March 2, 2010

Stand and Deliver

I just finished reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. Wow! It is such a fabulous book. The whole time I kept thinking, I wish I’d written this book. It’s very dark, but it’s also very real, very nuanced, very surprising. The pace is fabulous ~ very even but a little fast, or at least it felt fast. Around each corner is a keen observation or a subtle metaphor that just knocks the ball out of the park. Lots of points of view, but you’re never confused.

I loved it all except for maybe the last ten pages. (I’m not going to tell the ending, but you’ll probably be able to guess it from my remarks. Be warned.) I was totally flabbergasted by it. I don’t know if I can describe why. The pacing seems off, for one thing. What went before was so measured, but this feels off-kilter. There’s very large jump in time.

But maybe the biggest reason is because what happened is not what I wanted to happen. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to suss apart the difference between me not liking the ending and whether the ending is prepared for within the whole of the novel. So a) is the ending not to my liking AND it’s not prepared for, or b) is the ending prepared for but I just don’t like it.

I still love the book though; I just think it should’ve been cut short, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In it, Hemingway leaves our hero lying there, and we don’t know whether he’s going to die or not. We know, yeah, probably, but there’s a grace to it that is wonderful. He gets to live on in our imagination.

So that got me thinking about one way to look at a novel is a series of setups and deliveries. Whenever something’s going to happen later in the book, you have to set it up earlier. You have to prepare the ground, have it happen in a small way or reveal something about your character or show their actions that make it seem logical that this big thing happens later. The trick is not to make it too obvious, or even to seem like you’re trying to set up for something else, but what you were really trying to do is this other thing. You have to keep the reader guessing though with feints in either direction so up until it actually happens they don’t know which way it’s going to go.

It’s a matter of balance. You don’t want to be heavy handed, but you don’t want to do too little either. If you don’t set up at all, the reader is going to go, “What the heck just happened?” Deus ex machina. You’ve got a nice romance plot and then aliens come in at the end to solve whatever plot problems you have. Or the protagonist miraculously discovers a magical device that solves all your plot problems. No. It has to come from within what has gone before.

This is also why it’s a good idea to have scenes accomplish at least two or three things. For example, “In this scene, I’m going to introduce a new character, which is going to throw light on a new facet of the protagonist, but what they say is also going to complicate the relationship with her mother, which will bear fruit later. Oh, and I’m going to reiterate the motif of oak trees.” Or whatever. (A lot of this can’t be planned for before writing the scene, however, in my experience. A lot of time, it’s only in revision that I’m able to keep complicating things and adding layers and weaving together. So I just have to have faith that it’ll happen and go for it.)’

And this is why I love writing fiction, novels in particular. It’s like a huge engrossing game, a treasure hunt, a puzzle to be solved.

What I’m Reading Today: In addition to the fabulous Erdrich, I “read” the New Yorker podcast of Frank O’Connor’s short story “The Man of the World.” It was read and discussed by Julian Barnes, who is someone I have a HUGE professional crush on. One of the many things that I loved about this story ~ something that Julian mentioned ~ is that it starts slow and innocuous and seems like it’s going to be about one thing, but then it moves into this profound earthshaking realization that is so subtle and stems from the observation of small everyday actions.

PS A form rejection on the novel today.


duadotego said...

i really enjoy your posting type, very attractive.
don't give up and keep creating simply because it simply good worth to follow it,
impatient to look at a lot more of your own writing, have a good day :)

Tamara said...

Thank you for your kind words!