Refuse to Be Done

Most craft books on writing are informative, engaging, and if they’re any good, overwhelming. Three craft moves per book is my limit, with anything more being rejected in the limited RAM of my brain.

The subtitle to Matt Bell’s 2022 guide to novel writing, How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, immediately appealed to my conception of the writing process. (I’m currently focused on short fiction these days, but his advice on novel writing ports well to shorter works.) I’ve identified three stages of a story’s composition: drafting (a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all in rough form with no intention of being shown to anyone), revising (a polished story presented to a writing group for feedback), and submitting (a final update based on the feedback, then sent to literary journals). Bell calls his three drafts generative, narrative, and polishing; his generative drafts are more developed than my initial stage, but it’s his second and third stages that caught my attention.

Bell’s second drafting stage begins with a narrative outline, written in the voice of the novel (he doesn’t recommend outlining during the generative stage). Expect the outline to take several months, he writes, and then promotes that one craft move I’ll implement: retype the entire novel. Don’t revise the generative draft, don’t copy and paste into a new document. Using the narrative outline as a guide, type the whole story from scratch as if that first generative draft didn’t exist.

That’s… a lot of work, even for a short story. Yet I believe this process could help overcome a problem I have with my second stage of composition. I move stuff around, expand and contract paragraphs, search for synonyms far too early, and many sessions feel like a lot of effort without a lot to show for it. Retyping the work in the entirety would avoid the muddle of revision. It’s worth a shot, anyway.

The third stage of Bell’s process might even be more labor-intensive, featuring multiple readings of the novel (printed, not on screen) using several different highlighter colors. It’s this stage which gives the book its title: go through your work until you run out of ideas for how to make it better.

Bell’s advice isn’t for the casual writer — he’s writing for professionals, writers who value the process more than the results. I’m eager to discover how implementing the second stage of Bell’s process affects my own writing.

 

 

A Day Like This

“If you want to be a successful writer, don’t have kids.” In my limited experience in the literary world, I’ve heard this narcist nonsense more often than I care to remember.

I couldn’t help thinking of this sentiment as I read Kelley McNeil’s 2021 novel, which depicts the adventure of Annie Beyers, a former painter and currently the mother of a five-year-old girl. After a car accident, Annie wakes to find the world around her has changed. She is now a renowned painter, but her success comes with a terrible price — her daughter was actually miscarried.

It’s an intriguing setup, and for the most part McNeil tells a gripping story. Convinced that her daughter really was born and still exists, Annie fights the mental health workers trying to convince her to not trust her memory. She loses a key ally as her marriage disintegrates because of the miscarriage; the scenes between Annie and Graham, genuinely painful and touching, are the novel’s most memorable parts. An investigation into alternate universe theories leads to a flight over to London and an encounter with an investigative journalist which is as improbable as it is fruitless — Annie gains no useful knowledge from the journalist. The actual resolution to Annie’s problem comes almost by accident, and is a bit disappointing.

As I read the novel, I kept an eye out for echoes of the “family is incompatible with art” argument. Passages such as “I was so enamored with the beautiful little miracle of her that after many years of painting being my first love, it began to pale in comparison to the wonder of the perfect little child’s face” stood out. But to give the author some credit, McNeil does walk back this idea in the final chapter, after [spoiler alert] Annie returns to her daughter’s world and resumes her painting career. “Instead of shunning the art and imagination that ran through my veins and in my DNA, I welcomed it and shared it alongside my daughter,” Annie discovers. “I didn’t need to choose between dreams.” I’d have preferred Annie dismiss the idea before she was reunited with her daughter, but it’s not my novel, right?

Dune

The cover from my 1984 paperback edition

My wife asked for a book recommendation last fall, and I gave her my paperback copy of Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction novel, first published in 1965. She laid it on an end table, where it remained undisturbed for a week, long enough for me to decide it was time to read the book again before seeing the new movie adaptation.

