Category Archives: Writing

Notes on Writing a Novel #2

I’ve never been 100% confident in my ability to write dialogue. It’s something I’ve been paying close attention to in my novel. I have to get it right, because dialogue is the roofbeam that keeps this madhouse from collapsing in on itself. The dialogue is what brings the characters of your story to life, and any time there is a disconnect between the reader and your characters, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s an aspect of writing fiction that is easy to learn but so hard to master. It looks simple, but subtlety is required in order to achieve excellence. The writer of great dialogue is perceptive, not just of the conversational habits of real people, but of the craft of storytelling. They have to bridge the gap between the real world and the one on the page, all the while being able to keep each one at an arm’s length away from the manuscript.

What I mean by that is that, to me, the secret to writing effectual dialogue is maintaining balance. You don’t want it to be so realistic that it becomes hard to follow, but you also don’t want it to become so contrived that it feels like you’ve lifted the lines from a bad soap opera. Good dialogue is believable, but also sharp and friendly to readers of the medium of fiction. There’s a reason that news articles and the like will often re-word what an interviewee says, making the subject’s sentences neater and more accessible. They remove repeated words and fill in missing ones to achieve that all-important quality of dialogue: flow. The way we talk in everyday life is often jumbled and rough, and in the medium of drama we are looking to grip people’s attention with speech that is crisp and polished. My favorite example of this kind of excellence is the Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers. Here’s a short extract:

 

“What’s he going to do?”

“Nothing.”

“They’ll kill him.”

“I guess they will.”

“He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.”

“I guess so,” said Nick.

“It’s a hell of a thing.”

“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.

 

As you can see, the dialogue is snappy- each sentence has a way of flowing into the next. There is a rhythm that exists throughout the scene. And, Hemingway has achieved the kind of balance I mentioned earlier. He has captured the essence of how real people speak, rather than replicating it verbatim.

When I took classes in screenwriting at university, my professor reiterated that dialogue should be used only when absolutely necessary. If you can show what’s happening without speech, then do that. Our professors would go through our screenplays and pick out certain lines of dialogue.

“Is this really necessary?” they would say. We were shown the beginning of There Will Be Blood as an example of the power of omitting speech. It would have only diminished the effect of the scene if they had Daniel Day-Lewis exclaim “I fell down a pit mine and done me leg in!”

The same lessons hold true for writing fiction. A sense of balance is yet again required. You don’t want too much of your narrative exposition to come in the form of spoken dialogue, because then the characters will seem less believable. They will seem like mouthpieces for the events of the story, which will then indicate to the reader that you don’t think much of their intelligence. Nothing breaks immersion more than when information is forced into a character’s dialogue. For example, if a character is being cornered by a creepy janitor carrying an Arkansas Toothpick, said victim isn’t going to waste their breath going “Ah, so it was you all along. You must have seen Little Curtis walking home from school and snatched him while no one was looking!” when really they would be using their lungs to call for help.

But of course, you don’t want to have too little dialogue that your story becomes vague and boring. What dialogue you include should not be inconsequential. It should be striking and colorful. So once again, a sense of balance is needed- don’t be too vague, and don’t include too much. And if you get it just right, you’ll hopefully have written a scene that readers find compelling.

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Notes on Writing a Novel #1

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel. I’m about halfway through the first draft and I figured it might be a neat idea to blog about the writing process as it is happening. It’s the first long-term project I’ve worked on in years. When I first started writing stories as a kid, I wrote extended pieces of fiction. I’m not sure if I would call them novels though. I wrote them longhand in notebooks. I had heard at school that writers like to use notebooks with spiral binding, because they can rip the pages out if they want. So I got one, and started writing my very first story. It was a space adventure, in which me and my best friend Artie from school were the main characters. We were abandoned as kids on Saturn, and sort of grew up as feral children, before being adopted by aliens and given the gift of speech and intelligence. The two of us then set out on a voyage across the solar system, eventually reconnecting with our families, who had grown up on a human colony on Europa. The story featured pretty much all my friends from school at the time. Several wormholes, magical artifacts, and one cosmic baryonyx later, we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with a witch on a planet where the trees are so tall you can’t see the bottom, and the natives live in the clouds in hollowed-out apartments connected by bridges. This story ended up stretching across several notepads, most of which are now lost, and ended abruptly when my character gets a pet centipede (a centipede the size of a dozen Ford Fiestas parked in a row, of course) and I couldn’t think of a name for the damn thing. The last sentence was literally “I think I’ll name you-” and then it ends. Somehow I had enough imagination to write about ancient temples on the surface of Pluto, but not enough to come up with an appropriate name for a venomous, oversized arthropod with a taste for human flesh.

