I read something the other day that made me think (unaccustomed exercise: new pathways created, and all that).
It was actually in an intriguing book about how useful the novel (excuse that Freudian slip) approach of ‘writing a book from the middle’ is, in giving a clear, effortless structure. This is, in fact, a book full of a good advice on structure for every sort of writer. It can be applied by those who begin writing with only the vaguest plan –(I am one of those, in good company with Stephen King) – for those who plan their novels like a military campaign, and for those who are in between.
In fact, I would recommend this book, which explains how if you have the strong core at the centre of a book (a bit like Pilates for wordsmiths, I suppose) then the rest of it can hold up.
It’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ by James Scott Bell Compendium Press (2014).
The author quotes various massively successful novels which have, for all their superficially rambling, epic nature, that ‘Magical Midpoint Moment’ that gives structure and coherence to the whole. This, he suggests, applies to films as well as novels of all genres. He quotes ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Casablanca’ as two perennially successful examples of stories with a watertight core. He quotes ‘The Hunger Games’ as another example (I am still meaning to read that, though I have seen the film).
This intrigued me. I was interested enough to pick up some of my favourite novels – Margaret Attwood’s ‘Bodily Harm’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ were two – and in fact, the conflict that lies at the base of both plots is indeed at the centre of the novels.
I have gone into both in depth elsewhere, so no need to repeat myself in detail about that conflict here. But briefly: –
In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ there is a discussion between the heroine’s parents about the rumoured fickleness of her preferred, stimulating, but supposedly dead lover and the dogged devotion of her still living cousin, whom she finds dull. This really, is the core of the novel. Which one will bring her long term happiness (if either)? Perhaps neither truly can, if the one whose devotion she hardly notices is too dull to excite her, while the other hero of her fantasy might be just that – an externalisation of all her ideal qualities in a man projected onto one faulty human being, with a questionable past…
In ‘Bodily Harm’ we have this: ‘Paul smiles: a kindly, threatening smile. “I like you,” he says. “I guess I’m trying to tell you not to get too mixed up in local politics.”’ And there it is the crux of the meaning of the novel. Rennie is a journalist who writes superficial ‘lifestyle’ magazine articles, and who, after some devastating real life experiences, decides to ‘escape from it all’ on a working holiday in a little known Carribean island; here she gets drawn into local politics willy nilly.
I couldn’t resist looking at one of my own novels, my first, ‘That Scoundrel Ėmile Dubois’ to check the middle. Sure enough, there at about the centre, we have the anti hero taking his bride Sophie to their newly rented house after the wedding ceremony.
There, waiting to greet her, along with other staff members, are their new butler and housekeeper Mr and Mrs Kit. It just so happens that they are former associates of his in his old career as the highwayman Monsieur Giles. Ėmile is an incorrigible scoundrel yet – in fact, potentially a far worse one, for he has been possibly infected with the vampire virus – and Sophie sees that she will live in a household (with the exception of Agnes, her maid) run by his former disreputable cronies whose first loyalties are to him. She is uneasy about that, without knowing why…
…But, she doesn’t run off. She’s too besotted; besides, she knows underneath that she is going to stay and fight to bring out the best in the rascal.
I was – of course – pleased to find the story has a strong core, in fact, done unconsciously. Perhaps, the unconscious sometimes tidies up those issues which the conscious neglects?
I am not saying that novel doesn’t arguably have other faults in its composition. Some find the plot too complex, for instance.
Anyway, that was a novel I particularly loved writing. I have loved the actual writing part of all my novels (I have whinged often enough about how I hate the editing), but that one – it was, to quote a silly pop song, ‘like flying without wings’. It was a joy ride in the best sense.
And that brings me on to a point the author of ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ makes: ‘When an author is joyous in the telling, it pulses through the words…Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. and that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.’
And isn’t a distinctive voice what makes a novel stand out?
I would love to write like Margaret Attwood. I am going to repeat that: I would love to write like Margaret Attwood! But I never will write like Margaret Attwood. I can only write as the best Lucinda Elliot possible, and the only way to do that is to write what I love.
What happens to people who write what they don’t love is illustrated all too clearly in the case of the writer Patrick Hamilton.
The contrast between the wonderful vigour of his early works, such as the trilogy ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’ and the tragic comic grandeur of his vision in his masterpieces, ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and the sour impression left by last work, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ is painfully obvious.
Hamilton had lost, not only his faith in people and the progress of history, had not only descended into alcoholism and bouts of depression, but also his joy in writing.
It is not that he wrote about some very unpleasant people in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’; because he always wrote about mainly unpleasant people. However, before his last novels, he also had at least one admirable, or anyway, sympathetic and well meaning character at the centre of the story. Besides that, he portrayed the absurdities, snobberies, bigotories and impossible behaviour of the others so humorously that one was left with a sense of being uplifted.
Not only that: in his earlier books, there is always what he called ‘the country dance’ where the reader is truly inspired, and sees – along with the admirable character who is always there at the core of the novel – that life has its joyful side.
In his later novels, the portrayal of that decent person is weaker and weaker, and finally, in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ it is actually lacking. He had forgotten that the normal reader wishes to be left with a feeling of having been ‘brought out of himself or herself’ as well as bieng wryly amused.
Had he, with his massive talent, only somehow kept in touch with that joy, he could have avoided that dying fall.
We must remember to write with joy. And that, by the way, is my true answer to a blog post I wrote maybe a year ago, about a novice writer friend of mine who was devastated by her first one star review (and I am still proud I did not say in reply ‘How nice to have only one of those: would you care to count how many I have?’ ).
One should ignore unfair criticism (just criticism with some basis for it is a different matter; we should take a lot of notice of that) and go on in revelling in the joy of writing. There will always be detractors, and anything that stands out must come under fire, but the best way to treat that is to keep on having joy in what you create.