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


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.


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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‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte; Structure and the Role of the Antagonist

When re-reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ I was struck by many things. I hope I don’t annoy the spirit of Anne Bronte by making a comparison with the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a beginning, though this is not the invidious comparison of the sort that were until recently usually made between her work and that of both her sisters’.

What I want to say is that I had forgotten it was a story within a story. I remembered that it contains a story within a story, just like ‘Wuthering Heights’.

The tale starts with Gilbert Markham, a young man who is a gentleman farmer and wishes he was destined for a less earthy occupation, who is vain and infatuated with the even more vain coquette Eliza Millward, the local vicar’s daughter.

When the mysterious young widow Helen Graham comes to the area, he is at first repelled by her cold, discouraging manner and refusal to reveal much of her personal history.

She even flies into a temper when he discovers a portrait of a handsome, sensual looking young man, whose chestnut curls tumbling over his forehead lead Gilbert to conclude that ‘he thought more of his beauty than his intellect.’ The bright blue eyes show a glint of mischief.

Of course, the reader guesses who this must be long before Gilbert…

The story within a story is the tale that Gilbert reads in Helen’s journal, when after many misunderstandings she at last confides in him.

It recounts the tale of Helen’s disasterous marriage to the charming, lively and enticingly attractive Arthur Huntingdon. This match, based mainly on their mutual physical attraction, is, as Josephine Macdonaugh comments in my Oxford World Classics edition, is as doomed to unhappiness as would be Gilbert’s to Eliza, should he marry her.

Some readers and editors claim that the ‘epistolary method’ creates a distance between the narrator and the reader. I can’t say I have ever found that myself. I found the account of Helen’s disillusionment with Arthur and the failure of their marriage as he gives way to the temptations of alcohol and philandering, recounted as it is in occasional journal entries, tinged with a sense of tragic inevitability precisely because the reader already knows that it ended in Helen’s flight from the marital home.

The second feature that struck me most was a dissimilarity with ‘Wuthering Heights’ in the striking contrast between the appearance of their antagonists—Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon.

These are almost completely opposite. Heathcliff is, quite frankly, a miserable so-and-so, so self-pitying that I have always been completely at a loss as to how any reader can find him appealing or sympathetic (and that is leaving aside his unfortunate habit of bullying women and children). Although he has cheated the Earnshaws and the Lintons out of their inheritances, he can find no pleasure in the money he has come by. Instead of dining well, this miser takes porridge for dinner and begrudges offierng a cup of tea to visitors so that the young Cathy hesitates to offer a cup.

He is wholly anti social and we never hear that he drinks or indulges himself in any way; his existence is as Spartan and joyless as a doctrinaire puritan’s.

I’ve written just what I think about Heathcliff as a romantic hero before on this blog and discussed it on a Goodreads thread, and there’s no need for me to repeat myself here.

Here it is, for anybody reading this who might be interested:

Here, I want to point out that Arthur Huntingdon is his complete polar opposite. He is the life and soul of the party, full of blithe mischief. He does much harm, but this is through carelessness, vanity, self-indulgence and a lack of moral values rather than through active malevolence of Heathcliff.

Arthur at ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be about as out of place as a doormat that played a jolly tune of welcome.

He betrays almost everyone he knows – Helen and his unfortunate friend Lord Loughborough, whose life he embitters through seducing his wife – more than anyone. Yet, as Marianne Thormalen comments in her intriguing article, ‘The Villain of Wildfell Hall; Aspects and Prospects of Arhtur Huntingdon’ the long term consequences of his destructive life, are, like those of Heathcliff, short lasting. Once these two antagonists have gone, peace and normality is soon restored.

While they are alive, they determine the action through force of character; but their lives are short and their reign of influence transitory.
Heathcliff corrupts by hatred and fear; Arthur through wicked charm and careless indifference to the moral consequences of his wrongdoing.

Anne Bronte was, of course, her sister’s chief confidante in their weaving of the fantasy world of Gondal. I think it very likely that they discussed, not only the fate of non repentant sinners – neither, clearly, believed in damnation – and the long term earthly consequences of their wrongdoing. Certainly, the poetry of each notoriously touches on these points, as does the text of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’(but more about Anne Bronte’s beliefs about Arthur Huntingdon’s final destination next week.)

Another thing that struck me was, yet again, how great a role unconscious influences play a role in our writing and in our creation of characters.

The characteristics of Arthur Huntingdon had largely slipped my mind in the years since I read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. When I decided that I wanted to create in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ not a brooding, savage vampire but a jolly, sociable one, I did not consciously think about Arthur Huntingdon, or draw on his characteristics; but the similarities are strongly marked, down to the ‘mischievous twinkle in the eyes’ and the habit of drinking to excess.

I am pleased by that; it’s a fine thing to be influenced by classic English Literature; however, I do have to say that there is a strong resemblance also, to Disney’s John Smith in ‘Pocohontas’. That swagger and gallows humour…Yes, well, we see our characters everywhere…

As Monsieur Gilles, Émile starts each day with ‘a good swill of red wine even before he chewed a piece of bread’ to make himself face each hateful day.

Like Arthur Huntingdon, the wicked and godless Émile Dubois wishes to marry a ‘good angel’ whom he hopes will convert him to good behaviour without too much effort for himself.

But Émile is far more cerebral than Arthur Huntingdon and has a serious-minded streak. His desire to reform is a little more serious, and his love for the innocent and devout girl he marries a good deal deeper than Arthur Huntingdon’s for his.