I wrote another story about a teenage girl who gets stranded on Neptune, and another one about a band of warriors hunting a powerful demon through an enchanted forest. I got a PC at the age of thirteen and I started typing my stories, leaving the notepads behind. When I was 14, I wrote a science fantasy novel influenced in no small part by Dune, Star Wars, and a game I was playing at the time called Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. The story ran 250 pages in length, and to date it’s the only true novel I have completed. As I got more serious about writing, I developed a more critical eye with which I regarded my work. I wrote short stories and poems for years, often planning and starting novels but never getting past about 5000 words or so. I told myself that eventually I’d get my act together, that it was destined to happen, that I just hadn’t found the right idea. Maybe I hadn’t found the right idea, but that was not all I was lacking. Until 2017 I wasn’t mentally fit enough for writing a novel. But then 2017 happened. The pills started working. My brain chemistry was reaching the right balance. I started reading again. I started blogging, and during 2017 I averaged 1348.9 words across 104 posts. My 25th birthday happened, and all of a sudden everything in my life felt urgent. I had to make up for all the time I had wasted over the years. I knew that the odd short story or poem was getting me nowhere. If I really wanted to make a go of this writing business, I had to prove to myself I could write a novel.

So far the process has gone better than I ever could have hoped. With each chapter I finish, I grow stronger. It’s the best thing I have in my life right now, and when I write it I feel so happy. And happiness is the most precious thing in the world to me. When I have it, it’s like gold dust slipping through my fingers, and I’m trying to hold onto it as long as I can. The idea that I can create my own happiness simply by writing words on a page is precious to me. It’s exciting. And for me, my writing will always be inextricably linked to my mental health. I’m going to blog about what I’ve learned during the writing process in a series of short posts. Today’s tip is all about happiness when writing. I’ve learned that writing a novel should always be separate to publishing a novel. They are two different tasks and ought to be treated as such. I think the best advice for a young writer is to focus simply on writing the novel. People often ask me when I’m going to start looking into publishers and literary agents, and my answer is always the same: I got no idea. I don’t care. None of that is relevant to my current goal, and sometimes I think writers worry too much about publishing a novel as opposed to simply writing it, and writing it the best way they can. You can’t publish a manuscript that is unfinished. My attempts to write novels since studying creative writing at university were mired by thoughts of publication. My mind was never where it needed to be. While my fingers were on the first draft, my mind was in the editing room, or worse it was in the publishing house. I would criticize my work harshly and give up, instead of just writing it and editing later.

It’s a common trap for budding novelists, and nothing hurts one’s confidence more than retiring a manuscript after the first chapter. The way to avoid this trap has everything to do with happiness. And that’s why it’s so important to focus completely on the novel and not anything that ought to come later. The best way to finish a manuscript is to enjoy it. Make sure that the story you are writing is one you would want to read. Unless you truly love the work, it won’t get completed. You’ll know you have the right idea when you can’t stop thinking about it, when you wake up thinking about the characters and their predicaments. I think if you are truly passionate about your subject, then that will naturally come across in your writing. Forget publishers and book signings and prizes. I strongly believe that a writer’s focus and energy should be 100% on his or her work; it’s the difference between someone who has something to say, and someone who has to say something. Think to yourself: do I want to write a novel, or do I want to write this novel? Be confident, follow your gut instincts, and blaze a trail that is entirely your own.

What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction

When I was a student of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, there was one seminar in particular that stood out to me. It was the final semester before graduation, and we were all packed into this airy room on the top floor of an old stone building that reminded me of Hogwarts. I realized when I was there that it was the first room I remembered being in when I arrived at Winchester as a freshman in 2011. I hadn’t been in it since, and I guess the cyclical feeling it gave me got me thinking about my degree as a whole. I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. I knew I wasn’t one of those people that celebrated it as the best time of their lives, probably going out for drinks with the professors, and forever remembering “Winchy-Winch” as their home away from home. No. I was a quiet face that no one would remember. But I was sure about one thing: the degree had made me a better writer. Even though I don’t think you need a degree in Creative Writing in order to write fiction, doing one certainly improves your technique and introduces you to a lot of ideas.

