The subject of the literary novel

Seen through the eyes of its characters, the world of the novel seems closer and more comprehensible to us. It is this proximity that lends the art of the novel its irresistible power. Yet the primary focus is not the personality and morality of the leading characters, but the nature of their world. The life of the protagonist, their place in the world, the way they feel, see, and engage with their world – this is the subject of the literary novel.

Orhan Pamuk in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist

Sentence-level changes, big and small

Most of my writing time currently is focused on a 75K manuscript. I’m working at the the sentence level, revising, but I’ve decided on at least one and maybe two more passes through it. (Originally, it was called The Clam, then The Five Friends of Kurt Dale, and now The Five Friends of the Clam. I may still change the title.)

I’m still thinking about micro-fiction.

Reading Like a Writer: Stardust

“The squirrel has not yet found the acorn that will grow into the oak that will be cut to form the cradle of the babe who will grow to slay me.”

from Stardust by Neil Gaiman

What can this sentence teach us?

  • What does one of your characters predict about themselves? Showing characters making this kind of prediction, whatever the genre, can reveal to readers a great deal about them. Resolving the tension between the prediction, what readers already know about the character, and what readers anticipate based on the plot they already have, can help keep readers engaged and reading. (The character who says these words in Stardust is the villain; right after she says them, a squirrel finds an acorn, plants it, puts its paws together in prayer, and then forgets about it.)
    • Consider too how the predictions are made and how that might characterize. Tarot? Entrails? Spreadsheet? The mood of the moment or the flight of birds?
    • Does the prediction ever change? Why?
    • This prediction suggests a long life, usually a good thing. But readers may not want that for this villainous character. Conversely, how do readers feel when a character they like makes negative predictions about their own future? Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football or each baseball season, for example. Another example might be the Robert Redford character in A Bridge Too Far.
    • How do other characters (squirrels or not) react to this prediction?
  • Notice the syntax, the three “wills,” for example. Notice the “not yet,” the “that,” “that,” and “who” (rather than a third “that”). Consider tinkering with this syntax: “always,” “which,” “which,” and “where,” for example. What might a sentence build with with those words and that structure look like?
  • Notice the punctuation or lack of it. Which words in the sentence act as punctuation? Which control its pace?

Reading Like a Writer: Marilynne Robinson II

These two sentences are from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

Some sentences just make me happy. These do. Why, though? What can we learn from them as writers?

  • The first sentence characterizes two characters. It shows what the characters want (to prepare another person for an absence/death due to being with “the Good Lord” and for the relationship to continue, though stated indirectly, “I don’t think you’re old”). It shows these desires through reported dialogue.
    • There is a degree of tension between the two sentences but especially within the first.
      • Much of this tension is a result of the captured dialogue, specifically the shortness of the second speaker’s first two replies: where and why.
      • There is also tension because of the content of the first sentence as well: I’m old! and, no, you’re not.
      • Also, because this is reported dialogue, it is recalled dialogue. The speaker is not trying to forget it. Readers might read it as recalled with fondness.
    • Readers are also likely to be asking the same questions as the second character in the first sentence. Where are you going? I’ve barely started reading about you! Why are you going to be with the Good Lord?
  • In the second sentence, readers continue to be shown the relationship between the characters. The sentences, to paraphrase a cliche, complete each other. The second sentence continues characterization with an action, more dialogue, and a reaction.
    • The action is a variation on a cliche. Specifically, the variation expands “you put your hand in mine” to “you put your hand in my hand.” This allows “hand” to be repeated; the same sound is heard twice. The repeated shard sound, at the same time, is preceded by your and mine, suggesting similarities coming together despite differences.
    • The recalled dialogue in the second sentence is a revision of dialogue from the first sentence, from “I don’t think you’re old” to “You aren’t very old” in the second. This is kind of a concession, from unambiguously old to not very old. Given some of the content of the first sentence (death and going to the Good Lord) it seems hopeful.
    • The reaction, “as if that settled it,” raises all kinds of almost philosophical questions. “How can human love stand against time?” “What does it mean to ‘face reality?'” “How do we reconcile the joy possible in the present moment with the anxiety of our last moments, even if we can expect the be with the Good Lord? If we can?”
  • There are five “ands” and a period in the first sentence. Then two “ands” a period in the second.
    • Conjunctions and punctuation matter.
    • They shape momentum and end it.
    • They help control readers’ experiences with writers’ words.