It’s a marvelously complex text — I remember feeling overwhelmed on first reading it several decades ago, in a pre-Wikipedia era where reference guides weren’t readily available. Numerous characters, so many factions, references to centuries of history, technology both futuristic and otherworldly, healthy discourses on science, religion, psychology, and interstellar politics… there’s a lot going on in this novel. It’s not an easy read, and for that reason I consider it the science fiction equivalent to James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the fantasy side, the award goes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

How does the novel work? Why has it inspired five sequels by the original author, a dozen or so sequels and prequels by other authors, a renowned televised miniseries, and now a second film? I think the novel continues to appeal because for all its complexity, there’s a very simple story that grounds the reader. The journey of Paul Atreides is a typical bildungsroman, featuring a young man who is at times entirely likable and at other times fully terrifying. He’s an unforgettable character, and his development is the reader’s guide through all the complexity.

On this second reading I noticed a distinctive feature, one which would probably be flagged by this era’s editors and writing handbooks and fiction workshop leaders. Never change character perspective, within a story or novel chapter — I’ve seen this “rule” against what’s often called head hopping invoked numerous times. But in “Dune,” Herbert routinely goes into the heads of several characters within a chapter, sometimes even in a single paragraph. It happens so often that I now refer to the author as Hopalong Herbert. The lesson here, I believe, is that good writing isn’t about following rules.

My wife did eventually start reading the novel and had a similar reaction to mine on my initial trek through this fascinating yet intimidating work. I advised having Wikipedia open on her phone while she read, but she couldn’t work up the interest to go beyond the first 20 pages. I can’t blame her — reading should be a challenge, but when it seems too much like work then there’s probably better things you should be doing. She is interested in seeing the new film when it becomes available on one of our streaming services, so its entirely possible she could become as intrigued by this story as I was when I decided to give the work another shot.

The Dollhouse

This is my fifth and final analysis of novels with multiple storylines. The works I’ve examined so far featured a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, linked novella structure, and dual timeline structure. Fiona Davis’ 2016 novel has a combination dual narrative/dual timeline structure, with two different protagonists in two different timelines. 

In 2016, Rose Lewin is forced out of her companion’s condo in New York’s historic Barbizon building when he decides to reunite with his ex-wife. In 1952, Darby McLaughlin moves from rural Ohio to New York and rents a room in the Barbizon, which at the time was a hotel for professional women. Both timelines progress linearly, with occasional brief flashbacks, in alternating short chapters, making it very easy for the reader to pick up a storyline from where it last paused.

Three elements make the dual storyline structure work. The first is the linear structure of both stories, a common theme I’ve identified in my analysis of these five works; if you’re going to ask your reader to keep track of more than one narrative, make sure those narratives don’t jump around in time. Second, the Barbizon serves the common setting for both storylines, and the building functions almost like a character in the novel. Lastly, both protagonists struggle with independence and recognition, and this common arc provides the dual narrative/dual timeline structure with a satisfying storytelling logic.

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The principal lesson I’ve learned from analyzing these five novels is that unconventional narrative structures need to be combined with more traditional storytelling techniques. Use linear timelines to ground the reader; maintain consistent foci on the protagonists; short chapters are a huge benefit when switching between two protagonists or timelines, but longer chapters are more effective after making a large leap in a timeline; identify the time and central characters at the outset of each chapter; establish clear connections between the protagonists/timelines/narratives. These are techniques I’ll keep in mind when I resume work on my own book-length works.

The Girls

Emma Cline’s 2016 novel is the fourth in my series of reviews for novels with multiple storylines. So far I’ve analyzed novels with a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, and linked novella structure. Cline’s novel features a dual timeline structure, with one protagonist in two different eras separated by almost half a century.

Given what happened to the the protagonist, Evie, when she was 14, it’s hardly surprising it would take her several decades to reflect on it. In 1969, months before entering a boarding school which she wants no part of, Evie joins a cult that is evidently based on the Charles Manson family. It’s an interesting study of how an otherwise level-headed person could become involved in a community so twisted and eventually murderous. Decades later she works as a caretaker for an absent homeowner and befriends a young woman, Sasha, who reminds Evie of her younger self. Sasha asks Evie about her involvement with the cult (she had narrowly missed taking part in its homicidal rampage). Evie reflects on that time as she attempts to guide Sasha away from a disastrous relationship.

