Thursday, May 22, 2008

When Readers Read My Novels...

A couple of weeks ago, I broke out the white board, easel paper, index cards, and every plotting prop I could think of, and started flipping through some of my (too) many books on craft.

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
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
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?


Anonymous said...

Great post, Lisa. I don't have the time at the moment to answer your questions, but I will say reading Bell's PLOT & STRUCTURE was a watershed moment for me.

Rachel Green said...

...loss and disorientation... because novels should take me out of my daily existence and immerse me in the world within the pages.

Melissa Amateis said...

I loved your response to the exercise - very honest and heartfelt and quite elegant, too.

When I first started thinking of what I wanted to give my readers, I just wanted to offer them an escape from reality and that was pretty much it. Now, though, as my writing has evolved and changed and grown, that perspective has shifted a bit. I still want to offer escape, but there is a bit more, too, though I am unsure just how to put it into words at the moment. :-)

Let's see...favorite books. Tree of Gold by Rosalind Laker is my ultimate favorite. Watchers by Dean Koontz is a close second. Black Cross by Greg Iles is another. All three are very different novels. Hmm...wonder what that says about me?

Charles Gramlich said...

These are very interesting, and I think good questions to ask. They need a bit of thought and I will give them some.

I know I would love to write the kind of book that readers would close the last page and just sit there for a moment and think, maybe feeling a little sad that the story is over

WH said...

I love the ten minite free writing exercise. It's great.

As for favorite novels, I like Steinbecks's. I think he was overshadowed by Hemingway and Faulkner. I think anything by Vonnegut is great, and I usually like the fare of Tom Robbins. Mark Twain's travel books are fantastic. I also love the rich prose and syntax of John Updike. I'd be typing all day if I added the genre fiction.

Steve Malley said...

I try to write the kind of days you'd tell your grandkids about.

You know... "I ever tell you kids about the time back in college, I was home on a break and killed my momma's new husband, on account of he'd murdered *my* daddy to get at her?" (Although Hamlet dies, so maybe that isn't the best example)

Or... "Yup, same day I married your momma, I also shot it out with five vicious killers. I'd a been dead right now, your momma wasn't so handy with that there rifle!" (High Noon)

Hm! Good idea for a blog post...

Julie Kibler said...

In a voice class I just finished, we attempted to encapsulate our weeks of work into one thing--What is the one question you are trying to answer with your writing?

It was an interesting exercise, and strangely, not as hard as it would seem. Many stories, many plots, many characters, but if you're writing the right stuff, they probably can all be tied together with that one question

steve on the slow train said...

Patry Francis has said what I want to convey to the reader in her May 4 post. Trying to explain her "unreasonable happiness, one night, she gave several reasons, but concluded with this one:

"But most of all it was a passage in the book I'd been reading-- a yet to be pubished novel called THE GARGOYLE by Andrew Davidson which the publisher sent me for review. In that passage, a young debut author had managed to accomplish the highest thing a writer can hope to do, at least for this reader: open the trap door, and reveal the goodness and the love we are meant for."

Given the fact thar I tend to be pessimistic, curmudgeonly, and depressive too much of the time, it seems unlikely that my goals are like Patry's. Wer're not always consistent. And writing a novel in which what C.S. Lewis's Four Loves are a saving grace has helped my own moods trmendously.

As for my favorite novels, I'll be honest: Jack Finney's "Time and Again," any Nero Wolfe, Tecumseh Fox, or Alphabet Hicks novel by Rex Stout, and the books of the Time Quartet by Madeleine L'Engle (with "A Wind in the Door" my favorite of the four). Oh, yes, and the Harry Potter books.

Lisa said...

Rob, Glad you stopped by! The book has been very helpful to me. One of the things I like about it is that he makes it applicable to all genres and styles. Many of the craft books don't do that. Some of them geared toward literary fiction get a little dismissive toward genre at times and the ones geared toward genre fiction get a little snarky toward literary fiction. He treats both as valid, but slightly different forms and I dig that.

Rachel, "loss and disorientation" -- great words and I know exactly what you mean. Your writing does immerse me into a world that's familiar and yet surreal and a little disorienting in a very good way.

Melissa, Well thank you. It's not easy to put into words and I'm not entirely sure I got my own right. I think your diverse choices say that you're curious and open and that can't ever be anything but a big plus.

Charles, It's funny that it's an exercise and a free write, which dictates that you can't think about it. On the other hand, after I did it, I thought about it a lot. Am still thinking about it, especially with such great comments to add food to the thought. Yes, those books that leave me sad that I've come to the end are the best.

