Structure in Novel Writing, James Scott Bell’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ and a Certain Way to a Unique Writing Voice – Joy.

 

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I am sure there is a lot of happiness mixed up with the anxiety, in this elopment…

I read something the other day that made me think (unaccustomed exercise: new pathways created, and all that).

It was actually in an intriguing book about how useful the novel (excuse that Freudian slip) approach of ‘writing a book from the middle’ is, in giving a clear, effortless structure. This is, in fact, a book full of a good advice on structure for every sort of writer. It can be applied by those who begin writing with only the vaguest plan –(I am one of those, in good company with Stephen King) – for those who plan their novels like a military campaign, and for those who are in  between.

In fact, I would recommend this book, which explains how if you have the strong core at the centre of a book (a bit like Pilates for wordsmiths, I suppose) then the rest of it can hold up.

It’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ by James Scott Bell Compendium Press (2014).

The author quotes various massively successful novels which have, for all their superficially rambling, epic nature, that ‘Magical Midpoint Moment’ that gives structure and coherence to the whole. This, he suggests, applies to films as well as novels of all genres.  He quotes ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Casablanca’ as two perennially successful examples of stories with a watertight core. He quotes ‘The Hunger Games’ as another example (I am still meaning to read that, though I have seen the film).

This intrigued me. I was interested enough to pick up some of my favourite novels – Margaret Attwood’s ‘Bodily Harm’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ were two – and in fact, the conflict that lies at the base of both plots is indeed at the centre of the novels.

I have gone into both in depth elsewhere, so no need to repeat myself in detail about that conflict here. But briefly: –

In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ there is a discussion between the heroine’s parents about the rumoured fickleness of her preferred, stimulating, but supposedly dead lover and the dogged devotion of her still living cousin, whom she finds dull. This really, is the core of the novel. Which one will bring her long term happiness (if either)?

In ‘Bodily Harm’ we have this: ‘Paul smiles: a kindly, threatening smile. “I like you,” he says. “I guess I’m trying to tell you not to get too mixed up in local politics.”’ And there it is, the core:r Rennie is a journalist who writes superficial ‘lifestyle’ magazine articles, who, after some devastating real life experiences, decides to ‘escape from it all’ on a working holiday in a little known Carribean island; here she gets drawn into local politics willy nilly.

I  couldn’t resist looking at one of my own novels, my first,  ‘That Scoundrel Ėmile Dubois’ to check the middle. Sure enough, there at about the centre, we have the anti hero taking his bride Sophie to their newly rented house after the wedding ceremony.

There, waiting to greet her, along with other staff members, are their new butler and housekeeper Mr and Mrs Kit. It just so happens that they are former associates of his in his old career as the highwayman Monsieur Giles. Ėmile is an incorrigible scoundrel yet – in fact, potentially a far worse one, for he has been possibly infected with the vampire virus – and Sophie sees that she will live in a household (with the exception of Agnes, her maid) run by his former disreputable cronies whose first loyalties are to him. She is uneasy about that, without knowing why…

…But, she doesn’t run off. She’s too besotted; besides, she knows underneath that she is going to stay and fight to bring out the best in the rascal.

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I was – of course – pleased to find the story has a strong core, in fact, done unconsciously. Perhaps, the unconscious sometimes tidies up those issues which the conscious neglects?

I am not saying that novel doesn’t arguably have other faults in its composition. Some find the plot too complex, for instance.

Anyway,  that was a novel I particularly loved writing. I have loved the actual writing part of all my novels (I have whinged often enough about how I hate the editing), but that one – it was, to quote a silly pop song, ‘like flying without wings’. It was a joy ride in the best sense.

And that brings me on to a point the author of ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ makes: ‘When an author is joyous in the telling, it pulses through the words…Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. and that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.’

And isn’t a distinctive voice what makes a novel stand out?

Now, I would love to write like Margaret Attwood. I am going to repeat that: I would love to write like Margaret Attwood! But I  never will  write like Margaret Attwood.  I can only  write as the best Lucinda Elliot possible, and the only way to do that is to write what I love.

What happens to people who write what they don’t love is illustrated all too clearly in the case of the writer Patrick Hamilton.

The contrast between the wonderful vigour of his early works, such as the trilogy ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’ and the tragic comic grandeur of his vision in his masterpieces, ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and the sour impression left by last work, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ is painfully obvious.

Hamilton had lost, not only his faith in people and the progress of history, had not only descended into alcoholism and bouts of depression, but also his joy in writing.

It is not that he wrote about some very unpleasant people in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’; becasue he always wrote about mainly unpleasant people.  However, before his last novels, he portrayed their absurdities, snobberies,  bigotories and impossible behaviour so humorously that one was left with a sense of being uplifted. Not only that: in his earlier books, there is always what he called ‘the country dance’ where the reader is truly inspired, and sees – along with the admirable character who is always there at the core of the novel  – that life has its joyful side.

In his later novels, the portrayal of that decent person is weaker and weaker, and finally, in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’  it is actually lacking. He had forgotten that the normal reader wishes to be left with a feeling of having been ‘brought out of himself or herself’ as well as bieng wryly amused.

Had he, with his massive talent, only somehow kept in touch with that joy, he could have avoided that dying fall.

We must remember to write with joy. And that, by the way, is my true answer to a blog post I wrote maybe a year ago, about a novice writer friend of mine who was devastated by her first one star review (and I am still proud I did not say in reply ‘How nice to have only one of those: would you care to count how many I have?’ ).

One should ignore unfair criticism (just criticism with some basis for it is a different matter; we should take a lot of notice of that) and go on in revelling in the joy of writing. There will always be detractors, and anything that stands out must come under fire, but the best way to treat that is to keep on having joy in what you create.

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Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MartyStu

‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’

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This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here