In the sequel I am s-l-o-w-l-y writing, I plan to return to this theme; apart from introducing some rubber monster men, Kenrick and his right hand man Arthur Williams return, and some more of Émile’s cousin Reynaud Ravensdale.

Writing and the Unconscious

250px-Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_Wheat_Field_with_Crows_(1890)220px-Twisted_lipIt’s odd, the way the unconscious works; for all the research on it since the concept was first explored in any depth by Freud in the late nineteenth century, it remains even more an unexplored area than the depths of the ocean.

Yet, writers particularly rely on it even more than artists, I think; I know there are those who dispute the existence of this hidden depths of the mind at all, though how they account for the strangely dream like state in which writers create, I don’t exactly know; possibly a form of madness?

I do know that some complete scenes for books have come to me when playing baroque music –played out like a film in my minds eye, and it is interesting that some sources argue that baroque music does in fact make both sides of the brain (my what?) work in harmony. I can’t find any link on this at the moment, though, which would indicate that at least one side of my brain isn’t working too well…

Some months ago, when writing about writer’s block (ugh!) I came on some intriguing advice on this website, which suggests amongst other things that writers should try to write as early in the morning as possible, as the time when you are closest to sleep is also the time when you are closest to your unconscious, and that this is excellent for creativity. Of course, this isn’t possible for lots of people, and it’s purely impossible for anyone with a small child, unless that child happens to be an angelic sleeper, but I do think that there is something in this; it’s surprising how if you start writing when half asleep, after a truly horrendously bad night, the ideas seem to start to flow almost of their own accord (but not always, of course; and almost certainly not when suffering from a dismal case of writer’s block).

Again, I can’t find that link (indicating that I am particularly poor at finding links in the evening) but I have found some fascinating discussion on this link

‘As mentioned above, creativity peaks in the morning as the creative connections in our brains are most active. If you believe that creativity is your best source for ideation, then the early morning should be your best time for new thoughts.
The greatest evidence for this effect is with dreams. Science has told us that creativity is a function of connections between many different networks throughout the brain. With that in mind, consider this observation from Tom Stafford, writing for the BBC:
An interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.
Try this: Ideas when you’re at your groggiest
If early morning idea sessions aren’t your cup of tea, you might be interested in a study from Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks that found creative ideas often come at our least optimal times.
Their experiment measured insight ability and analytic ability, two components to the creative idea process. Participants identified themselves as either morning people or evening people and underwent a series of tests at different times of day. The tests for analytic ability revealed no significant findings, but for insight ability, the results were telling:
What Wieth and Zacks found was that strong morning-types were better at solving the more mysterious insight problems in the evening, when they apparently weren’t at their best.
Exactly the same pattern, but in reverse, was seen for people who felt their brightest in the evening: they performed better on the insight task when they were unfocused in the morning.
The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.’

Rinaldo looking posh
It is interesting that with regard to the unconscious, Freud and Jung fell out over their differing interpretations of it; Jung wished to incorporate an element of what would now be seen as ‘parapsychology’ into his concept of the unconscious, and believed that at their deepest level all our unconscious minds are linked; this all, of course, links in with his ideas about what he called ‘synchronicities’ – the statistically impossible number of strange co-incidences in everyday life.

This concept might explain how it is that two writers can come up with strikingly similar ideas for plots, characters, etc at the same time.

When writing, you are aware of conscious influences to your writing – in my case, for instance, Jane Austen and Patrick Hamilton –but how far are we aware of those unconscious influences? We are most likely being influenced by some event or reading material long forgotten.

For that matter, why do we remember the reading material we do remember? Is this because it has a lingering fascination for us? I think this may be so, however critical we may be of it.

I have written before about the snowed in period in the Clwyd Valley, where I was reduced to reading a good deal of stuff bought as ‘job lots’ in auctions by my parents to fill the innumerable bookshelves in the house. I read several books by Georgette Heyer and ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles Garvice.1001004005712376

I recall, too, the plots of some of the books which I read a couple of years before this, when I started to read adult fiction.

One of these was a grim story of remarkable political incorrectness concerning two men of restricted stature; it was called ‘Me and Victor and Mrs Blanchard’; probably the main reason why I remember that story, is the astounding brutality of the scene where another male lodger is terribly beaten during a fight and left half dead on the stairs.

Another was one I have never been able to trace, a short story about a man who did almost nothing, and spent hours sitting with his feet up on the doorknob. Another occupant of the house told him: ‘I hate you because you’re a bum; everyone hates you.’Garvice cover

I don’t, however, remember the ending. Maybe the protagonist became a workaholic whom everyone adored. I have never been able to trace this story, although I’d like to re-read it, as it’s subject matter seems so unusual; but it’s notoriously difficult to trace a short story.

I read another story which a female relative who shall remain nameless had out from the library, a romance by Barbara Cartland. Set in Victorian England, it concerned a very unhealthily overweight girl in the US whose mother forced her to marry an English duke for the title; he was marrying her for money, and had no plans to see her after the wedding.

She collapsed immediately after the marriage, and her tiara rolled down the aisle; her mother was so outraged that she died of a heart attack. The girl lay in a coma for a year, but during this time, her devoted aunt gave her massage and fed her healthy drinks, so that when she woke up a year later, she weighed seven stone, and her hair had miraculously turned from mousey to silver gilt.

Shortly afterwards, she set off to England to work in some capacity for the duke she had married  (I’ve forgotten what job she took up; or why; I do remember the aunt thoroughly approved of the scheme). The rest of the story was predictable, but it took me some time to realise that it wasn’t a spoof, as it could be read as a truly wonderful one.

I wonder what was going on in the unconscious of Barbara Cartland when she wrote that one…th