Unlike the dual narratives in “All the Light We Cannot See,” the two timelines here are not evenly distributed. The novel is divided into four parts, with Evie and Sasha’s timeline serving as the brief introduction to each part. After the introduction, the novel progresses with numbered chapters that span the four parts. This structure, combined with the fact that both timelines are linear progressions, makes timeline confusion nearly impossible. While the 1969 storyline is the bulk of the novel, the latter storyline is needed to show the lasting impact of those years on Evie.

What I found most interesting is that the outcome of the 1969 timeline — the violent murders committed by the cult — is known from almost the beginning. Given the close parallels to the Manson family, it also seems horrifyingly logical. The reader also knows early on that Evie wasn’t involved in the killings. The suspense lies in finding out how close Evie comes to taking part, and how she was able to avoid it. When those revelations come towards the end of the novel, both are satisfying.

Of the four novels I’ve read for this series, this was the most enjoyable. Cline has a gift for metaphors, many of which are spectacular and only a few misfiring. A sample from page 26: “I’d always liked her in a way I never had to think about, like the fact of my own hands.” The novel has been in development for a Hulu miniseries, but with little progress for several years. I hope the project does get completed, because I think that with a talented director and cast this could be a compelling show.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel is the third in a series of works I’m reading with multiple storylines. Instead of a gestalt structure or dual narrative, the novel features a linked novella structure, with each chapter focusing on a different character, place, and time. There is also a great deal of variation among the storytelling methods — some chapters are in first person, others in third, one in second, and one chapter is composed entirely of presentation slides.

Each chapter can be read as its own novella (most are too long to qualify as short stories). This is a sharp contrast to Anthony Doerr’s dual narrative, which uses very short chapters. Because Egan uses many more characters and the chapters progress in a non-linear fashion, using lengthier chapters grounds the reader — you won’t have any idea where the story will go in the next chapter, but within each chapter you know exactly who is the focus and when the events take place. There are glimpses of characters or storylines developed in later chapters, but within each chapter the focus is very limited — no in-chapter time leaps, no changes in storytelling method, no shifts in principal character. Each character and the story’s plots are also associated in some way with two characters (a cynical record producer and his assistant), who serve as structural links between the chapters.

The primary benefit of this structure is that it allows for focusing on a theme. The plot of each chapter shows its central character coping with aging and decay; time, the ultimate goon, visits everyone. The diversity of narrative perspectives underscores the universality of time’s effects.

The lessons on storytelling from this novel:

Show connections. If chapter two takes place twenty years before chapter one, allude to what happened in the past during the opening chapter. If you introduce a new character in a chapter, identify his or her association with characters established from previous chapters. If a chapter takes place in a new city or country, allude to that location in earlier chapters. A reader too preoccupied with figuring out who these people are, when the story’s taking place, or how anyone wound up here is less likely to see the themes your developing.

Writing is not juggling. You can bounce back-and-forth between two characters and/or timelines, but more than two requires a different approach. In a structure that links multiple story elements, it’s best to stay in one place for a while. Go with longer chapters, exploring that character or setting or era in depth, before moving on to a different story.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m continuing my analysis of novels featuring multiple storylines with Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel from 2014. This work features a dual narrative structure, with two principal characters living in the same timeline. What’s also interesting is that two separate timelines are maintained for both characters.

The novel is divided into 14 numbered sections, with section Zero serving as a prologue. Through section 11, the even-numbered sections occur in the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo over a five-day span in August 1944, while the odd-numbered sections begin in 1934 and show the development of the two principal characters (a blind French girl and a radio technician ambivalent about his role in the German army) in their respective countries over the ten years leading up to those five fateful days at the end of World War II. Each section begins with a date, making the transition between the two timelines easy to follow.

While the novel includes several memorable supporting characters, the focus remains consistently on either blind Marie-Laure or the brooding Werner. The chapters are short, most being two or three pages, and rarely does either character feature in two consecutive chapters. The balanced alternating structure highlights the similarities between the two characters, despite their being on opposite sides of the same conflict.

The structure of the novel works because the two principal characters and the dual timelines progress to the same point. Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo as the timelines converge in the eleventh section, with the last three sections showing the aftermath of their meeting. For all its complexity, the novel actually has a fairly straightforward progression.

The lesson on storytelling from this novel is on consistency. Keep the spotlight on the principal characters from the outset, and always let the reader know when the timeline changes. Being consistent allows the author to include a great deal of complexity.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I recently attended a workshop on writing stories with multiple storylines, and five novels were cited as examples. So why not read and analyze each of them?