I thought about this during the seminar- what I had learned and what the whole thing was worth. My conclusion was that the true value of the program was in the way it brought together a lot of interesting- but imperfect- ideas. There are no secrets to Creative Writing. There’s no formula that, once cracked, explains everything. Professors, guest speakers, and peers contribute their experiences and what works for them. But every writer is different, and no one nugget holds universally true. The best usage of the degree, in my opinion, was in taking what everyone had to say and forming your own conclusion. I think one thing that new writers underestimate is the worth of their own opinion. A Creative Writing degree is not a passive process, and I don’t think the budding writer will become successful if he or she only ever tries to follow the mantra of others. If you want to write, you need to be confident, and you need to back your own ideas.

The two most famous tips handed down by professors and novelists are “Show, don’t tell” and “Get rid of those adverbs and adjectives”. They are useful guidelines, but if you look in any book, you will find passages that don’t adhere to them at all. A lot of good writing comes from pure instinct, when you stop thinking and just let your fingers type freely. If your noun has a flowery adjective or adverb attached to it that you feel is critical to the rhythm of the sentence, feel free to keep it. One such instance of it won’t kill your manuscript. If you look at some of the top authors today- I’m talking the Liane Moriartys, the Cormac McCarthys, the Rupi Kaurs- then you’ll find plenty of sentences that tell instead of show, and include nouns laced with adverbs. And these folks are the best in the business.

During my time at university I got conflicting advice from different professors. I also came to realize that editors don’t necessarily think the way writers do. One time we had a class where a professional editor from a publishing house came in to speak to us, and her perspective on what makes a good story was completely different to that of our professor. My professor disliked my story about a high school basketball player from rural Wisconsin, saying I was trying to be something I’m not, writing about an experience not my own. However the editor liked my story, and even said that it was perfectly fine that I was writing it in American English. The story later got published as a winning entry of a competition. And that’s what brings me to the heart of this post, and my realization during that seminar in my third year.

One of our professors was discussing the value of “write what you know” and told us about a novel she wrote. I think it was a love story or something like that. Anyway, she said she originally set the novel in Paris, but was advised to change it to London, and the story became better for it because she was more familiar with the latter. I’m not doubting the wisdom for that decision as it relates to that story. But I do think the mantra of “write what you know” can be misleading and limiting for new writers. Every story is different and every story approaches the concept of place in a different way. To me, a novel set in Paris has a completely different tone to one set in London. One of my favorite short stories is the American fairy tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. It’s a classic tale of a guy taking a massive nap in the Catskill Mountains. However, at the time of writing, Irving had never actually visited the Catskills. As a writer, you are entitled to go beyond your personal experience, if that’s where the narrative is taking you. You just have to get it right. If you look at George R. R. Martin’s background, he ought to be writing stories about dockworkers getting into fistfights with corrupt union bosses, saying “I coulda been somebody”. Instead he takes what he needs from the history of a country halfway across the Earth and creates a world based on that history that feels vivid and believable. People often take issue with someone trying to write about cultures not their own, or men writing stories about women. But if you can write well, then nothing is denied you. Philip Pullman wrote a badass novel from the perspective of a young girl, and Lois Lowry wrote an equally badass novel from the perspective of a young boy. If you want to write about Bhutan, but you live in Escanaba, MI, then go book a flight! Learn from the place- get a hold of its pulse, listen to the people, and add your own unique perspective. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write about. So many powerful, mesmerizing books and films have been made about the Holocaust from people that didn’t live through it; what those creators did is be respectful of its history and listen to those that were there.

The mantra that always resonated the most with me is as follows: write what you want to learn about. The key to finishing a novel is being passionate about your subject. So write the kind of book you would want to read.

My Year in Review: 2017

I’m not sure what I expected from 2017, except more of the same. The same half-hearted attempts at being productive; moments of inspiration that disappeared as quickly as they came- little flashes in the great gray amorphous cloud of boredom and lethargy. The same desperate attempts to recapture isolated instances of joy, which similarly flashed briefly out of a default state of depression. I was in the mindset that nothing would ever change, for better or for worse. That I was being railroaded from one year to the next, that life existed only for me to watch- and not to create. Every year I make a resolution, but there’s always an underlying belief that I don’t have the strength, knowledge, or willpower to follow through. Each year seemed like running the same race over and over again, that I was a greyhound bolting after a rabbit that I would never attain. I’d never read all the awesome novels of the world, I’d never finally finish writing my own, I’d never meet that perfect, “wife-material” lady (somewhere between Emilia Clarke and Hannah Witton), I’d never achieve a more balanced, contented mood.

