheets with dates and times and interesting plot points. I haven’t planned my settings (although I do know key places very well by now, I am on my 282nd page, after-all). I know that these are devices that help other writers – accomplished writers – I just hope that my own, more lived-and-breathed version of writing can also stand the test of time. That I can pop my characters into scenarios (as Keegan suggests) and let them write the story.

And I hope that at the end, the reader will learn about my heroes and not about me.

* The Importance of Theme. Alex Keegan in Short Circuit (2009) Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing: Bloomsbury, London

Advertisements

Kill Your Darlings?

200px-William_Faulkner_1949

There is so much to learn as a writer. William Faulkner famously said (and it is quoted on many a Blog) that in order to write one must perfect the art of murder or, ‘Kill your darlings.’ And that is exactly as it is. And the more I write and read (for to write well one must read voraciously) the better I get at this difficult task.

I am currently editing the three-quarters version of my first draft of my novel. Now there are many things wrong with this act, probably the greatest being the act of editing before I am finished. Wisdom (and many renowned, respected writers concur) tells you that you shouldn’t edit until the entire first draft is complete. And that is, I am sure, good advice. But every so often I just have to take a pause. I write and write and write – generally getting down three to six thousand words a day for a good chunk of time. I inhabit every character, find myself with my head in my hands over the latest anguish, heart racing and no longer able to think as myself only as Dave or Ruth or Kate and then I have to take a break.

A good break. A long break. A reviving break. So my editing is not so much editing as reacquainting. Except it seems wasteful to reread without my trusty red pen in hand. And so I revisit and many things happen. Firstly I fall in love with my novel again (and that is very important), secondly I become the characters again and then, of course, I cut, chop and restructure. I notice the glaring anomalies – where Kate goes from 34 to 37 in a period of weeks (careless?). I scrub the adverbs and most adjectives (an embarrassed flush gracing my cheeks). I question the validity – could they really have been married so long? Would that happen?

And then I get back to the writing. Refreshed and eager. The return to my novel is like returning to a good film, or a favourite place, or visiting a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. It’s an excitement, a thrill, a relief to be there again.

And I think my writing is all the better for it.

But how does it work for you?

Nature or Nurture?

cuba_crab

Nature or nurture? Thousands of crabs migrate each spring in Cuba, crossing major roads in their journey.

Where does poetry start? What defines a poem, or transforms prose into something poetic? Just as we ask what creates a person – their birth or their upbringing – so I am beginning to think it is with poetry.

I consider myself to be a master of Free Verse. Is this lazy, I wonder? Does it mean I am not, truly, a poet? Surely I should be able to manipulate words such that my poetry gains strength from syllables? From rhyme? I certainly appreciate and enjoy formal poetry and am often in awe of well-rhymed poems.

Yet I do utilise form, structure and rhyme in all my poems. And sometimes I think that the words free verse are something of a misnomer – a dumbing down or devaluing of poetry based purely on the fact that structure may not be immediately apparent. So a poem lacks a rhyming pattern. The stanzas (if any) are not uniform. Does this make the poem any less potent? Any less strived over? Less worthy?

All my poems are fuelled by passion, form, rhyme (more likely internal for me). I use assonance, alliteration. I spend ages considering my words. I play with line breaks. I read, rewrite, re-read. I consider the power of a word when placed at the end of a line, the beginning of a stanza, on its own line. Every break in rhythm, every syllable is carefully constructed and deconstructed and reconstructed until I think I’ve explored every possibility and created a piece of writing that is both musical and meaningful.

This week I wrote Bachcha (it means child in Hindi). I wanted to write about this difficult subject, I wanted to create rich images that juxtaposed the beautiful with the horrific and yet I began the poem lost for words – as my first stanza tells you.

And I noticed that I had still used assonance and imagery even when I felt I was pulling hens’ teeth (to break a writer’s golden rule and use a cliché). So how much of poetry is innate?

I reckon it is this internalised poetry (nature) that first allows us to put pen to paper but it is nurture that necessitates repeated editing and rewriting. It is nature that ensures our poetic voice shines through but nurture makes our finished work appear accomplished.

Nature means you cannot steal my work (it wouldn’t sound like you). Nurture means you should recognise the time I’ve spent – and appreciate the final product.

I didn’t think I could write Bachcha, I felt I hadn’t the words but the part of me that simply writes gave me the bare materials to complete a poem that others describe as powerful.

What do you think?