Becoming a Writer
In this ten-part series Kieran Beville aims to inspire, encourage and assist aspiring writers to fulfil their dreams to become authors.
The Novel (part 2)
I want to look a little deeper into the idea of writing a novel. You have an idea for a novel. You have let it work in your mind until it is no longer a vague notion. You believe it has sufficient potential for development to constitute a novel as opposed to a short story. It excites your own interest and you believe it is of a nature to capture the interest of readers. How do you now proceed?
Bear in mind that the story itself is only the beginning. It is how you tell the story that is important. The plots of some novels are quite slight but the manner of the writing, the handling of the material transforms it into something magical and memorable.
Most of us have come across the individual who can, almost instinctively, tell an anecdote with panache and timing. On the other hand, we have probably suffered the person who mangles a perfectly good story or joke in the telling – it is too long-winded, starts at the wrong place, the chap loses the thread of what he is saying or even misses out the punchline. His listeners may not even notice that omission as they are probably already stunned with boredom and longing only for the cessation of his voice and the end of embarrassment. It is the way you tell it that matters.
Draft an outline. Nothing too detailed at this stage as you do not want to lose flexibility. If you already know how you want your story to end, this will be an advantage, as it will help with the consistency and credibility of the development. Hold on to the notion of credibility rather than logical development. Too much logic can produce a ponderous and predictable effect. You aim to surprise and entertain your reader (and, no less important, yourself), not to take your reader or yourself on a plod from A to Z. Your powers of persuasion must provide and sustain the element of credibility.
I cannot over-emphasise here how helpful it may be to the novice writer to read well-written novels. Select a book which you have enjoyed and read it again giving close attention to the construction of the story, how the plot is moved forward, how the tempo is subject to variation, the devices used to sustain your interest throughout. If the writer has succeeded in producing a readable book, these techniques may not be apparent at a first reading when one is primarily concerned with the outcome of the story. But attentive re-reading can yield insight as to the deployment of techniques which you will find useful in relation to the structuring of your own work.
At an early stage in the planning you must decide in what person the story is to be told – whose voice? Is it to be a first-person narrative? That is, told through the voice of one of the characters who is also the narrator. Is that person going to be you, the writer, or someone quite different, a character that you have invented and whose mind you enter for the purposes of the novel?
It is interesting to consider how well-known novelists have decided whether to write in the first or third person. Mary Webb chose to write in the first person her extraordinary and widely acclaimed novel, Precious Bane, which was first published in 1924. The setting of the novel is Shropshire where the author was born in 1881. But the period in the novel long predates the author’s birth.
Antonia White’s well-known quartet of novels, Frost in May, published in 1933 and later followed by The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass are based entirely on her own life. In fact the novels constitute a partial autobiography. However, she chose to write them in the third person.
Henry James wrote his famous The Turn of the Screw not only in the first person but chose as his first person narrator a young woman!
We may speculate as to why these three vastly different novelists chose to write these books in the person and in the case of Henry James, the sex, which they in fact selected. The lasting respect in which all these novels are held would suggest that the decision in each case was the right one. Presumably they carefully considered the available options and for artistic and technical reasons finally made their choice. But we cannot rule out that there may also have been subconscious psychological aspects involved in making their choices. Even the authors themselves may not have been fully aware of the considerations brought to bear upon the final decision as to whether to write these particular novels in the first or third person.
Clearly the decision is a complex one involving artistic, technical and personal elements plus a degree of intuitive choice, making it impossible to lay down ground rules. One may only point out, by way of elementary guide, the obvious technical advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.
There is a further option open to the writer – that is to relate the narrative in the first person by several of the characters in turn. Lawrence Durrell by way of his Alexandria Quartet is a well-known exponent of presenting the same event from different perspectives. Some readers feel that in taking four volumes to exercise this technique he has provided them with rather too much of a good thing!
Whichever method you decide upon, be prepared to alter that decision if it does not seem appropriate or proves too difficult to handle within the context of the story you are telling. I think that the method chosen is often dictated by the story.
Order of progression
Draft an order of progression for your story. Decide what each chapter will cover – although it may not be possible to do this in any great detail when you first begin. It may also be worth giving some thought to the mechanics of your novel here. Are your chapters going to be long or short? If there is to be any switching between different times, or, if the viewpoint of the novel is going to shift from character to character, think how it can be arranged to help your reader rather than confuse. You must take these things into consideration at an early stage in your planning so they fit properly with the development of the plot.
Switching time sequence
You may need to employ a flashback when the unfolding of your narrative may be directly coloured or influenced by past events of which the reader is, as yet, unaware. Make sure that the reader knows that the time has switched to the past. This is easily made clear when the time switch is introduced by a piece of dialogue – “I remember”, said Ann, “when we came here as children and …” Or when you write something of the order of – Ann was reminded of the time in the past when…
The past may be evoked in a character’s mind by a sound, scent, sight, taste etc. That, too, can be easily introduced. The important thing is that you give the reader a clear indication that a change in the time sequence is being made. It may be that something less obvious is planned. You may, for instance, want to convey the chaos or confusion in a character’s mind by recounting a flashback he is experiencing without making it immediately clear to the reader that this is what is occurring. In that event you must ensure, to avoid confusion in the reader’s mind, that the episode is fairly quickly seen as being in the nature of a flashback occurring only in that character’s mind. But beware of clarifying the situation to the point where your reader feels insulted that you seem to think him/her to be completely obtuse!
In addition make sure you pace your novel properly. This means you should not start with lots of action and climaxes and then wind down in the second half so losing momentum, and with it your readers’ interest. On the other hand it is equally unwise to move through the novel in a sedate way and then try to pack all the action into the last few chapters. You will make your reader feel that he/she is on a runaway horse.
Conflict is the key word in sustaining the reader’s interest – that is, a sense of tension. Confrontation naturally intrigues. Incorporate clashes of interest and personality or keep your main character in danger or in a state of fear. Plan carefully how to incorporate these highlights into the plot so that they have maximum effect. Good timing is vital when building up to any climax. If your build-up is too long, instead of achieving suspense you lose the reader’s interest. Instead learn to make the most of the situation – you can only do this by trial and error.
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.