Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.
THE CAST: STUDENT ENGLISH TEACHER ME THE SCENE: After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher to my side.
THE CONVERSATION: STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff? ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite— STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing. ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device— STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers. ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I'd— STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger? ME: Curtains do make me angry.
And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened: THE CAST: A SMART YA WRITER A SMART ADULT WRITER ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER
THE SCENE: The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.
THE CONVERSATION: SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it. SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations. ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.
I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.
So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.
Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.
Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.
And they do. Allow me to demonstrate.
Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:
*these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.
Oh, I had such plans for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.
I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway: The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.
And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only know it. You wouldn’t have experienced it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”
Here’s another snippet from later:
Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!
Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is docile. But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is crazed and twisted and rakish. Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book. I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.
From an evolutionary point of view, most emotions — fear, desire, anger — serve some practical purpose, but nostalgia is a useless, futile thing because it is a longing for something that is permanently lost…
The Curse of Caste; Or the Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel
Julia C. Collins
In 1865, The Christian Recorder, the national newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serialized The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, a novel written by Mrs. Julia C. Collins, an African American woman living in the small town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The first novel ever published by a black American woman, it is set in antebellum Louisiana and Connecticut, and focuses on the lives of a beautiful mixed-race mother and daughter whose opportunities for fulfillment through love and marriage are threatened by slavery and caste prejudice. The text shares much with popular nineteenth-century women’s fiction, while its dominant themes of interracial romance, hidden African ancestry, and ambiguous racial identity have parallels in the writings of both black and white authors from the period.
Begun in the waning months of the Civil War, the novel was near its conclusion when Julia Collins died of tuberculosis in November of 1865. In this first-ever book publication of The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, the editors have composed a hopeful and a tragic ending, reflecting two alternatives Collins almost certainly would have considered for the closing of her unprecedented novel. In their introduction, the editors offer the most complete and current research on the life and community of an author who left few traces in the historical record, and provide extensive discussion of her novel’s literary and historical significance. Collins’s published essays, which provide intriguing glimpses into the mind of this gifted but overlooked writer, are included in what will prove to be the definitive edition of a major new discovery in African American literature. Its publication contributes immensely to our understanding of black American literature, religion, women’s history, community life, and race relations during the era of United States emancipation.
“It’s also very amusing to watch the contortions of literary critics faced with talented writers like the late lamented Iain Banks and Joanne Harris, who are equally adept in literary and speculative fiction and refuse to apologise for or justify what they write. And if the definitive characteristic of literary fiction is sublime prose, then at his peak Terry Pratchett is surely the finest prose stylist writing today. So this is where we get terms like counter-factual and magical realism, to save reviewers from sullying their copy with words like SF and fantasy.”
Jamaica, 1938. Gloria Campbell is sixteen years old when a single violent act alters the course of her life forever. Taking along her younger sister, she flees their hometown to forge a new life in Kingston. But in a capital city awash with change, a black woman is still treated as a second-class citizen. From a room in a boarding house and a job at a supply store, Gloria finds her way to a house of ill repute on the edge of the city, intrigued by the glamorous, financially independent women within.It is an unlikely place to meet the love of your life, but here she encounters Pao, a Chinatown racketeer and a loyal customer who will become something more. It is also an unlikely place to gain a passion for social justice, but it is one of the house’s proprietors who instills in Gloria new ideas about the rights of women and all humankind, eventually propelling her to Cuba, where even greater change is underway, and where Gloria must choose between the life she has made for herself and the one that might be.
Alive with the energy of a country at a crossroads, this is a story of love in many forms, and of Gloria’s evolution-from a frightened girl on the run to a woman fully possessed of her own power.
I'm writing a literary fiction novel, and I believe that the ideas are really original, however I'm having trouble with pacing and making it a literary novel that isn't slow or boring.
When I first started out with literary fiction, I admit I was really lost. All I knew about it was that it wasn’t genre fictin, but of course, lack of a trait is not in itself a trait. So I asked a brilliant professor of mine about it, and the way she explained it: what makes fiction literary is that it focuses not on the plot, the magic, the “genre” elements so much as it focuses on the ideas and concepts embodied within the story.
