Tag Archives: Novel

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

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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?