The Novel (part 4)
Coincidence plays a part in the development of many stories. Use it with discretion, exercise as much judicious constraint as you would with the use of the salt and pepper condiments. The element of coincidence occurs in all our lives and most of us have had experience of it, but avoid straining credibility and never use it as an easy solution to a problem. It is almost impossible to lay down hard and fast guidelines. As in so much involved in the craft of writing, you must obey your own dictates of taste and intuition. Intuition may be defined as a decision apparently spontaneously arrived at but, in fact, born of experience and observation. Your own taste can be cultivated by nourishing your mind by reading work which is well-written.
Remember that you are engaged upon writing a novel, a work which holds a mirror up to the real world, which reflects the human predicament. You are not giving reign to unbridled fantasy or melodrama; these have their place in many types of books but novelists must be wary regarding their appropriateness in the type of work upon which they are engaged.
Don’t cheat on your readers by suddenly pulling out of the hat some essential element which provides a solution to some problem or mystery posed by your story but of which not the slightest intimation has previously been given. A surprise may be a perfectly legitimate device but the reader ought to be able to feel that if he had read certain signs with a little more perception it would not have been quite so completely unexpected. By all means keep something up your sleeve. However, at least ensure that your reader is aware that there is a sleeve which may be harbouring something – the exact nature of which he is, as yet, unaware.
Don’t neglect humour. Even the most solemn occasion can have its comic touches. A certain degree of absurdity lies at the root of the human condition. Humour, like every other element in writing, must be firmly under your control. Too little of it and you are in danger of becoming pompous, too much and the work can be seen as superficial and the reader may well feel that if the writer can take nothing seriously, then why should he.
A work of literature is crafted using words as building blocks and fitting them together to create a cohesive whole. That is hard work. The good writer makes it look easy. Proust, the French novelist, was being complimented by an adoring reader on his latest novel. The admirer mentioned a particular page and said that the great man must have been truly inspired when he wrote that, the words flowed so smoothly. Her meaning was that it must have almost written itself, that it came to him effortlessly. He soon disabused her of that notion with these words: “Madame, that page was one of the most difficult in the book. It took me four days of rewriting.”
As you know what it is you are trying to say it may, paradoxically, be difficult for you to know, while in the process of writing the novel, whether or not you have succeeded in your purpose as far as the reader is concerned. It may only be when the novel (or the first draft of it) is completed that you can see where you have failed or, to take a more optimistic view, succeeded better than you had believed possible.
Throughout the whole preliminary plotting and planning, do bear in mind that new ideas, fresh approaches, will occur to you once you are immersed in the work. Don’t dismiss them out of hand because they do not conform to your original notion of the story. Allow yourself flexibility. But be aware of the danger of self-indulgence or throwing the balance of your book by pursuing at too great length a subsidiary story-line which has cropped up but which may impede the main story.
When you do reach the end of your story contrive it in such a way that the reader is aware that the story will really continue beyond that point. Don’t attempt to over-tidy or tie every knot. Life never ends at one particular point.
But it does you may protest, mentioning death as the ultimate full-stop. It isn’t. The small world in which each of us lives is subtly altered by our having occupied it for a space of time. Those who have lived in close relationships with us, or even only on the periphery of our lives, have been affected by our presence and our actions – however slightly or almost imperceptibly. Things would have been just that little bit different if our life had not touched theirs. There are the big changes our presence has wrought, we may leave children behind us, the result of our work may have a continuing effect, or our actions may have brought disaster into other lives or may have enhanced those lives. One can never say, “Well that is the end of him” – because it won’t be.
If, after finishing reading your novel, readers finds themselves wondering what happened afterwards to some of the characters, then you will have succeeded in conveying that sense of the story continuing. You, as the creator of the story and the characters involved, will sometimes speculate in a similar manner – but only if you have succeeded in giving your story that potential. Then there is always the possibility of a sequel if you have got it right.
Readers like a happy ending, or so we are told. That may well be the case but you should feel under no obligation to drown your reader in a jar of honey in the closing phase of your book. But neither is there a need to plunge him into unrelieved gloom; that would be equally unrealistic. Remember that the novel is concerned with a realistic view of life. Life is forever balanced between those two extremes and circumstances and people are forever subject to change.
To sum up, try to end your novel on a note of hope and leave your reader with the impression that your characters live on beyond the last full stop.
Avant-garde and rear guard
When it comes to writing a novel you can feel free to be as experimental as you like. Explore the possibilities of language and toy with or break conventions. The best writers (poets, novelists etc.) push the boat out from the safe harbour of convention and orthodoxy. This is true of great artists also. So, feel completely free to ignore my advice. My counsel is offered in humility to those who feel they may benefit from it.
The avant-garde (from French, meaning “advance guard” or “vanguard” – literally “fore-guard”) are people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to literature art, culture, or society. It is usually characterized by non-traditional, aesthetic innovation. Initially the work of such writers may not be fully embraced by the general public but eventually the innovative work finds a place of appreciation and critical acclaim. So, feel at liberty to push the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo. After all the word “novel” means new and different. If your work is refreshingly original in subject or style it will find a publisher and readership. Aim to be interesting, unusual or inventive in what you choose to write about or the way you write about it.
Unlike the avant-garde the rear-guard is about protecting and preserving the norms and resisting whatever might be perceived as undermining or threatening the acceptable standard. It sometimes happens that the avant-garde of one generation becomes the rear-guard with the passing of time. However, the rear-guard position is essentially conservative, and that attitude is reflected in all aspects of life, including literature, art and culture.
The novelist ought to be involved in an experimental project that offers a new perspective. Remember that writing a novel is a creative exercise. Yes, it’s meant to be a realistic insight to the human condition. This is true even in Fantasy Literature and Science-Fiction. However, it is the creation of another world and authors, in godlike fashion, can make that world whatever they want it to be and populate it with whatever creatures they like.
Give your imagination free rein and discover what’s in your head. You might find that when you put it down on paper that it resonates with others or that they find the world you have created to be a fascinating place, not necessarily a beautiful place but intriguing nonetheless.
Even if nobody ever appreciates your work, if it comes from your soul and has no marketable value it will be a voyage of self-discovery and a worthwhile project for that reason alone. So, crack on…
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.
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