For example, in a short story called “Loser” (and I’m kicking myself because I can’t remember the author’s name just now), there’s an orphan boy who develops the unnatural power of finding lost things. Most people would consider this a superpower, yet the story is still classified as literary fiction. Why? Because the story’s not “about” the superpower or the events. It’s primarily about the themes and concepts - specifically, the concept of loss.
Long story short: Literary fiction can crop up in almost any genre. If you have a strong grasp on the core of your story, you can use genre elements to help amplify your ideas. Which means that in no way does your literary novel have to be boring, because it could be almost anything. There are far fewer limits than it seems. Write the book you want to write, and then with some digging, you can figure out what the heart of your story is and bring it to the surface. Revision will definitely be your friend here.
And speaking of revising and planning: I’m going to refer you to a tool I like to use for building stories called the snowflake method. You can find it here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/. It’s a great building-block method that has you starting small and growing from there, getting deeper and more detailed you go. It’s particularly helpful for pacing, since it helps you build scenes in conjunction with each other and offers perspective, rather than slogging through a rough draft from beginning to end. Try it out and see if it might work for you. No single method is a one-size-fits-all, but this method has helped me and my critique partners countless times, so perhaps you can make some use of it!
I think I’m going to throw this one to the followers as well. What methods do you guys like to use for planning and pacing your stories?
It’s more like every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.
Lydia Netzer, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky
How much misery, how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones? Resulting in the fact that the one you love so passionately won’t or can’t love you. As a species we’re pathetic in that way: imperfectly monogamous. If only we could pair-bond for life, like gibbons, or else opt for total guilt-free promiscuity, there’d be no more sexual torment. … You’d never want someone you couldn’t have.
Written over a span of twelve years, and edited by Toni Morrison, who calls Those Bones Are Not My Child the author’s magnum opus, Bambara’s last novel leaves us with an enduring and revelatory chronicle of an American nightmare.
In a suspenseful novel of uncommon depth and intensity, Toni Cade Bambara renders a harrowing portrait of a city under siege. Having elected its first black mayor in 1980, Atlanta projected an image of political progressiveness and prosperity. But between September 1979 and June 1981, more than forty black children were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and brutally murdered throughout “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
A separated mother of three holding down several jobs, Zala Spencer has managed to survive on the margins of a flourishing economy until she awakens the morning of Sunday, July 20, 1980, to find her teenage son Sonny missing. As the hours turn into days, Zala realizes that Sonny is among the many cases of missing children just beginning to attract national attention. Growing increasingly disillusioned with the authorities, who respond to Sonny’s disappearance with cold indifference, Zala and her estranged husband embark on a desperate search. Through the eyes of a family seized by anguish and terror, we watch a city roiling with political, racial, and class tensions.
I'm currently working on my first novel. I do not want to write a fantasy novel and i feel like every novel is either a fantasy, romance, thriller, or science fiction. I want my novel to be about self-love and self-discover (which would be the internal conflict), but i worry my novel will be boring. i'm not sure what type of external conflict could occur in a novel that is not within one of the categories i mentioned above.
Your novel will not be boring. You know why? Because for as many readers as there are of fantasy, romance, thriller, and science fiction, there are just as many readers who love reading stories about good characters. Self discovery is a story. Don’t think for a second that it’s not.
Having said that, you still need external conflict, but it doesn’t have to be anything life threatening. What does your character do to discover who they are? Do they quit their job, break off a relationship, move to a new city?
I just started a book yesterday called Paris, My Sweet. It’s about a woman who moves to Paris from New York, and she’s having trouble finding her place and feeling like she belongs. She turns to her obsession with sweets to feel at home. I’m loving this book because I love anything French, because the narrator tells interesting anecdotes, and the culture of food intrigues me. I don’t need fantasy or a real love story - and this is coming from someone who loves fantasy and sci-fi. (This book is based on the author’s real experiences, but that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish the same in fiction).
The external conflict here is the way people look at her and speak to her as a “tourist” in a foreign city. It’s the fact that her best friend in NY seems to be having a better life than she is in Paris. She finally makes a friend and that friend moves to Canada. Her job is killing her. These are all external conflicts.
External conflicts are things that happen to the narrator that are out of her control, and the internal conflict is how she handles them. The actions that she takes. So think specifically about what your character is going to do to discover who she is, and figure out ways to prevent her from getting there. External conflicts will be the things that get in her way.