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In fact, the year started on a rather uninspiring note. I went to a New Year’s party and whilst the party itself was fun, I got pretty drunk and whenever that happens my anxiety levels really spike. I tend to peak ahead of everyone else, before suffering some kind of anxiety attack that snowballs into the morning and the rest of the week. I don’t get hangovers or anything like that, but I have a tendency whenever I drink a lot to get depressed and strangely paranoid. For the first two months of the year I didn’t do anything at all- I couldn’t sleep, I was tired all the time, and I hardly moved. But beginning with March, things seemed to get better, and the year presented me with a few surprises and a decent number of highlights to look back upon. So here’s my Year in Review for 2017:

 

  • I finally got around to passing my driving test after stopping and starting my lessons over a two and a half year period. It was a huge relief because I was close to the point where it had been two years since I passed my theory test, and if I were to fail my road test on my fourth attempt back in February, then I would have had to retake the theory exam, and I can’t think of anything more disheartening than sitting through that piece of shit again. I may have given up on the whole idea of driving altogether and waited instead for those fancy self-driving hovercrafts to take the market by storm.
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  • I had the honor of serving as the wedding photographer for my best friend Elizabeth as she married her soul mate in Witney, UK. It was an awesome experience, not just shooting the wedding, but being included in such an intimate way in the craziest week ever as my American family completely overwhelmed this quaint English village in the countryside.
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  • I got my first pair of glasses this year, after noticing that I couldn’t make out the score when watching Chelsea games or the subtitles when watching Downfall. It was really sudden how my long-distance eyesight deteriorated.
  • I started this very website, and so far it’s grown to be longer than The Hobbit. I’m real happy with myself for writing something over 100,000 words and not getting bored of it. The response from my friends and subscribers has been so encouraging, and it’s moments of kindness like those that have been the best part of the blogging experience.
  • As the year started to improve with Elizabeth’s wedding, I noticed that I was on something of a happy-streak. For once my mood seemed solid, as though I could rely on myself to be happy on a day-to-day basis. It was the first time I could actually remember feeling happy in a permanent sense. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I genuinely had never felt that sense of being happy for no reason. My mind was clear. I told Aaron and said “Maybe I don’t need the pills anymore.”
    He replied, “Don’t you think it might be that the pills are working?”
    Aaron was right. I had started out on Prozac in November 2015, before switching to Citalopram in the New Year, and doubling the dosage a few months later. It’s the kind of drug that takes an affect after a long period of use, and 2016 saw little progress except for making me ravenously hungry. So I decided to stay on the pills after my doctor told me there were no drawbacks to doing so, and that it was entirely about how comfortable I was with them in my life. 2017 has been an amazing year for my mental health; I feel happier, more productive, and I have completely stopped dwelling on mistakes, failures and depressing memories. For once I’m looking forward and I actually want myself to succeed.
  • Following up on that point, this year has seen me approach food in an entirely different way. Not just my attitude toward eating, but the very mechanics of doing so. I can now drink without looking down (something I figured was due to my fear of barfing). I don’t spend forever chewing, I eat quicker, and I eat more. Two years ago I weighed 139lbs (9.9 stone) and now I’m about 190lbs (13.5 stone). At the rate I’m going I’m gonna turn into Jabba the Hutt if I don’t swap the cheesecakes for some kale. As soon as I walked through the door to the doctor’s office this year, my doctor exclaimed “Woah, you look different!”
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  • I spent the summer in Texas with my best friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. It was my fifth period of living in the USA and the fourth summer in a row of living with the two lovebirds. It was the only summer in which I was able achieve a near-perfect balance between productivity and fun, between personal growth and social success. Highlights of my stay include tagging along to Aaron and Ann-Marie’s engagement photos, making an ass-ton of food for the NBA Draft, having the best July 4th yet poolside at a swanky apartment complex, gaining experience of sales and solar energy, making pumpkin bars with Anne-Marie, playing with our border collie Adelaide, and going to the beach on Galveston Island.
  • I started drinking coffee this year and now I don’t know how I ever managed without it. My whole schedule is built on caffeine.
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  • I have worked two jobs. Before the summer I worked as a cleaner at a bar in Nailsea. It was a pretty awful job cleaning up puke and sprayed fecal matter, but I’ll definitely carry that experience with me for life. After the summer I started working in the kitchen of a Middle-Earth-style tavern, also in Nailsea. So far I have quite enjoyed it. It’s frenetic and intense, but it’s an interesting environment. Shout out to my friend Daniel for getting me the job and going out of his way on my behalf.
  • Lastly, I have finally committed to writing an extended piece of fiction, instead of the poems and short stories I have been working on since graduation. At the moment I’m writing a novel and it’s going quite well. It’s already the longest thing I’ve written in over a decade, since that 250-page novel I wrote when I was 14 about wizards fighting sentient robots.

