In Part Five we're exploring how to read like a writer. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short(ish) prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.
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So how was it, writing a scene? Did your Alex-character get what or where they were trying for? Did they fail to get it? What kind of coping with the obstacle(s) did they do? Did what they wanted or needed change? Did any of what happened surprise you? Did any of it develop or change your thinking about this whole novel-project? Many writers keep journals, and these sorts of reflections are often the stuff of them, trying to condense out of the ether you were working in what actually happened - and noting down what it might reveal about future possibilities. If that kind of reflection sounds useful to you, then go right ahead.
In my next post we will think about what you might do next with this first-draft scene. But in my imaginary write-every-day week for this series this would be Friday (it is actually Friday, as it happens) so today we're thinking about something which suits the weekend.
People often ask me to recommend how-to-write books, and I always start by recommending how-to-read ones.* The thing is, what made you want to write was reading: if you'd never read a novel you wouldn't have a sense of what a novel does to and for the reader, or found yourself wanting to work on readers that way too - even if the only reader you hope for is yourself. The creative writing word for what the author does to affects readers is "technique", which is a dry word for the very heart of our job. So a crucial part of learning to write is learning how writers set about having effects on readers that they want to have.
Of course, whether you feel bored, or aroused, or too relentlessly battered by the story, comes into it, as does whether you like the characters, say, or are annoyed by the author's portrayal of an issue you feel strongly about. But to read like a writer you have to let go, temporarily, of the sense that these are real people in a real world, and go beyond that to work out what the writer has chosen to write which has made you feel like that.
1) Close Reading: The close-up of words and sentences is the basis for everything, because the sequencing of words is all a writer has to convey their story and have the effect on the reader they want it to, so let's start there. Read this, simply noticing as you read what you understand, feel and think as you read this little section of a scene. If you know what it's from, try not to let your wider knowledge distract you from this close-up:
Accepting rebuke, he relapsed into silence, while she studied his half-averted face. Considered generally, as a facade, it was by this time tolerably familiar to her, but now she saw details, magnified as it were by some glass in her own mind. The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of golden down on the cheek-bone. The wide spring of the nostril. An almost imperceptible beading of sweat on the upper lip and a tiny muscle that twitched the sensitive corner of the mouth. The slight sun-reddening of the fair skin and its sudden whiteness below the base of the throat. The little hollow above the points of the collar-bone.
He looked up; and she was instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water. Through the confusion of her darkened eyes and drumming ears some enormous bulk seemed to stoop over her. Then the mist cleared. His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running. So, thought Harriet, it has happened. But it happened long ago. The only new thing that has happened is that now I have got to admit it to myself. I have known it for some time. But does he know it? He has very little excuse, after this, for not knowing it. Apparently he refuses to see it, and that may be new. If so, it ought to be easier to do what I mean to do.
She stared out resolutely across the dimpling water. But she was conscious of his every movement, of every page he turned, of every breath he drew. She seemed to be separately conscious of every bone in his body. At length he spoke, and she wondered how she could ever have mistaken another man's voice for his. **
Now go back and try to work out how those effects were created in you by the sentences, whether it was a successful effect, as it were, or one that wrong-footed you or didn't feel right. Try to be as exact as you possibly can: what effect? What words? What sentences? If it would help to copy-and-paste the extract into a document, double-space it, and either print it off and make notes all over it, or do the same on screen with comment-ballons or Track Changes, that would be a very good idea.
Now try this one:
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot - rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn't even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.
See, we lay exhausted in the flat, sheets nailed over the windows. The sunrise so fierce it seeped through the gaps, dropped like cloth on our skin. Couple hours before, we was playing in some back-alley studio, trying to cut a record. A grim little room, more like a closet of ghosts than any joint for music, the cracked heaters lisping steam, empty bottles rolling all over the warped floor. Our cigarettes glowed like small holes in the dark, and that's how I known we wasn't buzzing, Hiero's smoke not moving or nothing. The cig just sitting there in his mouth like he couldn't hear his way clear. Everyone pacing about, listening between takes to the scrabble of rats in the wall. Restless as hell. Could be we wasn't so rotten, but I at least felt off. Too nervous, too crazed, too busy watching the door. Forget the rot. Forget the studio's seclusion. Nothing tore me out of myself. Take after take, I'd play sweating to the end of it only to have Hiero scratch the damn disc, toss it in the trash.
'Just a damn braid of mistakes,' Hiero kept muttering. 'A damn braid of mistakes.' ***
2) Large-scale reading
The effect a novel has on you is also created by big-scale things: where the reader's attention is directed, and what is relegated to "background"; which events in the imagined lives of these character have fully fleshed-out scenes and which are summarised; the pace of each scene and the sequence of scenes; the structure of what follows what, and which things take place "off-stage".
In the first extract, Harriet is what writers call the "viewpoint character": the person whose eyes and consciousness the narrator is using, at the moment, to transmit and evoke things. Although at first glance the first paragraph is "just description", the whole is actually very carefully built towards a huge change in Harriet, and thereby in Peter, and it's a good example of how a story can be moved on a long way even when physical action is minimal. I often call a scene a "unit of change", and you can think of a whole novel being a chain: a connected sequence of changes.
In the second extract, the viewpoint character is "I": the narrator of the story is also a character in the story. This is the start of the novel, so the reader's coming to it knowing nothing about the world and its people. So, as well as the close-reading-thinking I suggested further up, you might go back to think about what you have come to know by the end of this first page, and how the writer has done that without obviously explaining it to you. In terms of what writers call "narrative drive" - that chain of change - there isn't at first glance an obvious change here. But in fact the long paragraph is actually a mini-story of the previous night, and that does have action including a change: something happened, but things didn't go as hoped. Experienced readers will feel there are consequences, changes, still to come .
So, over the weekend or the next few days, I'd like you to pull two novels off your shelves: one which you've read before, preferably fairly recently, and one which you've never read. (What do you mean, you don't have any of the latter?) Start with the one you know, and think first about what you already know/feel about it from your previous reading. Then start reading again, this time taking note of how the way the story is told, by nothing but sentences, creates the experience that you had and have.
Then do the same with the new-to-you novel. Here you'll have fewer preconceptions, but it's perhaps harder to separate out your in-the-moment experience from you standing outside that experience to work out how the text created it. One thing I often do, at a scene which is a big unit of change (or, rather, a unit of big change), is hold my place and look at the bottom of the book end-on, to see how far through the book we are. (Or you can do the maths with an ebook, obviously). With a familiar book I might even search out several of those big moments, and look to see how they relate to each other and the beginning and end of the book.
But, by whatever means, what you are trying to nail is the answers to the central question of this whole post: "Now, how did the writer do that to me, the reader?"
That's it for now, so do have a good readerly weekend, and see you next time.
* My favourite how-to-read books are David Lodge's The Art of Fiction, and Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, but if you're really new to this whole writing malarkey, feel free to ignore them for now: a whole book, even a super-helpful one, can be a bit like reading an entire Dummies guide to ice-skating between putting your skates on and stepping onto the ice for the first time in your life: definitely too much to take in, probably daunting, and even downright scary.
** Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, (London, New English Library) (1935) 1970, p.354
*** Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues, (London, Serpent's Tale) 2012, p.3
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.