On: writing a novel
Writing a novel is no simple matter.
That’s obvious!’ I hear you cry; even through the divide of time, and space. (That, I think, is one of the beautiful things about writing, by the way: the fact you can travel in time, and even inside people’s minds. But anyway, I digress …)
It’s more than simply: ‘no simple matter,’ though. Yep! There are a truly unimaginable number of facets to a work of fiction.
Let me explain.
It’s a funny thing, because this fact used to terrify me. This idea used to intimidate me. Now it fills me with a rising sense of wonder, a sort of dizzying anticipation; or mostly it does, only because I now know better! I know that no one can master all the aspects of the novel. I admit it freely, there are days when I collapse into the floor in melodrama, hold my head in my hands, filled with the desire simply to bay at the sky like a man cursed with lycanthropy and about to turn – and it is in moments like these, that even the intricate subtleties of the most straight forward of paragraphs, seems to me beyond the reach of mere mortals, such as I.
Know, however, that even the greats! Yes! Even the masters, to whom I and I am sure also you, look up to with awe … whoever these figures may be, even if their names might be different for you, there is still a spirit that they share: Murakami, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, King, Banks, Pratchett … names, mellifluous and gauzy yet each with the power to evoke people and places and entire lives that never existed and yet did, in our hearts and minds, glowing briefly there like the brightest of embers. Yes I dare say it, even these writers, even these, had flaws and weaknesses in their writing.
So alright, at last we come back to what I was talking about.
The great and multifaceted novel. Its aspects range from the humble pursuit of the very first sentence – have no doubts this is a broad subject of study in its own right! And yet here encompassing only the first few words, of what might be thousands, or hundreds-of-thousands of words!
Then we have dialogue, character, characterisation, paragraph construction, sentence length and cadence and flow, grammar, plot, structuring.
It goes on.
And yet still! It doesn’t end. Each of these categories can easily be broken further; broken into components that could almost warrant in themselves a lifetime’s study. We go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole the more we contemplate. As a writer, examining the aspects of the novel, it can feel like peering into a fractal; ever contracting, ever expanding, without end. How am I with a mere spattering of years remaining to my name to even attempt the mastery of such an unwieldy beast?
Take character as an example.
How do we describe them? Which details do we leave out, thereby leaving only a few; these precise and perfectly chosen. Those marked characteristics by which we identify a character in a novel. It might be a certain form of tick, a mannerism, or turn of phrase, or it could be a physical detail, a scar across the cheek, or particular or peculiar way of dressing. These things are so that the reader might, upon encountering him or her on each new occasion, be immediately reminded of that character. These devices are the force by which the novelist prevents all of his speakers from collapsing in on each other like some disastrous black hole, to form a sort of puddle or goo of indiscernible speakers.
This is my fear at least. It’s the sort of thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night, sheets damp with sweat beneath me, heart beating as though I have only recently run up the garden path.
Here’s the thing: even such a minute detail as this single aspect of evoking character in itself requires deep study, and focus, and yet makes up not a one-thousandth of the innumerable elements required to construct a successful story.
My approach isn’t to give up; it’s to enjoy.
Revel in the ocean of impossibility; swim in the sheer unabashed challenge of it; laugh, madly if you like, at the fact you are lost without hope in the mire of possibilities and blind alleys, whether you have written not a single novel before or dozens already. This holds true not only of writing novels, but all manner of pursuits.
There comes a point where we have to stop fearing perfection, even if we never stop chasing it, and remember how boring life would be if we could ever reach that end point and realise there was nothing left for us to learn.