Saturday, February 27, 2010

Things I've Learned While Teaching

I am currently teaching a class entitled "Writing the First Novel." I have learned so much from my students and from what I'd forgotten I knew. As we've pondered what we know about the novel, I've come up with some interesting nuggets, part hidden from view, part remembered, part discovered.

1. Reversal. Something has to shift around and change. Something bites a character in the ass. Something amazing or small or gigantic or minuscule changes in the plot or in a character. I've been showing film clips in order to "show" these reversals, and the one that hit me again with it's power is in the film version of Persuasion, the one with Amanda Root as Anne Eliot and Ciaran Hinds as Wentworth (don't bother with any other adaptation).

Life has been hard for Anne in the eight years since she was forced to refuse Wentworth's proposal. And now, he's come back into town, charming everyone but her--he almost cuts her dead with his inattention. And yet, of course, they are often thrust into the same company. Ignore, avoid, snub. Anne is also the "goat" of her family, the one disregarded and you'd think she wouldn't care because they are the goats, the asses, the idiots. But she has honor and she's stoic.

But finally, after one very long walk, Captain Wentworth sees her fatigue and suggests to his sister that she convey Anne home in her carriage. And then! And then he helps Anne into the carriage, his hand on her waist (firmly!) as he helps her up and in.

That's the reversal. We know--she knows and he knows--that the past is not forgotten. He has not forgotten his affection and love for her. And she knows that neither has she.

Oh, baby!

I am reading Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler, and this morning while reading on the exercise bicycle, I found a similarly clear reversal. What we and the main character thought was true and real has proved to not be thus. Wow! What a shift, and the story shifts along with that discovery. We reverse, and then go forward again.

We need these reversals. We need these stops and starts and backward motions in order for the whole story to go forward. And what a joy to be able to spot them, especially when they often occur around page 156, the dull flat waters of the middle.

2. We are not our characters even when we base our characters on real people.

This seems like a big damn duh, but it's true. First time novelists often use their lives as the basis for plot. Charles Baxter once said told me that "Every author has an autobiographical novel inside they need to purge."

So okay. I get that. But there comes in the discussion of said autobiographical novel where the writer slips into the wrong pronoun--"I walked downtown that day," or "My mother always told me I was wretched." Wait. Not I. Not My. She and hers. The character walked and the character needs the therapy after having a mother like that.

We have to let go and allow our characters to do things we would not. We can't feel guilty when we write the mother even more diabolical that the mother was. We can't feel bad that we give the father a drinking problem when in "real" life, he didn't have one at all. Let the characters go off and do what they need to do and leave real life behind.

3. We have to write at our novels every day because a novel is a very long world. It's a wide, vast sea of an alternative universe, and if you decide to only write at it once a week, you are going to need a map, binoculars, and a compass just to figure out where you are. And even if we write every day, we will need to stay in the world a little bit when we aren't writing. A novel is not like a favorite once a week TV show. It's even more than a daily soap opera. It's a seven day a week practice.

4. Figure out how you research and then write. Either do it before or do it after, but don't stop the creative flow of the world to research and break the thin continuous thread of story. Lie, make up words and actions, and figure out how a doctor replaces a heart later.

5. Scene is all. Get a copy of The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.

That's all I have for now. I'm off to go teach, and I will remember more about what I've forgotten.



Caroline said...

Wow what a great blog! Thanks for the insightful words of wisdom - much appreciated. Caroline x

runner10 said...

Great post!

Jessica Barksdale Inclan said...

Thank you Caroline and Denise!



Alison said...

So true about not bothering with any other version of 'Persuasion'. Actually, don't bother with any other version of anything, just watch this!