Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 2: a Few Definitions

The first post in this series brought one pertinent statement to the table: you can write a novel.
There are any number of ways to do it, as we know: write one in a month, or write it in a year.
We concluded last week with an entreaty to begin the whole process in a pre-writing stage of things. We agreed to write down all we know, sketches, vignettes or the designing of characters. These little exercises, which I hope were lucrative, are probably very small next to the enormous project ahead. I say enormous because of the size and the time involved and the depth of it.
Let's define the novel a little bit more today, and I hope this definition makes the whole project more manageable.
Word counts:
Flash Fictions: less than 1,000 words.
Short Story: between 1,000 and 7,000 words.
Novelette: between 7,000 and 17,000 words.
Novella: between 17,000 and 50,000 words.
Novel: between 50,000 and 300,000 words.
Epic: 300,000 and above.
Obviously these word counts are a strange way to define fiction or works of literature. Besides, who's ever heard of the novelette? How about “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro? “Disquiet” by Julia Leigh? “Brokeback Mountain” by Anne Proulx? All of these were between the 7,000 and 17,000 word count mark. They are all wonderful stories and at least in the case of two of them, they made big enough impacts that they were made into beautiful and commercially successful films: Away from Her and Brokeback Mountian.
The Novella is possibly my favorite form of fiction. The novella for me is the ideal way to spend an afternoon. In a novella, the reader gets the character, the task and the plot very quickly. Novellas are typically one story line, no subplot, little subtext. “Things that Hang from Trees” by T.A. Louis, “The Saddest Summer of Samuel S” by J.P. Donleavy, and “Kneller's Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret are great examples of the novella.
But the novel? That's why we're here. There is more going on than the other forms, right? Much more than mere word count. In fact, the only real thing in this word count nonsense is that it is a tangible way to track progress. As we said last week, for this project, we're going to focus on that 50,000 word mark. If we break this word count down, this project goes from now until the end of May, 17 weeks, 119 days, or 420 words a day. That makes it pretty easy.

Let's consider the type of novel we want to write. In our pre-write, we came up ideas, characters perhaps, even a sketch or two. First, let's look at the narrator's point of view. Is the most prevalent narration in first person, third, or something else?
First person narration is potent. Many writers use this well. The I narration is personal, I is direct, I is present in the story and clearly part of the action. The I can be limited only because I cannot know the intricate or intimate thoughts of others.
The third person narrator may or may not know certain things. Third person can follow a character for a spell and switch to another. Third person can know the deepest thoughts or secrets of everyone involved. The third person narrator will know what the reader knows too. This narrator really does have the greater flexibility.
A combination of these two types of narrators will work too. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham is a first person narrator who introduces the story and characters and makes a seamless shift to an almost omnipotent third person narration.
Alice Walker or Daniel Keyes in Color Purple or Flowers for Algernon, respectively made compelling narration through first, second and third person narration by using confessional/diary or letter correspondence. Rabih Alameddine uses all sorts of narration in I, the Divine.
The point is, your narration is the translation for the story. You, the writer can use narration to translate your thoughts to the story, and in the story, your narration translates to the reader. If you cannot shape the point of view or the narrator just yet, don't worry, and don't stop writing. It will work out.
If you need to study these types of narration concepts, recall all the novel's you've ever read. I've kept a literary journal for reference sake. If nothing else, a journal as such will help recall.

Theme comes next. Theme is not plot, theme is more broad, more vague. As you look over your notes, do you find any common themes? Clearly we can put theme as synonym to genre, but even genre fiction themes can be broad. Here are a few I can come up with from the reading I've done in the last few years. (I'm referring to my literary journal.) These themes are by no means the only ones out there.
1)the road novel: traveling to get somewhere or find something. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky. David Brin, The Postman. Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Travel becomes a central theme because the characters must learn something, or they must gain something. I would consider the Bowles novel as classic literary fiction. He paints a portrait of Africa and a clash of culture as theme too. Brin's book, science fiction, post-apocalypse, fun stuff. The Road? I was not a fan. The story is somewhat compelling, I still can't figure out what the resolution was.
2)Family history: a portrait of a family or group of people. This theme focuses on one central conflict and the way the characters resolve the conflict of events. Ian McEwan, Atonement. J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. Jeffery Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides. Each of these are the following of a single family and the conflicts are within the family (or group).
Some other family history themes that cover long periods of time: Willa Cather's My Antonia, Richard Yates's Easter Parade; Art Corriveau's Housewrights, Evan O'Connell's Mrs. Bridge. These novels cover years and years of the development of characters and their conflicts.
3)the boiling pot: part mystery, part community, part chase. I love the boiling pot because everything is on the move, and the pot can boil over at any second. The boiling pot theme may have any additional theme, and be in any genre. Characters must figure out something that we readers (hell, we writers) may or may not know. These adventures can be physical, mental, emotional. Some examples: Jim Kurose, The Girl Factory. William Kotzwinkle, Christmas at Fontaine's. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The boiling pot adds a bit of mystery, a bit of satyr, and some emotional spike. Thematically speaking, the boiling pot must have an element of surprise, plenty of hooks set and then realized. Remember when you read Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it took almost two hundred pages before you met your first vampire?
4)the thin veil. The thin veil is just that. We look at life or society through the thin veil of a story. These characters and these stories point to us, to our flaws or our triumphs in life. They can be scathing. E.M. Forrester's A Room with a View. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. George Bataille's Story of the Eye. These stories have an element of society in them and they're generally never favorable.
As I've said, there are many, many themes and they differ in flavor because of society, writers, readers' preferences, history or circumstances. The ones listened above are a few guides as your novel develops or even as a guide to your prowess as a reader. You will see and shape themes of your own. If you think about a literary journal, perhaps noting theme, and narration may be part of your regime.

Before we begin this week's work here are a few things you should already have:
An idea which needs developing.
Some characters to help develop your idea.
A sense of your narration.
A theme as a general guide.

This week, your novel begins. Start the story now. Start in the middle of conflict, and write through it.

Good luck and happy writing.

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