Thank you so much for reading and supporting my blog! It means the world to me. Let me know in the comments if you have any targets for 2018 and what you’ve learned from the year just passed.

One Hundred

I was thinking of doing something special for this post, and I’ve decided that the best way to celebrate TumbleweedWrites’ 100th word-baby is to go all Meta on you. Today we are doing a blog post about the blog itself, and I think it’s a great chance for me to speak more directly to you, the readers! This website is still in its infancy and its identity is very much incomplete. So for my 100th post I thought it might be good to share with you my reflections on the blog so far, and the direction it will take in the future.

 

  1. The first and most important order of business is to say THANK YOU. TumbleweedWrites never would have reached 100 posts if it weren’t for all of the readers who take the time out of their busy lives to read its content. It’s honestly the most humbling thing to see someone give their time to read the sentences I write; the idea that someone out there has considered or thought about my ideas and my expressions. So thank you so much to all of my subscribers, and to those who visit my website regularly.
  2. I also want to give special thanks to a few individuals whose support not only made TumbleweedWrites possible, but made a significant difference to my writing. You are the people that actively shaped this website. I am committed to personal privacy, so I’ll just vaguely describe you: thanks to my goofy brother for all your battle strategy, to my dear MMA-loving friend from Congesbury for your continued faith and kindness, and to my current co-worker for the most humbling, confidence-boosting message I have ever received. And of course I would like to give extra thanks to my American roommates, who not only supported the blog in its early days, but created the conditions for its very existence by nurturing me to full mental health during a particularly destructive period of depression.
  3. How did TumbleweedWrites begin? Well I’ve always wanted to do a blog, but until 2017 I wasn’t in the right mental state to make it work. This blog actually has its roots in Instagram. I got my first smart phone in October 2016 and a few months later I started Instagramming all the books I was reading. It was a way to hold myself accountable, and by Instagramming these books I was able to escape my massive reading slump and start reading much more effectively. I started to realize, however, that my captions on the Instagram posts were becoming literal essays, so I decided I might as well create a blog for my books.
  4. What do I want TumbleweedWrites to be? It started as a book blog, but once that got up and running I decided to take the plunge and start blogging about travel, video games and my life. That’s when the blog became less of a tool to motivate me to read and more of an online journal aimed at connecting with others. I’ll blog about anything that interests me, anything I think is worth writing about, but I will always keep a core of book, travel, personal, and writing-related posts!
  5. How do I feel about the journey so far? So far I’m happy with TumbleweedWrites. Some posts are better than others. There are a few posts that I’m really proud of; that I felt went particularly well. My favorite posts are Grandma Jane’s Pumpkin Bars40 Notes From Crete and Making Friends in the USA Part 1. These are the kind of pieces I look back on when the going gets tough, and the ones I try to emulate in my writing.
  6. What’s next for TumbleweedWrites? As 2017 draws to a close I have a few special blog posts planned, full of festivity and reflecting on 2017 as a whole. And I also have a surprise in store for Spring 2018, but you’ll have to wait to find out!
  7. How can I help TumbleweedWrites? If you enjoy my writing and want to see more of it, then you can help by Liking or Sharing my posts, or Subscribing to TumbleweedWrites. If you really really want to help, then please consider disabling Adblock for this site and giving my Ads a cheeky click!

The Abuse of Realism

Any writer- whether you’re penning a swashbuckling, steampunk romp through the clouds with Victorian gentlemen poking poison-tipped canes at zeppelin-hungry dragons, or simply a meditative portrait of an unraveling sexless lesbian marriage in Bucharest- needs to have a good handle on that eternally disrespected noun “realism”. Before I continue writing my current novel today, I wanted first to do a short piece on how you can still have a story that’s “realistic”, even as it throws the laws of physics out the window and into a river of magma teeming with hammerhead sharks that breathe radioactive lasers.

