How Novels Work by John Mullan

John Mullen pic

English writer and academic, John Mullan

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Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.

If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.

However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true.  No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.

Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.

John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto series Lives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.

“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …

“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)

That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.

This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.

Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.

I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.

Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.

 

Impression vs Experience

On April 25 1884 Walter Besant, English novelist and historian, gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, the London organisation devoted to scientific research founded in 1799. It was called Fiction as One of the Fine Arts. Besant’s novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men was published two years earlier and sold over 250,000 copies. It anticipated the rise of the slum novel and with the publication of The Revolt of Man (1882), The Inner House (1888) and The Children of Gibeon (1896), he consolidated his fame as a master of dystopian fiction.

British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 - 1901)
British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 – 1901)

However he is best known today for the little pamphlet of his speech given at the Royal Institution that April day, which was published as The Art of Fiction. Most importantly it surprised everyone that people seemed to be interested in such a subject.

Besant’s little speech started an excited debate on the purpose of literary fiction and since that time many writers have weighed in to the argument with their own thoughts, beliefs, and theories on the subject.

Besant believed that writing fiction should be considered as a ‘fine art’ and like other fine arts – painting, sculpture, music and poetry – it “is governed and directed by general laws; and that these laws may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion.” But fiction, like the other fine arts, is “so far removed from the mere mechanical arts that no laws or rules whatever can teach it to those who have not already been endowed with the natural and necessary gifts.”

Prior to this time “the general – The Philistine – view of the Profession is, first of all, that it is not one which a scholar and a man of serious views should take up: the telling of stories is inconsistent with a well-balanced mind.”

Everyone, it seems, agreed with what Mr Besant had to say, especially the belief that Fiction is an Art; but what started the debate was his assertion that “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society … never go beyond your own experience.”

As an exponent of the ‘slum’ novel Mr Besant seems to be saying that when writing fiction one can write ‘down’ from your own experience but not ‘up’.

You can find most of Walter Besant’s work, fiction and non-fiction, including his essay, The Art of Fiction, at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au where you can download them for free.

Henry James: The Art of Fiction.

James’s famous ‘reply’ using the same title as Basent’s pamphlet has become the cornerstone of fiction writing as an art, far outshining Besant’s in the fame stakes. His rebuttal is extremely polite to Besant and he certainly agrees with his elder that fiction writing is an art. However James took a more light-hearted tone and what the general pubic at the time thought of the novel, James famously wrote, “there was a comfortable, good humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.” This attitude, in some quarters, persists today.

James explains his ideas thus …

Experience “is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative … it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations… I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.”

James sums up his advice to novice novelists as,

“Above all, however, [the novelist must be] blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

In other words, impressions are experience; and the novelist’s task is to convert those impressions into reality: “the power to guess the unseen from the seen…”

You can read James’s The Art of Fiction at
http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html

Other writers who have written on this subject.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1885): Essays in the Art of Writing
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Arthur Schopenhauer (1891): the Art of Literature
Free ebook at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au

Anonymous (1901): How to Write a Novel
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

Clayton Hamilton (1918): A Manual of the Art of Fiction
Free ebook at http://manybooks.net

E. M. Forster (1927): Aspects of the Novel
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Gardner (1983): The Art of Fiction
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Ray Bradbury (1990): Zen in the Art of Writing
New and used editions available on Amazon.com

David Lodge (1992): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Ayn Rand (2000): The Art of Fiction
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

Stephen King (2000): On Writing
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

John Mullen (2006): How Novels Work
Available through Amazon.com, BukuKita.com and Gramedia

James Wood (2009): How Fiction Works
Available on Kindle (ebook) through Amazom.com

Colm Toibin (2010): All a Novelist Needs: Colm Toibin on Henry James
Available from Amazon.com

The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction Interviews
(from 1953 to 2015 and continuing)

http://theparisreview.org/interviews

On Experience: writing about writing

 

Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.

And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,

“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.

In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.

“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”

And then in the title essay he explains what he means,

“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”

The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.

He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.

Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.

Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’

The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.

Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’

On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.

It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.

What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.

I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.

In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.

Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.

I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.

What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.

What I’ve learnt from writing a novel

Featured image

 This is my desk; and yes, that’s a peacock on the right, made out of sprite cans. I stare at it a lot.

What I’ve learnt from writing a novel
There is always a starting point but you don’t have to have an ending. The idea for Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing came from the sound of a voice in his head; a strong, determined, female voice. He had no idea where this would lead. The idea for Colm Toibin’s widow-novel, Nora Webster, came from the visit of a recent widow to his house and he married this idea to an autobiographical one; his father had died when he was twelve. In the first chapter of Nora Webster there is the seed that leads to his novel Brooklyn; he abandoned the widow idea for the immigrant idea, so strong it must have been. He didn’t come back to the widow idea for twelve years. However there has to be an idea, something, a seed, even though you may not know what it will grow into.

Next: try it. If the idea came from an overheard conversation then try to write the conversation; it might take you somewhere unexpected and stimulating. If it is a place, write about what makes the place so significant; how does the place feel? How does the place make your protagonist feel? No matter how you begin, at some point you must make it clear where you are, even if the location is nowhere; you know as a reader that you like to know where the narrator is, where the story is happening, or has happened.