Billy, Your writing reminds me a lot of elegant free writing. It always feels very natural, a little magical and as though much of it comes directly from your unconscious. Great choices -- you should have thrown some genre in too.

Steve M, What a great aspiration and I LOVE your adaptations! I suspect that a very cool blog post is brewing...

Julie, That sounds like another great topic for a blog post. I'd love to know what your answer/question was. I will definitely give that a try too.

Steve, That post of Patry's was amazing. And as usual, you teach me something new every time you post or comment. I had to go to Wiki to find out that in C.S. Lewis's Four Loves "...he formulates the foundation of his topic ("the highest does not stand without the lowest") by exploring the nature of pleasure, and then divides love into four categories, based in part on the four Greek words for love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity." And -- I have not read any of those books and will have to investigate.

P.S. You don't come off at all as pessimistic, curmudgeonly and depressive. Quite the contrary. :)

Carleen Brice said...

Believe or not, I didn't know of this book and since plot is tough for me I will be picking it up ASAP. I like that question. Josephian Damien had a post recently that asked similar question about what you wanted the reader to think and feel after EACH scene. Whew. No wonder it's so damn hard to write a novel!

Lisa said...

Carleen, The book only came out in 2005, but I have heard it recommended by a number of people. I really think it's a keeper. Plot is killing me! ;)

kate hopper said...

I love your response to the exercise, Lisa. You've inspired me to do the same with my mss, even though it's nonfiction.

I would add to the novels: Blindness by Jose Saramago and Waiting for the Barbarians by Coetzee.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

You know I'm not good with the exercises because they always feel like I dont have enough invested in them. I wish I could do writing exercises instead of writing whole novels to develop my skills. probably would save me much time!

Barrie said...

Most novels by Anita Shreve. I also really love Elinor Lipman, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Carol Shields, Robertson Davies, Sarah Dessen. Now that I've started, I could list forever! Great post, BTW.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...


I'm popping by to see if you wouldn't mind helping me promote a guest I have coming this WEdnesday. Dr. Gigi Durham, the author of the Lolita Effect, the media sexualization of young girls and what we can do about it, is guest appearing on my blog this coming WEdnesday to answer questions on this very important topic. It would be wonderful if you could help spread the word or at the very least stop by and be part of our Q&A discussions.

I think you will really appreciate this discussion and I really hope to see you there!

Josephine Damian said...

Lisa: I list my fave books in my blogger profile (after I post a rave review tonight I'll be adding to my list)

Great question to ask about one's WIP. I think the motto of the exercise is to think through your WIP to the end before you start writing. I stop reading so many books that are just not as well thought out as they should have been.

Lisa said...

Kate, I loved BLINDNESS and after I wrote my post on description of smell in fiction I should have talked about it. I read DISGRACE and loved it, so I'll have to check out WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS.

Ello, I don't do them very often, but now and then I find that if I do the right one at the right time, it tends to knock something loose for me.

Barrie, Great list...believe it or not, it's to my shame that I've never read Margaret Atwood and I really want to.

Ello, No forthcoming.

Josie, Yes, I think it's an obvious omission. For many people I think early drafts are necessary to find our way into the book, but at some point, trying to identify exactly what it is we're trying to do is critical to making the story true to itself.

Unknown said...

Favourite novels? Hmm... at the moment, in no particular order, I'd say:
Wonder Boys - Michael Chabon. Comfortable.
The House of Sleep -Jonathan Coe. Involved.
The Secret History - Donna Tartt. Dark.
Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons. Hilarious.
Human Croquet - Kate Atkinson. Sweeping.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell. Woven.
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov. Evil.
A Home at the End of the World - Michael Cunningham. Poignant.
Choke - Chuck Palahniuk. Fevered.

Lisa said...

Electric Orchid Hunter, I love the one word descriptions of each. We have similar taste in books. I've ever read WONDER BOYS, but I own the movie and I love it. Loved THE SECRET HISTORY, have CLOUD ATLAS, but haven't read it yet and read and own CHOKE and thought it was really good too. I'll have to check out some of the others on your list. You didn't steer me wrong with THE RAW SHARK TEXTS.

Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed TRST. Some thought it gimmicky, but I was tremendously entertained. I'm quite obsessed with TSH, and think about the characters constantly, almost as if they were real people. WB is one of my favourite movies too! The book is all that, and so much more - the movie would be five hours long if they had to include all the madness.

sexy said...


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf