Reading for novel writing
Now that you are regularly writing, at least twice a day, and reviewing what you have written with a critical eye, looking for the areas to improve with practice (and practice does not make perfect but it certainly makes better!) it is time to think about how a writer reads. Since it is about reading, this is a longer lesson: read on!
You must read as a writer. Critical reading actually enhances your enjoyment rather than getting in the way of consuming the book. After the first reading of any book, write a short synopsis. That done, make a judgement, in writing, of what you found enjoyable and what you didn’t. It does no harm to quote from the book under scrutiny since typing out the quotations is a good way of implanting the message.
Say why you reacted as you did. Was it the dialogue, a special description, a particular characterisation, the style of the narrative, or the intricacy and subtlety of the plot? Let me give some examples. First then, dialogue.
“I didn’t hear you come in!”
“Why? What were you doing?”
She goes into the kitchen. He follows and stands listlessly in the doorway while she sets a salad briskly on the table. He says, “Please, Terry. Stay here tonight.”
“You know my mother is expecting me, Max.”
“Terry, I’m begging you to spend this weekend with me.”
“I feel you are avoiding me.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Maybe I’m not the greatest lover in the world – ”
“Right. You’re not.”
“ – but I’m the man you married. Surely with some co-operation – ”
“Mother expects me, Max. Sometimes you spend a week-end doing forensic research and I spend a week-end with my wonderful sympathetic mother. It’s too late to talk me out of it. My case is packed in the car.”
They sit down to eat. He says, “I’m checking the car in for an overhaul tomorrow.”
“But you got a replacement? Surely.”
“Yes, it’s in the garage.”
“So what’s the problem?”
[Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine, London: Jonathan Cape 1984, p. 32]
What can you say about this couple and their relationship from the dialogue you’ve just read? Now, here is a passage of exposition near the beginning of a book which illustrates the scene-setting descriptive style the author uses.
I have no wish to dwell unnecessarily on the pitiful infirmities which fate has chosen to visit upon a poor and weak-minded woman, but this matter must be explained insofar as it has a material bearing on the subsequent history of the Winshaw family, and it must, therefore, be put into some sort of context. I shall at least endeavour to be brief. The reader should know, then, that Tabitha was thirty-six years old when Godfrey died, and that she was still living the life of a spinster, never having shown the slightest inclination towards matrimony. In this regard it had already been noticed by several members of her family that her attitude towards the male sex was characterized at best by indifference and at worst by aversion: the lack of interest with which she received the approaches of her occasional suitors was matched only by her passionate attachment to Godfrey – who was, as the few reports and surviving photographs testify, by far the gayest, most handsome, most dynamic and generally prepossessing of the five brothers and sister. Knowing the strength of Tabitha’s feelings, the family had fallen prey to a certain anxiety when Godfrey announced his engagement in the summer of 1940: but in place of the violent jealousy which some had feared, a warm and respectful friendship grew up between sister and prospective sister-in-law, and the marriage of Godfrey Winshaw to Mildred, née Ashby, passed off most successfully in December of that year.
[Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!, London: Viking, 1994, pp. 3/4]
What can you tell from the style in which this is written about the personality of the narrator? Consider the length of many sentences and the very correct use of grammar and punctuation. Can you deduce from just this paragraph if the book is intended to be humorous or not? What may have happened to Tabitha since that date, from evidence in the paragraph itself? Now let us look at narrative voice in a book where the text is one continuous paragraph from beginning to end and there are no quotation marks at all.
In my photographic work I was always especially entranced, said Auterlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long. Gerald enjoyed helping me, and I can still see him, a head shorter than I was, standing beside me in the darkroom, which was dimly illuminated only by the little reddish light, holding the photographs in tweezers and swishing them back and forth in a sink full of water. He often told me about his family on these occasions, and most of all he liked talking about the three homing pigeons who would be expecting his return, he thought, as eagerly as he usually awaited theirs. Gerald’s Uncle Alphonso had given him these pigeons a year ago for his tenth birthday, said Austerlitz, two of them a slaty blue, one snow-white.
[W G Sebald, Austerlitz, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001, p. 109]
All Sebald’s books were written in his native German and this one was translated by Anthea Bell: this despite the fact he had lived in England permanently since 1970, becoming Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. So, what do you make of this narrative style? The novel tells of the encounters between its narrator and a man called Austerlitz over a long period of time and maintains this seemingly bland style throughout the book. Write down whether you like the style or not and say why.
Plot is very much harder to encapsulate in a single quotation but if you want to read a very well plotted book that I can recommend then please try The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home [Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2011] which is also a rollicking good read. Regarding this book or any other of your choice, write down what you think of the plot and why.
Once is not enough
Now the harder part for those who like to lay down a completed novel and move on to the next. For these exercises it is essential you read the book as second time. Some of your answers to the question may well not appear until after your well-informed and careful second reading. No book is ever the same, to you, in second and subsequent readings. Indeed, if this is not so, then you are not reading with sufficient care and attention. In this second slow and critical reading, note the clues, including ‘red herrings’, dropped into the text that set the story up for a twist or surprise later on. There ought not to be any words in the text that are not there for a reason. Reflect on the passages of sustained good writing and note down what it is about that writing that appeals to you.
The overall form of the book, its varied pace (with the exception as you might feel of Austerlitz), its mannerisms and its use of ‘favourite’ words and expressions should be identified. How well does the narrative change to convey the narrator’s (or narrators’) character. You see examples of this in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and his As I Lay Dying. A modern example of different narrative styles in one novel would be The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
Novel writing in a straitjacket!
And (almost) finally, what sort of preconceived straitjacket does the writer impose on himself just to make the writing more of a literary test of his or her skill? Anthony Burgess wrote a novel that was in the form of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, The Eroica and Martin Amis told his whole story backwards in Time’s Arrow. There are novelistic conventions but no rules, even if some do say so. All rule and conventions are then up for breaking. If you want to see how elegantly Alasdair Gray can break the rules and reinvent novel writing, look out for pages 174 to 190 of 1982 Janine and ask yourself if anyone has better described sleep. Don’t skip ahead though: read the whole book!