I picked up one of the more popular ones, Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell and I started reading from the very beginning. There’s a very nice review of this book here. I’m quite sure when I bought this book, I raced through the whole thing as fast as I could, but this time, I took my time.
He’s got some interesting exercises in the very beginning of the book that I was far too impatient to try when I first read the book and it's likely they wouldn’t have helped me much then. The very first exercise in the book is this one:
“Set aside ten minutes of undisturbed writing time. For those ten minutes, write a free-form response to the following: When readers read my novels, I want them to feel _________________________________at the end. That’s because to me, novels are __________________________________________.” pg. 20.
The purpose of this exercise is to analyze the mini-essay and gain some insight into the type of plotter you are. I found the question startling because I’ve never thought about what I'm doing in terms of how I want it to impact the reader and I've never meditated on what novels are to me.
Without giving it much thought, this is the gist of what I wrote:
When readers read my novels, I want them to feel introspective at the end. I want them to consider that a life is the aggregation of millions of decisions, some tiny and some enormous. I want to explore the notion that every human being constantly navigates choices and is presented with scores of opportunities to choose action over inaction, sacrifice over self-interest, generosity over greed, and freedom over security. Some decisions, many of them seemingly insignificant, are crucial and the consequences can ricochet in all directions, impacting and altering other lives. Do I choose to close my eyes to the neighbor I suspect is being beaten by her husband, or do I intercede? Do I cling to safety, marry the first person I love, stay with the first company to offer me a job and never leave my hometown? Do I react and adapt to what life sends my way, or do I take risks? Do I walk away from the known, the safe, and the secure and become an artist? An entrepreneur? A heroin addict? A parent? I want readers to enter the world of my characters and to see through their eyes, even when those characters are quite different from them. That’s because to me, novels are a reflection of the series of the often random causes and effects life presents to everyone.
It's not my ultimate writer’s statement, but it’s a starting point and something I can continue to ponder and come back to.
I thought another of Bell's exercises might lead me closer to nailing this down. The idea is to pull some of your favorite novels off the shelf and then analyze them by asking a series of questions. I thought that I might find some common threads that would lead me to a better understanding of the kind of writer I want to be.
These were the titles I wrote down as I scanned the shelves:
A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle
The Tortilla Curtain, by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
How the Dead Dream, by
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Old School, by Tobias Wolff
The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert
The questions about each book are: "What is it about the lead character that captures you? What is it the lead is trying to get away from? When did the story kick into “high gear”? What was the main opposition to the lead’s objective? How did the ending make you feel? Why did it work?" pg. 21.
I am much too lazy to go through the series of questions for each book, but I did think about them. In many of the books, there's not a whole lot of external "action", but the characters do change significantly from the beginning of each story to the end. In some of my selections, several characters within the same book experience profound change.
Both of these exercises were useful to me because it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of the WIP and not stop now and then, re-vector, and continue to ask these very basic questions.
How would you fill in the blanks on the first exercise, or either part of it? The first blank isn’t that hard to fill in. The second one is a little harder. What are novels, to you?
Off the top of your head, what are a few of your favorite novels?