There are many ways to tell a story, many points of view. Choose one. You could write it from the outside using the all-seeing, all-knowing god-like narrator; a narrator that knows everyone’s inner-most thoughts, actions, and desires, past, present, and future. (Anything by Jane Austen) You could write it from the outside using a narrator that ‘sits’ on the shoulder of one character so the story is told from that person’s point of view and no-one else’s. (My ebook Veronica Comes Undone) You could write it from the inside where the narrator is one of the characters in the story (F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) There are many variations on these POVs. Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda, uses two narratives: one in the recent past written in the first person; and one in the further past, written in the third person. Sometimes you don’t need to decide, sometimes one particular way just feels right. Trust what feels right and so write what feels right.

Next: just start. If you only have time to write 700 words a day, so be it. By the end of the week you’ll have 4,900 words; by the end of the month you’ll have 19,600. I wrote Veronica Comes Undone in a year and a half of Mondays.

What you write first may not be chapter one. You’ll work it out later. Write first what interests you first. Every idea you have while you’re writing something may not be suitable for that project, but it might. If you’re not sure, put it in. This is only draft number one, decide later if it is appropriate or not. Wait until you step back and look at it from afar. You can cut and add whatever and whenever you like. You’re god here. You’re creating worlds, lives, actions, and consequences. You are all-powerful.

Just spew it out. Whether you write in longhand in a note book (like Toibin does)or tap it out onto a screen, just blurt it out. Even grammar, spelling and appropriateness can be amended later. Everything and anything can be amended later. Draft 1 can be an utter mess; draft 1 should be an utter mess. No-one sees it but you.

You don’t have to be a slave to narrative time. The journey from one plot point to the next can be instantaneous even if months of story time have passed. If an important plot point is that your protagonist starts a business, or renovates a house, you don’t need to go into great detail writing about choosing tiles. Boring! Cut to the opening, the moving in. Time is your slave.

Of all the tools available to a writer the best one for developing a character is dialogue. Some writers eschew dialogue. I don’t understand this. People, and even nationalities, have conversational idiosyncrasies. Americans says things like “You like pizza, right?” Australians usually use the negative, “You like pizza, don’t you?” Once at a writer’s festival I heard an American writer read from his latest work. His book was set in Rome and one of his main characters was Mexican. The novel, of course, was written in English. He spent many pages vividly describing these people but when they spoke, all the time and ink expended on these characters went for naught: they all sounded the same, like the writer. I don’t know how a Mexican living in Italy might speak English but the writer should’ve thought about this and worked it out. Dickens, especially Dickens, James, Winton, Rowling, Doyle, Tsiolkas, Joyce, and St Aubyn, all paint life-like characters with the way they talk, or think. We all make grammatical mistakes, or different pronunciations but different characters can make different grammatical mistakes; and when we talk we rarely speak in compete sentences, and we rarely speak the same incomplete sentences as the next person.

Don’t underestimate the contribution of the reader. Let the reader do some of the work. Cólm Tóibín in Nora Webster lets the reader do a lot of work, all the work! Characters and places are never described. See my review of Nora Webster About grief: good grief on my blog posted November 2 for more about reader theory. However a succinct descriptive passage can spark the reader to paint his own version of the character. Describing a man as “oval with buttons fit to burst” is all that may be needed. The reader knows he is chubby, greedy, selfish; and uses his own experiences of like-looking people to complete the characterisation that the writer has only, but skilfully, hinted at.

Allow cooking time. Step away from your project for a week or two and write something else; read a novel, re-design the garden, re-organise the second drawer. When you come back to it you will read it with a reader’s eyes and as you’re reading if you ‘jump’ or feel a ‘jolt’ (That doesn’t sound right; How does he know that? Wasn’t she wearing jeans a moment ago? He wouldn’t say that…) then there is something wrong. Don’t let it pass. Fix it.

Ah, the pay-offs. The most exciting time is when you are deep in a scene and the creative juices are flowing, ideas tumble over each other, you can’t tap, or write, fast enough; time is irrelevant, and all your senses are honed in on the scene that you are creating, manipulating, describing, being a part of. That’s such a buzz! But of course, that you know, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

The next good bit is draft 2; when you have all this stuff and you shape it, cut and add, link and re-arrange, mould into the story that only months before was just an idea you had as you sat on the bus on the way home from work.

However the most liberating, the most powerful, and the most stimulating change in the writer’s landscape in recent years is the ability to self-publish digitally. I could paper walls with the number of rejection slips I’ve received over the years from agents and publishers, had I kept them; and the most usual reason for abandoning a work is the feeling of ‘why bother?’ The agent/publisher wall is too high, too thick, too impenetrable, but with digital publishing and the liberation it gives you there comes more responsibility. To self-publish digitally you must make sure the text is ready, edited, corrected, error-free, ‘jolt’ free and something you are proud of. You’re not only the writer, you’re the editor, mentor, agent, publisher, and marketer; and the last in that list is the most time-consuming and, at times, the most frustrating. But all this hard work is worth it when you get your first sale; and this happened to me within 30 minutes of pressing ‘publish’ on August 24th. (See my blog-post Veronica Comes Undone. How did this happen dated August 29). Now that’s the best buzz of all. Access to readers is now at our fingertips and although book-sellers are chiming about the survival of the paper-book and the plateauing of ebook sales, digital self-publishing is a reality no matter what portion of the market it’s claiming. It’s there; use it.