Sometimes writing a novel is a joyless task. It is fraught with pain and frustration. Who would want to do it? Oh, me.
But there are also times when it feels so blissful you fall in love with everything (as long as nobody disturbs you while you’re writing). I wrote 4,000 words towards the second draft of my novel yesterday. Today I wrote much less. Yesterday I was happy and in love. Today I am miserable and out of it.
It’s not like I consciously said to myself: ‘I want to write a literary novel.’ I just wanted to write a novel. It’s just that the novels I enjoy reading get classed as literary. And if you don’t write a novel you want to read then what’s the point? I lean towards literary fiction through my love of language and poetry, and a desire to understand the world and our place in it.
A common key difference between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ fiction is that the former is more plot-based and the latter character-based. The former usually makes more money too (but that’s not the sole reason we’re doing this is it?)
I’ve read many books on creative writing which teach the importance of plot and structure and yet I am that student in class who wastes time doodling and day dreaming. Either my story, or something within me (which amounts to the same thing I suppose), refuses to fit into these beautiful, neat plot points and gateways (sorry, I’m not even very good with the terminology).
Today I fell out of love with writing. Today I found myself staring at the structurelessness of my structureless novel—not so much as having lost the plot as not knowing how to adopt one. Imagine my joy then when I stumbled across this wonderful article (Two Ways to Structure Your Literary Fiction Novel) whose author discusses these same issues. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air (and two shots of whiskey) to my addled sense of purpose.
When I sit down to plot out my novel or short stories, I find myself immediately bored to tears by the idea of writing any sort of external story where things happen (who would want to read something entertaining!?).
Literary fiction is often accused of being meandering and plotless. However, even in physics, entropy needs to be understood within the basic laws of thermodynamics. The author of the article discusses whether a truly structureless novel can exist. And if it does, would it even be worth reading. Who wants to read hundreds of pages of meandering thoughts, beautifully composed monologues, where nothing essentially happens, and nobody changes?
While it’s simple to suggest you just ignore structure all together and write and see what happens, for beginners (like me!) that’s hard. Well, technically it’s very easy to do, but very hard to do well.
She discusses two formats that are often employed within structureless literary fiction. ‘Coming-of-age’ novels feature protagonists who transition from childhood to adulthood through often traumatic events, while learning some hard lessons along the way. Examples include: Catcher in the Rye, and, more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. ‘Picaresque’ novels feature a series of intertwined (usually satirical) adventures. Examples of picaresque novels include: Don Quixote, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and many novels by Thomas Pynchon and Martin Amis. My novel currently falls into the latter category.
However, the thing that caught my attention most was the reference to Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Author VanderMeer seeks, through this book, to reconnect us with that most vital part of the creative process: enjoyment and playfulness. Sometimes we get so wrapped up and serious about process we forget how to have fun. That it is through our love of language, and writing that we write in the first place. It is these things that feed our inner creativity and make us happy—not the pursuit of praise or money, although a little won’t hurt.
VanderMeer’s book is packed with over 200 illustrated pages of colour and fun with contributions from authors including: Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Straub, and George R. R. Martin. It covers subjects from Inspiration, Beginnings and Endings, Narrative Design, Characterisation, Worldbuilding, through to Revision. According to the author of the article, VanderMeer’s book has helped her find structure within her own structureless work by encouraging her to look towards nature—at a water drop, a leaf, or a cloud and see how these structures can relate to our own creative work. And to realise that structures are everywhere—flowing, fluid, unruly, but still beautiful—without having to be rigid or uniform.
I’ve ordered my copy of VanderMeer’s Wonderbook in anticipation of gazing at the structure of clouds, leaves and lakes as I have fun and fall in love with writing again—while learning to worry less about rules, formalities, plots, fitting in, or failure.
Source: E.M. Welsh
Image credit: Dan Gribbin via Unsplash