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel is an example of a gestalt timeline structure. The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck in time” and experiences his entire life when he is captured in World War II. He jumps ahead a decade, sometimes two or three, goes back to his boyhood on occasion, and is also captured by intergalactic aliens and taken to their homeworld. (Quick aside — this novel is often categorized as science fiction, but I fail to see why. If anything, it’s a parody of science fiction.)

Following a character unstuck in time could be disorienting, but two elements help bring order to the narrative:

A commanding narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is clearly a stand-in for Vonnegut, and his voice guides the reader through the numerous time jumps. The narrator’s tone is conversational (there aren’t a lot of big words in the novel; no need to keep a dictionary nearby) and he often repeats himself. This gives the impression that if you don’t exactly understand everything the first time you hear it, no worries — the narrator will eventually explain it again. Using a different narrative voice for each era in Billy’s life would have been disorienting.

A central timeline. After previewing the events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, the narrator then describes his experience during World War II. The events in this year of his life — training, joining his unit in Europe, becoming a German prisoner of war, surviving the bombing of Dresden while in Schlachthof-fünf, clearing the devastated city, being rescued by the Allies — are told in linear order. Whenever Billy journeys to different moments of his life, including his visit to Tralfamadore, he always returns to this core timeline immediately after the moment he’d become unstuck in time. It’s like being on a highway with multiple entrances and exits; no matter how far you travel down an off road, you have the comfort of knowing you can get back to where you were.

Combining experimental storytelling methods with more conventional techniques seems like an effective strategy. That’s my takeaway from this interesting and fun novel.

Beloved

I read a wide range of fiction, and occasionally like to challenge myself with a work that’s well outside my usual fare. Many times I rise to the challenge, and those experiences can be rewarding. Yet there are times when I find a work a little overwhelming; those experiences can be frustrating.

Unfortunately for me, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that year, falls into the latter category.

The elements of a great story are all there — a band of unforgettable characters, a tense setting with a tragic history, and a supernatural being sowing chaos. When I step back from the prose and consider the individual elements of the novel, I’m very impressed with its scope.

The prose, however, is very dense, and the timeline is anything but linear. The text moves effortlessly between past and present, but the shifts happen with a frequency that is dizzying.

This isn’t a novel to be read; it’s a novel to be studied.

However, I feel the fault in this case is more on me than the work itself. I may not be able to appreciate its artistry, but I can at least acknowledge it. Some works are to weighty for me to enjoy, and “Beloved” is one of those works that is just too big for me.

Parable of the Sower

Rarely do I regret not having read a book, but I’m kicking myself for not discovering Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel 20 years earlier.

The story begins on the 15th birthday of Lauren Oya Olamina, whose journal comprises the novel’s entirety. The year is 2024, and the world depicted in a little over three years from the time of this post seems disturbingly similar to the world we have now. Gated communities, disinterested and often criminal police forces, rampant drug use, violent gangs, disastrous climate changes, labor laws enabling employers to enslave workers… Dystopian novels set in the near future tend to not age well (I’m looking at you Mr. Blair), but Butler’s prophetic ability is as brilliant as it is unsettling.

Another problem with this genre is tone; once you read the fate of Winston Smith, Robert Neville, or Dwight Towers, you can’t help feeling hopeless. Dystopia is at its best when it offers a solution, a way to escape from mankind’s dark fate, whether it be from a belief that survival is insufficient or an unlikely military victory. In Butler’s novel, hope is seen in Earthseed, the “religion” founded by Lauren in her journal. Quotes are needed because Earthseed, while it borrows language and thought from multiple established religions, is unlike any belief system that came before it. Lauren views God as an independent being, but one that needs to be shaped by its followers:

God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought… ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace — and how to deal with the others.

Lauren, through her thoughts on Earthseed, also looks beyond this planet, and sees humanity’s potential being realized on worlds beyond our solar system. In other words, there isn’t much hope for Earth, but there is hope for its people when they reach the stars.

Butler wrote a sequel to this novel, but her plan to complete a trilogy died with her in 2006. I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book, but it will probably be right after reading another dystopian novel gets me feeling helpless.