Thursday, 19 April 2007

How Writing a Novel Makes You Read (Novels) Differently

It's a strange one this.

I've avoided reading any chick lit since starting my novel (as I don't want to inadvertently pick up on someone else's style/voice) but I have been reading. I finished reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby the other day and have recently started reading The Abortionist's Daughter by Elisabeth Hyde (which I picked up in a 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones. It seems to be a crime novel - which I normally don't read - so is different from my normal book choice).

Anyway, I'm not going to review either book but I did want to note how writing a novel myself has affected the way I read (hopefully this is just a short term side effect). I'm much more aware of things like style, voice, language, characterisation, plot and pacing than I've even been before when reading a novel. Maybe it's because there's something about these two novels that has stopped me being swept into the 'fictive dream' (a term coined by the late late John Gardner to describe how you get lost in a novel) but I've found myself almost analysing them as I read.

A quick summary of 'A Long Way Down' before I talk about it (so you're not entirely lost): For entirely different reasons four characters decide to kill themselves on New Year's Eve. Co-incidentally (or not so co-incidentally as it's a known suicide point) they all meet on the roof of 'Topper's House' (a high rise building). The story is about what happens after they talk each other down and how they interact and how they go about fixing the varies crises in their lives.

In "A Long Way Down" I was interested in the use of POV and voice (Hornby uses first person POV for four different characters - swapping between POVs to move the story on). Oh the whole he was very successful and I only noticed a couple of slips where a character used a phrase that was more suited to another character. The other thing I was aware of was plot progression. I got a very real sense of where the author reached a bit of a sticking point in the novel and had to pause. I could almost hear him think 'what happens now?' and then lo and behold, another conflict would appear. Sometimes these conflicts were organic to the plot, on other occasions they seemed very forced. i.e. Jess deciding to invent an 'angel' and sell the story to the national press. There were other events that felt very author led rather than character led a sense Hornby went 'okay, I'll have them do this now and, because I don't want to use one person's POV all the way through I'll have them invite one of the others along with them'. Sometimes this was out of character (for the tagger alonger) so we'd get their POV to explain why they decided to go along.

All this was completely contrary to the advice I've been given in one of my writing groups - the plot should be character rather than author led and this was, probably, the first time I was aware that a plot was author led.

I suppose the advice I, as a wannabe novelist, can take from this is that you must go with your instincts about your character and let them, rather than you, define the action of the novel. It makes the novel feel more dynamic and, ultimately, more honest. Your readers will feel it if you're manipulating your characters. Of course you still need to plot your novel and have an idea of the way it's going but you shouldn't force your characters to act out of character to move the action forwards. It feels false.

I've only just got started with "The Abortionist's Daughter" so there's not much I can say about that yet. What I have noticed is that its use of 3rd person limited POV. So far and I'm still only in Chapter 1 I've read Megan's POV, Frank's POV, Huck's POV and the Rev Steven's POV. It's a lot to take in in such a short chapter and I found myself flicking back in the book to work out who was talking about who. I can understand why the author did it - this is a crime book after all so you need to get into the heads of these people to get their take on what's going on (I'm assuming they're the main characters and that there aren't too many more!). It'll be interested to see if I remain a little confused as I continue to read or if I'll get to know these characters much better and start to automatically switch from one POV to another without coming out of the fictive dream.

My novel is 1st person POV all the way through (for just one character) so no potential confusion there (thank God) but it's interesting to study the way other authors approach POV because, hopefully, when I've finished this book there will be novel number 2 and 1st person POV might not suit that. I do like the ideal of multiple characters 1st person POV and the challenge will be to create unique voices.

1 comment:

Quillers said...

Have you ever read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Cally? It is a masterclass on writing 1st person from several different povs. It's my favourite classic novel. His other novel, The Moonstone uses the same technique. It's partly because of reading Wilkie Collins that I went back to school and became a writer.

Also, Kate Long's The Badmother's Handbook is more modern and also another good example of a writer using 1st person, but with three main characters.

I've heard about Don't Look Down and the Abortionists Daughter. I'll have to add them to my (ever-growing) list.