Certainly more could be said about these sentences. What do you think? What do these sentences make you want to try?

Reading Like a Writer: Marilynne Robinson

These sentences are from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: “My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.”

Interesting, interesting, interesting. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • Does “My name is Ruth” echo of “Call me Ishmael”? Maybe others have already written about these similarities:
    • “Call me Ishmael,” at least to me, has always implied that the character’s actual name is something else besides Ishmael. Robinson’s sentence is a similarly direct, short statement, but of actual identity.
    • Like Moby Dick, the first two sentences contrast with each other; both are short to long sentences, simple to complicated.
    • Again like Moby Dick, the sentences are an introduction to a community, but the narrator views herself as part of it and the community is much smaller, much more specific. The fourth sentence of Moby Dick, specifically, dives within Ishmael and describes him as at odds with the community around him: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
  • The second sentence from Housekeeping includes an absence: Ruth’s parents. Neither her mother not her father are mentioned, though a large group of female relatives and caregivers are. This absence creates all kinds of implicit questions, and readers are likely to read on in search of answers to those questions.
    • The second sentence, as I’ve mentioned, includes implicit questions almost within each phrase. Those general or abstract phrases could be unpacking into specific sensory scenes and chapters. How and where did Ruth grow up with Lucille? What does it mean to be “under the care of” a grandmother? How were these people different from and alike each other? What did they think of each other? What was the death of the grandmother like? Why did the sisters flee?
    • The second sentence also implies a general novel-length process (growing up and growing up with a sister and growing up with a sister without a father or mother, though the mother’s family is present) while involving many characters in many different ways.

What did you notice? Which strategies modeled here do you want to try in a sentence or two?

Reading Like a Writer: “I Stand Here Ironing”

From “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen: “She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who ‘could no longer endure’ (he wrote in his good-bye note) ‘sharing want with us.’”

This is a great, great story. Such a good story to read and reread. Here are a few thoughts on this sentence:

  • Context matters. In this case, two characters are talking about a third, named for the first time here. Emily’s mother is describing her to a teacher or truant officer. The context implies a danger for the daughter and perhaps for the mother in that her relationship with her daughter might be at risk if she is honest. Her own happiness might be at risk if she is dishonest with this authority figure.
  • Create tension within a sentence using contrasting words and phrases: “miracle to me” and “no miracle at all,” “worked or looked for work,” looking for Emily’s father who left a goodbye note, and “sharing want.” Characters who have only a lack in common can be fascinating. “All we have together are our arguments.” Can disagreements be enough to sustain a relationship? Can the tension within a paradox keep folks together? How?
  • The sentence is a sort of summary of a childhood or an important part of a childhood. Such a summary can leave readers with an implied question they read to answer: What happened to Emily? To her mother? Their relationship?
  • One sentence can characterize, to different degrees, its speaker, “the woman downstairs,” Emily, Emily’s father and perhaps, as an answer to a question, the asker of that question.
  • The sentence also implies the theme of the story (or a possible theme): economic realities shape lives to a greater degree than most want to know.
  • The sentence uses quoted language to characterize. The father “could no longer endure . . . sharing want with us.” The brief quotation suggests a great deal about the character and his ethics and values. Her response to his note (she goes looking for him) also characterizes.

It might take a paragraph, it might take an entire story, but consider trying to draft language that does as much as this sentence and is as interesting.

Reading Like a Writer: Reading Like a Writer 

Focused on how writers learn to write, here are a pair of interesting sentences. “They [writers] studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, and endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”

These sentences are from Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, an excellent, excellent book.