Let me ask you, have you ever been watching a show set in a fantastical world like Game of Thrones and thought to yourself “That’s just not realistic”, or better yet “How did she know where to find Jon Snow?”. Of course you have. I was watching one of my favorite shows recently- The Walking Dead– and as the season concluded I found that I and almost everyone I know uttered an audible groan. Has this show started consciously making fun of itself? I wondered. One moment that stood out was the episode where our heroes kept reiterating how they only needed to kill the main antagonist, that nothing else mattered. In the next scene said antagonist brazenly opens a door onto a balcony with about twenty assault rifles aimed squarely on his big brass gonads, only for the heroes to sit there and listen to him mock them. But take that or any of the increasingly ridiculous moments from this once gritty drama and lament its approach to realism and you’ll often be met with the response “You’re going to complain about realism in a show with brain-chomping zambers?”

I personally find the word “believability” to be more helpful than “realism” when swatting aside such retorts. Audiences and readers will accept zombies, dragons, and what have you, because their existence makes sense within the context of the world. Applying realism to your story is not some kind of creative shackle; you can add as many fantastical elements as you like. You, as the creator, can have fun with creating your own set of physical laws in the process of world-building. You just have to be consistent, and not break your own laws. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi can’t teleport themselves, but in Harry Potter, wizards “apparate”. If Luke Skywalker suddenly started hopping from planet to planet like a great big interdimensional space bunny, then the audience would start to feel disconnected from the story. At that moment, you’ve yanked them out of their immersion.

The most important thing about creating “believability” in a story is to carefully craft the relationships between people and institutions. That’s where real life and fiction from other genres can help you with your story. To write fiction that resonates, your characters and the dynamics between them have to resemble believable human behavior. I’ve seen countless authors describe the same thing- that same, all-important element of a story- when giving advice to young writers. I was watching an interview where author Shelby Foote reflects on the novels of William Faulkner. How much truth is in them? Do they reflect life in the Deep South during the early 20th century? Foote answered that the stories don’t strive to be truthful in the journalistic sense; they just have convey something that is “basically real”. I think what Foote means by that is that a good story will communicate something about the human experience that resonates with people. As readers, we can imagine the angry Jason Compson; the way he and his brothers are so profoundly affected by their sister’s free-spirited sexuality. We find their inner conflicts compelling because we can imagine them each reacting the way they do to the events of the novel.

Another author I was listening to recently was Salman Rushdie, who echoed these sentiments. Using an example of a flying carpet, he said that a writer must approach writing about such a thing in a realistic way in order to make it compelling. To make a scene about riding on a flying carpet interesting and to make it resonate, you have to think about little things such as how the rider keeps his or her balance, or the way the surface of the carpet might become uneven as it ripples in the wind. Rushdie goes on to say that the truth of fiction is not literal truth, since the premise of fiction is that it is unreal. Truth in fiction refers to the way it acts as a mirror to the human condition, and tells us something about the way we interact with each other.

At the moment I’m writing a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist starts working in a kitchen. I’ve recently started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea (in the UK) and I’m trying to absorb everything I can. I go out of my way to know the source of every smell, the name of every item, and I pay special attention to the way my new coworkers talk with each other. I make a note of every phone call, every order, every supplier that shakes hands with the head chef. Even if I weren’t writing a book that features a kitchen in it, I think a kitchen is such a visceral and interesting environment to be in as a writer. It’s like a prison or a circus or a whorehouse; so alive with energy, where everything titillates the senses, where every day is different. As I came towards the end of my shift the other day, a friend asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my day.

“Probably more writing,” I said bashfully.

At that moment the head chef came past and quipped “Whatchya gonna write about tonight? Confessions of a Dishwasher?”

I laughed, and thought to myself: not too far off, actually. But the kitchen I write in my book doesn’t have to be a real kitchen, it just has to seem real. And I think the same is true for whatever environment you want to create; don’t worry about recreating your inspiration in exact detail- just include enough interesting observations to make it a place that could exist. Then, hopefully, you have achieved that much desired quality of believability.

3 Experimental Novels That Inspired Me!

Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.

Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!

 

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Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet

First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit

Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.

How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.

 

The Sound and the Fury

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Author: William Faulkner

First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith

Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.

How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.

 

Rayuela (Hopscotch)

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Author: Julio Cortázar

First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima

Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)

Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.

How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.

 

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