What might we learn as writers from these sentences? The context they provide each other and contrast between them help make each of them even more interesting. They are almost from different genres: history and horror. (Undead teachers? Certainly frightening.) The end of the second sentence, at least for me, comes as a nice surprise.

Consider the structures of the sentences. The first is a list of specifics which acts as a kind of assertion about how writing has and can be learned: absorbing lucid sentence. The second is a generalization, followed by another list of characteristics, and a surprise.

I want to try at least the structures. “We baked with Julia, fried with Guy, boiled with Gordon; we learned about food in the graceful kitchens of Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain. And could there be better meals: ample, beautiful, favored with flavor and skill, and as free of calories as only the televised can be?”

It’s a bit more of a pastiche than I’d like, not sure about the tone, and probably reveals how little I know about cooking, but does suggest how useful attending to sentences can be.

Learning from “The Zebra Storyteller”

“The Zebra Storyteller” by Spencer Hoist is an outstanding narrative. Here it is:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing. Isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began to boast to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ‘em laugh!”

Just then, the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

There is so much to learn from this as writers. Here are few thoughts:

  1. The first four words of the first sentence let readers know the genre and that in turn creates expectations for them. The rest of the first sentence presents the premise of the story. That premise implies a question.
  2. The last sentence of the story, as it provides a moral, meets the expectations created by the first four words. The last sentence in the story also reminds readers of the title. Reminders or echoes can help bring closure. 
  3. The second sentence of the story gives readers a setting and interesting language.
  4. The first two words of the third sentence create immediacy. The rest of that sentence characterizes a zebra. 
  5. The paragraph after that is a tiny scene in which the Siamese cat and the zebra interact. The story takes a phrase literally in the next paragraph because the zebra is fit to be tied. (I believe it was in The Artful Edit that I first heard the phrase “surprise is the drug of editors.”) 
  6. Janet Burroway, among others, describes powershifts as part of plotting, and by the sixth paragraph the little cat has the power in the story. 
  7. The next two paragraphs characterize the cat and the paragraph after that characterizes the zebras. It also suggests the implications of how the characters’ world has changed because of the cat’s actions. Language stays interesting, even suggesting a larger history/world building.
  8. The next paragraph introduces a change or difference in the story because this zebra is the storyteller of the zebras, reminding readers of the beginning of the story and the first scene in which the Siamese cat appears. The cat’s language in this paragraph echoes that used with the first zebra that died at his hands. Knowing the zebra storyteller is in danger, tension increases for readers.
  9. Powershifts back, however, because the zebra storyteller is not alarmed by the cat. In the second to last paragraph of the story, power has shifted irrevocably providing a climactic moment.

Consider trying one or many of these techniques in a way that pays homage to Hoist.

Learning from Bellairs

Consider what we can learn from the first paragraph of the first chapter of John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost. Here it is:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostrils of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

The first sentence includes at least one implied question. If readers know Prospero from Shakespeare, they are likely to feel congratulated for their knowledge and wonder who this other Prospero might be, if it’s not the one they’re thinking of. If readers don’t know Shakespeare, they will wonder both who this Prospero is and who the one they don’t know is as well. In either case, readers begin the story with an implied question, one they may not even be completely conscious of. They are likely to read on, hoping for an answer. There’s also in the very last phrase of the first sentence an effort to connect, without being smarmy, with readers.

The rest of the paragraph describes the house this character lives in, in ways that create a little bit of distance between the narrator and the character. The description of the house also lets readers know a little bit about the genre or at least suggests it. It helps shape expectations. At the least readers expect a story about eccentricity. The Face in the Frostquickly lets readers know it is a fantasy that does not take itself too seriously.

We might try the following similar techniques in our own work:

  • Begin with an implied question. 
  • Begin with a classical allusion and compliment readers who understand it while creating curiosity in readers who do not. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character and let that description characterize the character. 
  • Write a description of a place that matters to a character but let the description create distance between the narrator and the character. 
  • Use an abundance of details and sensory language and unusual images to create interest in anything you are describing.